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Lighten the tech load

Some gadgets reduce the burdens of the analog world. Insights hed: Lighten the tech load dek: some gadgets reduce the burdens of the analog world. By James Mathewson

Just about every fall since the early ’90s, I’ve paddled and portaged my way through the Boundary Waters and Quetico wilderness–a vast, roadless expanse of lakes and rivers straddling the Minnesota/Ontario border. And every year I’ve dragged about 15 pounds of camera equipment to capture the unique lighting conditions and wildlife experiences I’ve found there. Since it’s 10 percent of the total weight of all our gear (except for the canoe), my partners have often grumbled when they have had to lug the pack with the camera and tripod. But, after their shoulders recovered and the prints were processed, they were generally pleased with the results.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a photography snob. Part of my snobbery includes pooh-poohing the new digital cameras. How could they possibly give me the kinds of results my trusty old Pentax produces? But recently, my friend and photographic mentor came back from Germany and France with outstanding photos all captured with his digital camera. He was so happy with the results that he sold all his old stuff on eBay, including a 4×5, a medium-format, several 35mm rigs with lenses, darkroom equipment, etc. In his words, “Any moron can produce results Ansel Adams could only dream about with these cameras.” Best of all, he said, combined with Photoshop and a good inkjet printer, never again would he have to stink up the house with photo chemicals or bring his film to a lab again.

So, with my wilderness vacation looming and my tax rebate burning a hole in my bank account, I hiked over to my local camera store–National Camera–and I bought an Olympus C-3040 3.3-megapixel camera. I was especially pleased with the camera’s super-bright F1.8 lens, which would allow me to take some of the low-light shots that adorn the walls of my house. With a set of rechargeable NiCad batteries and an extra 64MB smart-media card, I would be able to shoot the equivalent of five rolls of film. I could also use the built-in LCD to check my shots, change my setting for the best exposures, and delete poor ones. And perhaps best of all, I could reduce the weight of my equipment to a couple of pounds, counting the tripod. Considering that after years of guys–only trips this would be the first trip up north with my wife and four-year-old son, weight was the biggest single consideration.

Upon my return from the wilderness, I have to say I am extremely pleased with the camera and, especially, with the results. I’m now editing the shots and it looks like I will have a couple of frameable pictures to add to my collection. And at 3.3 megapixels, my usual 8.5-by-11-inch prints will look very good alongside their silver-based cousins in the photo gallery by my bar. Plus, because the camera was so convenient and easy to use, we were able to get a lot more candid pictures than the bulky old rig could ever capture. All the shots that have made the gallery cut thus far have been landscapes. This camera allows us to consider several portraits as worthy of framing. And there is a variety of fun things I can do with the files without needing to scan images. This is the best piece of gear I have bought since my first PC (actually a Mac SE) 15 years ago. As I edit our annual Gear Guide, it is clear to me that digital cameras and their accessories are some of the coolest must-have items on the market today.

Speaking of the Gear Guide, our cover story on the state of the PC industry makes it clear to me that the industry itself is in a state of crisis. After the story was written, we had to make some adjustments to it to accommodate the HP/Compaq merger, which epitomizes the problems with the industry. Because of the present economic forces (buying cycles reset at Y2K, PCs reaching saturation, etc.) companies like HP and Compaq lose money on most PCs they sell. These pressures are forcing some drastic measures by the big national suppliers. Because margins for PCs are so thin, all major brands are trying to make service the key component in their offerings, and this is the central reason these two companies merged: to try to mobilize larger and more competent service staffs.

Beyond the merger, some OEMs are trying to prevent their clients from servicing their own computers, thus forcing clients to pay for service calls by the OEMs and their partners. Apple, for example, is forcing loyal clients to use their services. I got a note from our IT guy saying he needed to replace the power supply in one of our G4s. As is common in publishing, all of our producers work on Macs, and have for 15 years. In the course of that time, we have purchased thousands of Macintosh computers. Yet, when a power supply went bad, Apple would not sell us the part. We needed to have the part installed by an Apple authorized dealer. So instead of buying a $149 part, we would need to pay $300 to have someone install it, while our own technicians (who have installed dozens of power supplies) watched.

This incident underscores some good advice to small-business folks who might be wondering what to do amid the PC crisis. The big national suppliers have always been behind the eight-ball when it comes to service. If something goes wrong with a Dell computer and IT cannot fix it, you typically need to send it back or hire a technician. But if you buy from a local dealer, you have many more service options. When you consider the costs of service combined with initial purchase price, you will find that total cost of ownership almost always favors local PC-clone shops. And that principle has never been more true than it is during the OEM crisis.

As I ponder the cover image for our Gear Guide, I’m reminded of an incident that happened on our family canoe trip. At one point we made the decision to try a dangerous big-water crossing. The wind was blowing around 20 knots with some bigger gusts in there, but we could not find a camp site aside from one on an island in the middle of a huge lake. We decided to go for it, and we obviously made it, but there was some praying going on as waves tossed us around and lapped over the gunwales of the canoe. With precious cargo on board–a sleeping child sitting just in front of me, not to mention the new digital camera loaded with images I knew to be stunning–my resolve has never been greater than to paddle and steer this canoe to safety. My wife and I used every last ounce of energy in the process, and collapsed on shore like castaways waiting for rescue.

In the days and weeks that followed that adventure, we have all been challenged by events that test every last ounce of our resolve; the terrorist attacks have challenged our core beliefs. I have drawn on the canoe adventure for strength in these trying times and I urge our readers to think back on similar experiences in their lives when they summoned strength they did not know existed to get through a crisis. Everyone needs to summon that strength now, and to persevere.

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