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Scratches Mar New iPod’s Beauty

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 badly scratched up iPod nanos, using Slingbox to beam a cable signal, and video chat on Windows.

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.

You and other writers gave the Apple iPod nano a rave review. But my nano is badly scratched up after only a couple of weeks of careful use, and there are lots of similar reports online. What’s going on?

Based on my own experience of about a month with the product, and emails I’ve received from readers, I believe the tiny, thin iPod nano is much more prone to scratching than earlier iPods, even though they, too, picked up scratches.

If I were reviewing the nano today, I would still call it “the best combination of beauty and functionality of any music player I’ve tested,” as I did in my review. But I would include a strong, prominent, warning that it scratches too easily in normal usage. This is a real downside to an otherwise excellent product.

My review of the nano ran on Sept. 8, and was based on four days of tests with an evaluation unit lent me by Apple. I bought my own nano the next day. The test nano, a new production model delivered in the box, picked up some scratches in testing, like any iPod, but nothing out of the ordinary or which impacted functionality.

But, after just under a month of daily use, my own nano is badly scratched, and looks beat up when viewed at an angle. Worse, there are several large scratches across the screen that impede functionality by making text and photos slightly harder to see. I have never tested or owned any portable electronic device that picked up as many scratches as quickly as the iPod nano.

Like the previous iPods I’ve owned, my nano has never been sheathed in a case. Like the others, I carry the nano — by itself — in my pants or jacket or shirt pockets; or loosely in a briefcase or carry-on travel bag, in a pocket containing no other hard objects. This is also how I carry my Treo smart phone, whose screen is free of scratches after much longer and harder use than the nano’s. My nano hasn’t been dropped or scraped. Yet it is badly scratched.

My recommendation now is that nano owners must buy and use a case for the device. That’s a shame with a product as beautiful and sleek like this, because it ruins the look and feel of the thing and adds to the cost. But I don’t consider it optional.

Apple says it uses exactly the same clear coating on the nano as on some earlier iPods, and that its engineers have conducted tests that show the nano isn’t any more vulnerable to scratches than other current iPods. Apple also says it hasn’t had a large number of complaints about scratching on the nano.

Company officials speculate that, because cases for the nano aren’t being sold in volume yet, early buyers who would normally protect an iPod with a case haven’t been able to do so with the nano. They also suggest that, because of its small size, some users may have carried it in places and ways that differ from how they carried larger iPods, and which increased the possibility of scratching.

I can’t dispute any of that, but I believe that something about the size and weight of the nano, and therefore the way it is used and behaves when carried, is making the coating Apple applies far less effective than it is with larger iPods.

I believe Apple should include a strong, thin case with every nano, starting as soon as possible. And Apple should research some sort of tougher coating for future nano models.

I would like to have the ability to watch TV at my office from my cable at home. We have Comcast cable-modem service at the house, but Verizon DSL in the office. Will the Slingbox work between two different Internet providers?

Yes. The Slingbox, a $250 gadget that beams TV from your home to a distant laptop via the Internet, works just fine with mixed groups of broadband services and providers. All you need is broadband on both ends. In fact, when I tested it, I used different types of broadband with no problem. More information is at www.slingmedia.com.

Is there a Windows equivalent to the video chat feature in Apple’s iChat instant-messaging program that comes with the Macintosh?

Yes and no. Both Yahoo and MSN, and possibly others, allow video chats to be conducted using Windows PCs over their instant messaging services, if both parties have a camera installed. But unlike with Apple’s iChat, these are one-to-one chats. The Apple program allows as many as four people in a video chat, each in its own large window, provided the person initiating the video chat has a powerful Mac model and all four people have cameras.

There is a lesser-known IM service called Paltalk (www.paltalk.com) that allows group video chats. I haven’t tested or reviewed Paltalk, but I have seen it work. It allows many more participants than Apple’s product does, but only one person can be speaking at a time. With Apple’s iChat, everyone can speak at any time, just as if they were in the same room. Paltalk plans to add the multiple-speaker feature next year.

* * *

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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