A Love Letter To The (Dying) Plasma TV: Reviewing Panasonic's 2013 Home Event (Updated: The Highest-Rated TV Ever)

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Spring has made it to New York City, which means it's time once again to cast our gaze towards the big electronics companies' annual home product unveilings. Events like this are a little more tame than, say, CES (the Consumer Electronics Show), where the bleeding edge of technology is almost always the centerpiece. So here, at Panasonic's 2013 Home Event, we were treated to an eyes-on of this year's updated electronics wizardry. And while Panny's (as the Internet lovingly refers to the company) newest line of headphones, lady-shavers, nose-hair trimmers, and microwaves were impressive, the TVs stole the show as usual.

Particularly deserving of acclaim is the ZT60, Panasonic's flagship-- as in, best and most expensive-- plasma set. If you're not aware, the war over picture quality between LCD/LED and plasma TVs was won long ago, by plasma. Among other specifications, what plasmas do so well over competing technologies are two things: lack of motion blur (the phenomenon which causes images on screen to appear blurry during scenes with a lot of camera movement), and black levels. Black levels are exactly what they sound like: how deep and accurate the darkest black colors on screen are to "true black." Thin and futuristic as they are, LCD and LED TVs can't even come close to reproducing the black levels seen on top-quality plasmas. Most end up looking somewhere in the charcoal arena, worse if you're in a brightly-lit room. Here's an example of the tremendous black levels on the ZT60:

Those are unedited photos taken in a dark room. I wish I could effectively relay the amount of excitement that existed during the presentation; needless to say, us geeks were foaming at the mouth a bit. The ZT60 bests even the fabled Pioneer Kuro, a plasma which has held the moniker of Best Picture Quality In The Industry for years (even after its unfortunate discontinuance). 

Why, then, do plasma TVs make it into increasingly fewer and fewer living rooms? Well, if you go into any big-box store (let's say, the one that rhymes with "Zest Guy") and compare how an LED set looks on the wall next to a plasma set, you'd think the plasma was there merely to show off the other's superiority. This is because the color reproduction of a plasma is much more accurate than an LCD or LED, resulting in a picture that appears less colorful in comparison. But it's not. At all. It's simply that the Zest Guy employees turn the brightness, contrast, and color levels on the other TV sets up to 11, so you the customer can be wowed by the picture quality of the crappy set they're talking you into getting. 

I asked Merwan Mereby, Panasonic's VP of Content and Services, what (if anything) was being done to combat this problem at the retail level.

"It's a problem that we recognize," he says. "One thing we're doing is going in and teaching the employees [of the retail stores] the features and differences, so they can recommend plasmas to people who ask about picture quality." He added that showcase rooms like Magnolia Home Theater can be helpful as well, because the lights are optimally dimmed and TVs separated from each other enough to get a sense of what they can really do. But even that, he said, hasn't turned the plasma industry around.

Sadly, even my plasmevangelizing won't be enough to stop the slow, steady downhill slide into technology obsolescence: Engadget is reporting that Panasonic is halting development of new plasma sets. So now's the time, dear reader. Run out while you still can, and get yourself the best-damn picture box you can shake a stick at. Sure, plasma TVs are heavy. And expensive. And nearly antiques. But when you're binging on a Firefly marathon, won't it be nice to know that the empty space the Serenity is flying through looks as black as it actually is? 

UPDATE (4/12/13): CNET just posted their review of the Panasonic ST60 plasma TV, the less-expensive sibling of the ZT60 (above). They awarded it 5 STARS-- the highest rating available, and the first television in CNET history to attain such a rating. Hopefully Panny is paying attention, and re-thinking their decision on plasma development...

Posted on April 12, 2013 .
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The Missing Windows 8 Feature No One Is Talking About

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The reviews are in, not only of Microsoft's most recent software, but also of the best it has to offer in hardware. The verdict? Not bad. It's not amazing, but overall, Windows 8 and its corresponding laptops, tablets, and coffee tables have taken the idea of the traditional "desktop" operating system and turned it on its head for the better. Most of what you're getting is a swipe-able, touch-friendly interface which performs well given the tasks at hand. On the other side, you still have access to the familiar, old-school Windows interface via the Desktop App. From there, you have access to your file system, control panel, and can download and run programs not found in the Windows Store-- programs like Photoshop, Webex, et cetera.

That's all well and good, if the touch-friendly Metro or "Start" home screen (pictured above) is able to give you basically everything you need to do your work properly. Spoiler alert: it doesn't. Ready for this? THERE IS NO FILE SYSTEM IN THIS INTERFACE. I'll let that sink in for a second. Surely, you might say, that can't be possible. Right? For many people, the entire point of owning a computer is to have something that can store and allow access to files. My mother is one of those people. So how, in 2013, is there an operating system that makes accessing your FILES next to impossible? That's an excellent question. Microsoft's answer, apparently, is their "all-encompassing" Search function. The idea is, you can simply start typing on the home screen, and whatever you type is then searched for. Files, Apps, emails, contacts-- the universality of the search is excellent, and not under scrutiny. The issue, perhaps the biggest blunder Windows has made in some years, is that that is the only way to find a file. You have to know the name of it to search for it. There's no way to just browse the contents of your folders. Seriously? Yes, seriously.

You know how, in Windows 7 (or Mac OSX), if you want to look at your files, you just click the Start button (or Finder in Mac) and voila-- you have folders for Documents, Pictures, Videos, and so on? Yeah, those don't exist on the homescreen of Windows 8, nor can you search for just Documents to show a list of all your documents and folders. It's literally not possible. You can still do it in Desktop mode, and there are a few third-party apps that attempt (with varying degrees of success) to replace the this functionality, but otherwise, you're stuck running a search for a specific file name. My mother has THOUSANDS of files spread out amongst hundreds of folders. So do I, as do many of my friends and colleagues. Are we expecting her (or us) to remember the names of each file, so she can run a search for them later? Gimme a break. They're in folders so she doesn't have to remember the file names. That's what folders are for. To organize and group files. Just not according to Windows 8.

The whole point of Microsoft's new operating system is to begin bridging the gap between old, out-of-touch Desktop Windows, and the mobilized, touchscreen-filled future. Windows 8, minus the Desktop App, is clearly where this whole shindig is headed; as soon as software companies like Adobe and Cisco start designing their programs to work directly from the Windows 8 homescreen, the Windows Desktop will disappear. Right now, without the Desktop, if you have more than twenty files, or you don't know their names... well, I just hope you have a store of flashcards lying around the house.

Posted on March 1, 2013 .
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What Is Kickstarter? (And Why You Should Care)

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You may have heard recently, while watching the news or browsing the Interwebs, about something called "Kickstarter." If not, here's what a writeup of the company usually looks like: 

'Kickstarter is an innovative funding service that gives startups and entrepreneurs the chance to raise capital through crowd-sourcing. Investors have different tiers to choose from, and gain early product awareness and beta testing rights.'

Oh, okay. That wasn't exactly a crystal-clear explanation for most of us, and that's the problem-- "most of us" are exactly who should be on Kickstarter. Once you know what the heck is going on over there, you might not even be able to stop. Which is a good thing-- it happens to be one of the most innovative and helpful services out there for new and/or struggling entrepreneurs. So here, in a translated "human-speak" version, is what Kickstarter is all about:

  • Kickstarter is a website where visitors learn about upcoming new products and projects, and help get them off the ground by kicking in a few dollars (or a few thousand, if you're feeling generous). The more people there are who pledge some green, the better chance the project has of seeing the light of day. This idea is called "crowd-funding."
  • What you're helping to fund can be anything, from a play to a parks project to the next great iPhone app. Really, all categories are represented: products, services, electronics, events, designs, and more. Anything and everything that strikes your fancy, at this point, probably has a Kickstarter project that wants your love.
  • Once you find that one amazing idea that you want to see come to fruition, you are given a choice of how much to kick in, and what you'll be getting for your donation. That's right; there's always some sort of reward for forking over your hard-earned cash, so don't think of this as a charity service. The more you give, the more you get, and usually, you're purchasing the product/service itself, once it's funded and ready. If you can only spare a dollar, that's fine too-- perks usually include a mention by the company of your donation, or some small token of appreciation like a sticker or early notice of the product launch.
  • Kickstarter projects have a "funding date," or a deadline by which the project must be funded. If the fundraising goal isn't met in time, you don't pay the money you pledged; this helps to ensure that only quality, legitimate projects get your money. If the project meets its funding goals, you'll receive word from the company on release dates, event invites, and when you'll be receiving the goods you ponied up for.

So that's Kickstarter. Hopefully it makes a lot more sense now than it did five minutes ago; there isn't much left to say about it, except it's the most popular "crowd-funding" service out there, and with good reason: its simplicity and ingenuity has seen it garner some great press, mostly because of the projects themselves--just look at the astonishing success of the Pebble Smart Watch. Do yourself a favor and go check it out, but be warned: you may start to click faster than your bank account can keep up.

*For more information on some of the terms and concepts in this article, check out the Tech 101 Glossary*

Posted on May 9, 2012 and filed under "crowdfunding", "kickstarter", "pebble watch".
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How To Navigate The Front Line Of The Internet, And Live To Tell About It


There's a Web site out there that you may have heard of, called Reddit. To the uninitiated-- and by uninitiated I mean most people over the age of 25-- it appears to be a vast wasteland of posts, pictures, and links to things you've never heard of, and that make no sense. You're a busy person, and are probably thinking, why should I bother with this clearly insane world? And why is it so full of cats?

The thing about Reddit is, it's what I would consider to be the first place to find good content online-- "The Front Line Of The Internet," if you will-- and if you have even a basic working knowledge of its structure and particular vernacular, it can be your go-to resource for information. That is, if you can figure out what the heck is going on. So today, I would like to be your instruction manual, your spirit guide, your Indiana Jones-- to the amazing oddity that is Reddit. Down the rabbit hole we go...

1. Structure: Reddit is a site made of links to other things. It's really that simple. Every blue line on every page is a clickable link to something, and those somethings are: news articles, pictures, online videos (mainly YouTube), petitions, Wikipedia articles, memes (see below), and links to various other sites. There is the main page, which can be sorted by most popular posts, newest, most controversial, and featured. Along with the main page, there are an endless number of "Sub-Reddits," or pages that concern a particular topic-- cats, jokes, swimsuit models, politics, Christianity, science-- virtually any subject you can think of has its own Subreddit. You can find them by typing "/r/nameoftopic" into your Web browser's address bar after reddit.com. (Example: www.reddit.com/r/funny)

2. Upvoting/Downvoting: You may be wondering, with the millions of posts on all the various Subreddits, including the main page, how are they ordered? This is the genius of Reddit: it's a completely democratic system of voting-- the posts are ranked in order of popularity. If you like a post, or think others should see it, you click that little "up" arrow to the left of the link, and give it an "upvote." The opposite is also true: if you don't like a post for whatever reason; if it's offensive, a repeat of a previous post (Redditors are very loyal to original content), or just lame, you can click the "down" arrow to "downvote" it. This has an astonishing effect: the better or more important a post is, the more upvotes it gets (and vise versa), which then lands it higher and higher on the front page, so more people see it, who then upvote it, and the cycle goes on. The most popular posts get thousands and thousands of upvotes, and in turn are seen by everyone who visits the site (the first thing you see when you visit reddit.com is the top of the front page, which contains the most-upvoted posts). On the other hand, if a post gets a bunch of downvotes, it is rightly seen by almost no one and disappears quickly. Internet Justice.

3. Commenting: The real gold mine of Reddit isn't always in the posts themselves; there's always a section where you can comment on the post, and this is where your mind can really get blown. The Internet gives commenters a bad name: the picture that gets conjured up is one of an angry, anti-social and condescending "troll" who, thanks to online anonymity, spews out the most vile and hate-filled rants, designed to make you cry and find the closest therapist. Not so on Reddit. Those who comment on Reddit, in general, do so to: A) Fact-check what the post says, so everyone reading it doesn't get whipped into a frenzy for no reason; B) Give support to the poster, who may be looking for advice or someone with whom to share the pain or anger; C) Intelligently disagree, argue, or (when necessary) ridicule a post that is a hoax, inflammatory, or just mistaken. So do yourself a favor and click on the comments of, say, an apparently-juicy news article-- it may just re-instill your hope in an intelligent humankind.

4. All That Stuff You Don't Get: Listen, there are going be a lot of posts that you click on and just not understand at all. In fact, some days it may happen more often than not. I'm not going to try to explain in detail what all these pictures with words on top of them are, or what they're referencing. The short answer is they're called memes (see my Glossary for more information)-- they're basically an inside joke referencing something in popular culture, and the more you're exposed to them, the more you'll understand and get the joke. But if you don't, just move on to the next post. Because the stuff you'll actually care about probably won't be the memes; it'll be the breaking news, information on U.S. and world affairs that you won't find anywhere else, cries to action ("Occupy Wall Street" and the fight for online privacy were kindled on Reddit), and little-known facts that will amaze and delight you.

Well, you made it through! Now that you've graduated from Reddit 101, go forth and explore this strange new world. Be delighted, be outraged, be in-the-know, and if you're not careful, lose half a day clicking on links. Trust me, it's addicitve. Oh, and what about that whole cats thing? It's simple: People who spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet just really like cats. I mean, they're just so cute!

Posted on May 4, 2012 .
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