September 19, 2007

Alternatives to Microsoft Office by Danny Gorog

Microsoft Office is a suite of productivity applications that let you perform common tasks like produce documents, spreadsheets and presentations. While Office is usually bundled with new machines buying it as a stand-alone product can be very expensive. That's why you should consider other alternatives before you make your decision.

One free alternative is called OpenOffice. OpenOffice is available as a free download from www.openoffice.org. It runs on all platforms (Mac, PC and Linux) and can talk the same language as other office suites, including Microsoft Office. That means you can exchange files, including those with .doc, .ppt or .xls extensions with others who are using Microsoft Office. As well as the regular office features, OpenOffice features also features a database program called Base and a program called Math that easily lets you create mathematical equations.

Another free alternative to Microsoft Office is called ThinkFree (www.thinkfree.com). Like OpenOffice, ThinkFree features a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications. ThinkFree is also compatible with Microsoft Office. Another nice touch with ThinkFree is the ability to save any ThinkFree document in to PDF format. You can do this with all the other packages as well but it requires installation of extra software. ThinkFree also offers ThinkFree Online which is an online version of its ThinkFree package and includes all the main packages.

Lastly, if you don't need a presentation package (like PowerPoint) then I suggest you try Google Documents and Spreadsheets. You don't need to download any additional software, just go to docs.google.com, sign in with a free account and start your document or spreadsheet. While Google Docs isn't a full featured word processor or spreadsheet program like ThinkFree Online I think it does most of the basic functions well enough, and you get the benefit of having all your documents backed up online all the time. Also, if you've already got a Google account you can access your docs by clicking the docs link at the top of any Google page.











Internet Media

If you're an Internet regular you'll know how much multimedia content is out there. Most of it plays nice with Quicktime or Windows Media Player, but often you'll find stubborn files that refuse to play with either. That's where VLC from VideoLan comes in.

VLC (available from http://www.videolan.org/vlc/) is a cross-platform media player and streaming server designed to play various audio and video formats, as well as DVDs, VCDs, and other streaming protocols. Because it's cross platform you can download a copy for Windows, Mac and Linux. VLC started as a student project at the French École Centrale Paris but is now a worldwide project with developers from 20 countries contributing to the code.

Using VLC is easy. Simply download and install it as you would any other program. When you are ready to play a media file click on the File menu and select 'Quick Open File' instead of 'Open File'. This gives you direct access to your hard disk where you can point to the file you want VLC to open. Once VLC has opened the file you can fast forward , rewind, play and pause like any other media player. VLC also lets you open multiple files at the same time, and presents you with a 'Playlist' in the Playlist window (select the Window menu and 'Playlist' to access this.)

VLC also supports 'skinning' - the process of changing the graphics interface to the program so you can customise it to suit your style. Skinning is supported in Linux and Windows but not Mac OS X at the moment.

I've been using VLC for a few years now and have generally been impressed with its performance. Its ability to open all the files I find on the Internet always astounds me. This sort of compatibility however comes with stability issues and VLC does suffer from the occasional crash. However, you can't argue with the price, and having the program ready to use when needed makes it an essential tool for any Internet surfer.

Sony. Experience more

At Sony's recent 'Experience more' expo the message from Carl Rose, Sony's MD was clear - The future is High Definition (HD), and the future is now. From the new line up of 1080i HD Bravias, HD Blu-ray players, Playstation 3, HD camcorders and laptops the High Definition experience is taking the market place by storm. Consumers thankfully, seem to be responding well, with sales of HD related categories representing over two-thirds of total spending, and increasing over 80 percent year on year.

The expo showcased over 1200 of the latest and greatest Sony products. This, coupled with their recent quarterly financial results, where profit doubled to a staggering US$554 million highlights why Sony are still a dominating force in the consumer electronics market.

The latest Benchmark released by Sony Australia reveals that Blu-ray is comfortable leading the HD DVD format in Australia. Of the nearly 6,000 HD movies sold in Australia in Q1 2007, 90.8% were in the Blu-ray format. With the release of the BDP-S300 Blu-ray player Sony intends to take it up a notch. While still on the pricey side ($1099) the S300 is $300 less than the first generation BDP-S1E player and puts Blu-ray hardware in reach of the consumer. With the number of Blu-ray titles doubling by Christmas 2007 and the S300 capable of up-scaling your existing DVD titles a Blu-ray player might be on the top of the your wish list.

Sony are also making a big play in the portable audio space by introducing a compact Bluetooth USB DVD mini system ($799). You can stream music to this system from your mobile phone by using the in-built Bluetooth connection. If you're already happy with your existing audio setup but would like Bluetooth compatibility Sony have also released a Bluetooth adaptor that supports the A2DP profile.

The top selling Bravia TV series has received an overhaul but the press couldn't keep their eyes off the prototype OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) displays. These displays comprise 'Super Top Emission' technology which generate better levels of brightness and high-resolution. The Connect team first saw OLED displays at the Samsung conference earlier in the year. With Sony on board the OLED train expect the technology to go mainstream in the near future.

Product Highlights

Vaios
The new Vaio series of laptops comprises the TZ18 ($4299) - the first notebook from Sony to incorporate a flash-based HDD (32GB), allowing for faster boot-up times and operating speeds. Other benefits include a reduction in read/write speeds for the system, better battery life and a reduction in weight.

The FZ18 ($3999) is the 'must-have' notebook for the HD enthusiast. With a built-in Blue-ray burner you can watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters, and then use your Blu-ray burner to archive up to 50GB of data on one disc.

Camcorders
Sony have just created the worlds smallest compact HD camcorder, called the CX7K. This state-of-the-art camcorder fits in the palm of your hand and records HD footage (with the AVCHD codec) on to Memory Stick media. At a mere 450 grams the CX7K can shoot continuously for six hours and comes with a 4GB Memory Stick PRO duo which stores up to 1.5 hours of full HD 1080i footage.

Along with the CX7K the SR8 features a built in 100GB hard disk that can record an incredible 38 hours of 1080i HD content. All new cameras feature Sony's latest 'Face Index' technology that uses face detection to search for 'people pictures'. There's also a new Film Roll Index that automatically breaks footage down into chapters for easy accessibility.

Cyber-Shot
The new range of T-Series Cyber-shot cameras all feature BIONZ advanced image processing technology which enhances processing speed and automatically optimises exposure and contrast settings for your pictures. As in the Camcorder range, Sony have included face recognition technology that recognises up to eight faces within the frame, and ensures they are always in focus.

The on-screen graphical user interface has also been improved and makes the process of taking great shots even easier, while viewing your shots on a full HD TV is made simple with integrated HD still image output.

iLife '08

iLife '08, released earlier this month is an upgrade to Apples media software suite and includes upgraded versions of iPhoto, iDVD, iMovie, Garageband and iWeb. iLife 08 ships free on all new Macs or costs $99 to upgrade. That probably makes it the best value Mac software on the market today.

iPhoto, iLife's photo management software has received a major overhaul and introduces a new feature called Events. According to Apple, users take an average of 50 photos per event (birthday parties, weddings, etc.) and have around 5000-6000 photos in their libraries. Grouping photos into events means you only have to sort through 100 events rather than 5000 individual pics to find the one you are looking for.

Events make managing a large number of photos easier. However, if you're already comfortable using albums these still function as well. Apple have also beefed up the editing tools in iPhoto 08 and it's now possible to apply colour corrections to a group of photos rather than one at a time. iPhoto '08 also simplifies sharing your photos with family and friends through the new .Mac Web Gallery feature that gives users the ability to create rich Web 2.0 sites with a single button.

iMovie '08 is a complete overhaul of iMovie '06 and is a new paradigm in video editing. iMovie is aimed at users who want to make a simple video quickly. It my tests it worked a treat, cutting the time to make a ten minute video of my family holiday by half. iMovie '08 also introduces support for the latest range of AVCHD video cameras and lets you send your finished videos direct to YouTube.

Garageband, iWeb and iDVD also received minor updates that add polish to the suite entire suite and make it a must for any Mac user. For more information on iLife '08 go to here.

The case for Flash memory

In case you hadn't noticed, the IT world is in the middle of a fundamental industry shift that will seriously effect all of the gadgets and computers you buy in the future. It's not, as some would answer the gradual move away from Windows to other platforms like Mac OS X and Linux, but the shift from spinning media (like hard drives and CD/DVD's) to Flash based media.

Hard drives store information on spinning disks. The disks (or platters) are mounted on a spindle and are read by a electro-magnet assembly (or head) that moves across the platter at high speeds. While hard disks are very common, have large capacities and are a cheap medium for storing computer data they are notoriously unreliable, heavy and consume more than their fair share of power.

The alternative, and one that you'll be seeing more and more of in the future is called Flash based memory. You've probably already got some Flash media at home - in fact, it's already ubiquitous. Flash memory is used in digital cameras, mobile phones, USB memory sticks, and even in the latest line of iPods.

The reasons are obvious. Flash memory is silent, doesn't consume much power, and is a lot smaller than a hard disk. It's also more resilient to knocks and damage which means your data will be safer for longer.

As more and more devices begin to use Flash media expect prices to tumble. In fact, next year, Toshiba plan to release a 32GB Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) card and the newest iPod Touch comes with 16GB. At this rate, Flash memory will be cheap and small enough to rival the largest hard drive within a few years.

If you are in the market for a new laptop you can already buy them from Sony and Toshiba with flash-only based hard drives. These new laptops, while still very expensive are the lightest and quickest on the market and are trail blazers for where the industry is heading.