A random day in the life of technology that should just be better

It suddenly dawned on me that not a day passes where the technology we're using, or trying to use, doesn't frustrate us in some way. When I say "we're," I'm referring to me and Matt Conner who sits about 3 feet away from me.

It suddenly dawned on me that not a day passes where the technology we're using, or trying to use, doesn't frustrate us in some way. When I say "we're," I'm referring to me and Matt Conner who sits about 3 feet away from me. For the rest of what you read, bear in mind that I really have no idea what's going wrong. If I think I know what the problem is, it's really a hunch. Many ZDNet readers think I have all seeing all knowing insight into why something like their second USB port only works for 10 minutes after boot up. I have no idea. But, rest assured, I get equally frustrated with this stuff that should just work better.

When Matt isn't working cameras or microphones for recording videos and podcasts, he's editing or publishing the final products. And when he's not doing that, he's testing gear and and other ideas that could one day be boilerplates for how things are done company-wide at ZDNet and its parent CNET Networks. The reviewcasting we're doing is one example. Where WebEx is mentioned here, I give some hints on how, by piping demos into our video studio, we might be able cover (in video) more software and Web services without forcing the developers of those products to come to us, or us having to go to them. Figuring out how to best do this takes a bit of ingenuity. That's where Matt comes in.

But when you're living on the bleeding edge as we often do (and even when we're not), we run into all sorts of unexpected road blocks. We know we're not alone. My inbox alone is filled with complaints (most of which I'm unable to reproduce) from ZDNet readers who are having trouble with their tech and can't find help. Why the hell doesn't this stuff just work the way we expect it to?

One of the great things about Apple's MacBookPros is their built in Webcams (the iSight camera). When used in combination with Quicktime Pro, you can create astonishingly good video. The specs for the iSight camera are impossible to find (let me know if you know them). But, the results speak for themselves. The optics are great. The camera responds well to a variety of lighting conditions and QTPro strikes the right balance of quality and compression when exporting recorded video to a file that might have to be passed around. In fact, when our regular camera broke, we used the MacBookPro Webcam/QTPro combination to record the only video I've published on ZDNet using that tech, and internally here at CNET, we were pretty stunned by the resulting quality.

Now, we're looking into using the Webcam idea for other videos we're working on. But not everyone who will be recording them has access to a MacBookPro (I'm the only one and it's Matt's MacBook). So, we're looking to produce the equivalent of that combination in Windows (what the others have). Naturally, we thought we could do it with QuickTime Pro for Windows and a third party Webcam. Not. Unlike its OS X-based cousin, QTPro for Windows has no record feature (*sigh*). It would have been nice to standardize on one solution across platforms. So much for logical plans.

Now, we're looking at a combination of USB-based Webcams and video capture software that's capable of producing the quality level (and H.264 compatible MPEG-4 format) that we're getting from the MacBookPro. So far, we're not having much luck. We're trying a Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000 with a limited amount of luck because most of the software that records from a Webcam (evenMicrosoft's) apparently stinks when compared to QTPro for the Mac. Right now, we've got the LifeCam paired with a demo version of muvee's AutoProducer and, in between the tests that are working, AutoProducer is crashing our test system (an AMD Turion-based Acer Ferrari running a copy of Windows XP that's clearly over-working the processor the minute any video encoding starts).

While all this is taking place behind me on Matt's desk, what's going on on my desk is just fodder for more aggravation. Is it me, or, when Windows XP realizes it needs to restart itself to finish installing an update, does the machine get slower and slower with each subsequent election of "Restart Later" from a dialog box that you can't make go away permanently? For no particular reason, my machine ground to a halt today. I'd press ALT-TAB to switch between applications. For some apps (Outlook, Firefox), the title bar would come up but the rest of the screen would be white and multiple depressions of ALT-TAB just filled the system's pipeline with tasks that the system clearly wasn't prepared to handle.

I really didn't want to lose my place on all those browser tabs (particularly the one with the eBay auction that was ending in 10 minutes....sometimes, it takes longer than that just to get my computer restarted). So, I took a break in hopes that my system would catch it's breath (which it did). But it was still excruciatingly slow. I made sure Google Browser Synch was in tune with all the open tabs in Firefox, shut down, and things are back to normal now. One thing I've noticed over time when it comes to these slowdowns: if I click on links in e-mails in Outlook, one thing that sometimes works in terms of clearing that congested behavior is to close the entire instance of Firefox that contains the browser tab that was spawned from Outlook. I don't know why. It's just that's what works.

Speaking of boot-up times, I suddenly realized that any cell or smartphone that can't make a call within seconds of being powered up (the Motorola Q gives you enough time to do a couple of sets of curls with your office dumbbell) is problematic, particularly in the case of an emergency. For example, suppose Cujo chased you into your car and you only have seconds to call 911 before he breaks the window and eats you?

Back to eBay, have you ever noticed how, when it sends you an HTML-based e-mail about the nearly-ended auction on an item that you're watching, it can't get the current price right? With whatever minutes to go are left on the auction, it looks like I can get that Yamaha electric keyboard for a steal at $15.50. But when I get to the actual auction page (a process that, from Outlook to Firefox spawns one of those Firefox tabs that seems to bog my system down), it's $102. Time wasted (and these things are supposed to make me more productive)?