One Year Later: iPhone Not So Amazing

October 20th, 2008

There are many things I love about my original iPhone, but after one year of ownership, it’s lately begun to collect dust in its charging stand. I grabbed a BlackBerry Curve 8330 at the office, and after three weeks with the RIM device, I’m sure I’m not going back to my iPhone.

So what’s wrong with the iPhone? Two things:

1. One word: AT&T. I live and work in the greater Boston area, and AT&T’s network is pretty poor here and elsewhere. When I receive calls at my house, the iPhone rings only about 50% of the time. Sometimes calls don’t even register as missed. One of the first things I noticed after switching to BlackBerry on Verizon’s network is how many calls I was suddenly getting. And calls to my BlackBerry don’t drop off or become interference plagued anywhere near as frequently as those on my iPhone. Apple’s insistence on exclusivity with AT&T in the U.S. will keep me from going back to the iPhone until that changes.

So is this a regional problem? Not according to Consumer Reports, which has more than once ranked Verizon’s network as best or second best in most major markets throughout the U.S. Both in the Northeast and in my travels all around the country I have found this to be true. I was a Verizon Wireless customer before I bought my iPhone.

2. The virtual keyboard doesn’t work for me. People assume that it’s the lack of tactile feel when pressing fingers to glass, but I don’t think that tells the story. My frustration with the iPhone keyboard is that I cannot use my thumbs, but am instead reduced to stabbing with one finger, which is slower and less accurate. The worst part is that I frequently press the wrong keys while attempting to type without looking. On the BlackBerry, even though the keys are both much smaller and packed more tightly together, I’m able to “touch type” because of the little bumps that help you locate the keys by touch. The way I see this the problem is one of size. I could deal with lack of tactile feel on the iPhone if the virtual keycaps were larger so there were less chance of hitting the wrong key. Without those tactile bumps, me and my thumbs need larger targets.

That’s my short list of serious pet peeves with the iPhone. Were I to make a list of things I love about Apple’s smartphone, it would have at least a dozen items. But while it’s a short list negatives, they hard to get around: It’s not a reliable cell phone for calls, and I can’t really type emails and texts comfortably. The switch to the BlackBerry was a no-brainer for me.

Even so, I wouldn’t say I love the BlackBerry. The software syncing situation is terrible for Mac users. PocketMac is hopeless. (I’m about to try Missing Sync.) RIM needs to break down and write a true Desktop Manager for the Mac. I’m going to miss the iPhone’s seamless integration with all things Apple and Mac.

I also don’t like the BlackBerry’s over-reliance on email as a way to notify about voicemails and texts. I get so much voicemail that I need one place for that. I love the iPhone’s visual voicemail center and texting module (which uses more of an IM paradigm).

The BlackBerry Web browser and digital media features pale by comparison with those of the iPhone. I bought a 4GB SD card for the BlackBerry and still haven’t been able to successfully copy my songs and photos to RIM’s smartphone.

One BlackBerry Curve strength I hadn’t expected is that it’s noticeably lighter than the iPhone while being roughly comparable in size.

All in all, the iPhone is the most important smartphone released in the last three years. But Apple’s blind insistence on being exclusive with AT&T and Steve Job’s belief that buttons are bad — even keyboard buttons — makes the iPhone incomplete for me. I know other people who’ve gone back too. I’ll come back to the iPhone when and if Apple gets the message about the main things that a smartphone has to accomplish: phone calls and email.

If I could only get the BlackBerry keyboard and Verizon’s network on the iPhone, I’d have the best of both worlds.

Why newsletter readers got info that blog readers didn’t

September 1st, 2008

SNB reader and registered member FuturePerfect posted this comment today in response to my last blog post:

I’m confused. I thought this blog is your newsletter, replacing your old newsletter site which is now an archive. And didn’t you mean you e-mailed not [snail] mailed the newsletter? And since you can’t re-mail your newsletter, is it now unavailable to me forever? Could you please explain?

OK, let’s see if I can clear up your confusion. The blog is the locus of the primary content that was previously Scot’s Newsletter (emailed and web page). And, yes, any newsletter I “mail” is emailed. But there’s a little more to this that you may have missed.

When the blog was launched, I merged the HTML and Text newsletters into a single list and began sending a notification newsletter to let people know whenever there is recently added content on the blog. For the most part, the notification message contains headline, blurb, and links to all (or most) of the blog entries since the last newsletter.

I expected to mail the newsletter on a roughly monthly schedule, but also promised only to mail the newsletter when there was something of benefit to the majority of subscribers. I polled people about this before I made the decision to switch to a blog and use the newsletter this way. Many people were not in favor of the blog, but the vast majority of existing newsletter subscribers wanted the newsletter to continue on as a notification message.

When I made the switch to the blog, I converted the newsletter to text only. Prior to that, the newsletter consisted of two separate lists, HTML and text only. We merged and de-duped the lists. De-duping means that when the same email address was found on both HTML and text lists, one instance was removed. We also cleaned the list so that recent bad addresses were deleted. The list size went from about 47K to about 43K.

Somewhat surprisingly, few people unsubscribed from the newsletter when I made the transition to a notification newsletter.

A key point

So, this may be the main point of your confusion, FuturePerfect:

Occasionally, I write exclusives for newsletter subscribers, which go out via email along with the list of links to the recent blog posts. Usually, these are not items of general interest to blog readers. Having been absent from subscriber’s inboxes for 5 months, though, I decided newsletter subscribers deserved some explanation. So, the email message contained a detailed explanation of why the newsletter hadn’t been mailed since March 27th.

Part of the reason for the unintended hiatus was a nearly three-month security battle I waged with hackers who penetrated the Web servers of my last webhost (IX Webhosting). As a result, part of the explanation included a quick overview of events and even some of my takeaways. I expect to publish a more detailed version of that story in the blog. I’m still not completely out of the woods (although it’s looking good), so I’ll hold off on my fully public report of my security challenges until the story is concluded.

So, if you’re someone who wants to stay very, very close to all things Scot’s Newsletter, subscribing to the newsletter is a good idea. It was my earlier judgment that most blog readers don’t need that much detail. It’s really your choice, however. If you’d like to subscribe to the newsletter, please use the Scot’s Newsletter Blog notification list sign-up page. It’s text only, is easy to unsubscribe from, and is likely to mail somewhere between 5 and 15 times a year.

Additionally, if you’d like to support Scot’s Newsletter, subscribing would be a fine way to do so. Although I have no plans to do this right now, it is at least possible that I might someday return to primary content being published in a newsletter format. More than likely, that would be after major new antispam technology became prevalent.

One of the reasons I moved to the blog was that the rise of Yahoo mail (the worst offender), gmail, Hotmail, and other free webmail services has meant the successful delivery rate of most newsletters — especially large HTML newsletters — has plummeted. Webmail services (I prefer gmail of the lot) tend to be quick to block newsletters. Because webmail is a free service, there’s no advantage to Webmail providers in delivering every message. There’s no service level they are compelled to meet. If they deem something to be in some way suspicious, then it’s blocked. And subscribers never even know.

A shorter, text-only newsletter has a much, much better likelihood of making it by the spam filters, though. So, for now, the notification newsletter makes a lot more sense.

Six reasons why the newsletter was on hiatus

So, because some people are interested, here’s a summary of the reasons I published in the newsletter explaining why it took a five-month breather. Unlike the newsletter, I’m placing these issues in chronological order. The delay to the newsletter — and the reduction in the number of my posts over the same period — was actually caused by a series of decisions and events:

1. I have young kids and a wife who is pursuing her own demanding career. My wife needs help, and my kids need time with dad. Nothing is more important than family, so over the last year I’ve been devoting more of my “free” time to my personal life.

2. Last fall I took on a new professional role as editor-in-chief of Computerworld. As you might imagine, the job demands a great deal of my attention. My professional responsibility is to the 39 editors, reporters, and writers of Computerworld’s editorial staff — even on my own time. Something has to give, and since Scot’s Newsletter is for the most part a moonlighting labor of love, it has been getting less of my time.

3. After delivering the Best Firewall Software of 2008 story in March — a decision and a story 18 months in the making — I gave myself a four-week break from even thinking about Scot’s Newsletter.

4. Over the last two years I have become a confirmed Macintosh user. Perhaps even more so after the latest detour into my own little security nightmare (see #6 below). Most SFNL readers are Windows users. I am still actively watching and using Windows, but I have recommended against Vista and there’s not a lot more to say about Windows XP. Until Windows 7 arrives, there’s a dearth of material to cover. The same thing happened at the end of the Windows 98SE/ME cycle, by the way. People take my lack of Windows coverage of late as a sign that I have abandoned Windows. While I have abandoned Vista, I have not abandoned Windows.

As long as I’m speaking of Windows, here’s some advice. Windows XP users: Please Install Service Pack 3. If you’re using an HP machine, make sure you have the latest updates (including firmware) for your computer before doing so. Also, Windows XP isn’t going to last forever. Windows users should be thinking about their next move within the Windows world. If you can afford it, have the hardware to support it, and you’re technically minded, Windows Server 2003 or 2008 might be an option. Windows Server is not for everyone, though.

Expect Windows 7 to arrive in 18 months or so (although Microsoft may not be able to deliver quite that fast). My best guess is that Windows 7 might wind up being something that might also be called Windows Vista Service Pack 3 with visible new changes (something like Windows XP SP2 or Windows ME). In other words, it may not be the fix that people who aren’t fond of Vista are waiting for.

In my opinion, Microsoft needs to downsize Windows. It has become bloated with non-essential extras. Simplicity, elegance, reliability, and performance should be the watch words of the next version of Windows. I wish I could say that’s likely to be the case, but I’m still hoping that I’m wrong.

5. When oil prices spiked in May and June, my interests turned sharply to a few of my other passions, automobiles, climate change, and alternative energy sources and technologies. Several posts were devoted to that, and I opted not to send a newsletter just for those posts, since most newsletter subscribers didn’t sign up for that type of content.

6. The Scot’s Newsletter sites were under security attack from May through early August. Once I discovered what was going on (in June), I was forced to shut down the blog and forums during this period, and I also spent well over 120 hours of my personal time fighting the problem on my home networks and machines as well as on my shared webhosting server. In the end, I had to research and select a new webhost, migrate my sites to the new host, update all my server applications, and resurrect the blog, forums, and other website in their new location.

The new webhost is much better than the old one in all aspects, including security, performance, and tech support. I’ve opted not to mention the new webhost by name (and I’d ask folks not to post the name if they decide to research it) until I write about it in a future post. What I can tell you now is that, so far, it’s the best webhost I’ve ever had. So there is a silver lining to my security hassles.

Not getting rid of me that easily

Finally, it should be noted that Scot’s Newsletter will continue to be updated as often as I have time to do so. It will continue to cover Windows, the Mac, broadband, security, Microsoft, Apple, and all the many things it has always covered. It may also cover other things I’m passionate about. Nothing has changed, really, it’s just that 2008 has so far been a year when I’ve had less time for writing posts. I’m not suddenly going to stop writing about computers. And I have no intention to discontinue the blog or the notification newsletter.

Scot’s Newsletter mailed today (first time in 5 months)

August 30th, 2008

This is just a quick heads-up that the first issue of Scot’s Newsletter mailed today after an unintended 5-month hiatus. The contents of the newsletter are no longer published on the Web, since the newsletter is primarily a blog notification message. There is some information in this issue of direct interest to subscribers — including an explanation of why it’s been so long since the newsletter mailed.

Because, these days, newsletters often accidentally wind up in spam traps, I wanted to make sure that newsletter subscribers got this little extra notification from me with a suggestion that they check to ensure they got their copies. (Please note: I cannot resend the newsletter to you if you didn’t get it. My apologies.)

If you’d like to subscribe to or unsubscribe from the Scot’s Newsletter Blog email-notification list, those tasks are quite easy. Please visit SNB subscription page.

— Scot

Online Armor Version 3 Beta Supports Vista

August 5th, 2008

Yesterday, Tall Emu, makers of Scot’s Newsletter’s Best Software Firewall of 2008, Online Armor, released public beta 1 of a significant new version of its firewall. Online Armor version 3 supports Vista, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The list of features is quite long and very intriguing.

Tall Emu CEO Mike Nash tells me that the public beta of the free version of Online Armor will be released shortly (probably today). In addition to Vista support, the free version will now be able to check for and install updates automatically as well as upgrade to newer versions (free or paid) of the OA software without having to uninstall the previous version. That takes care of my chief criticism of Online Armor’s 2.x free version. (The paid version of the product was able to perform both of these functions.) I’m glad to see Tall Emu make the products equal in this area. It’s the right thing to do. But in the same breath, I also urge my readers to pay for the commercial software products they adopt and use regularly. It is equally the right thing to do.

So here’s a quick top-level list of what’s new in Online Armor 3. For more detail about what’s new, see Mike Nash’s post in the Tall Emu forums.

Online Armor 3 Beta 1 Highlights and New Features

  • 32-bit Vista compatible
  • Updated user interface
  • Additional threat protection
  • Updated help file (http://www.tallemu.com/webhelp3/Welcome.html)
  • New language support, including French and Italian.
  • Multi-desktop support
  • Manage your hosts file with Online Armor’s HOSTS editor.
  • “Trust All” option in the Safety Check Wizard allows fast setup on new computers.
  • MAC Filtering
  • Online Armor can be set not to start at next boot.
  • Filter by program added to firewall status screen.
  • Default “Run Safer” for unknown programs added to OA options.
  • Keylogger detection detects more types of keylogger.
  • Advanced-mode options screens allow finer control.

Scot’s Newsletter Forums Open for Business

July 27th, 2008

It’s taken a lot of work to get there, but the curtain has raised once again on Scot’s Newsletter Forums after a hiatus of more than three weeks. The closure, like the locking of this blog to comments and new registrations, was caused by hackers who were able to repeatedly access these sites via FTP. Both blog and forums have been moved to a new webhost and their underlying applications have been fully upgraded.

If you’re a frequenter of the forums, drop by and help us beta test the new forum software, configuration, and customizations.

Now that the forums are back open, the migration to the new host is complete. I’ve learned a lot from this less than happy experience. I’ll pass along some of my lessons learned in future blog entries.

And … We’re Back

July 23rd, 2008

Good news! Scot’s Newsletter Blog is back in business. I have removed the registration block and reinstated the ability for registered readers to comment. Thanks for your patience.

During the hiatus, the blog was moved to a new webhost and was updated to the latest version of WordPress. Those jumps represent a major upgrade to the site, and I’m still working out some minor kinks. Please report any issues you may find by posting a comment to this thread or by sending me an email. Much obliged.

Welcome back. It feels good to be in business again.

— Scot

What’s Up at the Scot’s Newsletter’s Sites

July 6th, 2008

All —

Over the last several weeks, the Scot’s Newsletter sites have been fending off attacks by hackers and exploits.

So far as I know, there has been no loss or exposure of private data or permanent damage to any of the sites.

I have temporarily shutdown the forums and closed the blog to all new comments and user registrations until I’m reasonably sure that the visitors and data are safe.

I can’t tell you how long that will take. But I have enlisted the help of security experts to review the situation and advise me.

I’m taking this opportunity to improve security and reliability on the sites.

For now, the blog and Scot’s Newsletter archives are still available.

I hope to reopen quickly, but my priority is safety and security. And that will take as long as it takes.

Please be patient.

— Scot

Hybrid Closure: Buying a Second Toyota Highlander Hybrid

June 20th, 2008

Somewhere in New York City is a cab driver whose name I never caught who is partly responsible for helping me make this decision. He gave me a ride from LaGuardia into the City in his 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and we spent 35 minutes comparing notes on all the hybrid vehicles we knew. He loved his cab, which already had upwards of 100K miles on it. It started me thinking: I had been concentrating on buying an economical third vehicle, something like a Prius or Civic Hybrid. But was keeping my pristine, under-20K-miles, 2004 Toyota Tundra DoubleCab pickup truck the responsible thing to do? It didn’t even take me a New York minute to consider that question. The answer was: No.

So, if I didn’t have a pickup truck, what vehicle would I need to handle my weekend woodworking and landscaping projects while at the same time allowing me to ferry around kids to soccer games, etc.? Despite having excellent second row seating, the Toyota Tundra DoubleCab is no fun to park or zip around town in. Since my wife bought her 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid last August, I’d taken to using her car on the weekends — when I could get it.

Sitting there on the L.I.E. in the back of this guy’s Highlander Hybrid cab, the answer crystallized in my mind. I have hitch attachments that extend the relatively short cargo area behind the first row of the Highlander (and ply wood won’t lie flat, but it’s not like I usually buy more than four sheets a time). I have a cargo platform (2 feet by 5 feet) that slips into the hitch receiver, giving me a lot more storage space. I’ve also used it to ferry my snow blower and gas grill for servicing. I have a bike rack hitch attachment. The Highlander has a decent roof rack and a fairly long roof line. Most of all, I don’t need to haul big things very often. To be honest, the truck has spent more time ferrying Christmas trees than serious payloads. If I really need a pickup, I can always rent one. In the era of $4 gas, a pickup truck that’s not a full-time work truck is not just a luxury, it’s just plain irresponsible for my needs.

So with that as the lead in, I decided several weeks ago to buy a used 2006 or 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid — the same vehicle my wife owns. I’d already done all the research when we bought her car. It’s the best designed, most fuel-efficient people mover to be had. Owning one for nearly a year hasn’t changed my opinion on that score one jot. There are still 2008 Highlander Hybrids around, but I’m not fond of the newer model, especially because it’s quite a bit more expensive.

In the end, I fell into a lucky deal — a used 2007 model with only 4,000 miles on it that was literally owned by a little old lady who rarely drove it. It’s exactly like my wife Cyndy’s except for color and DVD navigation option. Cyndy doesn’t care for DVD navigation because of a strong preference for analog dials and an absence of glitzy graphics while she’s driving. Even the interior color of my new vehicle is the same as hers. All I had to do was have the dealer add the tow hitch. The Highlander is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds, but what I’m interested in is the 350-pound tongue weight for various attachments that lack wheels.

Won’t his and her Highlanders be kinda cute? Isn’t the Highlander a plain and drab Camry derivative? Yes and yes. But it’s the right vehicle for my needs. The hybrid technology will add 10-15 mpg over what I’ve been getting with the truck, plus it’s a lot more enjoyable to zip around in, park, and do all the things that parents with young kids do. And the Highlander will be an adequate vehicle for most of my home-improvement projects.

I take delivery tomorrow.

More Scuttlebutt on the 2009 Prius

June 6th, 2008

From a salesman at a Toyota dealer I frequent, I heard some details about the next-generation Toyota Prius a couple of days ago. I can’t verify this information independently, but I believe it’s probably close to the truth:

1. The next-gen Prius (which may or may not be the 2010 or 2009 model) will get a new, more fuel-efficient 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gas engine from the 35-mpg 2009 Toyota Corolla. The new Prius will get higher gas mileage — probably mostly as a result of this new gas engine.

2. The new Prius body will have mild cosmetic updates, not a major upgrade. The body will have longer, sloping nose and will have a sportier appearance overall.

3. The new Prius will not have lithium-ion batteries, and I was told it will not have a larger electric motor (although that second point was conveyed with far less confidence).

4. The Prius name will be used on a small line-up of vehicles that are under development now.

5. Toyota is planning a new hybrid vehicle that will have Prius model-line badging and will be called the “Abat” (spelling?). It will be a hybrid 4×4 truck crossover based on the RAV4 platform combined with a drivetrain derived from the Camry Hybrid. My source described it as being a cross between the Subaru Brat of the late 1970s …

… and the Honda Ridgeline. It will have a fold-down rear wall that lets you extend the bed into the rear seat like the Ridgeline and Chevy Avalanche. When extended, the bed will be 6-feet long.

If this information about the Prius is true, Toyota may call the new drivetrain in next year’s Prius the third generation of its Hybrid Synergy Drive (hybrid technology), but if so it will be letting its marketing department get the best of it. Any new evolution of the hybrid technology should involve a system that lets the vehicle drive a bit faster and longer on electric power before the gas engine kicks in. In my opinion, it should also incorporate safe, longer-lasting, lighter-weight lithium-ion batteries.

That said, the new Corolla engine is EPA rated at 27 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. In its initial test, Consumer Reports got 32 mpg in the mixed driving and 40 mpg on the highway — with the 4-speed automatic. The gas economy of the new 1.8-liter Corolla engine is pretty impressive. A colleague of mine recently traded in his Toyota Tundra DoubleCab pickup for the new Corolla. He tells me he’s getting 40 mpg with it. He commutes 90 miles a day (both ways), and the Corolla has cut his gasoline consumption by half.

Outlook Worsening? Or Becoming More Realistic

I probably don’t have to tell you that things are getting worse on the oil front. Despite a recent temporary drop in oil prices, many experts believe we’re not going back to sub-$100-a-barrel oil prices. General Motors announced that it’s dropping its focus on big SUVs and turning its attention to building a small vehicle with a 1.4-liter engine for domestic consumption.

I think we can finally expect to see both a raft a new hybrids as well as many more small vehicles with small, highly fuel-efficient engines. The American consumer has gotten the message. In my area, there’s now as much as a six-month wait for the Toyota Prius. People are snatching up small cars rapidly. Car sales finally beat out truck sales in May. Things are changing rapidly.

My thinking has changed too. I had been planning to keep my 2004 Toyota Tundra DoubleCab as a luxury — a weekend-only vehicle. But I’m now thinking about trading it for some sort of hybrid vehicle, possibly even a second Highlander Hybrid. I realize my purist readers are going to bash me for the large hybrid if I go that way, but I’m giving up a vehicle with ultimate utility, and I’m going to need something I can haul stuff with. I do woodworking and landscaping myself, and I’m not prying my wife’s Highlander Hybrid out of her hands, or messing it up with my Home Depot runs. I’m thinking a used 2006 Highlander Hybrid, by the way. I can’t afford the new design. They’re way expensive. But I may have trouble locating a used one.

Toyota’s Next-Gen Hybrid Tech and 2009 Prius

May 25th, 2008

SNB reader and economist Giacomo Ponzetto sent a very interesting email questioning some of my thinking in An Increasing Priority: Fuel-Efficient Automobiles. One of the points he raised was whether this was the best time financially to buy a Toyota Prius. His point is that Toyota is gearing up to release the third generation of its Hybrid Synergy hybrid-electric technology. It’s also redesigning the body of the 2009 Prius.

We know very little about Toyota’s third-gen hybrid technology as yet, but what’s leaked out is that it’s supposed to offer better gas mileage and more power. The car is apparently also undergoing a redesign that may make it one-inch wider and three to four inches longer (according to various reports). Toyota may also be increasing the number of trim levels, and may eventually offer other vehicles with the Prius badge, including some sort of small minivan.

There is precious little information directly attributed to Toyota about any of details. In fact, there are a great many conflicting reports. One of the more recent stories from Edmunds Auto Observer is, however, worth a read. The story offers more detail than any other story I’ve read on this subject, and it pegs the launch date of the redesigned Prius as January 2009. A May 2008 Road & Track story also sheds some light on the topic. The rest of the links flesh out additional information, including what Honda is doing:

This Popular Mechanics image, which may be a photo illustration, is likely not based on the actual final version of the new Prius. It appears to be an artist’s rendition of the 2009 Prius based on published descriptions of the new dimensions of the vehicle and changes to the nose. The refinements shown to the rear end, while attractive, are probably not in the cards. This Road & Track slideshow shows what it purports to be camouflaged 2009 Prius. If these images show something like the real deal for 2009, it’s a very mild cosmetic upgrade that might be nothing more than a mild refresh while we wait for the big change in 2010.

The Right Time to Buy?

Toyota, Honda, Nissan, GM, and Ford are just some of the world’s auto manufacturers that are gearing up in a big way to deliver major new hybrid line-ups and also plug-in hybrid vehicles over the next couple of years. 2010 is the likely arrival timeframe for many of these efforts. So, should you wait?

In my opinion, no — not if you’re already in the market for a new vehicle. The Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid are both viable vehicles right now that will save you money and cut back on harmful emissions right away.

The only steep-demand tax that consumers are paying Toyota right now is that dealers aren’t dealing off the suggested retail price of any of their hybrid models. In many U.S. markets, they’re completely sold out of hybrids but they’re continuing to sell them sight unseen “off the boat.” Customers don’t even get a pre-purchase test drive. Plus you’ll likely have to wait a couple of months to take delivery. But bottom line, the prices haven’t gone up yet.

Even if Toyota intends to hold the price on lower-end trim levels of the Prius, I have my doubts about whether it will be able to do so. Some of the factors that go into my thinking include the weakness of the dollar against the yen and other currencies, the cost of transportation, reduction or elimination of tax incentives, building demand for hybrids, possible limits on the production levels for the less expensive models, the worsening U.S. economy, and rising costs of manufacturing, both in the U.S. and overseas. In the 1990s, Toyota dealers in my area routinely slapped dealer mark-ups on their high-demand vehicles of as much as $2,000 above retail. Even though Toyota frowns on such practices, it could happen again.

What about the new technology? Might you have buyer’s remorse with the 2008 model?

I can’t say you won’t. I may feel that way if I buy a 2008 Prius. But there’s always something better around the corner. The real question is, is there be a significant reason to wait?

It appears that Toyota will be launching a new Prius in January. But will it be truly the next-gen hybrid technology, or is it a stopgap update while Toyota attempts to ramp up lithium-ion product? The Edmunds Auto Observer story implies that it’s all coming in early 2009, except the lithium ion batteries. The Road & Track story implies something that’s more likely. Toyota may offer three different levels: Base, Luxury, and Eco. That fits the company’s current situation. So, in that scenario, here are my guesses about the equipment levels for each trim level:

The Base model may have the current mpg levels and possibly the 1.5-liter engine with the existing nickel-metal-hydride batteries. It will be stripped way down to keep the price down. Some of the uplevel options won’t be available at all.

The Luxury model may get the 1.8-liter engine with the nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Gas mileage may suffer a little, but performance will be improved. This will be the most popular Prius sold, and it will probably be priced around $28,000 to $$29,000 depending on options.

The Eco model could have lithium-ion batteries if Toyota and its battery partner Panasonic can work out the production issues (and that’s a big if, in my opinion). The Eco model may have a June or July release date. This model could offer better than current Prius gas mileage with better than current Prius performance (on demand, but with a loss of gas mileage). But you’re going to pay for it. I expect this model to sell for as much as $32,000 to $33,000.

All three models will have the redesigned body style.

Of course, all of this is just my guesswork. The reality could be something very different. We might, for example, see only the new body design and Toyota’s improved Hybrid Synergy electric motor. The main advantage of that new motor is an increase of power output. If the weight is about the same as the old motor, or if it’s miraculously less, then Toyota should be able to run the car to higher speeds and for longer durations without switching on the gas engine. That would deliver notable improvements in fuel economy around town. Would Toyota dub that level of improvement its third-generation hybrid system? It just might. I’m pretty sure that, originally, Toyota had intended to factor lithium-ion batteries into that mix. But we’ll see.

I do think that Toyota will eventually get all this right. It’s trying to please both the eco and performance crowds. It did the same thing in miniature with the 2008 Highlander Hybrid. That’s why I bought the lighter, smaller 2007 model. I didn’t need a slightly bigger, heavier design. If the 2009 Prius tries to be more things to more people without significantly improving its HEV technology, then it might not offer the vaunted gas economy improvements that Toyota has leaked to the press here and there — at least, not until 2010.

In the end, it comes down to money. How many years will it take to pay-back your hybrid technology if the 2009 Prius costs more? Gas prices are very high right now. What about the loss of savings right now? I’m not an economist or an accountant. All I know is that, for me, it’s a good time to buy this year. If the cost of oil continues to climb, demand will ramp up that much quicker. And usually, prices of goods are determined by supply and demand.

What do you think? If you’re making a move to a new vehicle with better fuel economy, should wait for the barrage of new offerings waiting in the wings, or jump on what’s available now? There’s no right answer, but I’m interested in people’s insights and opinions. Feel free to post your comments or send me an email.