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    When good enough is best on the road

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver September 29- October 5 2009; issue 1040

    High Tech Office column

    French philosopher Voltaire has been misquoted as saying “perfect is the enemy of good enough.”

    I’m probably not the only person on a never-ending upgrade cycle in a quest for perfect.

    In preparing to travel this summer, though, I decided that this time around, I’d choose take-along gear that was good enough – especially if by compromising performance I could get better portability. I took a netbook instead of a larger, more-capable notebook – in my case, a no-longer available Dell Mini 9. Its 8.9-inch screen, smaller-than-standard keyboard and trackpad, 16-gigabyte solid-state drive, lack of an optical drive and relatively anemic processor would have made it frustrating for use as my main work computer.

    But its size and light weight made it a good travelling companion: easy to use on airplane tray tables or to store in our hotel safe. Wi-Fi connectivity and a Skype account made it a usable communication tool. And the low purchase price made me less concerned about damage or theft.

    I did beef up its standard configuration, upping the memory to two gigabytes (note: not all netbook models allow for memory upgrades) adding a 16- gigabyte camera-style memory card for additional storage and buying a heavy-duty battery (14 hours of battery life!). And I replaced the stock Windows XP with Ubuntu Linux for better performance and no security issues.

    Yes, full-sized notebooks with much more storage and more-powerful processors cost hardly any more, but are much less portable. Alternatively, a smart phone, PDA or even a media player like an iPod Touch can provide pocket-sized Web access, but I find those just too small for wading through my 50-plus daily e-mails. For me, the netbook’s trade-offs made this good-enough performer the near-perfect travelling computer.

    It’s a similar story with digital cameras. Much of the recent growth in this area – and most of the media attention – has been about digital SLRs (DSLR): large cameras offering excellent photo quality. A few years ago, I travelled with a DSLR. The large camera around my neck screamed “tourist” and my neck and shoulders remembered the weight for weeks after my return.

    I value the ability to zoom in on details in my photos – the 3x optical zoom standard on most compact digital cameras doesn’t let me close-in enough. I’ve tended to prefer so-called ultra-zooms – models with larger lenses that bridge the gap between DSLRs and standard point-and-shoot models. While lacking the interchangeable lenses of DSLRs, ultra-zooms are still relatively large.

    New to market are a number of what might be called compact-zooms – models featuring higher-than-normal zooms on a portable body. The trade-offs: lower image quality than a DSLR and less zoom than an ultra-zoom. (Olympus’ new SP-590 UZ model, for instance, offers a massive 26x optical zoom.) Still, shirt-pocket-sized cameras with more zoom than on typical compact cameras.

    Olympus loaned me a Stylus-7000, featuring a 7x optical zoom equivalent to a 37 mm-260 mm lens on a compact-sized body. Features include in-camera panorama to stitch multiple shots together and a “beauty mode” to remove facial blemishes and wrinkles. Shadow adjustments automatically boost dark shadows while toning down bright sunshine.

    Priced around $300, the Stylus-7000 can be found on sale as low as $200, perhaps because Olympus has just announced a Stylus-7010 model, also with a 7x zoom, but going down to the wider angle 28 mm ($249). The company also offers a $300 Stylus-9000 with a 10x optical zoom.

    Fun to use, the Stylus-7000 offered just enough zoom, and like the netbook, was in a package that I was more likely to have with me when I might want to use it.

    Netbooks and compact-zoom cameras don’t offer the best performance, but when I was travelling, their good-enough (and more-portable) features made them my preferred choice. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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