My experience, as a consumer, with a wide variety of products and services. We're all looking for good value for our hard-earned dollars, or even for easily-earned dollars. My hope is that my experiences may help a few of you make informed buying decisions.
Click on the rating to view the full review.
5 Stars = Highly Recommended
4 Stars = Recommended
3 Stars = Recommended with Reservations
2 Stars = Not Recommended
1 Star = Not Worth Considering
0 Stars = May Be Hazardous to your Health
Vizio XVT553SV 55" LCD Television
A lot of people think of me as a gadget person. There's some truth to that, but I don't have a high turnover rate. I usually buy something that I like and will continue to like, and use it until it's either broken or seriously outdated. When my Samsung DLP broke for the second time, I was ready to replace it with an LED-backlit LCD TV. Even though Samsung makes excellent LCD TVs, I was inclined to buy a different brand because of the extremely poor support they had for their DLPs. Five years after I spent over $3,000 for that set, Samsung stopped making the parts and couldn't even help to properly diagnose the problems it was having. So, time to move on.
It's a good time to buy an LCD display. The technology has matured quite a bit and prices have become quite reasonable for the larger displays. LCD is the current king of the hill in displays. Plasma, although still being produced, lost the war because LCDs overcame plasma in every way: picture quality, price, longevity, size, power consumption and weight. I recall an acquaintance buying a 50" plasma display in 2004 and paying over $12,000 for it. This Internet-enbabled 55" LCD display has a retail price of about $2,100 and can be found for about $1,600. Last year's fluorescent backlit 55" LCDs can be purchased on sale for about $1,000.
LCD displays are available with two types of backlighting: fluorescent and LED. Displays with LED lighting can be found in backlit and side mounted models. While LCDs with fluorescent backlighting can provide excellent picture quality, LED backlighting is the better way to go. LEDs use less power, typically look better and should last much longer. Potentially, they give much better black levels than fluorescent backlighting. Sets with side mounted LEDs need light guides to move the light to the back of the panel. These sets are thinner than back mounted LEDs, but the edge in quality still seems to go to the backlit LEDs.
Because many discreet LEDs are used (instead of a few fluorescent panels), their output can be adjusted to improve black levels. They use very little power and these sets run pretty cool. I would be surprised if the Vizio uses much more than 100 watts most of the time. That's pretty good for a 55" screen. After running it for a few hours, the back of the set is barely warm to the touch. Nice!
I'm going to discuss the Vizio from several points of view: picture quality, menu system (usability), physical parameters, and Internet access and Web apps. Newer TVs are starting to integrate Internet access into the sets. This is a good thing, but not as sophisticated as attaching a computer or an Apple TV to your set.
Vizio includes 80211.n wireless access, Netflix and Pandora integration and several other Yahoo Web apps and services, including Facebook and Twitter. How useful is it to have Twitter running on a side pane on your TV? I guess it depends who you ask and whether or not they have an iPad, too. The setup is simple, but I'm used to adding devices to my network. If you know your wireless router's WPA password and the name of your network, you'll have no problem getting it up and running in a minute or two. I found the wireless performance to be excellent. I'll discuss it in more detail a little later, but Netflix movies stream HD video without a hiccup; it was a revelation. My only complaint about the Netflix interface is that you can't search by title, but you can access everything in your instant queue and scroll through many different genres of available films and television shows. As far as I can tell, Netflix is streaming at 720p at a minimum. To access Facebook and Twitter apps, you'll obviously need to know your username and password. If you're fortunate enough to have Ethernet cabled throughout the house, you can just plug the Ethernet jack into the back of your Vizio.
The Vizio's picture setup is integrated into the Web apps menu that scrolls across the bottom of the screen. This is a good arrangement. One single menu system allows you to access the apps and the TV's setup menus.
The Vizio has an excellent picture. The image is bright and the colors are true to life. It keeps up with the fastest action without smearing and the noise levels are low. Black level deserves some discussion. One of things that made plasma screens better than LCD about five years ago was the black level. That is the difference in levels between the whitest whites and blackest blacks. Plasma screens only display pixels that relit. With LCD, the backlight is on all the time and pixels that are not displayed are blocked out. Because of light leakage around the crystals, blacks were not true blacks. I read a couple of reviews about the Vizio that said that its black levels are mediocre. That is true -- unless you use Vizio's Smart Dimming setting (it may be the default). I experimented with the settings and found that raising the brightness level a bit and turning on Smart Dimming resulted in a bright picture with velvety blacks in dark scenes. I'll do some more experimenting, but I'm so pleased with the picture that I'll probably leave it this way. I'm not an LCD expert, but I suspect that all of the manufacturers use something similar to Vizio's Smart Dimming. The way it works is that it separates the LEDs that provide the backlight into zones and lowers the light level for those zones that are displaying a mostly dark picture. This couldn't be done with older LCD TVs with fluorescent backlights. I've read a couple of complaints about halos around white areas on black backgrounds, things like screen credits. I did notice this affect, but it was slight and only noticeable occasionally. At any rate, the technology is still developing, but Vizio can provide software updates to the TV over the Internet if they improve the algorithm.
Vizio's LCD has a very wide viewing angle. I walked across the room, pasting in front of the television and saw very little picture variation. With a large 55" screen, you are more likely to have a group of people watching with you from time to time and all of your guests will be able to enjoy the show with the wide viewing angle.
The XVT553 has a native resolution of 1080p, which is as good as it gets today. It will handle conversion of other resolutions to display properly. If you're feeding your signal through a modern home theater receiver, then everything is being converted in the receiver for you.
I originally watched Avatar at the local Imax, which is as good a picture as you could possibly get. I viewed the Avatar DVD to see how it stacked up. Except for it being about 50' smaller than the Imax screen, it compared very well. Subtle colors were rendered faithfully and sharply by the Vizio.
The Vizio's picture controls are fairly intuitive. My only problem was that there are several proprietary features and I didn't know if they should be enabled or disabled. Since you can see the picture side my side with the controls, it's at least easy to compare the difference with and without those features.
The Vizio's remote is a cut above most others in one way, but Vizio should have gone a little further. The remote can control the TV with both IR and Bluetooth. The remote has a slide-out keyboard, like many mobile phones, and the remote uses the Bluetooth connection for the keyboard. You can use the keyboard to enter text in Web apps, or you can use a typical onscreen keyboard where you have to use a cursor to get to each letter.
The remote does not have backlighting, a significant omission, since you often use the remote in the dark. It's not macro programmable either. It is supposed to be able to control other home theater components, but that functionality is limited. At any rate, it's a step in the right direction. The remote's layout is mediocre. The buttons are all the same size and not organized in the most useful manner. I just wish that Vizio had included a true programmable remote with backlit keys.
My Vizio is connected to my home theater system, so I don't listen to the television's internal speakers. They are probably fine, but I've never heard television speakers that I would consider good. There is an optical out port for audio. I connected my DVR and a Blu-ray DVD player to the Vizio's HDMI ports with the digital audio out going to my receiver. This way, TV, DVDs and Netflix all send their audio output to the receiver, which is how it should work. Alternatively, if you have a receiver with HDMI ports, you can simply feed the TV with a single HDMI cable. My Yamaha receiver was released just before Yamaha included HDMI ports. It's an excellent receiver in every other respect, so i'm in no hurry to replace it. The current setup works fine.
The Vizio has an internal tuner if you are using an external antenna to pick up local channels. If not, that won't make much difference to you.
The Vizio has five HDMI inputs (four in the back, one on the side), one component (RGB) input, a composite input and a VGA input. It has both an analog and a digital (optical cable) sound output for your home theater.
I give the Vizio five stars, meaning that while not perfect, it's excellent. It has an excellent picture, very good Internet features (especially Netflix and Pandora) and the price is very good for a Internet-enabled television with this picture quality. If you want the thinnest and most stylish television as a focal point of your room, you'll want to buy an edge lit television. Otherwise, the 3" deep Vizio XVT553SV is an excellent choice.
HP OfficeJet 5610
If you are looking for an inexpensive all-in-one printer that is OS X compatible, look no further. It prints, sends and receives faxes, copies and scans. The 5600's inkjet printer prints in black and white or color and can print 4x6 borderless photos. It ships with a 3-color cartridge and a black cartridge, but an optional 6-color cartridge supposedly prints even more lifelike color. You can fax manually from the printer itself or fax from within any application from your computer.
Most all-in-one printers that I've seen are only partially compatible with OS X. They print, but often cannot scan or fax from the computer under OS X. The 5610 ships with the HP Device Manager, which handles all of these tasks with aplomb.
Setup was smooth. I did encounter a glitch. At first, the 5610 didn't seem to fax from the computer. A call to HP's very proficient technical support team solved the issue. The fax driver for the printer wasn't completely installed by the installer. That was quickly corrected and faxing proceeded smoothly. This isn't stripped down software that HP ships for OS X. It's full-featured and well-designed, with a clear and attractive interface. The scanning software, for example, automatically detects the size of the document on the scanner glass and limits the scan to the borders of the document.
The OfficeJet 5610 sells for about $100. Print quality is good, but falls short of excellent. That's true for both black and white and color printing. Scan quality is good, but don't expect to use this as your primary scanner if you're a professional graphic designer. These aren't complaints, just the realities of its capabilities. There are bound to be tradeoffs when you push that much functionality into an inexpensive device with a small footprint. This unit is designed for a home office or small office. The specs say that it's designed for printing 1,000 pages per month or less. The paper tray holds a maximum of 100 pages and the output tray holds a maximum of 50. That's fine for my usage. I send larger print jobs to a small laser printer. The 5610 interfaces to the computer with a USB cable. and an Ethernet interface is not available. The 5610's front panel has a clear layout and it's easy to control all printer's functions.
Here's my bottom line on the 5610: HP's technical support is superior to what you get from most companies and that's a big plus. HP has many years of experience making quality printers and it shows, even in a model near the bottom of their line of office printers. The OS X software drivers aren't an afterthought. It's quality software that works properly. The 5610 does what you expect and does it well, but not perfectly. While print quality is acceptable, it could be better, particularly for text. Scan quality is pretty good, but may not do the job when you need a very high quality scan. Regardless of its imperfections, HP packs a lot of functionality into a compact and inexpensive multi-function device. Fairly highly recommended.
Parallels Desktop for OS X
Parallels Desktop allows your Mac to run Windows XP (and other operating systems) alongside OS X on your Mac. I'm not going to do an in depth review. I will simply say that it works and it works well. The only software I have found that is not yet supported are programs using high-speed 3D graphics. Parallels' latest release features Coherence mode. That allows you to run Windows programs alongside OS X programs without having to switch into the Windows environment. Parallels' speed is quite good. It seems to run software nearly as quickly as it would run on a dedicated PC. Parallels supports other operating systems, like Linux variants, as well as Windows. It installs easily, the documentation is very good and the performance is excellent. Parallels is highly recommended.
Dymo stamps are convenient, because you can print postage from your home or office, and can save you money, too. Dymo, well-known as a manufacturer of thermal label printers, produces a label for printing postage. Their software is cross-platform, with versions for both Mac and Windows. The Mac version is Universal, meaning it will run natively on Intel-powered Macs. You set up an account with Endicia.com using your credit card information, and can then add as little as $10 in postage to your account. The software allows you to print postage in any amount and has built-in support for electronic postage scales, if you have one. There is no premium charged for the postage, but you do have to pay for the labels. My Dymo LabelWriter Duo came with a roll of 200 labels, so that will last me for a while. The reason I said you can save money with Dymo Stamps is that if you need to print an $.87 stamp, you can do it, and don't need to put three $.39 stamps on an envelope. It also eliminates the need to drive to the post office for a sheet of stamps. This product (and service) brings most of the features of a postage meter to the desktop without the expense.
I do wish it were possible to print custom designs on the Dymo labels. This is a business-oriented product, but many businesses would want to be able to print a vanity stamp on their outgoing mail. Endicia has a service that prints full color stamps with your uploaded artwork, but it costs about $.50 per stamp for the privilege. That may be worthwhile for wedding invitations or holiday cards, but certainly not for paying the electric bill. This is a well-conceived and well-implemented product and a good value.
For my dollar, this is the best notebook/organizer on the market. Luckily, there is a version available for types of budgets and tastes. This system was originally developed by Rollabind. They produce their own version of the product and also license it to a few other companies. Levenger sells upscale versions in fine leather in 3 sizes: Letter size, Junior, and Mini.
What makes it so useful? First, The pages slip on and off a series of rings. These rings are as big or as small as you need. The notebooks can fold over flat and are easy to fit almost anywhere. Punches allow you to use your own paper, even ringed notebook paper with a Rollabind-style binder. The rings are solid, with a small lip around the circumference. The paper, with its small anchor-shaped perforations, slip over the rings.
The Levenger product is upscale, but they also sell plastic covers to use with the system. Staples sells a faux leather (I've only seen photos on their Website, so I don't know how they looks and feel) and a clothbound version (search for "rolla notebook" on their Website). The clothbound version, for only about $10 (leather is $12), is a good deal. The notebooks have a nice, traditional look to them in two-tone bindings. They include a few extras, like a ruler, page protector and organizer. Levenger, who sells a $100 version of this notebook, ought to throw in a few useful accessories. The ruler is particularly useful, as it can also act as a bookmark. Rollabind sells only plastic covered notebooks. These are excellent for school and come in several colors. I prefer the corporate black and gray. These plastic covers are also good for inexpensive, archival storage of a project.
Incidentally, there is a similar product from Europe (Atoma) with a US distributor (Myndology). Atoma has a wide selection of attractive notebook styles, but they are not compatible with the Rollabind system, so you wouldn't be able to mix and match, but it does offer another similarly-priced alternative.
I'm very pleased with the Rollabind/Circa system, especially since the product is available to fit every budget. Highly recommended.
Logitech Wireless Music System for iPod
Logitech's Wireless Music System for iPod is a surprisingly good product. There are two pieces: A receiver plugs into the stereo jacks of your audio system and the transmitter which plugs into the headphone jack of your iPod. The iPod, in effect, becomes it's own remote control. Pushing a small button on the transmitter causes it to pair with the receiver, and in a few seconds music is flowing to your audio system. Because it is RF-based, you don't have to worry about line-of-sight communications. The transmitter uses a rechargeable battery. Interestingly, a single transmitter can pair up with multiple receivers and can stream music to up to 10 rooms. I've never tried this because I only have a single system, but may purchase a second receiver for my workout room. The sound quality is excellent. As far as I can tell, there is no degradation from listening to music on the iPod itself.
Belkin TuneBase for iPod
The Belkin TuneBase for iPod is well-made, looks good, but performs poorly. It's an iPod FM transmitter for the car. Inexplicably, it doesn't cover all of the FM band, leaving out 87.9 at the low end, the frequency most likely to be available. Even though it receives its power from the car battery, its power output is so low, there is nearly constant static and noise overwhelming the signal when in use. (Updated Information: I found that if you adjust its position carefully, and position it close to your body, which can act like an antenna, it will provide a somewhat better signal). I live in an area with a lot of FM stations, so there aren't many clear channel. If you live in a more rural area if the country, you will probably get better results. My Griffin iTrip nano, which is powered by the nano itself, performs better than this unit. Why, you might ask, did I buy the TuneBase when I already had the iTrip. I'm planning on taking a long drive, and the iTrip doesn't keep the iPod's battery charged like the TuneBase. The other reason was that the cost was $0.00 after rebate (including shipping). That's also the reason I'm not going to return it. Another cautionary note, Belkin says the TuneBase is only compatible with the iPod Mini and the first generation of the iPod nano.
Sandvox Web Page Software
I'm using Sandvox, from Karelia Software, to generate this Website. It went through some growing pains, but has improved greatly in the past year. At his point, I recommend it to those of you looking for low maintenance website development that runs under OS X.