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Cingular’s New Data Network

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 Cingular data networks, the quality of Compaq laptops and options for connecting an iPod to home speakers.

In your review of the new T-Mobile BlackBerry Pearl, you said Cingular Wireless has a data network that is much faster than the EDGE network that T-Mobile uses. But I have a BlackBerry from Cingular and it, too, uses EDGE. So how is Cingular faster?

In 80 cities, Cingular has now rolled out a new network based on a technology called HSDPA that, in my tests, can be 10 times as fast as EDGE. However, most of its phones and digital devices haven’t been updated in new versions that can use the new, faster network. So far, only a few regular phones and laptop data cards from Cingular can use HSDPA. Its data-centric hand-helds, like BlackBerrys and Treos, are still stuck on EDGE, which Cingular continues to maintain alongside the new faster network.

But Cingular plans to offer new versions of the data devices in the coming months that can take advantage of the new, higher speeds. By contrast, T-Mobile has nothing faster than EDGE. Verizon Wireless and Sprint also have networks that are much faster than EDGE, based on a technology called EVDO. They are way ahead of Cingular in both the number of cities deployed and in the variety of devices that can use the highest speeds. For instance, the Verizon Treo I carry uses EVDO and can download Web pages and email attachments much more quickly than any EDGE device can.

There is a catch. With Verizon, Sprint and Cingular, even if your phone or data device can use the highest-speed networks the carriers offer, they will drop down to a lower-speed network if you enter an area where the higher-speed coverage isn’t available.

I bought a Compaq laptop in January 2005. Now in August it will not turn on. Naturally I only had a one-year warranty. The Geek Squad tells me I need a mother board, and that will cost more than a new laptop. Does Compaq have a history of only lasting a little over a year, or did I get a lemon?

Neither my email from readers nor anything I have read suggests that Compaq computers typically last only a year or so. However, reader surveys published by Consumer Reports and PC Magazine rank the Compaq brand (which is now owned by Hewlett-Packard) at or near the bottom in categories like how often its laptops need repairs and how reliable they are.

In general, I believe that as the factories in China (where nearly all laptops are made) jam more powerful and numerous components into slender laptops, quality and reliability are falling. Even Apple, which ranks at or near the top on the surveys I mentioned, is having problems with some of its newest laptops (and I am not referring here to the burning batteries Apple and Dell purchased from Sony).

Are there any good, effective options for getting an Apple iPod to work with a home speaker system? I guess I’m envisioning a “receiver” that allows an iPod to dock with it.

There are lots of products on the market that allow you to connect an iPod to a home audio system, or even just speakers. They range from simple audio cables you can buy at Radio Shack to iPod docks that connect to speakers or an audio receiver, and even wireless approaches. Apple itself makes a $19 cable and a $39 dock for this purpose and also sells a complete kit, with dock, cables and remote, for $99. But other companies sell similar products as well as self-contained docks.

There are way too many of these to list here, but there are some Web sites that can help you. Apple has a Web page listing some accessories, at www.apple.com/ipod/accessories.html. More are listed at Apple’s online store, at store.apple.com, under iPod Accessories — “Cables & Docks.” Another good source for information about this topic is ilounge.com.

* * *

Because of the volume of email I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by email, 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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