iolo technologies announced today that it has been awarded a new patent from the United States Patent and Trademark Office for its ActiveCare® technology. ActiveCare, a unique system and method for proactively monitoring computer performance and automatically repairing and optimizing system configurations during idle periods, is one of the many industry-first innovations for the company recognized as the technological leader in computer performance and reliability.

The newly patented ActiveCare technology works transparently when a computer is idle and intelligently tunes the machine for peak performance without slowing it down, consuming vital foreground resources, or interrupting users with indiscriminately scheduled tasks or messages. A significant leap forward in proactive technology, ActiveCare uses a sophisticated method to sense when the computer is on but not being used and performs a battery of background system analyses that can then trigger specific associated optimization, maintenance or repair actions in real time to target and preemptively correct even slight degradations in performance or stability. If the computer user initiates any other tasks during that time, ActiveCare silently terminates any active processes and full control is returned to the user. By only running when a computer is idle and only running the optimizations and repairs that are specifically needed in real-time, ActiveCare solves the problem of ineffective and obtrusive schedule-based maintenance, which by design fails to proactively resolve problems as they occur, while representing the ongoing hassle of foreground workflow interruptions.

“The ActiveCare approach has truly revolutionized PC maintenance for the millions of people who rely on iolo to keep their computers running like new. This new patent once again affirms iolo’s commitment to technological innovation and leadership in performance software,” said Noah T. Rowles, iolo technologies’ founder and CEO and co-inventor of the patent.

Many of us have a relationship with our computer that is best expressed by the Righteous Brothers’ song, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” When we first bought our shiny new system it was so much faster than our old computer and we loved it. But a year later, it boots slowly and performance is sluggish.

This year  Clean Out Your Computer Day (the second Monday in February) falls on Valentine’s Day providing that extra opportunity to rekindle the technological romance.

Some of us old-timers used to periodically reformat our hard drives and reinstall everything. Or we’d install a new larger hard drive, install a fresh operating system, and transfer data at our leisure.  But with the number of applications we use today, reinstalling from scratch takes so much time that it really is a painful last resort.

There are some simple things you can do to boost your PC performance.  Uninstall software you’re no longer using, do your best to reduce the number of applications that run in the background, defragment your hard drive, and clean up your desktop. (Many people don’t consider that, in order to show you the desktop icons, your computer has to read some information about each file.)  However, a lot of performance issue have much deeper roots, including the Windows registry, broken shortcuts, and temporary files in hidden and system folders.

I’ve tried a variety of different tools to address Windows PC performance issues, and the one I use on all my PC’s is iolo System Mechanic.  There’s no secret to why they continue to win the #1 spot in magazine reviews and receive raving reviews – they live, eat, and breathe PC performance.

iolo also has a great article on their site that is near and dear to my heart entitled, “Letting go of computer clutter.”

iolo is offering their product at 50% off until Feb 25, 2011 at midnight PST. That works out to US $25 for a one-year licence for every PC in your home. They also offer a fully functional free trial.

So if you’ve lost that loving feeling with your PC, take some time on Monday to give it a good cleaning.

[Disclosure: Over the years I have purchased iolo products and they have also provided me with free copies for editorial review. My endorsement is based upon my experience with the product. I do not receive any compensation if you purchase the product.  And yes, I really run it on all my PCs, my wife’s PC, and our family computer.]

A New Look

We’re in the process of upgrading to a brand new look — please excuse the dust, and let us know what you think!

Happy New Year, and welcome to 2011!  We’re in the process of making some significant changes at TLP, and we’d like to here from you!  Drop us a line, say hello, and let us know how we can make TLP more relevant to you.

This morning Adobe formally announced Acrobat X.  While there are several interesting new features, two captured my attention:

1) PDF Portfolios allow multiple documents (including different formats) to be placed into a single file for distribution.  If you need to send a client several related documents this allows you to put them together into a neat bundle rather than sending multiple attachments that they might open in any order.

2) While the release didn’t make mention of security, Adobe X includes a Protected Mode – a sandboxing technology based on Microsoft’s Practical Windows Sandboxing technique. It is similar to the Google Chrome sandbox and Microsoft Office 2010 Protected Viewing Mode. You can find more details on the Adobe Secure Software Engineering Team’s blog.

Protected Mode will also be included in the new version of Adobe Reader. The new software is expected to be available in November.

As a reviewer and technology enthusiast it’s always nice to see a good product get even better.  I reviewed the original SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger back in 2008 and was thrilled. It would have been perfect for my trip to Death Valley the previous year, on family camping trips, and anywhere else there might not be mobile phone coverage.  So I bought one and it has seen a lot of travel over the past two years. It’s reassuring to know that I can contact help from almost anywhere, and with the addition of their very reasonably priced US $30 per year roadside assistance package, my “help” button will no longer require my friends and family to look at a map and figure out what I might need.

For those not familiar with the original SPOT, it has four buttons.  Power, OK, 911, and HELP.  OK sends a predefined check-in message, along with the user’s current location, to a programmed list of email addresses or mobile phone numbers.  HELP either sends a different predefined message or contacts roadside assistance if you’ve purchased that option.  911 sends your current location and a distress message to their International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center, as it did in this case.

According to the manufacturer, “The new SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger is 30% smaller and lighter than the original SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker, offers additional custom messaging modes, and uses a state-of-the-art GPS chipset and satellite communications to provide enhanced reliability and performance.”  While I never considered the first model particularly large, SPOT 2, as many are calling it, is smaller in all dimensions and felt just bit larger than a deck of cards in my hand.

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Other noteworthy changes are covers over the emergency button (now labelled SOS instead of 911) and the HELP button.  Two other buttons, one to transmit an additional customized message, and one to activate the optional $50/year tracking option have also been added.

I had the opportunity to test-drive the new SPOT for a few weeks, and like with the previous model, I’m impressed. We didn’t have snow, so I couldn’t toss it in a snow bank like I did while testing the original model, but it’s obviously just as tough, and even easier to carry. And it works.

“Since its introduction, SPOT has helped in more than 450 rescues and sent millions of check-in and tracking messages around the world, making it an ideal personal safety device” said Jim Mandala, General Manager, Globalstar Canada. “Active outdoor enthusiasts such as hikers, back country skiers, snowmobilers, campers, pilots, fishermen, hunters and remote workers will appreciate the smaller compact size which makes it ideal for portable use. The improved ease-of-use will appeal to the family on-the-go or anyone who travels in remote areas or spends time outside cellular coverage.”

Whether you’re going on a vacation to somewhere hot and sunny, or staying around town to visit local attractions, you’ll want to remember every moment of the fun. Why not grab your favourite digital SLR camera to document your spring break with the utmost flair? Switch to Manual mode and get creative with your shots. Take time now to learn what your camera can do beyond Auto mode. Not sure where to begin? Follow these simple tips and make this year’s spring break photos your best ever.

1. Shoot in continuous mode – If you’ve ever had trouble taking crisp, clear photos of a constantly moving subject, a child or pet for example, try changing your camera settings to a continuous burst mode. Several frames per second will increase your chances of catching your subject just the way you want. If you have Subject Tracking, you’ll have an even greater array of features to help you capture that perfect shot.

2. Flash forward – Using a flash ensures all your photos are crisp and clear, especially in darker lit settings such as a dinner or dance party. And don’t stop there – be sure to use flash outdoors as well to help balance any dark contrasts.

3. Work with what you’ve got – Take advantage of your camera’s settings whether it’s a low-light sensitive capability such as a broad ISO range, or automatic setting selections for taking pictures in various environments. Learn the features your camera offers and use them to create impressive images you’ll be proud to put on display.

4. Shutter finger – The beauty of digital is the ability to review any photographs you take instantly and decide which you would like to keep or re-shoot. With this in mind, don’t hold back. Take more pictures rather than fewer and sort through them later. This will help you focus on the photo opportunities at hand, giving you a better chance of capturing that perfect shot.

5. Exposure is key – Any good photo has an intended balance to the amount of light used when the picture was taken. Experiment with your camera’s exposure settings, bracketing the brightness levels for different effects. Sometimes an over or underexposed photo can be a creative expression of an otherwise normal photograph. Just remember, when in doubt, underexpose – these images can be brightened later on, whereas an overexposed image won’t pick up all the details and not much can be done to correct it.

6. Get to know, be a pro – Take into account who or what your subject is. If you are photographing a person, learn what their personality is like and what they are comfortable with; if you are taking photos of an animal, you will need to know what its temperament is; and taking pictures of an object requires you to identify the best features to highlight. The more you learn and understand, the better you will be able to model your photograph in its best light.

7. Wherever you will go – Take your camera with you so you never miss a moment. When selecting a new camera, consider how you will transport it. If you select a smaller unit, this will be less of a concern, but if you purchase a larger, heavier camera with additional lenses and flash attachments, consider investing in a good camera bag to protect your equipment and make it more portable. When on foot, take advantage of a camera strap around your neck – many of today’s digital SLR cameras feature rapid start-up times, so you’ll always be ready if a picture opportunity arises.

8. The more the merrier – Challenge your skill level. Investing in a few accessories can make photography easier and help to produce better photos. A tripod can help to steady a shot, while additional lenses provide various zoom options, macro options, wide-angle, and more. Adding an external flash can make a photo more dynamic. Digital SLRs are great because they are customizable to every photographer’s needs.

9. Don’t forget to touch up – Make life easier by performing simple image corrections right on the camera before uploading them to your computer. This makes picture development a snap.

10. Have fun! Be creative – Get up high or down real low to capture that perfect shot, creating dimension, angles and a personal flare to all your photos. Develop your own style of photography to set yourself apart from the crowd.

Gregory Flasch is Advertising & Communications Manager in the Consumer Products Division of Nikon Canada Inc.

RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, NOT EMPIRES

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Up until last year, when things really got tough (fiscally and image wise), it was commonly felt that companies went through two types of management–one that could carry them through the tough start-up period and another that could run a successful enterprise.

The same group of people seldom managed the company through both phases of growth.

This past year, the line between the two management styles has become muddied. Especially with the added scourge of senior management dipping too deeply into the corporate well for their own good.

The survival mode of operation is forcing management to conserve their most precious resource: talented people.

By cutting back to a core group of talented, motivated people; management not only finds they can run “leaner, meaner and better,” but it is also a better organization overall, as a result of the changes.

Re-Assessing Positions, Priorities

Management has to assess what they are doing internally versus what they should be doing internally. Then they can determine what they should outsource.

Today, few manufacturers in the industry do much – or any – of their own production in-house.

In fact, many of them are essentially technology developers and marketers.

They buy cases from specialists; have boards and packages produced and stuffed by specialists; and purchase a complete range of components from specialists. Many like Dell, HP and Cisco never even take possession of the product.

Instead it is shipped direct to the channel partner or consumer.

This permits management to adapt more rapidly to sudden industry/marketplace changes. Technology and manufacturing can be changed almost overnight.

Management realizes that it takes almost no time at all to reverse-engineer even the most advanced technology, thus nullifying their perceived advantage. In addition, the company doesn’t need to be tied down to heavy investments in production equipment which has to be prematurely written-off and replaced.

More importantly, they don’t have to deal with the problem and expense of hiring, firing, training, retraining and retaining personnel.

Fixed assets not only lock companies into specific technology, they are quickly outdated.

Outsourcing permits maximum flexibility. It preserves capital and can often produce dramatic savings. In addition, it frees management to focus its energy on more pressing areas of

concern … like marketing and staying ahead of the competition to garner more customers.

Marketing Mind-Set Changes

In addition to examining their manufacturing functions, management has to look at their marketing communications activities.

Companies have been cutting their internal communications (ad/PR) staffs instead of expanding them. At the same time, the need for solid communications programs has grown.

Management is finding that a good agency can do more than simply provide advertising and/or public relations services. They are turning to them for total marketing and communications efforts.

The trend is a solid move toward creating marketing partnerships between the agency and the company rather than simply having the agency create ads, pump out news releases and compile mailing lists.

Partnership Key

Because of the fiercely competitive and rapidly changing environment, management is not only more cost-conscious; they are also more market-driven. To take advantage of as much of an

agency’s expertise as possible, management has found that they are sharing more of their strategic marketing plans with their agency so that they will be better and more effective partners.

Companies are finding that one of the key benefits of a partnership relationship is objectivity. The agency has to continually stress that customers buy products and services because they offer benefits greater than the cost of the goods and services. In addition, they buy from people, not companies. Few people buy solely on the basis of advanced technology.

Companies and agencies that have combined the efforts point out that while there are differences in the two disciplines, the purpose in either case is to communicate something to someone.

Communication, whether it is advertising or public relations, assists the company in selling something to someone … hopefully a lot of something to a lot of someones. The difference is that PR coverage has to be earned while advertising exposure must be paid for.

In addition, the new demands on the agency forces them to work harder for their fees. Agencies are offering new services because they know that a total communications plan is important to a company’s overall marketing effort. In addition, a totally involved agency enables the company to stay flexible and within budget.

While the partnership role provides greater opportunities for the agency, it also places more responsibility on them. If the agency is more involved with the client, they are also more accountable. The agency must serve as a facilitator in helping the company organize its thoughts. They make suggestions and recommendations on decisions that can have a major impact on the company’s success.

To provide this level of support and improve the partnership relationship, firms involve the agency in sales calls, sales meetings, distributor meetings and trade shows. The result of these additional activities is better-focused communications programs, activities and results.

While the debate continues to rage, firms that use their agencies for more simple publicity find that a single agency – a strong agency — doing more for the firm is not only worthwhile, but also very cost-effective.

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Both parties invest a lot of time and effort in the relationship. The partnership commits the agency to the client’s success. The partnership gives the client optimum freedom to change direction almost overnight. In a partnership, all of the parties concerned are familiar with and committed to the companies’ success and position in a highly volatile marketplace.

Happy new year and best wishes to you and yours for a happy, health and prosperous 2010!

While there are a variety of ways to get sound in and out of your PC, sometimes a simple way is the best.  One of the products that caught my eye recently is the CAD U2 USB Stereo Headphone with Microphone and the manufacturer was kind enough to send one over for review.

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The U2 combines stereo over-ear headphones with a gooseneck mic that sits to the side of your mouth, offering consistent sound pickup and minimizing popping and breath sounds.  When not in use, the mic rotates up against the headband, completely out of the way.

I tested the U2 on an HP notebook that I recently upgraded to Windows 7 64-bit.  The system recognized the USB device and installed drivers as soon as I plugged in the headset.  At first I experienced popping and crackling during audio playback, but as it turned out the issue had nothing to do with the U2 and installing an updated Windows 7-compatible chipset driver from HP resolved it.

While I’m by no means an audiophile, I do own a pair of high-end headphones and appreciate good sound. I was pleasantly surprised by the U2.  Music sounded great through the headset, and I’d have no hesitation using the mic to record a podcast or voiceovers for a presentation. I also tested the headset with Skype, calling other Skype users and regular landlines, and it worked flawlessly.

Podcasters should note that the U2 produces no sidetone and when recording audio (or using the headset for VoIP) you do not hear yourself through the earphones.  While you can tweak Windows to feed the mic audio back to the headset, the fact that audio has to pass through the USB device twice causes a small but noticeable delay. However, real-time monitoring simply can’t be done through USB or Firewire adapters – even PC recording solutions costing many times more than the U2 require that you plug your headphones into the analog stream. I personally didn’t find that this caused any difficulty during recording.

Overall, whether for podcasting, gaming, VoIP or just listening to music, the CAD U2 is simply hard to beat and easily blows away competing products costing two to three times its US $40 street price.

Choosing a camera is tough. Choosing a camera for someone else is even tougher. So with Christmas on the horizon, we’ll help you wade through the sea of cameras at your local retailer and narrow down the choices to a more manageable number.

The key to choosing a camera is to consider it a tool. Your challenge is not to find the perfect camera because it doesn’t exist. Instead, we’re looking for the best tool for the job. So to begin, we’ll divide the digital camera marketing into three categories: Pocket, Compact and SLR.

POCKET CAMERAS

Pocket cameras are ideal for those who want a small camera they can carry anywhere, anytime. This category of camera fits in a shirt pocket or a small purse. Due to their popularity, almost every camera manufacturer has at least one model in this category. Camera design involves sacrifice, and in a small camera this usually results in a short zoom range, a weak flash, and limited manual controls. Pocket cameras are therefore best for those seeking an automatic, “point and shoot” style camera. However, they are also a popular second camera amongst SLR owners for those outings where taking an SLR isn’t practical.

If you’re looking for a pocket camera, the best place to start is your local camera store. Prices and features vary, and the more expensive camera is not necessarily your best choice. While I generally refrain from recommending one brand over another, Olympus products really stand out in this category due to their water and impact resistant designs – both common causes of death in small cameras.

SLRs

On the other end of the spectrum are Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras. Buying an SLR is different than buying a pocket or compact camera primarily because of the interchangeable lenses. Many models are offered as a body (camera only, no lens) or as a bundle (body plus a lens). For beginners, purchasing a bundle is sometimes attractive, but in the long run it can be more expensive if one ends up upgrading the lens for a higher quality or larger zoom range. Of course your budget may be the deciding factor, but my general advice to the first-time SLR buyer is to put your money into the lens, not the camera body. A good lens will last you a lifetime, while the camera body, no matter how fantastic, will be outdated next year.

It is also important to understand that with an SLR, you’re not buying a camera. You’re buying a system. Over time you will probably acquire additional lenses and you’ll quickly reach a point where changing brands becomes prohibitively expensive. For that reason, it is important to consider the range of products that the SLR manufacturer offers. Canon and Nikon dominate the professional SLR market and offer a very wide selection of consumer products. Olympus also produce some great products, although their lens selection is not as extensive as Nikon and Canon. It also pays to consider what other members of your family shoot. For example, if your spouse has invested a number of Nikon lenses, buying a Canon might not make sense, and vice versa. As usual, your best bet is to begin at a local camera store that has knowledgeable staff.

SLRs are generally the best choice for those seeking high quality images, the flexibility offered by interchangeable lenses, and the speed required to photograph sports. They are also usually best if your goal is to take up photography as a part-time or full-time career. However, they’re also more expensive, heavier, and larger than cameras in the other categories. So before you purchase, make sure that the intended user is willing to carry it.

Compact Cameras

Between the pocket camera and the SLR lie a vast range of what I call compacts. Some are just slightly too large to fit a shirt pocket, yet are perfectly wearable on your belt, while others approach the size of a small SLR. There are so many cameras in this category that choosing one can be overwhelming. So to help you along, I spent several weeks testing the latest cameras, and here’s what I found.powershot_sx200is_black_angle

The Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, at 103.0 x 60.5 x 37.6mm, is by far the smallest camera in the group I tested, and some might argue that it fits in the pocket category. The SX200’s retracting lens includes a built-in cover so no lens cap is required to keep out dust. However, the shutter-like lens protector could easily be damaged by objects such as keys, so I’d still recommend a small protective case. Unlike many other cameras this size, the SX200 has a pop-up flash. The extra distance this creates between the lens and the flash helps to eliminate red-eye, and I found the flash quite impressive while testing in my living room considering its small size. Presumably to keep the cost and size down, the SX200’s LCD screen does not move and there is no optical viewfinder. Overall this camera handles well, produces nice 12 megapixel images on an SD or SDHC card, and includes full manual controls. I also enjoyed shooting video clips of the kids at 1280×720, 30 fps. My only complaint is that the tiny dimples on the back of an otherwise smooth case aren’t enough to get firm one-handed grip. You’ll definitely want a wrist strap on this camera to avoid dropping it.

I also test drove the Nikon Coolpix P90, Panasonic DMC-FZ35, Pentax X70 and Sony DSCHX1 — in alphabetical order if you’re wondering. Overall these four cameras have much more in common than they do differences. All four are approximately 2/3 the size of an average SLR, provide full manual controls, a pop-up flash, both an LCD display and viewfinder, and a 20x give-or-take optical zoom range putting them all solidly into the “super zoom” class. All were capable of producing good quality images under good conditions. Not quite SLR quality, but good enough that most people won’t notice the difference if you use the camera properly. And while I love my SLR, these relatively light weight cameras made them a joy to carry. So what are the differences?

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The Nikon Coolpix P90 ($450 street price) features a gorgeous 3” LCD that can be tilted as much as 90 degrees upward or 45 degrees downward. Being able to shoot from waist level or over your head increases the versatility of the P90. It also shoots video at up to 640×480 30fps. My single — admittedly minor — annoyance with the P90 is that Nikon has yet again providing a battery charger with a bulky AC cable. The charger and cable combined require much more space in a suitcase or backpack than do chargers by vendors that use a fold-out plug design.

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The Panasonic DMC-FZ35 ($500 street price) features a fixed LCD display and 1280 x 720 AVCHD Lite format (MPEG-4/H.264) movie capability. It includes a compact battery charger with fold-out blades that takes up far less space in your bag. Unlike most cameras that use a rotating selector or a playback button, the FZ35 has a small switch close to your right thumb that takes some getting used to, especially the first time you flip it by accident. However, overall this is a solid camera and the only real downside as compared to others in this class is the lack of a tilting screen.X70_cross-1

The Pentax X70 ($400 street price) was the least expensive of the group and didn’t have some of the features found in the more expensive models. The LCD display is fixed in place and the movie capability is more limited: 1280x720at 15fps or 84×640 at 30 fps. However, I found the zoom seemed faster than the others and strategically placed rubber pads result in a camera upon which you can get a solid grip. In many was the X70 reminded me of the old days with my K1000. A solid camera with few frills that does the job it was made to do, and not much more. Like Nikon, Pentax also needs to build a smaller charger with fold-out prongs.

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Sony DSCHX1 ($530 street price) was the most expensive of the four cameras. However, it offers a great tilting screen and movie recording up to 1440 x 1080 at 30fps. While the zoom speed did seem a bit slow, overall it was within what I’d consider a normal range for this type of cameras. The battery charger is small with fold-out blades, proving that Panasonic isn’t the only company who gets it. I really liked the Sony despite it being the most expensive of the bunch, but I found it annoying that the camera uses Sony’s MemoryStick format rather than the SD or SDHC cards that have become the defacto standard for consumer electronics. Both my netbook and notebook computers have SD card slots, meaning that I have to either plug the camera into the computer (and waste camera battery power when on the road) or carry an external card reader.

And now for something different

Over the past year a new class of camera has evolved to fill the gap between compact digitals and SLRs. Back in the film days, these were rangefinders, highly capable cameras that produced SLR quality images, but without the space-consuming mirror and prism.

There are currently two cameras in this class, the Olympus E-P1 and the newly-announced Panasonic Lumix GF1. (The GF1 was not available at the time of writing). Both cameras use the new “four thirds” format sensor and offer interchangeable lenses.

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The Olympus E-P1 is a solid camera with a metal case and a retro rangefinder look that just begs you to pick it up. There’s no optical viewfinder and no built-in flash, but the back-mounted LCD display gives you a live, through-the-lens view. The E-P1 offers automatic and manual exposure modes and also shoots video at up to 1280×720 at 30 fps. Olympus, known for using xD memory, wisely used standard SD/SDHC memory for this model, allowing high capacity cards.

I had the pleasure of testing the Olympus E-P1 with the bundled Olympus 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 lens (35mm equivalent zoom range of 28-84mm) and took it on a hot air balloon ride over Ottawa. Due to the relatively small body and neat lens design (the front of the lens retracts into the main lens housing when not in use), I was able to put the camera in a large jacket pocket for takeoff and landing.

I shot in RAW and the results were impressive. Olympus is known for their accurate colours, and the E-P1 is no exception. While I had no regrets about leaving my SLR at home, I did occasionally find the screen difficult to view in bright sunlight. Back on the ground I tried the camera’s continuous auto-focus mode, and I was a bit disappointed to find that it continuously hunts even when pointed at a stationary object like a tree. Hopefully Olympus will address that issue in an upcoming firmware release.

Overall, the E-P1 is a great option for those seeking high quality images without SLR size and weight. However, using the E-P1 requires more skill than an entry-level SLR, and the lack of an onboard flash will be an issue for some. So while I was very happy with my results, this camera is not the best choice for a beginner or as a general purpose family camera. However, if you’re an experienced photographer who understands the compromises involved, you should check this camera out.

Final words

No matter what kind of camera you’re looking for, the best place to start is a local camera store where experienced photographers can answer your questions. Other great sources of information include dpreview.com and you’re more than welcome to ask any questions you have at my photo site, MyPhotoSucks.com.

All of the cameras that I tested for this article were on loan from their respective manufacturer and were returned at the end of the review period. The Canon G11 was not available for testing at the time this article was written.

Nikon, Digidesign and Garmin have several things in common.  They all produce products that I’ve personally shelled out cash for.  They all produce high quality hardware that is as good, or better, than their direct competitors.  But yet I’m reluctant to purchase product from them again because, to be blunt, their software sucks.

My primary SLR has been a Nikon for many years, and while I used Nikon View (RAW image software) for a year or so, I’ll admit my first reaction to Adobe Lightroom was that it *had* to be better than Nikon View.  When I wanted a 35mm slide/negative scanner, I bought a Nikon LS4000.  It certainly wasn’t the cheapest, but hey, it was Nikon, and they knew something about achieving good image quality.

While the hardware lived up to my expectations, it took Nikon over a year to produce stable software.  In the interim, customers had to put up with nonsensical support recommendations like, “Don’t run any other software while scanning” – as if if was the customer’s fault that Nikon released software chock full of bugs. Now time has marched on, and Nikon has abandoned those of us who have upgraded to 64-bit operating systems.  It’s easy to understand why photographers would want to use a full 4 MB of RAM (or more) – but Nikon refuses to release 64-bit drivers. Ed Hamrick can do it, but not Nikon.

Digidesign is another example.  Their mbox and subsequent products were a huge hit with home recording enthusiasts, and their software worked reasonably well, other than the fact that they hobbled mobile users with a 3-inch long USB key. (The software only worked with their hardware, yet they felt it necessary to waste money and frustrate users with silly USB keys.)

Digidesign also abandoned users who dared to upgrade their operating system.  For the longest time Vista drivers were not provided, and then, grudgingly, 32-bit Vista drivers. If anyone needs lots of RAM in their PC, it’s someone doing multi-track audio recording.  But Digidesign steadfastly refuses to compile up 64-bit drivers.  My mbox has  become a book-end – and a reminder that Digidesign (owned by Avid) doesn’t stand behind their products.

Finally there’s my love-hate relationship with Garmin.  I have owned several Garmin GPSs.  One currently can be found on the dash of my vehicle, the other in my backpack.  I love Garmin’s rock-solid hardware, but when I start shopping for my next GPS I’ll probably look elsewhere — because their software sucks.

I recently needed to reinstall on my Vista PC, and doing so required that I begin with 4 or 5 year-old software.  Apparently Garmin takes the concept of an “upgrade” literally.  Until you install the old, you can’t install the new.  And since the uninstall doesn’t properly clean up the registry, it’s a painful process that includes installs failing with vague errors, Googling error messages, and ultimately uninstalling every piece of Garmin software on the PC and manually cleaning the registry.  A few hours later and some additional fighting with “unlock codes” and it finally works under Vista 64, putting it somewhat ahead of the Digidesign and Nikon software.

But usability?  Despite the cool new splash screens, Garmin MapSource looks like a high school visual basic project gone bad.  The GPS in my car can perform auto-routing.  I can type an address on the touch screen and it will give me directions. You’d think that I could easily plan routes for a multi-day trip on my PC and upload it to the GPS.  For example, the start and end addresses.  And I sort of can – by either making each destination a waypoint and invoking auto-routing on the GPS when required or letting MapSource build a route (collection of waypoints for the trip. You’d think that Garmin would understand that a trip has a start, end, and intermediate points.  Or that users might want to change the route displayed on the screen by perhaps dragging it to another road.  But the sad fact is that Google Maps is easier to work with, even if I have to print it and take a paper map with me instead.

It’s much harder to earn a new customer than keep an existing one. In these economic times it is unfortunate that some vendors still don’t get it. Having excellent hardware isn’t enough.  Customers also want great software and the ability to upgrade their operating system without loosing the use of your product.  If you don’t provide it, they’ll be looking at your competitors that do, and they won’t be back.