The Mossberg Report
The New Digital Dictionary
Since the digital revolution began 30 years ago, computers and other devices have been steeped in technobabble, an argot designed to make insiders feel smart, average users feel dumb and salespeople feel superior. Of course, every industry has its jargon. But it’s hard to think of a vocabulary that’s denser yet so widely used as the one that clings to digital gadgets.
And like the technologies themselves, digital jargon changes and expands all the time. Just when you thought you’d mastered stuff like RAM (computer memory) and GSM (the cellphone technology invented in Europe), new terms pop up like weeds on your lawn.
So here’s a quick and dirty glossary designed to make holiday shopping for the latest tech products feel less like taking the SATs.
Some of the newest terminology to know when you’re shopping for a computer, whether it be a Windows PC or an Apple Macintosh, involves the processor, the chip that’s the brain of the box. Until recently, most consumer computers had a single processor. Now it’s common to find them with so-called dual cores, which in effect means two processors packaged into one chip. Two cores won’t make your word processing or email go any faster, but they do potentially give you more horsepower for such heavy-duty tasks as gaming or video editing. I say “potentially,” because to make the most of a dual-core processor, you need software that sends some work to each core, and most programs are not yet designed to do that.
The labeling of these new processors is also confusing. Intel called its first consumer laptop dual-core chip the “Core Duo”; now there’s a second generation known as the “Core 2 Duo.” (In techland, apparently, the “2 Duo” moniker is assumed to be crystal clear.) And there are still some single-core Intel processors, dubbed “Core Solo.”
For laptops in general, one of the latest terms you’ll encounter is “ExpressCard,” which refers to the new version of that slot on the side of the machine into which you can pop a wireless receiver or some other add-on. For years these slots have adhered to a standard called “PC Card,” but the latest laptops are showing up with slots that follow the new ExpressCard standard. Worse yet for confused consumers, it comes in two flavors: a narrower one called ExpressCard/34, and a wider one called ExpressCard/54. And naturally, neither can accept cards designed for the older, PC Card standard.
One hardly knows where to begin when talking about cellphone jargon. But an obvious source of confusion is the baffling nomenclature being given to the various new high-speed cellphone networks that can transmit a wide assortment of material — music, video clips and web sites — to phones at speeds rivaling home broadband.
If you’re shopping for a phone at Verizon or Sprint, the high-speed capability is called “EVDO” or “EV-DO” (which stands for Evolution Data Only or Evolution Data Optimized). At Cingular, it’s known as “HSDPA” (for High-Speed Downlink Packet Access).
Since T-Mobile doesn’t have a network in this speed class, salespeople there will brag instead about “EDGE” (Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution), which, despite its aspirational name, is a much slower technology.
Buying a television used to be simple. No more. There’s a whole new vocabulary for digital TV shopping. It’s too expansive to cover completely in this space, but here are a few select terms.
In addition to the familiar plasma and LCD (liquid crystal display) sets, which have an expensive digital panel at the front, there’s now a third type of screen, called a “microdisplay.” This is actually a rear-projection television, although much skinnier than the old behemoths. There are three main microdisplay types. Each uses a different sort of very small digital circuit in the rear of the set to generate the picture, which is then projected onto the large screen at the front. And naturally, each has its own jargony name. The first, called “DLP” (digital light processing), uses a special chip loaded with minuscule mirrors. The second, confusingly called “LCD,” uses a tiny LCD chip. The third, “LCoS” (liquid crystal on silicon), is sort of a hybrid of the other two, in that it uses both liquid crystals and mirrors.
And don’t forget the digital video recorder — the now almost mandatory add-on used to record and save programs on hard disks inside cable and satellite receivers or inside a stand-alone unit — which unfortunately goes by two names. Sometimes it’s called a “DVR” (digital video recorder) and sometimes a “PVR” (personal video recorder), but really, they’re the same thing. You might even hear the technology referred to as “TiVo,” which is actually the best-known brand of digital video recorder. Think of TiVo as the Kleenex of DVRs — its name is sometimes used as a generic term for the whole category.
Wi-Fi wireless networks are now pretty familiar. Many people even know they come in two main speeds, designated by letters. The “b” variety, which was the first version to gain public acceptance, was succeeded by the “g” variety, which is faster and backwards-compatible with “b.”
Nice and simple, right? Not for long. Chaos has come to the Wi-Fi world in the form of a new standard,”n,” which is supposedly even faster than “g” and, more important, offers longer range. The problem is, the engineering committee that sets such standards has been taking forever to certify “n,” so companies have begun selling Wi-Fi gear that purports to use the “n” standard in some form but may not be compatible with it when it finally emerges. Last year there were “pre-n” products, which used some parts of the emerging standard; this year there are “draft-n” products, based on a draft of the proposed “n” standard. Stay tuned for the real thing.
But the most important Wi-Fi term of the moment is “MIMO,” short for multiple-input multiple-output. This is a technique that can greatly improve range and speed by capturing formerly stray parts of a wireless signal and merging them. It is expected to be a key component of the “n” standard, but is already in some “g” products, as well as in the “pre-n” and “draft-n” products.
There are two main types of high-speed Internet service: DSL (digital subscriber line) is sold by phone companies, while cable modem service is sold by cable companies. Most people know these terms.
But now there’s a third type, called “fiber optic,” being sold in some parts of the country. This technology uses glass fibers, lit up by a laser and connected directly to your home. (Some other systems use fiber under the street, but not running right up to the house.) The best-known brand of fiber-to-the-home broadband service is Verizon’s “FiOS,” which can deliver TV channels as well as the Internet.
All broadband service providers boast about their speed, and they tend to do so in techie jargon. Slower broadband is measured in kilobits per second, abbreviated as “kbps.” Faster speeds are clocked as megabits per second, or “mbps.” (Note that these terms end in bit, not byte. The latter ending is normally used as a measure of storage capacity, not speed.) One megabit equals 1,000 kilobits. So a DSL line that tops out at 768 kilobits per second, for example, isn’t nearly as fast as one that registers three megabits per second.
Almost everybody knows that MP3 (MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3) is the most common format for digital music files. But what is AAC? And how about WMA?
All of the above are compressed formats, meaning they take a song that would occupy lots of space on a disk and squeeze it down to a fraction of its original size while trying to preserve the sound. AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is an industry-standard music-compression format favored by Apple, while WMA (Windows Media Audio) is a proprietary music-compression format that is owned and used by Microsoft. Which of the three you prefer depends on your taste.
Both AAC and WMA are available in two versions. One is an “open” version, which gets created when consumers convert their CDs into these digital formats, and imposes no restrictions on usage. The second is an encrypted, or copy-protected, version, which includes code that restricts how often and under what circumstances the song can be played or copied. Songs sold at Apple’s iTunes Music Store are in the encrypted version of AAC, while songs sold by music services that use Microsoft software are sold in the encrypted version of WMA, meaning there are limits to what you can do with these files.