Mailbag: January 24, 2010

This week in the mailbag:

Which Chrome Extensions Do You Use?
What About the Xbox 360 As a Living Room Set-Top Box?
World Electrical Adaptors
Windows 7 SteadyState?
XP Mode: 32-Bit or 64-Bit?
Free DVD Decryption
Change the Wallpaper in Windows 7 Starter

Have a question? I can't guarantee an answer, but I'll try. Drop me a note! (And let me know if you'd prefer not to have your name published.)

Which Chrome Extensions Do You Use?

Ernest P. asks:

What extensions do you use in Google Chrome?

Right now, I use five extensions, the top two of which are among the most useful software I've ever used:

LastPass - Cloud-based password manager (I happen to use the paid version, but there is a fully functional free version too).

InvisibleHand - Automatically checks to see that any product you're about to buy online is the lowest price. If not, it will tell you where to go to get it more cheaply.

AdThwart - basic ad blocker for the web.

Chomed Bird - Twitter client that lives as a button in the Chrome toolbar.

RSS Subscription Extension - A Google extension that adds an IE- or Firefox-like RSS button to the address bar when the site you're viewing has an associated RSS feed.

I'll add these to the next update of my What I Use page. Find out more about Google Chrome Extensions.

What About the Xbox 360 As a Living Room Set-Top Box?

Mark W. asks:

I was reading your mailbag post about a HTPC and while I have no argument with any particular point, but I was surprised that you didn't at least mention in passing the XBox 360 as a media device. Perhaps I don't understand what an HTPC or Apple TV would do, but it would seem to my mind the a 360 pulling media from a home network, which might also include content from the Zune Marketplace, would be a viable option to Apple TV and Itunes. The 360 would also give you the Netflix access you were missing on Apple TV.

I should have explicitly mentioned the Xbox 360, but there are a couple of problems there:

1. Netflix access requires you to pay annually for an Xbox Live Gold account, which is kind of a shame. (You don't pay extra with the Roku box, for example, or even on the PS3.)

2. I can't explain why this is the case, but when you playback video on the Xbox 360, it is visually less detailed looking when compared to the exact same video on the Apple TV in particular. I don't know what Apple does, but this device consistently renders H.264 video in much higher quality than the Xbox 360 or other media devices I've tested. I should try to document this sometime.

The other side issue here is that while newer Xbox 360s are both more reliable and quieter than the versions that were sold over several years, many people out there do have older console units and these would be unacceptably loud and unreliable for set-top use. That said, what you have on hand is often better than something you have to pay for: If you do have an Xbox 360, give it a shot. The native playback interfaces are currently pretty Spartan, but it does the job.

Another plus for the Xbox 360 if you need this functionality: It does a better job of upconverting DVDs than does the PS3 for whatever reason.

World Electrical Adaptors

This one wasn't a reader question, but I thought it might be of interest. It certainly is to me, since I travel internationally as much as I can afford. I subscribe to the email newsletter from Magellan's, which is an online retailer for travel supplies. This week, they sent out some good info about the issues around using electrical devices (including PCs, iPods, and the like) when traveling outside the United States.

The two most important considerations when you are planning to use electrical appliances overseas are socket shape and voltage.

There's also some information there about getting power for devices on planes. Obviously, Magellan's is a retail operation that wants you to buy stuff. I have purchased some items from them in the past (thus the newsletter subscription), but this isn't so much an endorsement of this particular site as it is a handoff of information. It's valuable info if you need it.

Windows 7 SteadyState?

Mike W. asks:

I understand that currently there's no support for SteadyState on Windows 7. Is Microsoft going to update SteadyState? I have been asked to set up a computer lab for my kids school and I want to run a DNS sever and use Active Directory. SteadyState would be nice to use on the students laptops.

Unfortunately, the news here is bad. Microsoft's official response is as follows:

There's currently no Windows 7 version and Microsoft does not have future plans for SteadyState at this time.

If you're not familiar with SteadyState, it's pretty cool stuff for people managing shared computing environments. You can find out more on the Microsoft web site.

XP Mode: 32-Bit or 64-Bit?

Stephen D. asks a surprisingly common question:

Will the Windows XP virtualization mode \[XP Mode\] run in 32-bit mode if I install 64-bit Windows 7? I'm fairly certain my old HP scanner won't play ball in 64-bit Windows 7.

XP Mode is always 32-bit regardless of whether Windows 7 is 32- or 64-bit. In fact, the underlying virtualization technology, called Windows Virtual PC, only supports 32-bit guest OSes. That's true whether the host OS (Windows 7) is 32-bit or 64-bit.

Note that other virtualization environments do offer support for both 32-bit and 64-bit guest OSes. That said, few offer the same seamless access to virtualized applications alongside native applications that Windows Virtual PC/XP Mode provides. If you don't need this kind of functionality, Sun VirtualBox is an excellent (and free) solution. If you do, check out Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows or VMWare Workstation 7.

Free DVD Decryption

Jack H. asks:

I'm using Windows XP with DVD43 and Handbrake. I use the Universal preset. When I preview the DVD it looks and works just fine, but when I click start the DVD will start ripping and then crash when it says 'Muxing' I've tried using different computers, OS' and presets but every time it crashes. Windows XP says it is because of an 'Illegal DLL relocation' any ideas? This never happened on 0.9.3 but now it does after upgrading to 0.9.4.

I'm not familiar with DVD43, but you do have some other DVD decryption options to try. Tom J. coincidentally recommended DVD Shrink this very week, and it does seem to work well, so that's a possibility. What I use personally, however, is Slysoft AnyDVD. It's not free--in fact, it's quite expensive--but it is updated on a very aggressive schedule and has never let me down. I understand not wanting/being able to pay for such a thing, but AnyDVD is excellent, and it does other things (like allow you to automatically skip all the pre-movie junk on many DVD movies).

And for whatever it's worth, Handbrake (with the Universal preset) is absolutely the way to go for DVD ripping. It rips to the best possible format (H.264) and, in the most recent version, even supports soft captioning. It's great. (And free.)

Change the Wallpaper in Windows 7 Starter

Robert M. asks:

My netbook, a Samsung N130 (which I am happy with after a few tweaks and dropping in a 2 GB memory module), came with Windows 7 Starter. Is there any way to change the desktop background using a hack or otherwise? Or do I have to resort to getting Windows 7 Home Premium?

Microsoft prevents the user from changing the Windows 7 Starter wallpaper/background, presumably as a punishment because they were too cheap to buy a "real" Windows 7 version. I take issue with that, but as Rafael Rivera discovered last year, there is no easy way for the end user to change it themselves. Fortunately, there are workarounds. I recommended this Starter Wallpaper Changer to Robert, and he reported back that it works fine. I know, too, that Stardock makes a utility called My Colors that is sometimes bundled with Starter-based netbooks so that users can get around Microsoft's technical blocks. I haven't tested this product, however.

More next week...