Tuesday, 16 December 2008

When to Upgrade Your Computer Hardware

Computer consultants build entire careers around advising

businesses when to upgrade their hardware. Should you go with the latest and greatest, or stick with tried and true? As with all business decisions, it comes down to a question of cost vs. benefit. But quantifying the costs and benefits of hardware can be difficult. Here are some factors to consider when you are agonizing over whether to upgrade.

The hidden costs of upgrading. The price tag of your new system isn't the only cost ? there is also the time, energy, and money to migrate your information to your new equipment.

If you're thinking of upgrading just so you can have the latest gear loaded with all the bells and whistles, stop. Unless you have a solid business case for upgrading, your money will be better spent elsewhere.

Stopgap measures. If it's bells and whistles you want, maybe you can add them yourself. Adding additional RAM ? or Random Access Memory, which is the memory that allows your computer to perform its tasks ? is a great way to speed up your system, and it's really simple, even for neophytes. Most RAM retailers, such as Crucial and TigerDirect, have online configuration calculators to tell you exactly which RAM your system needs. Once you get the right RAM, it's simply a case of opening your computer case and snapping it in place.

You can also add additional devices, such as CD drives and burners and additional hard drives, but these are a bit more complicated than the memory upgrade described above. If you can't perform the upgrade yourself and need to hire a professional, weigh the costs carefully. Once you factor in the cost of the parts and labor, you may be better off buying a whole new system.

When to upgrade. The rule of thumb should be this: Upgrade when the cost of not upgrading exceeds the cost of upgrading. New hardware should help you work faster and more efficiently. Or maybe you need to upgrade your hardware to run new software applications that will improve productivity. If that's the case, upgrading is your best bet. Similar situations include a broken PC, one that crashes regularly, or otherwise keeps you from doing the work you need to do. Clearly, in each of these cases, it will cost you more to put off the upgrade than to go ahead with it.

If you've crunched the numbers and find you really do need to upgrade, don't rush out to buy the coolest, fastest, priciest computer on the lot. The best way to put off the inevitable obsolescence of your next computer is to make sure it meets all your business needs.

Take a look, not only at your current computing needs, but also at what your future requirements might be. Will you need a full-featured database program in the future? Will you run memory-hogging graphics programs or other special applications? Doing a little research at this stage may just save you a lot of money down the road.

Buying Your Computer Equipment from an Office Supply Store

You can buy computer equipment from a number of places, including

mail order catalogs, Web sites, local computer retailers, electronics "superstores," and office supply stores. Each source offers its own advantages and disadvantages. When you order directly from a Web-only manufacturer such as Dell or Gateway, you get competitive prices as well as the ability to specify exactly how the vendor should configure your computers. When you buy from a local retailer, on the other hand, you might get better service and support from a company with whom you have a personal relationship.

Where do office supply stores fall on this spectrum? In many cases, you'll find a reasonable selection of computers at a good price. Many office supply stores have their own computer service and support departments, along with special services such as extended warranties and training classes. Most stores offer other types of office equipment, such as cash registers and copiers, giving you the luxury of one-stop shopping.

On the downside, many office supply stores treat computer sales as just one part of a much larger business that includes everything from PCs to paper clips. You may find that a store sells most of its systems in fixed configurations, which means that you'll pay more if you want to buy customized equipment — or have to pay for features you don't really want. In addition, some office supply stores can't offer the same level of service and support that you'll get from other sources.

When you decide where to buy your computers, remember that in today's intensely competitive market computer prices and configurations change almost weekly. Don't buy a computer anywhere until you've had a chance to shop around.

Enhancing Video for the Visually Impaired

Researchers are using algorithms that can better the picture quality for people with macular degeneration.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Brittany Sauser

Eli Peli, a researcher at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, is developing software that can enhance the quality of a TV image for people with visual impairments such as macular degeneration--a disease that makes images on the screen seem blurred and distorted.

Peli's algorithms increase the contrast of a picture over spatial frequencies that are easier for a visually impaired person to see. In his lab a remote control can be used to adjust the contrast on a 32 inch television screen connected to a PC, creating a specially-enhanced picture.

"It's simple," Peli says, showing me CNN, the movie Shrek and a basketball game all in split-screen mode. In each clip he points out the difference in resolution, even for a person with normal eyesight. In the image on the right, details like grass, flowers and a person's facial features are much clearer than in the one on the left. Peli, who is also a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, expects a grant from Analog Devices in the new year. This company has been testing his software and Peli says it is eager to build it into its hardware. He explains his work and demonstrates the system in the video below.

Video by Brittany Sauser

NASA's Future May Depend on Collaboration

An independent report addresses tough policy questions faced by the new administration.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
By Brittany Sauser
An astronaut is anchored on the Space Shuttle Endeavor's robotic arm and is preparing to be elevated to the top of the Hubble Space Telescope during a servicing mission in 1993. Credit: NASA

In a report called The Future of Human Spaceflight MIT's Space, Policy, and Society Research group has produced some clear advice for the next President regarding manned space exploration. The report addresses such pressing issues as the retirement of the space shuttle, use of the International Space Station (ISS) and strategies for reaching the moon and Mars.

A key message is the discrepancy between NASA's current funding ($17bn per year) and the ambitions outlined in President Bush's vision for space exploration from 2004. "Trying to do too much with too little is exactly what caused the last two shuttle accidents," says lead author David Mindell, a professor of engineering systems and director of the program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT. But a lack of funding is hardly a new problem for NASA. So perhaps the most significant aspect of the report is its call for greater international collaboration, most notably with China.

The report states that the U.S. needs to reaffirm its international leadership while remaining committed to international partnerships. Specifically, the MIT team says we need to begin engagement with China as this could yield "enormous" benefits for both sides. Cooperation, the report says, "could encourage the Chinese to open their space program and help end speculation about their intentions in space," adding that doing so could help avoid a potentially dangerous space arms race.

The comprehensive study comes at an ideal time for president-elect Barack Obama. Once he takes office in January he'll have just 100 days to determine the fate of the US space program, which is facing its biggest crossroads since the end of the Apollo era in the 1970s. (To complicate matters, the Orlando Sentinel is reporting that NASA administrator Mike Griffin is refusing to cooperate with Obama's transition, although Griffin has denied the accusation.)

The MIT report was written by engineers, policy analysts and even a former astronaut. It starts by defining primary objectives (those that can only be accomplished by having human beings in space and are worthy of the risks and costs) and secondary objectives (benefits that accrue from human presence but do not themselves justify the cost and risk). It also includes some specific recommendations for the new administration.

To start, it says the U.S. should continue flying the Space Shuttle until the ISS is finished, even if that slips somewhat past 2010. Retiring the shuttle after this date will mean relying on international partners, particularly the Russians, for transportation to the ISS but the report says we need to trust their commitment to the project.

Secondly, a "major question facing the new administration" is how to utilize the $100 billion space station. The report suggests that operations should be extended to 2020 and should support the primary objectives of exploration: "research in the physical sciences, life sciences, development of technologies to support moon missions and long duration Mars flights, and as a laboratory for space technology development." Already NASA is testing a water processing system, work-out equipment, and living quarters that will turn the ISS into a six crew vessel instead of a three crew one by May 2009.

For the moon and Mars, the report calls for a strategy that first establishes the size and duration of any U.S. lunar presence and balances this with reaching other destinations such as Mars. Overall, it argues that the policy should be more, not less, ambitious but it also makes a strong call for employing space robotics.

The report will be published in greater depth and detail by the American Academy of Art and Sciences in early 2009. Let's hope the Obama administration reads through the report carefully. Reportedly, the transition team has already "enthusiastically received" it.

Semantic Sense for the Desktop

A project brings Semantic Web technology to personal documents.
By Erica Naone
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

People naturally group information by topic and remember relationships between important things, like a person and the company where she works. But enabling computers to grasp these same concepts has been the subject of long-standing research. Recently, this has focused on the Semantic Web, but a European endeavor called the Nepomuk Project will soon see the effort take new steps onto the PC in the form of a "semantic desktop."

Those working on the project, coordinated by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), have been toiling for three years to create software that can spot meaningful connections between the files on a computer. Nepomuk's software is available for several computer platforms and now comes as a standard component of the K Desktop Environment (KDE), a popular graphical interface for the Linux operating system.

The idea of a semantic desktop is not new. The Open Source Applications Foundation and SRI, two nonprofit organizations, have both worked on similar projects. But previous efforts have suffered from the difficulty of generating good semantic information: for semantic software to be useful, semantic information needs to be generated and tagged to files and documents. But without useful applications in the first place, it is hard to persuade users to generate and tag this data themselves.

Nepomuk is distinguished by a more practical vision, says Ansgar Bernardi, deputy head of knowledge management research at DFKI. The software adds a lot of semantic information automatically and encourages users to add more by making annotated data more useful. It also provides an easy way to share tagged information with others.

The software generates semantic information by using "crawlers" to go through a computer and annotate as many files as possible. These crawlers look through a user's address book, for example, and search for files related to the people found in there. Nepomuk can then connect a file sent by a particular person with one related to the company that person works for, making Nepomuk a particularly useful way to search a computer, Bernardi says.

While most operating systems let users search on their computer by keyword alone, Nepomuk can uncover more useful information by focusing on the connections between data; it can locate relevant files if they don't mention the keyword used to search. And peer-to-peer file-sharing architecture built into the system also makes it easy to share files and the associated semantic data between users.

"This might be the semantic desktop that actually survives," says Nova Spivack, CEO and founder of Radar Networks, the company behind Twine, a semantic bookmarking and social-networking service. "There's a lot of potential to build on what they've done."

Spivack notes that other efforts to bring semantic technology to the desktop haven't succeeded in reaching end users. "Nepomuk is designed for real people and developers," he says. For this reason, Spivack sees the inclusion of Nepomuk in KDE as particularly important, since KDE software is widely distributed and can easily be modified by software developers.

Although funding for the official Nepomuk project ends this month, Bernardi expects it to continue as an open-source software effort. A spinoff company is also in the works, he says, and a newly founded legal body called the Open Semantic Collaboration Architecture Foundation will help coordinate continuing work on the technology created by Nepomuk.

Nepomuk's software is available in several platforms besides KDE. Users can download the basic software for free for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. It is also possible to use Nepomuk in a more limited way--just for Web pages viewed through Firefox, for example--with a limited installation.

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