Houston We Have a Problem… 001 (09/09/06)


Flying with a Laptop

I will be visiting the US next week on business and I am concerned the safety of my laptop if there is another terrorist alert. Is there anything I can do to safeguard my computer if I can’t take it with me as cabin baggage?

Michael Daley, Chelmsford 


A. Unfortunately we are going to have to learn to live with the constantly changing security regimes at airports. If possible avoid taking your laptop. If it ends up in the hold there’s a chance you won’t see it again, or at least, not in one piece. Packing it in a sturdy case will improve its chances but assume that it will be examined and roughly handled so any critical data should be encrypted and backed up on removable media.


Laptops can be hired at most major airports or maybe your business contacts can provide you with a PC? The files and programs you need can be transported on recordable CD or DVD, which you can keep with you, but again make sure any important data is encrypted. Flash drives and memory cards are another convenient way to carry files and they fit easily in a pocket or wallet. Don’t forget you can also copy computer files to MP3 players and the memory cards used in organisers and digital cameras.


You could leave everything at home? Upload any data you’ll need to your personal web space or a secure online storage service, or set up your PC for remote access. This facility is built into Windows XP and in third-party applications like Laplink Everywhere.




Focus On Pixels

I want to replace my 2-megapixel pocket digital camera with something a little more sophisticated.  What features should I look for, and what is the acceptable number of pixels these days?

Chris Howe, by email


A. Most new budget and mid-range models have image sensors with between 5 and 8 million pixels. That’s plenty for non-professional use, delivering crisp images than can be cropped or enlarged without serious loss of quality. The other critical component is the lens, and the simple rule of thumb is bigger is better. The pop-out zooms used on a lot of compact models sacrifice performance for convenience so if you are serious about quality and flexibility an SLR type digital camera is the best option. The rest is mostly froth; some features and gadgets can be useful but the secret to taking great pictures is knowing where to point your camera, and when to press the shutter button, and no amount of technology can do that for you! 




LCD or Plasma?

I’m thinking of buying a large screen TV, which is best, plasma or LCD?

Gerald Huntley, by email


A. A couple of years ago I would have said plasma, but nowadays there’s very little to choose between the two technologies. LCDs are marginally better in brightly lit surroundings but cheaper or older models can suffer from image ’lag’, making fast-moving objects look blurry. Inch for inch plasmas are still marginally cheaper than LCDs, high-end models usually have better colour accuracy and a wider contrast range but it’s all highly subjective and in the end the best judges of quality are your own eyes.




Waiting for Windows Vista

I need to replace my aging PC; should I wait for Windows Vista or will Windows XP continue for the foreseeable future?

Angela Michaels, Durham


A. Vista won’t be ready until January 2007 at the earliest so don’t wait, but you should get a PC that is Vista ‘Premium Ready’; see the Microsoft web site for details. XP is going to be around for a few years yet; it’s stable and reliable, which is more than you can say for new and usually buggy operating systems, especially in the first year or so after launch. Vista has some novel features and it looks very pretty, but I see no compelling reason to switch until there are applications that do something you want, and with a Premium Ready PC you’ll be ready for when that happens.



Cassettes to CD

I would like to copy my collection of cassette tapes to Compact Disc before they become unplayable. I understand I can create audio CDs on my computer, though I have never actually tried it, but what extra equipment and software will I need to do the job?

Michael Porter, by email


A. It’s really easy, you will need a stereo minijack cable -- widely available from computer and hi-fi stores -- to connect your cassette player’s headphone or ‘line’ output to your PC’s line audio input. You will also need an audio recorder and editing program and I recommend Audacity, which is free, and Windows Media Player (version 10 or above), which may already be on your PC, if not you can download free it from Microsoft.


Once the tape player is connected to the PC set Audacity to record (use Line Input) and playback your tapes one at a time. After each recording you can remove any hiss clicks with Audacity’s editing tools. Export the finished recordings as ‘wav’ files to a folder on your PC then use the ‘Burn’ to audio CD feature in Windows Media Player to compile your recordings and record them to a blank CD.




© R. Maybury 2006 2808

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