Well, this ought to be good.
Last week, Sony released its HDR-TG1, which it calls the world’s smallest full high-definition camcorder. Which is a little odd, because Panasonic just released its HDC-SD9, which it claims is the world’s smallest full hi-def camcorder.
And that must come as something of a shock to Sanyo, which calls its Xacti 1000 the world’s smallest full hi-def camcorder.
It’s not really any surprise that these electronics companies are fighting for the “world’s smallest” title. Camcorder sales have been steadily declining, and the focus groups keep giving the same reason: camcorders are too big, bulky and complex to carry around. Besides, the movie mode on today’s shirt-pocket still cameras does just fine for quick clips.
When you’re a professional gadget reviewer, you see plenty of cellphones, music players, camcorders and computers. But in two weeks, Casio will offer an entirely new device for sale, the first of its kind: a time machine.
Now, the Exilim EX-F1 is not a time machine in the H. G. Wells sense. You can’t climb inside and travel back to high school and undo every humiliating mistake you’ve ever made.
But for a digital camera, the F1 comes pretty close. It does let you freeze time, slow time down and even capture photos of sudden events that you’ve already missed.
How is this possible? Because, for starters, the F1 ($1,000 list price) is the world’s fastest camera.
A typical shirt-pocket camera, if you’re lucky, can snap one photo a second in “burst mode.” A $1,000 semipro model will get you 3 shots a second. But this Casio can snap — are you ready for this? — 60 photos a second. These are not movies; these are full six-megapixel photographs, each with enough resolution for a poster-size print.
If you’ve ever lost important computer files, then you already know about the five stages of grieving: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Moving to the Amish Country.
Even so, only a tiny fraction of today’s computer owners have automatic backup systems in place. The obstacles are known as Cost, Technical Setup and Being Kinda Busy.
The mental and technical obstacles get especially hairy if you have more than one computer, like a laptop, a home machine and a PC at the office. And it’s almost hopeless if these machines are of different types — a Mac here, a PC there — because you may not be able to use the same backup software or service for all of them.
Well, this is a little embarrassing. One of the most significant electronics products of the year slipped into the market, became a mega-hit, changed its industry — and I haven’t reviewed it yet.
Yeah, yeah, O.K., so the glaciers are melting, polar bears are becoming extinct and oceanfront property will soon open up in Philadelphia. But c’mon, people, try to look at the bright side.
Consider this: the new environmental awareness is unleashing a wave of innovation in every category of technology — including portable music and video players.
And how, you may ask, can an iPod wannabe be green?
By being totally self-powered, for one thing. Already, there are two such players: the Media Street eMotion Solar ($160 to $190, capacities from 1 to 4 gigabytes) and the Baylis Eco Media Player ($200 from realgoods.com, 2 gigabytes). Neither needs batteries or power from a cord; they can live completely off the grid.
Just by looking at it, you’d never guess that Sony’s new Alpha A300 digital camera represents a huge technical breakthrough. To discover what it is, you need a tour of its innards. Keep hands and feet inside the tram at all times.
On an ordinary single-lens reflex camera (those big black pro models), light enters from the lens and is split by a semi-transparent mirror. Part of the light goes to the eyepiece viewfinder, and the other part goes downward to the autofocus sensor.
When you press the shutter button, that mirror flips up out of the light’s path, revealing — aha! — a small rectangular image sensor, the computer chip that records the photo.
Already, you’ve learned enough to answer one of the great digital camera mysteries: Why must you hold these cameras up to your eye? Why can’t you frame a photo using an S.L.R.’s back-panel screen, as you can on a little pocket camera?
Ten days ago, Netflix announced that it would abandon HD DVD, Toshiba’s entry in the high-definition DVD format war. Six days ago, Wal-Mart dropped HD DVD, too. Then two days ago, Toshiba surrendered, marking the end of the most pointless format war since Betamax-VHS.
So Microsoft is making a hostile bid for Yahoo.
Has it come to this? Is Microsoft’s innovation engine so dead that the only way it can grow is to buy other companies?
It’s sad, in a way, because under the right circumstances, Microsoft, or pieces of it anyway, are still capable of fresh ideas and polished work. The company itself may be a massive fallen redwood tree, slowly rotting in an old-growth forest. But sprouting from that decaying Windows/Office log are little green start-up shoots. They prove that even if the bureaucracy has made Microsoft top-heavy and leaden, innovation still thrives in pockets.
Nowhere is this old Microsoft/new Microsoft dichotomy more apparent than in the company’s suite of online tools for small businesses, which reopened Monday in an improved 2.0 version (www.smallbusiness.officelive.com).
What makes Office Live Small Business so compelling is its sharp focus on a single problem: that half the small businesses in America, and 70 percent of one-person businesses, don’t even have Web sites. Obviously, the percentage that exploits Internet marketing tools like e-mail newsletters, search engine ads and online stores is even lower.
Suppose you’re among them. Suppose you train dogs, or translate documents, or retouch photos, or sell knickknacks on eBay, or make seashell jewelry. And right now, your idea of a marketing plan is taping up fliers in the grocery store.
How are you supposed to get a Web site? Who will design it, and who will host it? Who do you pay to place search engine ads for you, and how will you know if they’re working? How do you send out e-mail newsletters without being blocked as a spammer? And how will you know if that effort is paying off?
And above all: how much is all this going to cost you?
Office Live Small Business (O.L.S.B.) is a centralized Web site where you can set up all of those small-businessy things — a Web site, an online ad campaign, e-mail promotions, in-company communications — all by yourself, even if you’re not very technical. For the first time, these big-league tools are within your reach, partly because you don’t have to hire somebody to set them up and partly because many of them are free.
The changes from the original 2006 version are apparent immediately. Internet Explorer used to be the required Web browser to set up your online presence, but now Firefox is O.K., too. And that means you can take advantage of Office Live even if you use (gasp) a Macintosh. That’s the New Microsoft, baby.
A credit card is no longer required to get started, either. You can start playing with the service by supplying nothing more than a name, e-mail address and ZIP code.
There are no longer three different tiers of Office Live service, with different fees and different features; that’s the Old Microsoft way (see also: Windows Vista). Instead, there’s just one free service that includes a wide assortment of useful tools, plus a handful of á la carte extras.
The freebies begin with a Web site for your business, complete with 500 megabytes of storage. Simple tools let you design clean-looking pages, with your choice of color and design themes, logo and photos, links, and so on, even if you have absolutely no experience doing this sort of thing. (You can see the results at, for example, whineranddiner.net, murphyoutdoors.com and ameliascakes.com — real sites created by actual Office Live users.)
Microsoft hosts your site free, and also offers free analysis tools. With one click, you can see a graph of your site’s traffic over time; where the visitors are coming from (for example, search engines or links from other sites); and even which Web browsers they’re using.
A number of useful Office Live features that used to cost you money are now free. For example, only paid subscribers enjoyed the ability to synchronize their Office Live address books and calendars with Outlook, so they could work on them when not connected to the Internet. That’s now free to everyone.
Similarly, if you wanted to design your own Web pages (or hire someone to do it) instead of using Microsoft’s canned page designs, you used to have to pay; now that’s free, too. As a bonus, you can now remove the small Office Live logo from your site — a welcome change.
The old fee-based tiers also included a long list of features for the technically inclined: list managers that help you track employees, resources, reservations, and so on; project and time trackers; a document-sharing module; and collaboration tools for internal company discussion. Those are all free now.
Unfortunately, Microsoft giveth and Microsoft taketh away.
The most famous feature of the original Office Live was the free domain-name registration. That is, your free Web site could have any dot-com name you liked — BobsFleabag.com, for example — and you also got 25 e-mail addresses to match (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and so on).
Those unheard-of perks are gone; after the first year, Microsoft now charges $15 a year for those custom domain names and e-mail addresses (at least for new members). If you decline, your free Web site will be stuck with a clunky name like bobsfleabag.accommodations.officelive.com.
Nor is that the only way Microsoft intends to make money from this service.
The other day at a trade show, a reader accosted me. "I can’t believe you gave speech-recognition software a good review," he scolded. "I had an awful experience with it! I wound up sticking it in a drawer."
I was surprised. "You’re kidding," I said. "When was this?"
"Around 1994," he replied.
The point, dear anecdote aficionados, is that in technology, things change. Every fast, slick and successful product today has a crude, expensive and annoying ancestor.
Take digital picture frames. A few years ago, they were novelty items: small, expensive, with coarse screens. To load pictures onto one, you had to insert your camera’s memory card and fiddle with menus. Today, a lot of those early frames lie in gadget drawers — right beside the speech-recognition headsets.