Monday, March 29, 2010

The Best Soap Dispenser System for Kitchen or Bathroom Remodels

When building or remodeling a kitchen or bathroom, one of the most useful accessories to plan is an in-counter soap dispenser, which allows you to get rid of the permanent soap bottle next to your sink. The soap or lotion container bottles used by these in-counter systems, however, are always small and constantly need refilling, typically through a messy refilling operation.

The Never-MT soap dispenser conversion kit is an elegant and ingenious system, which allows you to replace the standard in-counter soap dispenser container by the actual economy-size soap or lotion container that you buy. As a result, the soap dispenser tank can go from a few weeks to many months (years?) between refills. When installing the Never-MT kit, you simply replace the in-counter soap dispenser container by the Never-MT plug, to which is connected a 3-feet-long thin plastic hose, which, in turns, screws into your large economy-size soap container, resting on the floor a couple of feet under the dispenser. The Never-MT kits comes with multiple sizes of container screw-tops, and appear to work with most if not all existing soap dispensers: we found close to a hundred threads on the Never-MT, yet not a single one mentioned installation problems.

The Never-MT system, a truly viral product, has absolutely no marketing budget, and has been getting rave reviews for several years on kitchen and bathroom forums. It is one of those rare products which you try on, wonder why you did not start using it years ago, and tell all your friends about. It can be found for $10-$20 on Amazon, at CustomInserts and in a few small online stores.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The 4 Best Online Image Editors For Quick Web Posting: Review

What are the best and fastest online digital picture or photo editors to use when posting or blogging? Photo or image editing software can be great, but we will be looking for online tools in this review. Recently we rated the best and fastest online image resizing utilities to post or blog with. Resizing is critical for that purpose - but you often need to do more than just resizing before posting an image on your blog, site, or Facebook, or on any social network. When your needs go further than resizing - where do you take your images?

We are not discussing the case of the photographer with a large number of images to touch up at once - in his/her case, a desktop application would clearly be better. We are specifically focusing on the workflow where, a few times a day, you need to upload quickly an image to a web page or a social site, for posting or blogging purposes. In fact, we probably would have grounds to call these editors online social image editors:-)

What makes a good online image editor for posting or blogging
  • Speed: in some ways the most important factor. If you are posting often, it is critical for your everyday editor to be fast and well integrated into your workflow, for all of its uses.
  • Resize ability: in most cases the image you are using does not fit exactly the format you need. You typically need to resize the image, and to store it in as small a file as possible so as to make your page load fast
  • Crop ability: many images need cropping before they can be used exactly for the purpose you want them.
  • Rounded corners: for this web 2.0 look :-)
  • Watermark: if you need to keep your pics exclusive. We also like the watermark for attribution (to the 3rd party who took the picture). If you need both uses,  then being able to watermark in 2 different places, and/or with 2 different font sizes/ fonts, is important.
  • Touch-up ability in general: probably the least important aspect unless you are publishing on a photo-focused site
  • Integration with the appropriate social networks and sites, where it is possible to directly upload to and from the site where the image resides or will reside.
Looking for the right online image editor

The past two years have seen an explosion in the number of online photo editors available, and the quality of some of these offerings is simply amazing. There are few comparative reviews available because standard media typically look at purchased software rather than web apps - but numerous reviews may be found among the modern media, such as Life Hacker, Mashable and Tech Crunch. As for user reviews and lists, they are innumerable. In fact, the abundance of material, both in quotes and reviews, and in offerings, is such that it is somewhat overwhelming.

However, most reviews look at these editors from the point of view of functionality, and few do so from the point of view of speed and workflow (those who worry about workflow are typically professional photographers who need desktop applications and whose needs are totally different). In the present review, we look for speed and short learning curve as essential parameters - our ratings are therefore quite different from the usual evaluations. We used the enormous resources available to identify the most likely candidates, read hundreds of individual reviews, evaluations and discussion threads, then tried every single one of the promising candidates before meta-ranking them.

What you need to know about online image editors

  • Technology: there are two primary categories - Flash-based editors and HTML-based editors. Flash-based editors provide an amazing look-and-feel, and their behavior can be remarkably polished. They are the ultimate web2.0 tools. But - they are slow to load, often more than 15 seconds (because there is so much Flash to download). It is not a problem when you are getting ready to have a 15 minute session on a complex photo-montage, but it is an extreme penalty if you need to process and upload a picture at a time a few times a day. HTML editors are in general less polished, not as able, and harder to learn, but much faster.
  • Classes of applications: these online image editors can be broadly divided in three groups, high-power photo editors (near or at Photoshop level), capable image editors (the best of which exceed the needs of most users), and image processing utilities, sometimes focused on specific processing needs, such as crop, resize, or watermark.  

What did not work for us

Specialized utilities, as a class, did not carry enough power for what we needed to do, and none of them made it to the top, with one exception at the end of this review:-) Many image editors, such as Flauntr or Snipshot,  also did not make the cut simply because they were missing some of the capabilities we needed.

We were excited about the high-power photo editors, but quickly realized that, despite the review buzz they were carrying, their learning curve and more complex workflow were simply too heavy a price to pay when you need to do a very quick, almost standard processing for most of your imaging needs. Included in this set were Phoenix, Splashup, Pixlr, and While they were sometimes amazingly powerful, their usability, workflow and learning curve were such that we considered them inappropriate for the job - just overqualified.

We also found that a large set of image editors, while perfectly good for many uses, simply were not fitting well in the specific workflow we had for them: a quick in-an-out job with a few requirements, but requirements that must be met fast and efficiently. Sumopaint's workflow did not quite work for us and the capabilities were not easy enough to access, or simply not available. We really liked Picture2life, but we had several problems with image editing, and could not get it to work exactly as needed. DrPic had a simple but clean interface with multiple image editing tools, and could do well for many simple editing purposes, but resizing speed, rounded corners capabilities, watermark availability were not what we were looking for. Lunapic was a similar story, where scaling was imprecise, too many new page requests were issued, watermark transparency was not straightforward, and rounded borders were not easy to achieve.

The 4 best fast online image editors for posting or blogging

  • #4 Phixr is a fast, HTML-based photo editor with all the capabilities needed to do what we need to do. Usability is not perfect. JPG storage quality is determined at download time when selecting JPG as an output format. Resizing is done through the Scale icon, while watermark is found under the Text icon. Rounding corners is a specific Round icon that is accessed by clicking on the "more" link under the standard left-side icons. Phixr integrates with Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Smugmug, Photobucket, Picasa Web Albums, Twitter, Webshots, Webs, LiveJournal, ImageShack, Fotopic, Photolog, and Buzznet. If we were evaluating the editor independently of our specific speed and functionality needs, it would be rated much lower. As it is, all in all, it is a solid, but not always pretty, package that does the job quickly and efficiently.

  • #3  Fotoflexer is a spectacular Flash-based editor, with amazing usability and a very fast learning curve. It is beautiful, powerful, and simple to use. Cropping and resizing are on the Basic tab, while rounded corners are found under Borders in the Decorate tab. Watermarks can be found in the Text tool, also under the Decorate tab. Fotoflexer can upload directly to/from Facebook, Smugmug, Flickr, Myspace, Photobucket, and Picasa Web Albums. Fotoflexer only has three issues: it takes 20 seconds to load on a standard broadband connection, does not allow you to control JPG quality, and its watermarks defaults are not ideal, resulting in some time lost. It is a spectacular application, penalized by the load time delay.

  • #2 Picnik is a fantastik Flash-based online image editor, now owned by Google. It is so web2.0! Its ease of use for the capabilities it has is unmatched, and simply remarkable. It gives you enormous power as to what you do and how you do it. Resize is in the Edit Tab, while watermarks (under Text) and rounded corners (under Frames) are in the Create Tab. It integrates with Facebook, Webshots, Webs, Flickr, Myspace, Photobucket, Twitter, and Picasa Web Albums. The only issue: bringing up Picnik takes 15 seconds on a standard broadband connection (although less the second time around). In the end, it does the job perfectly - and more - but we penalized the time delay. 

  • #1 Pixenate is a fast, lightweight HTML-based image editor with all the capabilities we need. It is truly fast! Its default corner rounding is very web2.0 looking, saving more time in the process. It gives enough flexibility in watermark options (transparency, colors, location), and allows for multiple watermarks (i.e. yours plus attribution if needed). It integrates with Flickr. Pixenate has two weaknesses: it does not allow you to select JPG quality, and it does not integrate with many sites.While it does not compare to Fotoflexer and Picnik in polish and power, it does pretty much everything we need to do, and it does it faster. It is the best fast online image editor for posting or blogging!

However, we do need to comment on this ranking. There is an radical difference in polish, capabilities, usability and class between the two Flash-based editors on one side, and the two HTML-based editors on the other side. It is only because of our very strong emphasis on speed that Pixenate could be ahead of Picnik and Fotoflexer. Furthermore, if your needs are any different from the ones we listed as critical criteria, they would very possibly put Picnik, and possibly Fotoflexer, ahead of Pixenate. We had a hard time ranking Picnik only #2... Picnik and Fotoflexer are simply two outstanding web applications, with very quick learning curve, extraordinary usability, and amazing capabilities.

Special Prize

There is one small online utility that we think is worth mentioning. If you are desperate for loading speed for your blog or web page, PunyPNG, a great online application from GracePoint After Five, takes your final images ready for upload, and shrinks them even further.


We could fill many pages with useful links. For the sake of space, we will limit ourselves to Best-of lists, and related forums. The Best-of lists are all less than 18 months old.

Update:  3 months after picking Pixenate for its speed, we find ourselves using Picnik more and more for its versatility. Leaving Picnik open all day in a separate tab takes out most of its time penalty.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Baby Slings Dangerous to Infants: Warning and Recall

Shortly after the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) warned parents not to use baby sling carriers with infants under 4 months of age, Infantino LLC has recalled over one million baby slings in the US and Canada. The recalled models are the "SlingRider", pictured at left, and the "Wendy Bellissimo", sold since 2003. In both models,  the name "Infantino" shows on a plastic slider on the carrying strap.

Baby sling carriers have become popular (again) in the last 20 years, but have caused the death of at least 14 children in the same period. Baby slings can be dangerous to infants or babies in two ways:
  • the sling fabric can smother them by pressing against their nose and mouth
  • the pressure of the carrying strap against their spine, when they are in a curled position with their chin against their chest, can slowly suffocate them by restricting their airway.
The CPSC is now working on a safety standard for baby sling carriers. Consumers who own a recalled model may contact Infantino at 866-860-1361 or at

Should you use baby slings?  The debate in ongoing between those consumer advocates (including Consumer Reports) who are concerned about the dangers of the practice, and its defenders, who point out documented benefits of remaining in physical touch with infants. If you do, follow the recommendations of the CPSC:

  • Place the child with the face uncovered and visible at all times to the wearer
  • If nursing a child in a sling, change the baby's position after feeding so the baby's head is facing up and clear of both the sling and the mother's body.
  • Be vigilant about frequently checking the baby in the sling 
 image by CPSC

More resources

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

High Fructose Corn Syrup Worse than Sugar

High fructose corn syrup makes you fatter faster.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HCFS) is probably the most common sweetener in processed foods today, probably because it is very cost effective. In the 40 years since it became a major commercial sweetener, the obesity rate in America has more than doubled, from 15% to approximately 33%, according to the Center for Disease Control.

A Princeton research team has just demonstrated that rats given high fructose corn syrup gained much more weight and fat than rats given the same amounts of table sugar (sucrose). It also showed, still for rats, that a long term diet including high fructose corn syrup resulted in high incidence of obesity and metabolic syndrome, a dangerous medical condition.

Does the same phenomenon apply to humans? There is no proof of that yet - but we would not be surprised if, a few years from now, the FDA releases new regulations covering the use of high fructose corm syrup in processed foods.

How ubiquitous is high fructose corn syrup? We went to the supermarket today and picked up processed foods as randomly as we could (we did exclude the diet isle), looking for jars, bottles and cans, for a total of 97 different products, including sodas, juices, applesauce, yogurt, ketchup, cooked beans of multiple kinds, prepared meals, mayonnaise, salad dressing, and much more. We found sweeteners in 89 of them, that is 92%. Of these, 79 of them were using high fructose corn syrup: 89% of sweetened products showed the presence of high fructose corn syrup.

Interestingly, there has been quite some talk in health circles about the possibly nefarious effects of HCFS, and there is a bit of an HCFS-bashing meme on the net. As a result, we are starting to hear of "throwback" products, sweetened by sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup (as shown in the picture above).

Many of us already scan all ingredient lists at the store for the presence of cancer-inducing trans fats. We may now need to also scan for high fructose corn syrup, and eliminate those products which contain it from our daily diet.

Update: Check out this interesting New York Times article which discusses the dropping fortunes of high fructose corn syrup.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How Health Care Reform Will Affect You

How will health care reform affect your family's health and finances? The very short term effects are limited, and changes are quite progressive over the next 10 years. Here is a summary of what it means to all of us.

How health care will affect your ability to get coverage

If you are now uninsured because of your health, within 6 months you will be able to get coverage until 2014 through new high risk pools, with annual out-of-pocket maximum costs of $5,950 for individuals and $11,900 for families. Starting in 2014, insurers will not be able to deny you coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

Starting in 2014, there is a new way to get coverage through "exchanges", i.e. marketplaces regulated by the government, where you can shop for the right plan. If you are already insured (privately or through your employer), you may keep your coverage, or look for a better one on an exchange.

Starting in 2014, anyone earning less than 133 percent of the poverty level (that is, in 2009, $29,327 for a family of four) may get coverage through (a better) Medicaid.

Sliding scale subsidies will be available under certain income levels (equivalent, in 2009, to $88,200 for a family of four), so that health costs will be restricted to a range of 3% to 9.5% of income.

How health care reform will compel you to obtain coverage

Starting in 2014, you must obtain coverage or pay a penalty, unless (a) you are an American Indian, (b) you have religious objections to health insurance, or (c) you would have to pay more than 8% of your income to get coverage.

In 2014, penalty will start at 1% of income (or $95, whatever is higher), and rise in 2016 to 2.5% of income (or $695, whatever is higher), but will be capped at $2,085 for families.

Starting in 2014, if you are under 30, or exempt from the obligation to obtain coverage, you may purchase a catastrophic insurance policy.

How health care reform will impact insurance plans 

Starting this year (within 6 months):
Plans will not be able to deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. Plans will drop lifetime limits on coverage, and  allow children until age 26 to stay on their parents’ policies. Insurers will not be able to cancel policies holders who get sick.

Starting in 2014:
insurers will not be able to deny coverage to adults to adults with pre-existing conditions. All plans will cover at least 60% of health costs, and there will be additional tiers going up to 90% - for higher premiums. Older people shall not pay more than 3 times more than younger people. Insurers will be required to pay at least 80% of premiums into health care

How health care reform will impact Medicare

Medicare will cover more preventive care. Between this year and 2020, Medicare will progressively fill the prescription drug coverage gap ("doughnut hole"). Subsidies will go down for high income earners (over 85,000 for individuals, $170,000 for families). Subsidies for Medicare Advantage plans (provided by private insurers) will go significantly down, and will result in reduced coverage or higher premiums.

How health care reform will impact Medicaid

More preventive services will be covered. Medicaid reimbursements to providers will increase to Medicare levels, in order to encourage more providers to accept Medicaid.

States will not be able to cut anybody presently covered by Medicaid until 2014 when exchanges become available, unless they have a budget shortfall. States will not be able to cut children covered by Medicaid, or by the Children’s Health Insurance Program until 2019.

How health care reform will impact abortion coverage

Health plans may offer abortion coverage, although states may prohibit it. If you receive federal subsidies, you will have to pay separate premiums to pay for abortion coverage.

How health care reform will impact your finances

It is not clear at this stage how premiums will be impacted. The bipartisan Congressional Business Office (CBO) calculates that premiums will rise by 10 to 13% through 2016, although subsidies based primarily on income will be available for many people.

Expensive group plans will get more expensive, as insurance companies will have to pay an extra 40% excise tax on them - everyone expects this tax to be passed through to employees.

Starting in 2013, flexible spending accounts will be limited to $2,500, and will not allow over-the-counter medication.

Starting in 2018, families making more than $250,000 will pay significantly more in Medicare payroll taxes, and their unearned income will be taxed by an additional 3.8% "payroll" tax.

The New York Times' health care reform model lets you can pick exactly which case you fit and shows you what impact you will see.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Best Wall Plug to USB Adapter Comes (Almost) Free...

Every few months I add one more device to the list of portable devices that I carry around, which need to, or can be recharged, through the USB port of my laptop. Being able to use the laptop as a universal charging platform is really handy - but - sometimes, for some reason or another, I need to be able to charge directly to a wall plug.

If I wanted to be prepared for this option, I would have to bring every AC charger for all my portable devices - and then more, since many of them do not carry an AC charger... To be as portable as possible, the solution, of course, is to buy an AC wall plug to USB adapter. There are a lot on the market. When you review your choices, however, they all seem bulky and heavy.

Enter the Amazon Kindle II (and later models)! The Kindle II comes with a USB connector, and an AC wall plug adapter to the USB connector. This adapter, however, is amazingly lighter and more compact than any other that we have been able to find. And - it can be purchased, separately from the Kindle, for $20 on Amazon here! It is usable worldwide (100-240V, 50-60Hz), and is limited to 0.15A of AC power, and 0.85A of DC power. It has garnered an excellent set of reviews, showing high reliability and usability, as well as worldwide capability. Today it has no equal. 

Ready to buy? If you are an ipod/ iphone user, along with the Best Wall Plug to USB Adapter, you might want to pick up a super-extra-short iStubz iPHone/iPod cable (3"), or just a super-short iStubz iPhone/iPod cable (7") to be more compact on the road (through Cool Tools).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Buy Your New Audio CDs for $6-$10

This is what we will all be able to do starting in April, when Universal Music Group (UMG) starts a major new price test for its CD sales. Almost all CDs will be priced at $6, $7, $8, $9, and $10, with deluxe collectors' albums being priced somewhat higher. UMG's expectation is that the price drop will stimulate sales to the degree that overall profits will increase: "we think [the new pricing program] will really bring new life into the physical format," UMG Distribution president/CEO Jim Urie says to Billboard.

Trans World Entertainment, a media distribution and retail company, has been testing the $9.99 price point for several months, in collaboration with most of the major studios, and has seen volume increases of over 100%. Its CEO's reaction to Universal's move: "We are happy to see that a major music vendor has made a decision to lower his price substantially, because it's what the customer wants today if we are going to see a viable CD business."

Ars Technica quotes Forrester analyst  Mark Mulligan as thinking that prices need to go as low as $5. Billboard quotes other sources in the industry as "annoyed" by Universal's move. Where do they have their head? This is one industry that needs to lower the average age of its executives... In the mean time, we at are planning some serious music buying sprees in April.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Video Games May Interfere with Children's Development: New Study

Several studies so far have hinted at video games' harmful effects on learning processes in children. Because these statistical studies were measuring performance after the fact, it was always difficult to determine whether there was an actual causal effect due to video games, or whether the measured effect was an artifact due to predispositions in video gamers.

For the first time, a small study, led by Robert Weis, of Denison University, randomly assigned children to two groups, a video playing group and a control group. This random assignment makes it possible to measure causality between video games and learning impact. The study was published on February 18 in Psychological Science.

The result: because of their contact with video games, the children in the video playing group were slower in learning academic skills, in particular reading,  writing and spelling skills.

The story in LiveScience and  AOL Health

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dietary Supplements That Work- an Amazing Visualization

A stunning interactive realization by David McCandless and Andy Perkins of InformationIsBeautiful, this diagram represents the state of the art in today's scientific knowledge about dietary supplements. We have been preparing for several weeks a post on supplements: we spent several hours today reviewing the data for over 50% of the supplements covered, and were in quasi perfect agreement with the authors.

This extraordinary realization, fully interactive, tracks, on the Y axis, the evidence for validity, and, by the size of the bubble, the interest in the supplement. Evidence is based on large blind placebo control trials only. The red balloons indicate promising new supplements where evidence is not complete. The higher the supplement in the chart, the more evidence for its benefits.

This is an extraordinary visualization, which the authors will keep on updating as new evidence appears. Check the original interactive article - a unique achievement.

LG Fridge Consumption Ratings Fudged?

Australia's Choice Magazine, the down-under equivalent of Consumer Reports, is accusing LG of greenwashing, i.e. of making misleading claims with respect to its environmental features. Choice specifically claims that LG misrepresented the energy consumption of a high-end refrigerator model, and, following up, misrepresented to Choice the commercial availability of the model. Choice accuses LG of having a "checkered history of false and misleading claims."

Consumer Reports picks up the Choice report, and reinforces it by mentioning that,  "for some LG and LG-made refrigerators, Consumer Reports has also seen discrepancies between the energy use (in kilowatt hours of electricity) indicated on the Energy Guide labels and the measurements we get from our own energy testing."

In fact, the Department of Energy itself removed several LG refrigerator models (as well as LG-manufactured Kenmore models) from the Energy Star program, which selects low-consumption appliances through government-approved test procedures. This removal was later approved by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

That's three strikes for LG's appliance division. Do you trust LG appliances at this stage?  Let us know your thoughts.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cut Down Your Detergent Use by Half

Are you following the instructions of your laundry detergent when measuring how much soap to pour? Even if you are, you are using 2 to 4 times more than you should, says Vernon Schmidt, based on his 35 years of experience as an appliance repairman.

Mr. Schmidt, author of the book “Appliance Handbook for Women: Simple Enough Even a Man Can Understand,” tells Alice Tugend of the New York Times: “Most people use 10 to 15 times the amount of soap they need, and they’re pouring money down the drain.” He believes that you should use between 1/8 and 1/2 of recommended detergent quantities. Too much detergent costs more money, but, more importantly, encourages mildew growth in your washer and ultimately shortens its life.

So, starting today, I am cutting down my detergent use by 1/2.

Find out more tips from Vernon Schmidt and others in Alice Tugend's NYT article.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Car Safety: the 21 Safest Cars in America

Consumer Reports (CR) just updated its lists of safest and most dangerous cars in America. CR uses crash and rollover test data from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA), as well as its own data on wet and dry braking distances and emergency handling, to rate vehicles.
image by JaseMan
The best small cars are:
  • the Kia Soul 
  • the Mazda3
  • the Subaru Impreza/ Outback Sport
  • the Toyota Prius
While the Mazda3, the Impreza and the Prius have been perennial favorites among small cars, and have been recognized as outstanding performers in many other respects, the Kia Soul is a surprise, and shows the progress made by Kia in the past few years.

The safest family/upscale sedans are:
  • the TL and TSX by Acura
  • the A3 and A4 by Audi
  • the BMW 3 series
  • the Chevy Malibu
  • the Honda Accord
Kudos to Chevy for scoring high in the category!  The Audi A3 and A4 score high in safety, although their reliability record has been abysmal in the past few years, while, on the other hand, the BMW 3 Series has scored relatively higher in reliability among German-built cars (although only slightly above average when compared to other cars in the American market). The Accord, of course, carries an impeccable overall quality record, as do its deluxe cousins the TL and TSX by Honda upscale brand Acura (this writer has been driving an Acura for the past 18 years).

The safest small SUVs are:
  • the Honda CR-V
  • the Mitsubishi Outlander
  • the Nissan Rogue
  • the Subaru Forester
Another Asian surprise there with the Mitsubishi entry.  The Honda CR-V and the Subaru Forester have a well known quality record and score at the top in functionality. While Nissan has seen ups and downs in reliability with some of its recent models, so far the Rogue has scored well, and represents good functionality in the category.

The safest mid size SUVs are:
  • the MDX and RDX by Acura
  • the Audi Q5
  • the X3 and X5 by BMW
  • the Buick Enclave
As usual, Acura has a great showing, and its models also show excellent reliability, but the MDX does not rate well in overall capabilities in the category. The German builders score well in safety as well, but their quality records in these categories are poor, and their overall functionality rating is mixed (the Q5 scores nears the top, the X3 is OK, the X5 mediocre). Buick succeeds in placing a car among the top performers at the high end.

The disappointment here is that, overall,  the mainstream mid-price models that have scored highest in functionality and reliability have not scored as well in safety. The safest models are almost all found in the high-end of the price curve or low in functionality/ usability. Where are the Ford Fusion and Focus, the Toyota Corolla, Camry, Highlander and RAV4, the Scions, the Honda Civic and Pilot, the Nissan Altima, and many others?  While many of these models actually score OK in safety, consumers, to a certain degree, will have to chose between safety, functionality and value.

Want to see for yourself? Check out these amazing crash test videos!

Nice job by Consumer Reports in this new edition of their Safest Cars report.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The 7 Best Online Image Resize Tools For Quick Web Posting: Review

What are the top 7 super-fast digital image resizers that allow you to very quickly resize an picture of photo for blogging or posting? To compare these different sites, we focus on the ability to resize as we need, and on workflow speed. But - we will give extra points if we can also crop, round corners for a good web2.0 look, and watermark - all of them common needs when posting on the web.

  • #7 PicResize gives you a very simple but decent looking interface, multiple download options, and the ability to access drpic's impage editor when done with resizing. However, you have to click one more time to preview the result, and it does not let you pick quality. No option for watermark, cropping or rounded corners.

  • #6 QuickThumbnail, with very basic interface (= ugly...), gives you different ways to scale, and can output multiple size pictures. It gives you basic watermarks, as well as a few effects (greyscale, sepia, blur and a few more) but no rounded corners. Downloading is done through a right click.

  • #5 PicMarkr  is a watermark editor - but it can also resize to some standard dimensions. A good choice of watermarking abilities, very simple, very fast - no choice of quality for the JPG output. You download with a right click. It is the tool of choice if you primarily need to watermark, and, accessorily, have some limited resizing needs.

  • #4 ShrinkPictures has another basic, but quick and effective interface which allows you to simply pick the new size and image quality, and gives you greyscale and sepia choices. No watermark or 2.0 rounded corners. Overall a solid choice for pure resizing needs.

  • #3 RoundPic is a superfast corner-rounding application which also resizes your pictures. You can pick the corners you are rounding. You can pick the JPG quality as well. The output file is given a random name, so you need to reenter a file name before downloading :( It is an excellent choice if your sole needs are resizing and rounded corners.

  • #2 Rsizr (through Lifehacker) is a brilliant, very clean web app, which resizes and crops, but also *retargets*. Retargeting subtly changes the proportions of your image so that you can bring parts of it in prominence while pushing other, less interesting parts into smaller scale, seemingly without losing the whole effect of the picture. You can make what you want bigger, yet keep the original content without cropping - hard to explain, but you can read about it here, or view it here. When downloading as a JPG, you can pick the quality. No watermarks or rounded corners.

  • #1 WebResizer (through gHacks) is a well rounded little app with a decent interface, which allows you to very quickly resize an image, and, optionally, crop it and round it (no watermarks though). It is very effective at giving you image quality and size choices to optimize final image bandwidth. It also remember your last choice and applies same criteria to the next image. It gives us the fastest workflow commensurate with a decent feature set, and it is our ultimate winner as a fast image resizer!!!
A smart desktop utility solution

While we focus here on online tools, there is a truly smart Windows utility, Shrink Pic, that deserves to be mentioned. The genius of it is - it runs in the background! It automatically resizes all images you email or upload to a predefined template - no more manual input. A good introduction to it can be found on AddictiveTips.

What did not work for us:
  • Resizr had a poor interface, functionality that did not exactly fit what we needed, and a lot of commercial adware interfering with the use of the site. In fact, we believe that its ads might include active malware. If you are paranoid -as we are - you might want to avoid the site altogether.
  • iResize workflow was slow and awkward.
  • ResizeYourImage had a good looking 2.0-like interface but did not do what we needed it to do, although we love the big rounded buttons! The application is simple but surprisingly non-intuitive in terms of exactly what the buttons will do for you - and - it does not allow you to easily resize to the size you want... It does not respect scale, and does not give you storage quality choices. It is a better cropping app than a resizing app.
  •  ResizePic has the simplest interface - really too simple in this case. You need to enter both target widths and heights, which warrants elimination in our eyes.
  • has a basic and and advance resizer. The basic resizer is too simple. The advanced resizer is purely drag-and-click - sometimes very useful, but does not give you the ability to give pixel sizes.
In the next few days we will review the best and fastest online image editors for web posting or blogging... So come back soon!

Monday, March 15, 2010

the 3 Best Online PDF to JPEG Converters (TIFF/ JPG/PNG): Review

When you need to modify a PDF file before using it, it is often necessary to convert it to another format. This happened to me recently as I downloaded an old IRS form, and discovered that the version available on line could not be scanned by IRS computers. How do you convert a PDF file into another format?

1. Web Applications - uploading your file for conversion: Zamzar

Every application you install on your computer is a little bit more destabilizing to your operating system. If you do it often enough, you will eventually need a reinstall - it is only a matter of time. So, unless this is a workflow that is truly often needed, it is in general best to look for web app solutions. We should all carry a fairly strong preference for doing what we need to do off the desktop.

It turns out that there is an excellent web app for converting PDF files to JPEGs (or to other formats) on line: Zamzar allows you to upload a file, choose an output format, and give your email address to receive the converted file. A 50kB PDF file (the maximum is 100MB) typically takes 7 minutes to make it to your inbox, varying from 2 minutes to 15 minutes. In order to avoid too much spam mail, I use a consumable address for such uses, which I change every few years, when spam has become too much.

Other web apps that we tested, Neevia's Document Converter Xpress, ConvertPDFtoImage, and YouConvertIt, have not been reliable.

2. Printer driver conversion: ImagePrinter

A printer driver is easy to install to your computer, and reasonably painless to remove as well. A little- known virtual printer driver, ImagePrinter, allows you to convert a PDF to several graphical file formats. It is invoked as a printer from any Windows application. Once you have installed it, to set up the output format, look for ImagePrinter in your Startup Menu, select Options, ImagePrinter, open the File Format tab, then pick your format and compression. To set up the output target directory, pick the System tab, then browse to the target directory (the default is the My Documents folder). Make sure, in the same System tab, to select "save original name" otherwise it will use a default name for all. To convert the file, open with your PDF viewer, click Print on the File Menu, then select the ImagePrinter printer, and print.

Another driver frequently mentioned, the Universal Document Converter, while powerful, adds in a watermark to the output file in its free version.

3. Desktop utility: PDF Xchange Viewer

This efficient, feature-laden PDF viewer and annotator deserves to be much better known than it is today. PDF Xchange Viewer, once installed, can open your PDF file. By selecting Export under the File Menu for this utility, you can specify the output format, quality, target directory etc. This utility can do much more than file conversion, although its power comes with a significant learning curve - it is less than intuitive. Be extremely watchful, however, in the install process, as default options will install bloatware, self updating utilities, and browser bars.

Omniformat, and Office Convert PDF to JPG JPEG TIFF, other desktop utilities, were not reliable when tested and are not recommended. We had more success with PDF2Image, a $59 commercial utility with a 30-day trial period.

4. Doing it by hand: PrintScreen

The old-fashioned way of doing it is to capture the screen with the native Windows tools or with third party tools, then to import the result into a simple image editor such as Windows Paint, and finally to save in the required format. This may, however, possibly compromise the original print resolution.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Prostate Cancer: Screening, Treatment Worse Than Disease?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) has just released its latest guidelines on prostate cancer screening. The changes in these guidelines are driven in part by the findings of two major studies, on either side of the Atlantic, whose results seem to question the benefits of early screening.  There is much debate from different health authorities on these guidelines and its changes - some of these discussions can be found in the LA Times, CBS News, or WebMD.
image by Phillie Casablanca 

The main issue focuses on the need for early screening, and the age at which such screening should occur. The original guidelines called for, among other things, general screening for all men starting at age 50. The revised guidelines suggest that men should start discussing the need for screening with their doctor at age 50, although those men at high risk for prostate cancer should start he process earlier.

Several issues conflict in this matter. On the one hand, early screening normally benefits patients, as cancers caught early are more treatable. But the actual test which is recommended by the ACS, PSA screening, may suffer from sever weaknesses, as discussed by the actual discoverer of PSA (prostate specific antigen), Richard Ablin, in an Op-Ed at the New York Times.

The problems with the test are compounded by the fact that prostate cancer generally (although not always) evolves very slowly. Aggressive treatment often comes with nefarious consequences for the patient, including impotence and incontinence. It is not always recommended, simply because you might sometimes die of old age before the cancer kills you. In fact, according to WebMD, prostate cancer is diagnosed in an estimated 80% of men at age 80, although it clearly will not kill most of them. As a result, a significant number of experts, including Dr. Ablin himself, argue against early screening for the general population.

The risk, however, is that, by delaying screening, you may miss the small number of prostate cancers that evolve quickly and may kill the patients. There is, unfortunately, no test that specifically targets these fast evolving cancers.

If you get tested and have a positive result, the treatment that you may receive is also subject to great uncertainty. In fact, a recent study (discussed here and here) and states that the treatment you receive largely depends upon which specialists you will see. Statistically you are more likely to get surgery if you see a urologist only, and radiation therapy if you see a radiation oncologist. To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail...

Should you get screened? This is a topic of discussion between you and your doctor. But - for sure - do it while fully informed. And - if the test should come out positive - be careful to weigh all pros and cons before engaging into an aggressive treatment - or any treatment. For prostate cancer screening and treatment, it seems that the best approach is to educate the patient first.

Some more reading: the NYT editorial by Richard Ablin is  a must-read, and the Harvard  Medical School just came out with its 2010 report on prostate diseases (unfortunately needs to be purchased).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Best Computer Tech Support

Consumer reports just released their new ratings for desktop and laptop tech support, based on their subscribers' experience.
image by psd

Apple hammers all of its competitors by a huge margin, both in laptops and desktops. In the desktop category, Dell, then HP follow, at a very significant distance. - Acer ranks last. For laptops, Lenovo comes second, also far behind Apple, followed by Dell and HP - Acer ranks last again. The full report is available to Consumer Reports subscribers.

The gap between Apple and its competitors is staggering. I wonder what they are doing differently. Either way, the outcome is - according to Consumer Reports your support experience with Apple should be radically superior to that of any other brand tested.

We are big fans of Consumer Reports and have been subscribers for many years - join them as a member and enable more good research!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Biking Directions on Google Maps!

Google just added bike directions AND large quantities of bike trail data on Google Maps. Bike directions include minimizing hills -wow! Google added over 12,000 of bike trails, and information about bike lanes in over 150 cities in the US.
Check it out at PC Mag has already published a hands-on test - we can't wait to try... Now the big question is - when will it be available for Google Maps for Mobile?

original Google blog  

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Securely Erase Data From Storage Drives [Windows]

Identity theft from discarded hard drive and flash drive data is rampant, as shown by multiple studies (an example here). What can you do to protect yourself? Simply deleting a file is not enough, even if you empty the recycle bin, as it can be easily recovered from your drive with disk recovery tools.

Gizmodo just published an excellent article on the topic. It is however not totally easy to exploit, especially if you don't have good technical skills, due to the nature and choice of the tools the writer investigates. To make it a bit easier, we are selecting here the most usable tools to wipe data clean with the least possible pain, using free utilities - good ones are surprisingly hard to find for this application. The tool selection was optimized for ease of use and reasonable security: it is possible to use tools that result in a higher guarantee of secure disposal (check the resource guide at the end).

Remember that you cannot wipe the drive from which you are running your program, and that, because the process is long, you should run a laptop on wall power if you are using one... Also remember (I know some people who made that mistake) that, if you wipe your system disk, your computer will not be able to function until you have reinstalled the OS:-)

Simple utilities for data wiping

There are four primary uses for data wiping: periodic wiping of free space (to securely erase previosuly deleted files),  cleaning up a flash drive before using it for new purposes, wiping a whole hard rive clean before getting rid of it (or reusing it), and securely erasing selected files and folders. 

1. Periodically wiping free space in your disk drives: ccleaner

It is a good idea to periodically wipe securely the free space in your drives, so that obsolete, but still confidential data cannot be recovered. The commonly used utility ccleaner can wipe all the deleted files in free space.  Be aware of the (small) limitations listed  here, and of some user stories (it can take a while). Altogether, the use of ccleaner for periodic free space wiping appears safe.        

2. Wiping clean a flash orUSB drive: DiskWipe

DiskWipe by will totally wipe a flash drive and replace all data with zeroes or with random data. Be aware that you will need to reformat the flash drive after wiping. Gizmodo verified that the wipe was secure.

3. Wiping clean a full hard drive prior to reuse or disposal: Eraser, DiskWipe

Eraser is the only free based utility frequently mentioned in most data destruction policies for universities with prestigious software departments (all others. It provides mil-spec secure disposal. It can also securely delete existing files and folders. It is powerful and offers many choices.  DiskWipe mentioned above is another candidate, with less options (in particular no ability to dispose of files and folders), but simpler to use for the purpose of wiping a full drive.

4. Securely erasing files and folders: FileShredder

 File Shredder is a good simple choice for file and folder level disposal. 

What you need to know about secure data deletion on storage media

It is possible to easily recover previously deleted files, even after disposal of the recycle bin. The only way to get rid of data for good is by overwriting it with different data. 

There is some controversy about how many times you need to wipe it clean. While several DoD directives and policies prescribe multiple overwrites (the Gutman method asks for 35!), other reputable research centers, such as the Center for Magnetic Recording Research (CMRR) at UCSD, consider that a single overwrite is enough for almost all purposes. The single overwrite method as been validated by  many how-to sites, such as here and here, and is probably enough unless you have very specific reasons to fear the use of sophisticated forensics on your data.

Your hard drive includes a Secure Erase command. There is no general purpose utility to access this command for all drives. The CMRR Secure Erase utility discussed below accesses it for some drives.

All secure wiping methods take long stretches of time, except for one method recommended by the CMRR, which directly addresses a specific secure earse command on the drive. Unfortunately the CMRR does not maintain its utility any more (you can find it in the Resources section below). 

If you data is extraordinarily critical, be aware that physical destruction may not be enough, as bits and pieces of your drive platters may actually be readable (the CMRR, in some articles, mentions that they actually did so, but in some other articles assume that it is not practical). Degaussing (using a strong magnet) does not work on SSDs or Flash drives, and may not work in future generation drives. You probably should go to the next level in secure disposal (as opposed to what is presented above), using more powerful tools but with less ease of use. For this, the most frequently recommended utility (mentioned in practically EVERY relevant article) is  Darik's Boot and Nuke, which will require you to create a bootable CD from which to run your software.

SSD drives have special challenges, and we have no encountered a general solution for all of them.

More resources

The  Center for Magnetic Recording Research at UCSD has solid research that it quotes in its documents, and which can be trusted. It developed a Secure Erase utility, unfortunately no longer supported but still operational for many users. Robin Harris from ZDNet lists some issues with the CMRR  Secure Erase utility. 

A free command line utility provided by Microsoft, SDelete from MS, is also frequently referenced as a good way to wipe drives, although with some limitations. Another free utility, recommended by some, but that we were not able to validate in the security literature, is HDD Wipe Tool  from It is however possible for you to validate the cleanliness of a wipe by any utility, by using the simple winhex, which reads the sectors of your drive to verify erasure. The excellent Darik's Boot and Nuke (DBAN), already mentioned above, is a part of the excellent freeware ultimate boot CD (UBCD), which also comes with many other diagnostics utilities, and which may be an easier path (it still requires you to create a Boot CD). An alternative to DBAN or UBCD, also requiring a Linux boot CD, is an old, but still interesting, engadget how-to.
There are some excellent commercial utilities to do mil-spec data wiping, which cost form $30-$60 for home use. The most commonly mentioned are  BCWipe (free trial) and WipeDrive. KillDisk also appears highly rated, but its web site does not inspire confidence. 

There are many other interesting reviews of wiping software. Some examples are TechSupportAlert and TheFreeCountry. Bruce Schneier, with a data security blog, is one of the recognized security experts who discuss this topic. Finally, it is interesting to see what universities with good software engineering programs practice and recommend, and here are some of them:
Gizmodo's article which inspired this post

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Should you Ad-Block? Ars Technica Says No

It is now possible to use extensions that will simply block the display of all ads around the page, allowing you to focus on the content. Great progress for some, but, in the long term, is it right for the ecosystem?

Ars Technica's editor in chief, Ken Fisher, pens an eloquent appeal about the risks of ad-blocking. Simply put, most of the data you get on the web is free - because the bill is paid by the advertisers. Most sites are paid by their advertisers per views, not per click. When you remove this, you take out money, dollar by dollar, that your favorite sites are using to fund their publication. In the short term you are damaging your own savorite sources of information.

We agree with Ars Technica, and will not recommend any general Ad Blockers outside of standard pop-up blockers, already included in most browsers. What do you think?

Is it Time to Invest in USB 3.0?

USB 3.0, also called Superspeed USB,  is the latest generation of the ubiquitous USB port, typically available today as USB 2.0. It brings a 10x improvement in transmission speed, and is backward-compatible with USB 2.0. It consumes less power during data transfer operations. It accelerates battery recharge times by providing more current to peripheral devices.

A this time, however, neither Intel nor Microsoft support it in the present releases. It is a real pity because we all are yearning for faster transfer speeds. Gigabyte and Asus have, in the past month, introduced new motherboards that support USB 3.0, and a small number of devices are just now becoming available.

Should you make the jump now? Unless you are a true early adopter, you are better off waiting for much larger device availability, and, if possible, support by Microsoft and Intel. Right now, Intel and Microsoft are roadmapping USB 3.0 support in 2012 - this just seems really late. It is possible that they will be rushed into earlier adoption if the market shows strong customer support, in which case we might all be able to upgrade easily next year.

More resources

Best Smartphone Operating Systems: Which to Pick?

Best Wireless Cell Phones Part 5

In Part 4, we discussed what frequency band combination to pick, if at all possible, in order to pick the best cellphone. We can divide cell phones into two categories - smartphones, and others. Smartphones carry an operating system (OS). Their operating system, a complex piece of software, gives them extended capabilities, but also require more performance from the hardware, and result in higher prices. What are the primary smartphones operating systems?
image by eraserhead1
  • Symbian is the operating system for all Nokia cellphones, and represents approximately 47% of the smartphone market - a very high share. It is an open source platform, obviously heavily driven by Nokia. Symbian is an efficient operating system, with an emphasis on conserving resources, which enables smaller devices. Symbian phones can download applications from Nokia's Ovi Store, launched in mid 2009. The Ovi Store carries many high quality applications, most of which ported from the Apple App Store, but does nto have the runaway success of the Apple equivalent.
  • BlackBerry OS is the operating system for Research in Motion, the #1 provider of business phones. A powerful and highly usable OS, it focuses on email, multi-tasking, and enterprise capabilities. It requires a separate subscription to RIM's email service. The BlackBerry OS powers 21% of all smartphones.
  •  The iPhone OS, used by the Apple iPhone, needs no introduction. It powers the most runaway success in the history of wireless communications. It is focused on an excellent user interface, intuitive, easy to use. It permits the use of finger gestures against a touch screen to allow complex manipulations. It does not allow multitasking. The Apple App Store allows users to download third party applications for their iphone, and has also be incredibly successful, counting way over 100,000 applications. The Apple OS is proprietary and tightly controlled, and has a 15% share of the total smartphone market.
  • Windows Mobile is Microsoft's operating system for mobile devices, a direct inheritor of Microsoft's embedded operating system, and, as such,  has gone through 20 years of development. it carries approximately 9% of the total smartphone market.
  • Android is Google's entry into the wireless arena - although it is officially part of the Open Handset Alliance, which groups many cellphone manufacturers and wireless operators. It is derived from Linux, and is also open source. Android is now experiencing very fast growth in the number of handsets that it powers (today 5% of the all smartphones), and is also seeing significant growth in the number of applications available for download.
  • webOS is the newest proprietary OS for Palm, and is also derived from Linux. It is only available today on the Palm Pre.  
How do they compare?

Because the life cycle of a cellphone is short, the choice of an operating system is not as critical as it can be in other areas, such as computers. Yet other factors make it an important dimension: inherent capabilities, device choices, performance requirements, and applications choices - smart phone does a lot more than phone calls...

When looking at market shares in the smartphone market, the two OSs gaining significantly today are iPhone OS and Android.  A the opposite end, Palm's webOS and Microsoft Windows Mobile appear totally stalled, despite Palm's recent introduction of the Palm Pre and MS's release of the powerful Windows Mobile 7. Both Symbian and BlackBerry keep leading shares of the market but see their relative positions erode.

The iPhone is still the phenomenon in the smartphone market, presenting a fully thought out paradigm for what a smartphone should be. Its only weaknesses are its tight control by Apple, which restrict choices and may, in the future, limit some of its innovation, and the high price of its devices. Android , fastest growing of all  right now, could become the open source iPhone, if it fulfills its promises - but it is not quite there today, either in UI maturity and robustness, or in breadth of applications. The largest potential danger ahead for Android is the issue of multiplying versions, which compels developers to test against more and more versions for every release, and which Google needs to address quickly before it becomes a barrier that developers will not want to confront.

Symbian carries excellent functionality in the fundamentals of communications (calls, SMS, email) as well as good robustness and maintainability - it needs, however, to expand quickly in other areas where iPhone and Android have been making inroads, and to ensure applications breadth in the Ovi Store, a tough challenge. BlackBerry is still unchallenged as the enterprise leader, but its lead depends upon the capabilities that it gives enterprise It departments more than the functionality that it provides to end users. It has not been successful so far at matching new user functionality developments from other providers. 

Microsot has just released the excellent Windows Mobile 7, but it might not be enough to stop its precipitous decline of the last few years, and its market share is still shrinking quickly. It is simply powering very few new devices. Finally, Palm's recent introduction of its new webOS on the Palm Pre may just be too little, too late.

Smartphone OS winners and losers for a purchase decision in 2010
  • iPhone OS - winner. It is still rapidly gaining share, and offers an unprecedented access to third party applications. It is a strong technology with an excellent UI, and a big winner. The drawback of Apple's tight control is the very high cost of all of its devices, and the lack of choice out of Apple.
  •  BlackBerry - winner if you are a business user - enterprise market only. RIM is still the acknowledged leader for enterprises, where full solutions are simply missing from other providers. But its offering remains weak for non-enterprise users. The present is still good, but the future looks darker, and many of its users seem ready to switch away.
  • Android - winner with caution. It shows very strong growth and promise, but keeps large areas of immaturity in its UI, code and architecture. It is already the second largest Applications platform, gaining quickly. A conservative approach might be to look at purchasing an Android phone in one or two years.
  • Symbian - winner with caution. Nokia's dominating market share and excellence in traditional functionality cannot be ignored. A the same time, we should be aware that it is losing market share quickly to newer competitors, and that its choice of applications is very limited compared to Android and the iPhone.
  • Microsoft, Palm - losers. While, at this time, we would not rule out any cellphone purchase solely due to the OS in use, the lack of market success for Palm and Microsoft definitely downgrades their offerings, and purchasing a handset powered by either should be approached with caution.In particular, Palm could altogether go under some time in the next 6 quarters.
Come back soon to see our upcoming picks for best smartphone and best cellphone!

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