Katherine Boehret

Lost in Translation: How Do You Say That in Geek?

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the majority of attendees are doing their darndest to speak the geek language. “Geek,” though just a letter away from “Greek,” can be just as confusing to those who aren’t fluent speakers. Below, find a guide to terms and definitions used in some key technology categories. It will help you speak geek with the best of them, whether at CES or browsing products in your neighborhood electronics store.

Digital Cameras

Megapixels: This term describes the highest resolution photo a camera can take. Often mistaken as the most important factor in a digital camera, a high megapixel count — such as 10MP or more — isn’t necessary for the average user unless he or she plans on heavily editing or enlarging photos. Most new digicams offer between five and eight megapixels, which is usually more than enough.

Optical or Digital Zoom: Optical zoom, determined by the physical movement of a lens, matters much more than digital zoom, which digitally alters an image using the camera’s internal computer. Camera companies still try to confuse potential buyers by listing a camera’s total zoom, or the optical and digital zooms multiplied together. Ignore total zoom numbers and instead focus on optical, which now averages around 5x for many new cameras.

Image Stabilization: When generously sized LCD viewing screens started replacing optical viewfinders, they also forced users to hold their cameras at arm’s length, making for plenty of blurry photographs. To remedy this, camera manufacturers have added image stabilization, tools once found only in high-end SLR models. Optical (also called “mechanical”) and digital image stabilization correct for unsteady hands and moving subjects, respectively. Cameras with both types advertise dual image stabilization, which corrects for both situations and costs more.

Mobile Devices

HSDPA and EVDO: HSDPA, or High Speed Downlink Packet Access, is the name for AT&T‘s 3G, or third generation, mobile network that operates at roughly the speed of a slower DSL in a home. HSDPA is available in most major metropolitan areas and is seen as the competitor to Verizon and Sprint’s EVDO (Evolution Data Only) networks, though the popular iPhone runs on AT&T’s network using Wi-Fi and EDGE technology rather than HSDPA.

Multi-Touch Technology: Most popularly found on Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch, multi-touch is starting to show up in other products, such as in Microsoft‘s Surface, a coffee-table-like computer. Rather than just responding to on-screen touches, this technology enables moving, resizing and zooming pictures and Web pages using one or more fingers simultaneously. Look for many more devices — mobile and otherwise — to incorporate multi-touch in the future.

GPS: Global Positioning Systems are most often found in cars — either built-in or on portable devices from companies like Garmin and TomTom. These gadgets use satellite technology to determine geographic location, and high-end models even display Web content like news and weather along with directions. GPS integration in mobile devices can be used to plot routes in cars, can help users find nearby businesses while on the go and can link friends by showing one where the other is located and what they’re doing.

Digital Music

DRM: Digital rights management is a set of standards that protect the intellectual property rights of online content like music and videos, preventing it from being illegally distributed across the Web. In the past year, Vivendi‘s Universal Music Group, Apple and (most recently) Sony BMG said they will start selling DRM-free versions of songs, often for a higher price. In Apple’s iTunes store, these files are called “iTunes Plus” and aren’t restricted like other iTunes content.

MP3: MP3 files are open, without any DRM restrictions. Files that you rip (copy) from your own CDs are usually converted into MP3s, though iTunes users can automatically rip tracks into that program’s special format, called AAC. MP3 files can be uploaded to social-networking sites for sharing with friends and online communities.

These file types are protected by rights that tie them to specific players. Generally, AAC files make up the majority of tracks sold on Apple’s iTunes store and play only on Apple’s iPods; WMA files are Microsoft’s version of proprietary files.


The popularity of Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi, brings this technology to more and more portable devices like the iPod Touch and Microsoft Zune and gives companies good reason to incorporate Wi-Fi receivers in new computers — laptops and desktops alike. While available in many flavors, different letters like b, g, a and n stand behind Wi-Fi’s more technical name, 802.11, to help discern one version from another according to characteristics like speed and compatibility. The latest version, “n,” offers the greatest range and speed, and “n” devices are usually compatible with earlier versions.


HDTV: High-definition television has now become the standard, capable of displaying vastly better pictures, provided the source is also HD. Today’s more popular flat panel HD televisions are LCDs, or liquid crystal displays, though plasmas still hold their own. Recording HD content can’t be done with a regular digital video recorder; instead, a special HD recorder is required to capture this higher quality content.

480p vs. 1080i vs. 720p vs. 1080p: These numbers refer to the resolution, or sharpness, of a digital display, while “p” stands for progressive and “i” stands for interlaced. A resolution of 480p, known as EDTV or Enhanced Definition TV, is found most often in low-end plasmas or LCD screens. A TV with a resolution of 1080p is currently considered the Holy Grail, and costs the most. But 1080p pictures usually can’t be distinguished from less expensive 1080i or 720p pictures by average viewers at the typical distances from which most folks watch TV.

Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: Blu-ray and HD DVD are incompatible high-definition disc formats that continue to fight a seemingly endless battle to replace the DVD. The Blu-ray camp is led by Sony and the HD DVD camp is led by Toshiba. The two formats aren’t so different, technically speaking, but their very existence is confusing to consumers. The recent decision made by Time Warner‘s Warner Bros. to use Blu-ray gives Sony’s side a boost, and now Viacom‘s Paramount is rumored to be switching to Blu-ray from HD DVD. Dual-format players from Samsung and LG offer some solace.

Email: mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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