Tuesday, March 30, 2010

iPad could be Kindle's first real Competition

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Amazon.com, which has dominated the young but fast-growing electronic book market for the past few years with the Kindle, could get its biggest threat Saturday, when Apple releases its iPad multimedia tablet.

The Kindle starts at $259 and is designed mainly for reading text on a gray-and-black screen. The iPad starts at $499, but with the higher price comes more functions: a color touch screen for downloading books from Apple's new iBookstore, surfing the Web, playing videos and games and more.Kindle's batteries last for up to one week, as opposed to the iPad's 10 hours.

It will take time to determine whether the iPad causes a tremor in the e-reader market, a high-magnitude quake or something in between. But in the meantime people who read electronic books or are considering buying a reading device will find their choices getting more complicated.

If the Kindle e-reader falls out of favor with people drawn to Apple's offering, there could be a very thick silver lining for Amazon: It sells e-books that can be read on many kinds of devices, including the iPad and other Apple gadgets. That means the Kindle could fade and Amazon could still occupy a profitable perch in e-books.

However, Apple could find ways to tilt the field in its favor. At least for now, both the Apple iBookstore and the Kindle service will be accessible in much the same way on the iPad - as "application" icons that users can click. Eventually Apple could give its own bookstore and reading program more attention on the iPad.

Apple also could try to curry favor with publishers in a way that matters to consumers, perhaps by securing exclusive titles.

Publishers' relationships with Amazon have been strained by Amazon's insistence on charging $9.99 for some popular e-books. Publishers have complained that it is an attempt to get consumers used to unsustainably low prices. Amazon takes a loss on some books at that price, and the publishers fear that if the $9.99 tag sticks, Amazon will force publishers to lower their wholesale prices, cutting into their profits.

The iPad gives publishers an opportunity for a new pricing model. Some e-books will cost up to $14.99 initially, and Apple is insisting that publishers can't sell books at a lower price through a competitor. The iBookstore is launching with titles from major publishers such as Penguin, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan. One big publisher, Random House, has not yet struck a deal with Apple.

Amazon declined to comment on the iPad's release.

Although Amazon has tried to snag as much of the e-book market as possible since launching the Kindle in 2007, the company has never revealed how many Kindles it has sold. Analysts estimate it has sold 3 million. (Analysts believe Apple could sell that many iPads in the product's first year). Amazon has offered only sketches of the Kindle's effect on its business, such as by saying that when books are sold in both hard copy and the Kindle format, it sells 48 Kindle books for every 100 hard copies.

Compared to the Kindle, the iPad would seem to have some disadvantages. The entry-level model is nearly twice the price of the Kindle, yet it can't download books everywhere. It can do that only where it is connected to the Internet over Wi-Fi. At 1½ pounds, it is more than twice as heavy as a Kindle. And its battery lasts for just 10 hours, compared with up to a week on a Kindle when it has its wireless access on.

However, among the elements in the iPad's favor is a touch screen that is 9.7 inches diagonally, compared with 6 inches on the Kindle. Ron Skinner, 70, who lives in Las Vegas and bought a Kindle last February, says he has ordered Apple's product because he thinks it will offer a better reading experience.

Skinner, an Apple investor who reads about three books a week, says the contrast between the text and the background is too low on the Kindle's "e-ink" screen, and reading on it bothers his eyes. The difference between the Kindle screen and the iPad screen "is like daylight and dark," Skinner says.

Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies Inc., says the iPad signals the start of a larger shift away from static digital versions of books and magazines. Eventually e-books will be expected to have multimedia dimensions, with video and interactive elements, he says, which calls for something more like Apple's tablet device than something that is largely dedicated to reading.

The main question then would be whether Amazon wants to try to soup up the Kindle to be more like a tablet, or whether it will remain content to offer something more specialized. Consider that the Kindle also can surf the Web, but it's not a feature that's highlighted or encouraged much.

Amazon stock has risen about 11 percent since Apple unveiled the iPad in January, while Apple shares have climbed 13 percent. But it's possible that investors haven't seen many risks yet for Amazon because it's not yet clear how people will see the iPad.

People might not want it as an alternative to the Kindle and a laptop, says James McQuivey, a Forrester analyst. Instead, he says, they might see the iPad mainly as a big iPod, leaving room for other kinds of devices. And the hype surrounding the iPad may help Kindle sales with consumers who want a less expensive digital reading experience.

"The iPad will bring all kinds of consumer benefits that the Kindle can't even pretend to attempt," McQuivey says, "but at the same time the Kindle solves a very focused consumer need in a way the iPad can't do well."

Dell Boosts Lending to Small Businesses

The Wall Street Journal
Dell Spurs Sales by Lending to Hard-Hit Small Businesses

For years, Dell Inc. has relied on sales to small businesses for a big chunk of its revenue. It sells more personal computers to small companies than any tech supplier. Now, it is offering more credit to spur small business purchases.

The financing strategy is showing promise. Its small-and-medium-business division posted a 10% gain in revenue in the company's fiscal fourth quarter ended Jan. 29 from the same period last year, versus an 11% gain for the company as a whole. Operating-profit rose 17% from the same quarter last year to $282 million, surpassing the $281 million in operating profit from Dell's large-business unit, which posted an 8.4% rise from last year.

The Round Rock, Texas, PC maker has spent the past year trying to stimulate spending by its small business customers. It has offered new financing arrangements to small businesses, including interest-free deals for some purchases of $25,000 or more. It even has offered free computers to some small-businesses that purchase other products. In some cases, Dell has offered discounted computers and services to companies that agree to appear in its advertisements.

The strategy of extending more financing may be risky at a time when many small businesses are struggling. And if credit markets don't improve soon, some Dell customers may have trouble repaying their loans, says Ray Boggs, an analyst with researcher IDC who studies technology purchases. Dell is "certainly taking the risk" of a default by customers, he says.

Such financing deals helped stimulate buying by customers, including Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind. Last year, the church—which has close to 6,000 members—laid off eight employees and cut its information-technology spending as donations fell. "Last year was a lean year," says Jason Powell, the church's technology director. "My IT budget went down to 2004 levels."

The church purchased two servers and software from Dell for a total of about $30,000 because the company offered a three-year lease plan that allowed it to keep the equipment when the lease expires. Dell's tech rivals, such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Cisco Systems Inc., also offer zero percent financing on some items. But they are less reliant on small businesses for their sales.

Dell says 22% of its small- and medium-sized business customers, which it defines as companies with fewer than 500 employees, rely on Dell financing for purchases, compared with 17% two years ago.

"The percentage of our customers using our credit facilities is increasing much faster than our base business," says Erik Dithmer, Dell's vice president in charge of U.S. sales to small and medium businesses.

Dell has $7 billion in credit available for small companies, and extends most of the credit itself rather than through others, he says. The banking crisis has made it difficult for small companies to get credit, he says, and traditional lending sources have been tight.

Much of small-businesses' financing is from "credit cards and home equity, and those are still not as liquid as they need to be," Mr. Dithmer says.

Its push comes as small companies have lagged their bigger counterparts in emerging from the recession, crimping Dell's results last year. For its fiscal year ended Jan. 29, Dell booked $12.08 billion in sales to companies with fewer than 500 employees, or 22.8% of its total revenue, down from $14.9 billion in its prior fiscal year.

Even small companies that do have cash are resisting big purchases. "We've been holding onto our cash, so we haven't spent much of it because we know it's a tough time," says Michelle Madhok, the chief executive of fashion blog publisher White Cat Media Inc., which is headquartered in New York.

Ms. Madhok says she got a discount from Dell in exchange for appearing in a promotional video. In coming months, Ms. Madhok says, she hopes to avoid big expenditures on tech equipment, since she's not sure when White Cat—which got $1.3 million in venture funding 18 months ago—will get more investment.

Mr. Dithmer says Dell decided last year that it would have to start extending more credit to small customers. To help minimize the risk of default, he says, the company brought in long-time small-business customers to train Dell refurbished PCs salespeople to understand a small-business balance sheet.

As a result, Mr. Dithmer says, Dell has become "a little more prudent in our credit, just in terms of evaluating the credit risks." With startups, he says, Dell is now "much more conservative."

Still, the computer maker significantly increased its provisions for doubtful accounts including financing, a set-aside for customers whom it suspects won't be able to pay off their balances. That reserve amount climbed 38.4% in Dell's last fiscal year to $429 million, from $310 million in the prior year.

The company points to entrepreneurs such as Debra Ruh as examples of how Dell financing can help a customer with new computers or refurbished laptops. Her company, TecAccess LLC, tests computers, Web sites and software for suitability to people with disabilities.

Ms. Ruh says she started the company, which now has 15 full-time employees and about 30 part-time workers and contractors, in 2001 using cash from home-equity loans and credit cards.

She says it has been hard to buy new or even refurbished Dell computers to keep up with her company's recent expansion because customers are waiting much longer to pay Rockville, Va.-based TecAccess than in the past, and short-term credit is hard to get.

"It's impossible to find financing," Ms. Ruh says. After her bank came under federal scrutiny last year, it tightened her line of credit. Slower sales forced her to lay off some staffers and take a pay cut. As the economy recovers, cash flow remains unsteady, Ms. Ruh says.

"The banks are scared to death of small businesses," Ms. Ruh says.

Dell was willing to extend credit for Refurbished computers. Last year, TecAccess bought about $10,000 in equipment from Dell on credit Still, Ms. Ruh says the slow cash flow that hurts TecAccess sometimes comes back to bite Dell.

"Sometimes I've been slow paying," she says, adding payments are usually late by a few days, but sometimes by a month or more. "Every once in a while they say, 'You better pay.'"

How Much Lithium Does a Battery Really Need?

EV World

Technicians transfer prototype Volt lithium-ion battery pack at GM's Global Battery Development Laboratory in Warren, Michigan.

The question of how much Lithium or Lithium Carbonate is required per kWh of battery capacity has become a matter of some importance due to the limited availability of Lithium for EV applications. Questions as to the feasibility of establishing mass production of more than a few million PHEV rechargable battery packs per year are in part met with assurances that the quantity of Lithium required per kWh is low.

A range of figures for the quantity of Lithium required per unit battery storage capacity (kWh) have been published or quoted recently. Some of these figures quote the minimum theoretical quantity of Lithium per kWh as if this is achievable in a practical device. Other figures are also unrealistically low.

To address this issue objectively, we have produced a briefing paper to illustrate for strategic planners in the automotive industry how real world battery efficiency differs from theoretical.

In a recent report to investors (“Lithium Hype or Substance” 28/10/09), Dundee Capital Markets assume a Lithium Carbonate requirement of 425 grams LCE per kWh (80 g of Lithium metal). This is equal to the theoretical minimum amount of Lithium needed per nominal kWh in a 3.3 V (LiFePO4) system. It is unrealistic to expect to approach that capability in a real battery.

In a more detailed presentation from ANL (“Lithium Ion Battery Recycling Issues”, Linda Gaines, Argonne National Laboratory, 21/5/09), estimates are presented varying between 113 g and 246 g of Lithium (600 g and 1.3 kg LCE) per kWh for various cathode types of batteries all with a graphite anode; a Lithium titanate spinel anode battery is shown as having a high requirement of 423 g Li (2.2 kg LCE) per kWh.

This range of figures illustrates the difficulty that may exist in modelling LCE requirements for strategic planners. The briefing paper describes the main factors that occur in a real battery to reduce its effective capacity and estimates a realistic figure for the quantity of raw LCE that should be assumed to be required per kWh battery capacity.

In a real battery, the main factors which reduce capacity below the theoretical maximum are:

Irreversible capacity loss: when the battery is first charged, some of the Lithium becomes bound up in the anode and cathode and electrochemically inactive. This can be as high as 50% of the Lithium originally put into the cathode before the battery is charged for the first time. In particular Lithium forms a layer known as a Solid Electrolyte Interphase on the anode which increases the internal resistance in the battery and internal energy losses.

Discharge rate: this is the major variable which reduces day to day effective capacity while the battery is in use. The Energy batteries required for PH(EV) use are more sensitive to this than power batteries and the problem is further exacerbated by using small batteries in a PHEV. Up to 50% of the effective capacity could be lost at medium to high speeds. Manufacturer capacity figures that only apply at low discharge rates are of little use in determining a realistic benchmark for PHEV battery capacity, for which capacity at the 1C rate at least should be used for a realistic indication.

Cycle life capacity fade: Batteries lose capacity as they are cycled, particularly if deep discharged (charge depleting mode) as will be the case in a PHEV. EV batteries will be 25% larger than the nominal or useable stated capacity to allow for capacity fade to 80% of the initial capacity at end of life, without the driver experiencing any perceived reduction in range as times goes on. Therefore 25% more Lithium will be required per kWh than the nominal rated capacity.

Electrochemical factors which reduce the theoretical capacity of a battery include polarisation, internal resistance, electrolyte conductivity, separator conductivity, cation transport number, cation activity coefficient and order/disorder and particle size within the electrodes. Discharge rate is the main operational factor which reduces energy capacity because theoretical capacity only applies at zero current: as soon as current is drawn from a cell it cannot but lose “free energy” (delta G) and capacity will fall. The discharge rates for a PHEV battery will be high, at least 1C on average.

The capacity of Lithium Ion batteries is also cathode limited, i.e. limited by the ability of the cathode to accept Lithium ions from the anode when it is discharged. For the LiFePO4 cathode material the capacity is often quoted as 170 mAh/g. However this is the capacity at a very low discharge rate and often for a power battery with thin electrodes and low total capacity. For a PHEV energy battery using thicker electrodes but still a high relative discharge rate, cathode capacity of the LiFePO4 material could fall to 90-100 mAh/g at high speeds – in other words, available capacity falls below 60%. Given that PHEV batteries will still be relatively small (16 kWh maximum, many will be less) and the nominal capacity may be quoted at an unrealistically low discharge rate, realistic capacity at say the 1C rate will be 35% lower than the headline figure. This means a significant percentage of the Lithium in the anode cannot be used since it cannot be accepted by the cathode at a real discharge rate and this will increase the effective amount of Lithium required per actual delivered kWh.

If we look at the theoretical specific energy of a LiIon battery, the figures widely quoted are between 400 and 450 Wh/kg. The actual specific energy achieved is between 70 and 120 Wh/kg. Therefore practical LiIon batteries are using some four times as much Lithium per kWh as the “theoretical” quantity or more. This translates into some 320 g of Lithium or 1.7 kg of Lithium Carbonate per kWh.

If we then add 25% to that figure to allow for cycle related capacity fade, 400 g of Lithium will be required. Then allowance must be made for losses in purifying raw technical grade Li2CO3 into low-sodium battery grade material: a yield of 70% increases the raw LCE requirement to 3 kg per kWh.

Therefore 3 kg of raw technical grade Lithium Carbonate will be required per kWh of final usable battery capacity.

At 3 kg raw technical grade LCE per kWh, current global production of some 100,000 tonnes raw LCE would be sufficient, if available, for some 2 million 16 kWh batteries per year. Even at an optimistic 2 kg LCE per kWh assuming very high purity yields, production would be sufficient for only 3 million 16 kWh PHEV batteries per year.

Gigapan Robotic Camera Rig Goes Pro


Gigapan’s robotic camera mounts are a favorite among hobbyists who want to create large panoramic pictures. Now the company is going after professionals whose powerful cameras need a sturdier rig.

Gigapan has released the Epic Pro, a mount that can handle DSLR camera and lens combination of up to 10 lbs. Earlier versions of the mount were created for lightweight and compact cameras. The Pro, designed with a magnesium chassis and aluminum arm, weighs about 8 lbs including the battery pack. It’s features include the ability to adjust time between exposure, motor speed, aspect ratio and picture overlap.

A year ago, Gigapan launched its first robotic camera mount called Epic that automates the process of taking different images to compose the ultimate shot. The mount allows photographers with almost any point-and-shoot digital camera to click photos without worrying about missing details that might ruin a picture when it is eventually stitched together. A software program called Stitch that comes with the device allows the photos to be blended together and uploaded to GigaPan.com where users can zoom into the detail, explore and share.

The Epic Pro mount will be available in April, says the company, and it will cost $895. The hobbyist focused Epic 100, which runs on 6 AA batteries costs $450 and the smallest rig Epic designed for compact digital cameras is $350. The Pro functions on a rechargable digital camera battery pack.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Developers Race to Meet iPad Debut

The Washington Post

Developer Todd Moore of Sterling is working on new versions of
applications, already out for the iPhone and iPod Touch, for the iPad.

Last week was an intense one for some of the Washington area software developers who make and sell software for Apple's App Store. 

After all, Apple's latest and much-hyped product -- the slate-shaped iPad -- is almost here, and many are hoping that the device's release April 3 will bring a fresh wave of customers and purchases. To help encourage those download dollars, many have been working overtime to create and polish new versions of their wares. 

"I feel like I'm back in college, preparing for a big test and working around the clock," said Todd Moore, a Sterling-based programmer who was nearing the end of a Red Bull- and soda-fueled work crunch as he designed a new version of his popular sleep aid application, White Noise. 

Same for Keith Shepherd, of the D.C.-based game company Imangi Studios, who was finishing up a new iPad release of his firm's popular game Harbor Master. Shepherd submitted the new version to Apple on Friday, just beating the tech company's Saturday deadline for apps that will be available for sale when the device launches. "It's been a really busy week for us," he said. 

Many such developers consider a prompt appearance in the new iPad section of Apple's online store to be crucial for building loyalty and name recognition. 

"You've got to be there in front of the early users," said Chris Sloop, chief technology officer of Germantown-based Weatherbug, which makes weather forecasting software and has submitted an iPad version of its product to Apple for approval. "If you get your app out a few months later, there's not going to be as much buzz." 

There has long been a "gold rush" mentality in the app market, said Rana Sobhany, a marketing analyst and the author of a coming book about selling products on the App Store. But most products don't end up being terribly lucrative for their creators, she said. About 75 percent of downloads from the App Store's library of 150,000 items are for free content. 

"It's not realistic to think every app is going to sell," she said. If you're an independent developer without a marketing budget, "there's a 99 percent chance you're not going to sell that many copies." 

Certainly, not everyone making the plunge into this new market is seeing a return on their investment. Inspired by App Store success stories, Charlottesville resident Nate Macpherson assembled a team of programmers and artists to build a game, released in November, called Shot Bar. His total investment: $30,000. Total return, to date: "Under a thousand dollars." Macpherson has no plans for a revamped iPad version of the title. 

Apple has said that all of the software applications available for the iPhone and iPod Touch will also work on the iPad, which costs from $499 to $829, not including a wireless access fee for an optional connection, available on some models, to AT&T's network. 

But the new device's larger screen size will give developers a fresh set of options for what their products can do. Weatherbug's iPad app, for example, will feature more icons on the screen for users who want a deeper look at upcoming forecasts. Moore's new software, called White Noise Pro, will give users new ways to mix the program's collection of soothing sound effects. 

Some products still just make more sense on a pocket-size smartphone, however, and so not every App Store entrepreneur is rushing to get a new version of his software onto the iPad. 

"I am sort of taking a wait-and-see approach," said John Bednarz, the programmer behind an application called Find a Metro DC that is designed to help local mass-transit users. RideCharge, the Alexandria-based creator of an online taxi-hailing app for the iPhone, also said that it hadn't settled on how it would take advantage of the iPad's larger screen in future versions of its software. 

For a device that nobody owns yet, the iPad has been the source of an unusual amount of speculation, even for an Apple product. While some analysts have derided the thing as little more than a super-sized iPhone, elsewhere it's hailed as a savior of the publishing industry. 

However the iPad's fortunes play out, the iPhone and iPod Touch will still have the numbers advantage for some time to come, observed Barg Upender, founder of the Washington-based app firm Mobomo. According to Apple, there are almost 80 million of those devices in use. 

Relatively speaking, in other words, even if Mobomo's new iPad version of its puzzle game HexOut is a hit, he said, "at the end of the day, revenue-wise, it's going to be a little blip." 

Fujitsu Laptop provides 18-hour Battery Life

Software Downloads Guide

Here comes the Fujitsu laptop which provides you a battery life of 18 hours. The Fujitsu laptop named E780 which is a 15.6 inch laptop contains the energy saving feature. The laptop contains the features such as the Power management and the power optimized processors.

It also contains the ENERGY STAR 5.0 certification. Fujitsu earlier came with the edition of pink netbook which were also one of the most awaited product from Fujitsu. The Fujitsu products always surprise you with the features included.

The features included in this laptop are good, specially the energy efficient feature which is going to give a laptop battery life of 18 hours. Stay tuned while we get back with some interesting updates.

Review: Pulse Tech X-Xtreme Charger

Motorcycle Cruiser
In theory, your average motorcycle battery could last for eight to ten years. In reality, it doesn't. In fact, it's more like 6 to 48 months depending on how well you maintain it, and the reality is that only about 30% of batteries last for four years. The Pulse Tech X-xtreme charger, model XC100-M to be exact, may not get your battery to the ten-year mark, but if used religiously, should get you damn close.

Pulse Tech X Xtreme Charger
Without getting too in-depth (this is a product review, not a lesson in battery 101), what kills the average battery is the buildup of lead sulfate crystals on their plates, which reduces efficiency. Once a battery becomes sulfated, it's shot-end of story.

The Pulse Tech charger uses a microprocessor-controlled, low voltage/high frequency pulse to remove the crystals from the plates that are already sulfated, and when the charger is used on a regular basis, to prevent them from forming in the first place.

The charger works on all common 12 volt motorcycle batteries, lead acid, AGM, sealed and gel, so no worries about what you're hooking it up to. The face of the charger has a series of status and battery condition lights, so there's no guesswork involved there either. It'll even tell if you've got a bad connection to the battery, and it lights up like a Christmas tree and buzzes if you manage to reverse the connections.

Once connected, the charger goes into test mode to determine if the battery is savable, assuming the battery will take a charge, and then the charger shifts from test to charge mode. Sequential green lights illuminate to let you know what's going on and a charge indicator displays the battery's status.

After the battery is fully charged, the Xtreme shifts to a floating maintenance charge and the charging light goes out. If it operates in the charge mode for 24 hours and the battery still won't take a 100% charge, the unit switches off and the "Bad Battery" light goes on indicating that the motorcycle battery is beyond redemption.

I didn't have a shot battery in the shop-I've got an aversion to plastic boxes full of acid cluttering up the place-but I did connect the xtreme to an older battery that was maybe four years old and still had some life left in it. Within two hours, it had gone from a 25% charge to 100% and was capable of lighting up my Triumph Scrambler with no problems.

Sturdily made, the xtreme battery charger comes with two sets of leads, one set with lugs so you can semi-permanently attach them to the bike's battery and the other with clamps for shop use. Both leads are fused, with a two-foot reach, and the power cord is a six-footer, so reach shouldn't be an issue.

The X-xtreme retails for $99.95, which is dirt cheap when you figure it can easily double the life of the batteries in all the vehicles you own, and comes with a 5-year warranty. By the way, the US army uses these things extensively; in fact, they're Pulse Tech's largest customer, which is recommendation enough for me.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Vulnerabilities of 'Smart' Meters Exposed

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Computer-security researchers say new "smart" meters that are designed to help deliver electricity more efficiently also have flaws that could let hackers tamper with the power grid in previously impossible ways.

At the very least, the vulnerabilities open the door for attackers to jack up strangers' power bills. These flaws also could get hackers a key step closer to exploiting one of the most dangerous capabilities of the new technology, which is the ability to remotely turn someone else's power on and off.

The attacks could be pulled off by stealing meters - which can be situated outside of a home - and reprogramming them. Or an attacker could sit near a home or business and wirelessly hack the meter from a laptop, according to Joshua Wright, a senior security analyst with InGuardians Inc. The firm was hired by three utilities to study their smart meters' resistance to attack.

These utilities, which he would not name, have already done small deployments of smart meters and plan to roll the technology out to hundreds of thousands of power customers, Wright told The Associated Press.

There is no evidence the security flaws have been exploited, although Wright said a utility could have been hacked without knowing it. InGuardians said it is working with the utilities to fix the problems.

Power companies are aggressively rolling out the new meters. In the U.S. alone, more than 8 million smart meters have been deployed by electric utilities and nearly 60 million should be in place by 2020, according to a list of publicly announced projects kept by The Edison Foundation, an organization focused on the electric industry.

Unlike traditional electric meters that merely record power use - and then must be read in person once a month by a meter reader - smart meters measure consumption in real time. By being networked to computers in electric utilities, the new meters can signal people or their appliances to take certain actions, such as reducing power usage when electricity prices spike.

But the very interactivity that makes smart meters so attractive also makes them vulnerable to hackers, because each meter essentially is a computer connected to a vast network.

There are few public studies on the meters' resistance to attack, in part because the technology is new. However, last summer, Mike Davis, a researcher from IOActive Inc., showed how a computer worm could hop between meters in a power grid with smart meters, giving criminals control over those meters.

Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute, a security research and training organization that was not involved in Wright's work with InGuardians, said it proved that hacking smart meters is a serious concern.

"We weren't sure it was possible," Paller said. "He actually verified it's possible. ... If the Department of Energy is going to make sure the meters are safe, then Josh's work is really important."

SANS has invited Wright to present his research Tuesday at a conference it is sponsoring on the security of utilities and other "critical infrastructure."

Industry representatives say utilities are doing rigorous security testing that will make new power grids more secure than the patchwork system we have now, which is already under hacking attacks from adversaries believed to be working overseas.

"We know that automation will bring new vulnerabilities, and our task - which we tackle on a daily basis - is making sure the system is secure," said Ed Legge, spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, a trade organization for shareholder-owned electric companies.

But many security researchers say the technology is being deployed without enough security probing.

Wright said his firm found "egregious" errors, such as flaws in the meters and the technologies that utilities use to manage data from meters. "Even though these protocols were designed recently, they exhibit security failures we've known about for the past 10 years," Wright said.

He said InGuardians found vulnerabilities in products from all five of the meter makers the firm studied. He would not disclose those manufacturers.

One of the most alarming findings involved a weakness in a communications standard used by the new meters to talk to utilities' computers.

Wright found that hackers could exploit the weakness to break into meters remotely, which would be a key step for shutting down someone's power. Or someone could impersonate meters to the power company, to inflate victims' bills or lower his own. A criminal could even sneak into the utilities' computer networks to steal data or stage bigger attacks on the grid.

Wright said similar vulnerabilities used to be common in wireless Internet networking equipment, but have vanished with an emphasis on better security.

For instance, the meters encrypt their data - scrambling the information to hide it from outsiders. But the digital "keys" needed to unlock the encryption were stored on data-routing equipment known as access points that many meters relay data to. Stealing the keys lets an attacker eavesdrop on all communication between meters and that access point, so the keys instead should be kept on computers deep inside the utilities' networks, where they would be safer.

"That lesson seems to be lost on these meter vendors," he said. That speaks to the "relative immaturity" of the meter technology, Wright added.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

What Canon Sells you for $150


Like most compact-camera manufacturers, Canon offers point-and-shoots at a range of prices; its PowerShots start at $109.99 and edge up every $20 to $30. The A3000 IS sits right at $149.99. It's a good, if basic, snapshot camera designed for people who really don't want much beyond taking a nice picture.

Optical image stabilization is probably the biggest feature highlight since it's a rarity in a new camera at its price point. It also has a couple of new creative shooting modes--Super Vivid and Poster Effect--but its shooting options are otherwise bland.

I'm not in love with the look and feel, though it's easy to use and certainly better-looking than older A-series models. Speaking of, those of you hoping for an A series with an optical viewfinder and manual controls should probably give up. Not only are those features gone from all the newest models, but the A3000 IS along with its linemate, the A3100 IS, use rechargeable lithium-ion digital camera battery packs instead of AA-size batteries. This doesn't bother me, but I know a lot of people love having double As.

One last thing. If you have $150, and want a Canon PowerShot, but not this one, check out 2009's SD1200 IS. It's readily available at that price, much smaller, more attractive, and with similar core features--plus an optical viewfinder.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hack Lets You Control Your DSLR Camera From Your Nintendo DS

PC World

The folks at the HDR Labs have released the Open Camera Controller (OCC), a system that uses an older Nintendo DS handheld to provide more options to photographers seeking to get the most out of their DSLR cameras.

After trying other hardware and firmware hacks for DSLR cameras and finding them unsatisfactory, HDR Labs set out to create their own system and thus was born OCC.

With a battery life of eight hours and sized small enough to fit into your jeans, the fully user-programmable OCC system promises to bring new shooting features and options to the DSLR community. The required hardware (beyond the Nintendo DS) requires some skill with a soldering iron and the Arduino development board. Install a small circuit board and an Atmega microcontroller into a DS game cartridge housing (WarioWare: Twisted is big enough to hold the microcontroller), modify a shutter release cable, program, and start shooting.

What's the point of hacking a DSLR to play nice with a handheld gaming console? Most consumer and professional-grade cameras have numerous capabilities that are either difficult or impossible to access: expanded high-dynamic range bracketing, time lapse shooting, and basic scripting for shooting a slew of images. If you own a multi-thousand-dollar camera, shouldn't you be able to program new features and abilities to your DSLR?

OCC's range of homebrew software lets you not only control your camera's exposure bracketing, but also trigger the shutter based on sound (clap or yell to take a photo) or a specific interval, and even allows for scripting suitable for astrophotography.

KTM To Reveal Electric Motorcycles At Tokyo Motorcycle Show

The Motor Report

KTM IS SET to reveal two electric motorcycles - which the company describes as "near-series prototypes" - at next week's Tokyo Motorcycle Show.

The Austrian motorcycle (and race-car) manufacturer has yet to reveal specific powertrain details for the two electric bikes - one a supermoto and the other an enduro model. A pair of teaser images have been released however, and from little can be seen, both bikes appear to be 'the real deal' when it comes to their road-readiness.

KTM describes the two bikes as "near-series prototypes which in one year's time will transfer the "Ready to Race" sporting spirit of the brand into a series model fit for the 21st century."

An earlier concept called the KTM Zero Emissions (no relation to the Nissan project of the same name) drew power from an electric motor offering 40Nm of torque, its lithium ion motorcycle battery packing around 40 minutes of charge.

The two KTM concepts aren't the first electric motorcycles to appear on the scene however, with other electrified motorcycles surfacing over the past few years - including the Mission One Electric Sports Bike, offering 135Nm of torque, a 240km riding range and a top speed of 240km/h.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

HP’s Latest Business Laptops Come with Day Starter Fast-Start Software

Venture Beat

Hewlett-Packard’s newest business laptops come with a cool application that shows your daily calendar within five seconds, even before Windows boots.

All you do is start the computer and then press the F4 key. The screen will show your calendar items for the day in multiple colors. You can also see your laptop’s remaining battery life. The application is aimed at people who are in a rush in the morning and need to find out within seconds where they have to go.

The software comes on all new HP ProBooks and EliteBook P series laptops for businesspeople. HP is launching a bunch of these new laptops today. The application works alongside other HP QuickWeb and QuickLook software that lets you check out your email or visit a web site before Windows boots.

Among the new models are four new versions of the HP ProBook Standard Series business laptops. These versions range from the HP ProBook 4320 with a 13.3 inch screen for $719 to the HP ProBook 4720 with a 17.3-inch screen that sells for at least $925. They carry Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors that debuted in January, and they include options such as Intel HD graphics or ATI Mobility Radeon graphics chips. They have a durable brushed-aluminum finish and come in caviar (black) or bordeaux (red wine color).

The Standard series laptops come with business-class security, including a webcam that can recognize your face and log you into your account. The cheap laptops are bundled with Arcsoft Total Media software suite for applications such as DVD playback. Battery life ranges from five hours to 10 hours, depending on whether you have the  6-cell or the 9-cell laptop battery. The latter costs extra. The new laptops will be available later in March.

HP is also launching a new generation of its high-end business notebooks, the HP EliteBook laptops. These computers meet durability standards set by the military and come with metal hinges with steel pin axels and a reinforced display latch. The models have spill-resistant keyboards that drain spilled liquid through the bottom of the laptops.

The HP EliteBook 2740p laptop has a touchscreen and can be converted into a tablet by twisting the screen on its swivel and laying it flat over the keyboard. It has a 12.1-inch LED display, runs for 5 hours on a six-cell battery or 11 hours when attached to an optional ultraslim battery. It will be available in April starting at $1,599. An optional $299 docking station provides a DVD drive as well as a variety of connectors such as DisplayPort and hard drive attachments. The docking station is available April 12.

The 3.3-pound HP EliteBook 2540p has fewer bells and whistles and sells for $1,099. Its battery life ranges from four hours on a 3-cell battery to eight hours on a six-cell and 10.5 hours on a 9-cell battery. It will be available in April.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Battery is Here to Stay

NY Times

Coaxing the most from your gadget's power source

If you’re a recent convert to smartphones, you’re probably still discovering all the amazing things that your new BlackBerry, Android phone or iPhone can do. But one thing you most likely found out right away: the more you do, the shorter your phone’s battery lasts.

While a standard cellphone’s charge can easily go three days or more, many smartphone owners are dismayed to learn that their new mobile toy requires charging every 24 hours, or even more often. It was great that I could use one device — my iPhone — to check my calendar and respond to multiple incoming calls during January’s Consumer Electronics Show, but I paid the price when its battery died at 2 p.m.

The answer was not to desperately search for an electrical outlet to recharge the phone (though I’ve done that) or to consider giving up the phone (done that, too), but rather to figure out a strategy to reduce energy consumption while still having it available for essential tasks. Whether you’re using a laptop or a smartphone, the devices can be tweaked to get the most out of its lithium-ion batteries.

Reconsider Your Network

All things being equal, the C.D.M.A. mobile standard used by Verizon uses more power than a G.S.M. network, principally used by AT&T and T-Mobile. If battery life is critical, you might want to consider G.S.M. as long as its coverage meets your needs.

Dim It

The brighter your screen, the more juice you’re using. If you’re in a dimly lit room, turn down your LCD screen’s brightness. If your device has an autodimming feature that detects the light in a room, use it. Similarly, if you use your smartphone or laptop to play music, lower the volume.

If you have a BlackBerry, the company’s holster will automatically turn off the screen when you insert the phone.

Stop Searching

It is great that you can use Bluetooth technology to connect your smartphone to a headset, or use Wi-Fi to speed up the downloading of e-mail messages. But when you’re not using that headset or not near a Wi-Fi hot spot, turn off those features on the phone or laptop.

The reason is that portable devices will continue to look for Wi-Fi or a Bluetooth headset, using power.

Similarly, put your phone to sleep when it is in standby. On an iPhone, you do so through the “Settings” icon. On a BlackBerry, use the “Manage Connections” icon.

Skip a Generation

Your smartphone is also continually looking for a cellphone signal. If you’re in a weak signal area, your phone must work even harder to find one, decreasing battery life. If you know that there is no coverage in your area, turn off your portable device’s mobile capabilities.

If your G.S.M. 3G network is not available or the signal is weak, the battery will drain faster looking for one. Consider turning off the phone’s 3G network or using the slower EDGE network instead. It will make Web access slower but won’t affect phone call quality.

Check Mail Manually

Mobile smartphones can check for e-mail messages and instant messages automatically. Or they can be set to “push” notifications as soon as they arrive in your server’s mailbox.

Both strategies can be power hogs. To increase your battery life, turn off push and increase the interval between when the phone checks for new messages. Or better, set up your phone to check for messages manually.

Turn Off Everything

The simplest way to cut power to a minimum is to put your smartphone into “airplane mode.” You turn your BlackBerry or iPhone into a music player and personal organizer, and you won’t be able to receive e-mail messages or make or receive phone calls, but you will stretch your battery.

“In airplane mode and running just the alarm clock, your iPhone battery will last up to a week,” said Kyle Wiens, co-founder of ifixit.com, an online iPhone and Mac laptop repair company.

Disable the Animations

The hotter your laptop feels, the more battery power it is using. And one of the biggest users of power is Flash animation, the technology behind many online videos and animated ads. To improve battery life, disable Flash when not using wall power. BashFlash and ClicktoFlash for Macs and Flashblock for PC are programs that will automatically restrict Flash.

Get an App to Aid You

There are a number of applications that can help monitor battery life and shut off various functions that cut down on a mobile device’s effective power.

Battery Go and myBatteryLife tell iPhone owners how much charge they have left and how that power translates into minutes of talk time, music, video and Web surfing.

NB BattStat alerts BlackBerry owners to the amount of cell phone battery charge remaining, as well as the battery’s temperature. (Hot batteries lose power more quickly.) The device can be set to vibrate or sound when a predetermined low battery level is reached.

Radio Saver will monitor your BlackBerry’s mobile coverage and shut off the device’s mobile circuitry when you are out of range of a cellular signal.

Best BatterySaver allows owners of mobile phones using the Symbian operating system (including models from Nokia and Sony Ericsson) to create battery-saving profiles. For example, certain features can be automatically turned on when the phone is connected to a wall plug, or Bluetooth can be automatically disconnected when the battery charge drops below a certain level.

For the laptop battery, programs like Battery Health Monitor (Mac) and Laptop Battery Power Monitor (PC) keep track of battery charge and estimate how many more times you’ll be able to recharge your battery.

Realize the End Will Come

The older generation of nickel cadmium laptop computer batteries suffered from memory issues; if you didn’t fully charge and discharge one, it would hold a progressively smaller amount of juice.

Today’s lithium-ion batteries don’t suffer from memory loss, so it is safe to top off a battery.

Lithium-ion batteries cannot be overcharged; a device’s circuitry cuts off the power when they are full. However, manufacturers still recommend that a laptop not be continually connected to power once the battery is at its capacity. If a laptop won’t be used for several months, it should be stored with the battery in a 50 percent charge state.

All batteries can be fully charged and discharged for a fixed number of cycles; lithium ion batteries typically last between 300 and 500 cycles. Information on the number of cycles can be obtained at manufacturers’ Web sites, or at batteryuniversity.com.

No matter how well you husband your rechargeable battery resources, there comes a time when you’ll need to send your battery to its final resting place.

Like most things nearing the end of their life, your battery will stay awake less and sleep more. “If your battery lasts only an hour after you’ve charged it,” said Anthony Magnabosco, owner of Milliamp.com, a battery replacement company, “you know its time is up.”

Monday, March 22, 2010

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series Lacks Cut, Copy, Paste Function

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series will lack the ability to cut, copy and paste text, similar to Apple's iPhone, upon that device’s release. In its place, users will be able to perform a single-tap action. The Windows Phone 7 Series will also lack other features upon its release, including Adobe Flash support and the ability to run mobile applications built for Windows Mobile and previous versions of the company's smartphone operating system. Microsoft is working with Adobe, however, to eventually bring Flash support to the devices.

Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Phone 7 Series will not allow users to cut, copy and paste text, adding to a list of other features—including Adobe Flash support—that the company’s newest smartphone operating system will lack when it rolls out to consumers and businesses later in 2010.

"Windows Phone 7 Series will not initially offer copy and paste," a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to eWEEK on March 17. "Instead, we try to solve the most common uses for copy and paste via single-tap action."

For example, the spokesperson continued, "people often want to take an address and view it on a map, highlight a term in the browser and do a search or copy a phone number to make a call. Instead of the user manually doing a copy and paste in these scenarios, we recognize those situations automatically and make them happen with just one touch."

This method, apparently, drew a positive response in early testing, the Microsoft spokesperson added, although the company is apparently prepared to leverage feedback to improve that particular feature set.

The initial devices in the Windows Phone 7 Series may also lack Adobe Flash support, according to Microsoft, although CEO Steve Ballmer assured the audience at a Feb. 15 press conference in Barcelona, Spain, that “we have no objection” to Flash, which is used by many popular Websites to power their rich content.

With no definite timeline announced for Flash support, Microsoft and Adobe have nonetheless been collaborating to integrate Flash Player 10.1 into Internet Explorer Mobile on the Windows Phone 7 Series. Mike Chambers, Adobe’s principal product manager for developer relations for the Flash platform, wrote in a March 9 posting on his personal blog, "I don’t have an ETA or other specifics right now, but it is something that both Adobe and Microsoft are working closely together on."

Integration of Adobe Flash into mobile devices has become an unexpected hot topic of discussion among the tech community in recent weeks, after a January "town hall" meeting at Apple headquarters in which CEO Steve Jobs allegedly suggested that Flash’s buggy nature was the reason it had been excluded from both the iPhone and the upcoming iPad tablet PC. Jobs also insisted that HTML5 would be the Internet’s future for delivering rich content to Websites.

In response, a member of Adobe’s marketing team wrote in a Jan. 27 corporate blog posting, "Without Flash support, iPad users will not be able to access the full range of Web content, including over 70 percent of games and 75 percent of video on the Web."

Apple’s position led a number of companies hoping to compete in the mobile space, including Hewlett-Packard, to emphasize that their own devices will include full Adobe Flash support. "With [our upcoming tablet PC], you’re getting a full Web browsing experience in the palm of your hand. No watered-down Internet, no sacrifices," Phil McKinney, HP’s vice president and chief technology officer for the Personal Systems Group, wrote in a March 8 posting on the company’s Voodoo blog. "A big bonus for [our tablet PC] is that, being based off Windows 7, it offers full Adobe support."

Flash support or no, Windows Phone 7 Series will make a clean break from other technologies as well. During the Mix 2010 conference in Las Vegas, Microsoft executives emphasized that current Windows Mobile applications would not be compatible with the new smartphone operating system.

“We do recognize that there are a lot of folks who have been writing apps for Windows Mobile for some time,” Larry Lieberman, senior product manager for Microsoft’s Mobile Developer Experience, told eWEEK in a March 15 interview. "But we recognize that the landscape has changed, and as we’ve been looking at stuff, we had to drastically change our game, and really the only way to do that was to look at what we were offering and what we could do to address this in a competitive accelerated manner."

Windows Phone 7 Series will utilize Silverlight and XNA to allow developers to build applications and 3D games for the upcoming Windows Phone Marketplace. However, Microsoft has also taken pains to insist over the past few weeks that it intends to continue supporting Windows Mobile 6.5 and Windows Marketplace for Mobile. 

Apple’s iPhone also lacked copy/cut/paste upon its release, although the company later offered that functionality in an update. It had been long requested by many users, particularly those who use their smartphones more in the manner of ultraportable cheap desktops. Given the iPhone’s success before that update, though, it stands to reason that Windows Phone 7 Series lacking copy/cut/paste will not exactly be perceived as the deciding factor in whether the smartphone operating system proves a success.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

VirnetX Files Second Lawsuit Against Microsoft

cNet News
After scoring big in one court case against Microsoft this week, VirnetX is hoping for seconds.

VirnetX announced on Thursday that it has launched another lawsuit against Microsoft, this time claiming that the same patent violations found in Windows XP and Vista from the first suit also exist in Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.
On Tuesday, a Texas jury ruled against Microsoft attorneys in a patent infringement case initiated by VirnetX in 2007. VirnetX, which develops software to secure instant messaging and VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) communications, alleged that Microsoft had violated two of its patents concerning virtual private network (VPN) technology.

After finding that Microsoft willfully violated the patents in question, the jury awarded VirnetX damages of $105.75 million.

In addition to charging Microsoft with patent violations in XP and Vista, the first suit also targeted Microsoft Live Communications Server and Office Communications Server. The initial suit did not cover Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 R2 because it was launched before those two products hit the marketplace.

Initiating a new lawsuit so quickly after winning the first one is part of VirnetX's strategy.

"This is a tactical and procedural post-trial action to ensure and protect our property rights, as we proceed to final resolution with Microsoft," VirnetX President and CEO Kendall Larsen said in a statement.

In response to the new lawsuit, Kevin Kutz, Microsoft's director of public affairs, issued the following statement: "While we can't comment specifically about the new complaint because we have not been served, Microsoft respects intellectual property, and we believe our products do not infringe the patents involved. Moreover, we believe those patents are invalid. We will challenge VirnetX's claims."

VirnetX's lawsuit claims that Microsoft violated its U.S. patents 6,502,135 and 7,188,180. Both patents cover specific ways of better securing IP-based communications through VPNs and other technologies.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Texan Accused of Disabling 100 Cars over Internet

DALLAS (AP) - A man fired from a Texas auto dealership used an Internet service to remotely disable ignitions and set off car horns of more than 100 vehicles sold at his old workplace, police said Wednesday.

Austin police arrested Omar Ramos-Lopez, 20, on Wednesday, charging him with felony breach of computer security.

Ramos-Lopez used a former colleague's password to deactivate starters and set off car horns, police said. Several car owners said they had to call tow trucks and were left stranded at work or home or at private school in Dallas.

"He caused these customers, now victims, to miss work," Austin police spokeswoman Veneza Aguinaga said. "They didn't get paid. They had to get tow trucks. They didn't know what was going on with their vehicles."

Ramos-Lopez was in the Travis County Jail on Wednesday with bond set at $3,000. The Associated Press could not find a working phone number for his family.

The Texas Auto Center dealership in Austin installs GPS devices that can prevent the ignition from engaging the battery. The system is used to repossess cars when buyers are overdue on payments, said Jeremy Norton, a controller at the dealership where Ramos-Lopez worked. Car horns can be activated when repo agents go to collect vehicles and believe the owners are hiding them.

"We are taking extra measures to make sure this never happens again," Norton said.

Starting in mid-February, dealership employees noticed unusual changes to their business records. Someone was going into the system and changing customers' names, such as having dead rapper Tupac Shakur buying a 2009 vehicle, Norton said.

Soon, customers began calling saying their cars wouldn't start, or that their horns were going off incessantly, forcing them to disengage the battery. Norton said the dealership originally thought the cars had mechanical problems.

Then employees noticed someone had ordered $130,000 in parts and equipment from the company that makes the GPS devices.

Police said they were able to trace the sabotage to Ramos-Lopez's computer, leading to his arrest.

Norton said Ramos-Lopez didn't seem unusually upset about being fired.

"I think he thought what he was doing was a harmless prank," Norton said. "He didn't see the ramifications of it."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Panasonic Profit May Be Boosted More Than $885 Million by Sanyo Purchase‏

Bloomberg News

Panasonic Corp., which acquired a controlling stake in battery maker Sanyo Electric Co. in December, may boost annual profit by more than 80 billion yen ($885 million) in three years by merging operations.

“Toward the end of this month, we’ll gather the sort of benefits we’ll generate by the merger,” Hitoshi Otsuki, a senior managing director in charge of Panasonic’s overseas operations, said in an interview in Tokyo yesterday. For the year ending March 2013 “80 billion yen is our target officially and we will definitely achieve it,” he said, adding it’s “definitely possible” to aim for a higher amount.

Sanyo’s solar power batteries, strong presence in Vietnam and close relationship with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, will likely help Panasonic beat its original target, Otsuki said. The world’s largest maker of plasma televisions made its biggest acquisition last December, paying 403.8 billion yen for 50.2 percent of Sanyo, the No. 1 manufacturer of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.

“Panasonic hasn’t disclosed details of the synergy plan,” Kazuharu Miura, an analyst at Daiwa Securities Capital Markets Co. in Tokyo, said by phone today. “I’m waiting to see how each of the company’s businesses will benefit from the acquisition of the battery maker and how much the overall profit will expand.”

The purchase will likely boost Panasonic’s operating profit, or sales minus the cost of goods sold and administrative expenses, by 80 billion yen in the 12 months ending March 2013, the company said December 2008 when it first disclosed the purchase plan.

May Sell Assets

The two companies aren’t discussing additional job cuts and may sell some of their assets as they consolidate operations, Otsuki said. Panasonic has no plan to make Sanyo a wholly owned unit, he said.

Panasonic rose 1.7 percent to close at 1,343 yen in Tokyo trading. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 Stock Average gained 1.2 percent.

Last month, Osaka-based Panasonic raised its operating profit forecast by 25 percent, as cuts in fixed and material costs lead to a recovery in earnings from consumer electronics and appliances.

Operating profit will probably reach 150 billion yen in the year ending March 31, compared with an earlier forecast of 120 billion yen, Panasonic said Feb. 5. Sales may total 7.35 trillion yen, 5 percent more than previously projected.

Analysts expect the company to post a net income of 115 billion yen in the year starting April 1, from a loss of 130 billion yen, according to the median of 19 estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Review: Lenovo Rethinks Design and Price of ThinkPad

The Wall Street Journal / Walter Mossberg

Lenovo is rethinking the ThinkPad.

For years, the iconic laptop brand, originally created by IBM, has been known for solid construction and great keyboards, but with a boxy black design and relatively high prices. It has a business orientation, though it also has been the choice of some tech-savvy consumers willing to pay a little more and forego flashy style touches.

IBM and Lenovo, a Chinese-owned company that bought the brand in 2005, have at times been bold with the ThinkPad's engineering. For instance, in 2008, Lenovo launched a very thin but full-width line, the X300 series, which uses cutting-edge materials and goes head-to-head with Apple's ultrathin line of laptops, MacBook Air.

But Lenovo has been reluctant to tinker much with the ThinkPad's design. It has retained the classic but boring black-box look and preserved the solid, comfortable keyboard.

Now, to broaden the brand's appeal, the company has decided to depart from that template. It has just launched two new ThinkPads at uncharacteristically low prices, with new designs, sizes and colors, and—shudder—a revamped keyboard.

I've been testing the two new models, and, in general, I like them. They are the least expensive ThinkPads ever offered, and the first available in a color choice other than black. Each can be ordered in red as well. Also, one is the first ThinkPad in years that is a mini-notebook, rather than a full-size laptop.

One of these two new models, the X100e, is a small, netbook-like machine with an 11.6-inch screen—starting at $449, though the upgraded configuration I reviewed costs $599. The company refuses to call the X100e a netbook. Its keyboard, screen and resolution are better than what many netbooks offer, but it's also heavier.

The other new line is called the ThinkPad Edge. It's a full-size machine, with a 13.3-inch screen, that is more rounded than traditional discount laptops, and has a silvery band around its edges. It starts at $579, though the step-up configuration I reviewed costs $799.

Both machines retain the solid feel of a ThinkPad. Neither is the lightest computer in its size class, though they're not overly heavy. The little X100e weighs 3.3 pounds and the Edge weighs 3.6 pounds with its base laptop battery, and 3.9 pounds with a larger battery.

And both retain a classic ThinkPad feature—the TrackPoint, a small red nub in the middle of the keyboard that can be used to move the cursor. It is an alternative to the touchpad that each machine also includes.

In my tests, both new ThinkPads proved snappy, though neither has the latest or most potent processors. Both ran Windows 7 fine, and handled well a variety of popular software—Microsoft Office, Firefox, iTunes and Adobe Reader. One caveat: The test units Lenovo sent me had twice the standard memory of base models or typical used computers. And my test Edge had a more powerful processor.

Under my tough battery test, where I turn off power-saving software, keep Wi-Fi on, set the screen at maximum brightness, and play a continuous loop of music, the X100e's battery lasted 3 hours and 44 minutes. In normal use, you could likely get 4½ hours or more.

The Edge had a battery time of 4 hours and 16 minutes, so you could likely get over 5 hours in normal use. But the costlier Edge configuration I tested had a larger laptop computer battery than the base unit, so would likely last only two-thirds as long.

Start-up times on the two were respectable for a Windows PCs: ready to go from cold start in just over a minute. The touchpads on both also feature multitouch gestures, like the ability to use your fingers to resize or rotate photos.

What about the new keyboards? Instead of the closely packed, large, scooped keys that ThinkPad loyalists love, the X100e and Edge have "island-style" keyboards, with distinctly separated, flatter-looking letter and number keys. The Backspace, Shift, Enter and Tab keys are large and prominent. Lenovo eliminated the little-used SysReq, Scroll Lock and Pause keys.

I found the letter and number keys to be comfortable, accurate and fast, with a solid, reliable feel—even on the smaller X100e. Lenovo explains this is because the letter and number key tops aren't really flat, but have the same curve as the tops of classic ThinkPad keys.

But the new keyboard has compromises. On the Edge, the Delete key was too small and insufficiently prominent. On both devices, the Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys are far apart, and the latter two are tiny and hard to press, especially on the Edge. The Num Lock key and virtual numeric keyboard are gone.

All in all, ThinkPad lovers looking to save money, and other users of discount computers considering a ThinkPad, might find these new models worth a try.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Apple Details iPad's Battery Replacement Plan

PC Mag

When one thinks of Apple, a single word often comes to mind: battery.

It's no secret that the Cupertino-based developer has inched the totality of its product lines toward non-replaceable batteries. So what happens, then, when your iPhone or Macbook Pro laptop battery loses its ability to hold much of a charge? What about the iPad? Will you have to run back to your local Apple store to pick up a replacement?

Apple just announced the terms of the deal for the iPad and, all jokes aside, it's just like the iPhone's battery replacement service... but bigger!

Apple's warranties provide for varying measures of support depending on the product lines--iPhone owners get a free battery replacement if their devices' capacities drop below 50 percent within the first year of ownership--the company offers its own battery replacement service for affected products.

Provided your iPad hasn't gone through some catastrophic amount of damage--"as result of an accident, liquid contact, disassembly, unauthorized service or unauthorized modifications," suggests Apple--then you'll be eligible to take advantage of the company's battery replacement service.

But what does that entail? First, you'll have to shell out $99 (plus $6.95 for shipping and whatever your local tax happens to be) for the opportunity for a brand-new device. And I phrase that as I do for a very specific reason.

When you send your iPad off to Apple, you aren't just getting your same ol' iPad back in the mail after one week or thereabouts. Opting for the company's battery replacement service will basically put you on the list for a refurbished iPad--although the exterior case of the device will be brand-new, the underlying product will be one that's gone through Apple's fix-it procedures in some capacity. Naturally, any data you've kept on your old iPad device will go the way of the dinosaur: You'll want to back up all your settings and information prior to asking Apple for a new battery.

This is the exact same treatment that iPhone users receive, minus $20 to the overall cost of the replacement. It's interesting to note that the replacement fee isn't tiered at all, meaning that even the lowest of devices--the $499, 16GB iPad--will cost the same amount to replace with a refurbished product as the $829 64GB device. That can be a confusing issue for consumers, but you have to keep Apple's battery replacement service in perspective.

When Apple receives a device for replacement batteries, it essentially sticks the product in a "to be fixed" bin. In order to guarantee a rapid turnaround time for the iPad you've sent in, it's easier to grab an identical item that's been previously fixed off the shelf and send it your way. Once your device is fixed, it'll go in the waiting line for someone else suffering from a near-dead battery. You're not paying Apple for a refurbished unit per se; you're paying for the entire process.

That's not quite the case with battery replacement services for the replacement-unfriendly MacBook Pro. Given that the laptop system could be a person's entire--and only--computing setup, Apple suggests that the data on the device could be preserved during the course of a normal battery service appointment. As well, one can take a MacBook Pro to any Apple retail store for same-day repair--not so with Apple's portable devices.

Scientists Develop Fabric That Can Power Music Player, Monitor Vital Functions

Voice of America News

Imagine wearing a shirt that can power an mp3 player, cell phone, and monitor your heart beat, brain waves and more.  U.S. and Italian scientists have invented a fabric that can conduct electricity but that also can be made into light, comfortable clothing. 

The new, high-tech fabric contains cotton threads coated with a thin layer of semiconductor polymers and nanoparticles which conduct electricity like metal wires.

But one of the developers of the new fabric, Juan Hinestroza of Cornell University in New York says at first glance it's hard to tell the difference between plain cotton and cloth sewn with the conductive thread.

"They will bend the same, they will drape the same, they will feel the same.  Now if I put electricity through one of them, then you will see the difference," he said.

During the day, Hinestroza says tiny solar power cells embedded in the fabric collect energy and store it in a device similar to a double-A battery.  The conductive thread, which is woven through the cotton fabric, is attached to the battery and power is discharged through a USB (flash drive) interface.  He says a simple knot in the conductive thread completes the circuit from energy storage to discharge.

Hinestroza says small devices like mp3 players and cell phones can be powered by attaching them to the USB hook-up, also hidden in a garment seam.  The portable system means no electrical outlets or batteries are needed to keep the devices charged.

Hinestroza says the conductive thread is so pliable and durable it can be sewn into any fabric with a sewing machine.

Scientists are investigating other applications for conductive fabric, such as monitoring critical bodily functions.

"At this moment, we are looking at using the fibers into [as] electrodes that can monitor heart rates but that's also part of the clothing, so there won't be any changes in performance or comfort.  In fact, the user will never notice that you have the conductive yarn that is different from the other cotton," he said.

Hinestroza says monitoring heart rate and other vital bodily functions requires that the conductive threads be woven into dense grids in special, flexible fabrics. These patches of conductive material can then act as electrical sensors to detect the vibration from a pulse and breathing, or as electrodes to monitor brain waves like an EEG machine (electroencephalogram).

Hinestroza says it's up to private companies now to develop specific applications for conductive fabric.

"It will open a complete new way of possibilities of embedding sensors in bedding sheets, or in clothing or in shoes or in curtains, carpets.  And the sensors will be part of the item of the fabric and that's the main difference," he said. "Instead of having a foreign object acting as a sensor, the sensor is a fiber and it's a natural fiber.  It's not a synthetic one."

While it's too soon to predict when the first high-tech garments will be available, Cornell University's Juan Hinestroza expects the first of many applications using electrically conductive thread will be ready for the market in the near future.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lenovo Says Business will Focus on Mobile Internet

BEIJING (AP) - Lenovo Group expects wireless Internet products to account for up to 80 percent of its sales within five years as it pursues expansion in faster-growing emerging markets, CEO Yang Yuanqing said Friday.

Lenovo, the world's fourth-largest personal computer maker, jumped into the mobile Internet market in January with the unveiling of a smart phone and two Web-linked portable computers.

"Mobile Internet is very important," Yang said in an interview. "Even today, cheap notebooks sales already are higher than desktops. Mobile Internet products are going to be 70 to 80 percent of our sales ... within three to five years."

Yang said Lenovo plans this year to focus on promoting mobile Internet and sales in emerging economies in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Lenovo, based in Beijing and Morrisville, North Carolina, was hit hard by the global crisis, which prompted its core corporate customers to slash spending and go for refurbished cheap laptops. It suffered three losing quarters before rebounding to a profit in the second half of last year.

Yang said Lenovo's longer-term strategy, dubbed "protect and attack," calls for building up its dominant presence in China. The country accounts for nearly half of Lenovo's global sales but it faces competition from industry leaders Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc., which are creating products tailored to Chinese customers.

In the latest quarter, Lenovo said cheap computers sales in India and other emerging markets rose 52 percent over a year earlier, far ahead of the 13 percent sales growth reported for the United States and Western Europe.

Lenovo, which acquired IBM Corp.'s PC unit in 2005, says its global market share last year rose to 9 percent, its highest level to date.

Yang said Lenovo has no plans for foreign acquisitions but is ready to look at any deals that fit its strategic plans for mobile SEO.

Corporate spending on computers has yet to rebound but companies are expected to step up purchasing in the second half of this year, Yang said. He said he could not foresee when global discount PCs sales might recover to pre-crisis levels.

"I'm not an economist," he said. "Even for economists, it's difficult to forecast."

Apple Gives Chief Operating Officer $5M Bonus

FILE - In this June 8, 2009 file photo, Apple interim CEO and Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook smiles before the start of the the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. Apple Inc. is giving its chief operating officer a $5 million bonus for "outstanding performance" running the company while CEO Steve Jobs was on medical leave. Timothy Cook will also receive 75,000 restricted stock units scheduled to vest in 2011 and 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

SEATTLE (AP) - Apple Inc. is giving its chief operating officer a $5 million bonus for "outstanding performance" running the company while CEO Steve Jobs was on medical leave.

Timothy Cook, 49, will also receive 75,000 restricted stock units scheduled to vest in 2011 and 2012, Apple said in a regulatory filing Friday.

Jobs, 55, famously limits his salary to $1 per year, which leaves Cook the company's highest-paid executive. In 2009, Cook received an $800,400 salary; $800,000 in nonstock incentive compensation; and about $40,900 in company matches to his retirement account, life insurance premiums and cash for unused vacation days.

The COO also holds 13,741 shares of Apple stock and 500,000 additional restricted stock options that have not yet vested, according to a January filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Cook took the company reins when Jobs, a pancreatic cancer survivor, went on medical leave from January through June 2009.

It was Cook's second stint leading Apple. Cook, who joined Apple in 1998, ran the Cupertino, Calif.-based company for two months in 2004 while Jobs recovered from surgery for pancreatic cancer. His performance then won him the promotion to chief operating officer in 2005.

Analysts credit Cook with solving problems that Apple was having with inventory management. That has been key to Apple's ability to amass $25 billion in cash and short-term investments. Many people consider Cook as Jobs' logical successor.

In the months leading up to Jobs' medical leave, rumors about his health could send Apple's stock soaring and sinking as investors worried that Apple would be lost without his vision.

But under Cook's direction in 2009, the company kept cranking out well-received products including updated laptops with lower entry-level prices and a faster iPhone with many longed-for features. Apple sold more than a million of the new iPhone 3GS during its first three days on the market.

Investors seemed confident in Cook's abilities. Apple's shares rose 67 percent to close at $142.44 the Friday before Jobs returned to work last June. Since then, the stock has added another 59 percent to close Friday at $226.60.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Review: Irex E-reader Poses no Grave Threat to Kindle

The Wall Street Journal / Walter Mossberg

The tech industry and media are focused on Apple's forthcoming iPad tablet computer, a multifunction device that includes an e-book reader. Meanwhile, with much less fanfare, other companies are pressing ahead with conventional, dedicated e-readers aimed at the leader in the category: Amazon's Kindle.

These more focused, monochrome devices aren't as flashy or as versatile as the iPad, which handles everything from email to games. But they cost less and are aimed wholly at people who seek to read books and periodicals in digital form.

I've been testing one such new e-reader from a company that has been in the business for years, but is mainly known in Europe. It is called the Irex DR800SG and costs $400 at bestbuy.com—about $140 more than the Kindle. While the DR800SG uses the same electronic ink screen technology as the Kindle, it has some major differences: in screen size, in user interface, and in the way it wirelessly downloads books and newspapers.

The Irex is shorter but wider than the Kindle, and has an 8.1-inch screen, versus the Kindle's 6-inch screen. It's slightly thicker than the Kindle, but about 25% heavier. It has a single, thin page-turning and menu button on the left side, while the Kindle has larger, multiple buttons on both sides. Both devices claim to hold about 1,500 books.

Irex, a Los Angeles-based company whose products are engineered in the Netherlands, produced its first e-reader in 2004, but this new model is its first aimed specifically at the American market and its first to use the cellular 3G network for downloading content.

The new Irex has some advantages over the Kindle. Its larger screen makes for a better reading experience, allowing many more words to show on the page, at similar font sizes. The screen also seems slightly sharper.

The Irex looks sleeker than the Kindle, because it has a much thinner bezel around the screen, due mainly to the lack of a physical keyboard. It also does a better job of organizing your reading material, grouping items into separate folders for books, newspapers, and personal documents.

And, instead of being linked to a single online store, like Amazon, it uses a "mall" concept, designed to allow users to choose from many different online stores, though only two are available now. The principal merchant in the mall so far is the Barnes & Noble e-book store—the same one used on the Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader—which claims about a million titles. The other store is called NewspaperDirect, which claims over 1,000 newspapers.

However, in my tests, I found the Irex much clumsier to use than the Kindle and, because of that, I still prefer the Amazon device. For instance, the Irex requires a stylus—an ancient and fading navigation device—for some operations. Yet it lacks a holder for this pointer except in the leather cover, so the stylus is easy to lose. The Irex also lacks a Home button, a note-taking function, any way to highlight text and a built-in dictionary.

More important, I found the mall concept for downloading books to be frustrating. Because the Irex isn't seamlessly linked to its own online store, I had to establish, or sign into, four different accounts to test the device fully. Even after that, each Barnes & Noble download required multiple steps. On the Kindle, ordering books is a breeze, and they appear almost instantly after you click a single "Buy" button.

This last issue is a trade-off between greater choice and simpler, quicker functionality. Some readers will be willing to make that trade-off, especially if Irex is able to add specialized stores in the future that offer, say, a large selection of non-English-language books. But, for most Americans with typical book needs, I find the current trade-off unacceptable.

For example, books I bought from Barnes & Noble appeared slowly on the Irex. The device seemed to have to turn on its radio and establish a new connection each time. Also, until I opened each book, they appeared on the screen identified only by a geeky file name. And, after I opened each, there was a long delay while the device did something called "counting pages."

The company says that some of these shortcomings will be fixed in a software update due as soon as next month. It promises there will be a note-taking function, speedier wireless connections and the elimination of the counting-pages delay. It also says it is working on a universal log-in system for its mall of stores. But highlighting and a dictionary are only being "considered" for a future revision.

On the bright side, I was able to easily plug the Irex into a PC and Mac, and manually drag onto it personal PDF files, pictures and even a free book I bought at a Web site.

Irex says it is working on a color model for next year. I hope it works more smoothly than the DR800SG.