Walt Mossberg

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Mossberg’s Mailbox

A Solution for Awkward Keyboards

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about what to do when you’re uncomfortable with a laptop’s keyboard, battery life for digital cameras, Internet options for rural areas and compensation for product reviews.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Recently I made the costly mistake of purchasing sight unseen a low-priced Dell laptop. I am having a hard time getting comfortable with the keyboard and touch pad. Should I junk the machine, or is there a wireless external keyboard and mouse I can buy?

Don’t junk the laptop. There are lots of wireless external keyboards and mice you can buy that will work with it, and some are even made in compact sizes especially for laptops. Most simply require you to insert a very small wireless transmitter into a USB port. Companies that offer such wireless keyboards and mice include Logitech, Microsoft and Kensington. In particular, I like and use the Logitech V500 wireless mouse for laptops, which stores its transmitter internally for travel, and has a great feel and good battery life.

Of course, many people find the keyboards and touch pads on Dell laptops to be just fine. But your story is a reminder that laptop shoppers should always try out keyboards and touch pads and screens before buying, if at all possible. In the case of products like Dell’s, which aren’t sold in stores, I suggest borrowing a machine from a friend or co-worker briefly to get a feel for it.

One issue you didn’t touch on in your recent digital-camera buying guide is battery life. What’s your advice in that area?

My advice is to look for a camera that will let you take pictures all day on a single charge. This is difficult to test, because different people take different numbers of pictures, in a wide variety of settings. Pictures that require flash, or lots of changes in focus or zoom settings, can drain the batteries faster. And, to some extent, pictures taken at higher-quality settings can put more strain on the batteries as well, because they take longer to save to memory cards.

The best rough guideline you can follow is the number of average pictures the camera maker claims can be taken on a charge. Match it against your own shooting patterns. If you mostly take daylight shots at the standard resolution and quality settings, this should be a decent guide. If not, adjust the number downward. I also advise buying a spare battery.

Another tip: turn off the LCD screen when you don’t actually need it, since the screen chews up battery power. One reason to prefer cameras with optical viewfinders is that you won’t need the screen to frame shots, only to review them, and can keep the screen off for longer periods.

I am a broker who sells land in rural or remote locations. Increasingly, my clients want high-speed DSL or cable Internet services, but they are often unavailable in the rural areas. Are there rural options available?

Yes. You can tell them that, in most places, high-speed Internet service is available via satellite. DirecTV offers a service called Direcway, which works anywhere with a clear view of the Southern sky. It downloads data at 500 kilobits per second, which is equivalent to the slower DSL offerings.

It’s been years since I tested satellite Internet service, so I can’t offer an evaluation. But the Direcway service has some drawbacks. It doesn’t work well with fast Internet gaming, because there is some latency in the home-to-satellite connection. It also isn’t compatible with most Virtual Private Network, or VPN, connections that link homes securely to corporate networks. And its upload speed is quite slow, at just 50 kbps.

Also, Direcway is relatively costly. There’s a $600 upfront cost for a special satellite dish, and the monthly fee is $60, much more than most DSL and cable rates. But, in areas without DSL or cable, it may be worth it.

I am wondering if you ever get paid by companies, in cash or kind, for any reviews or recommendations of their products that you make in your articles. I ask this because I have recently read that a number of reviewers in the media charge money for favorable opinions or mention of technology products.

No, I don’t. I neither seek, nor accept, money, or anything else of value, from the companies whose products I cover. I return any products I am lent for review, except for items of minor value which companies don’t want back. In the case of these items, I either discard them or give them away in return for donations to charity.

I also don’t accept trips, speaking fees or “editorial discounts” from companies whose products I cover. If I want a product I review for my own use, I buy it, at retail. And I don’t own a single share of stock in any of the companies whose products I cover. Also, I never coordinate my reviews with our advertising sales department, and don’t solicit or sell ads. On many occasions, I have written negative reviews of products from companies that advertise prominently in this newspaper, and positive reviews of companies that don’t advertise.

While I can’t speak for other reviewers at other publications, I believe that generally similar policies are followed by major reviewers in the best known print publications. It’s unfortunate that a few so-called reviewers, mainly on television, do charge companies for mentions, and thus raise doubts in the public’s mind about technology reviews in general.

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Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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