Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Internet: Going All Net for Entertainment and Communication

Installment 1 of 3 - TV

Right now, our family is grappling with the questions and logistics of going all Internet.  That is, what if we got rid of phone and replaced it with Internet?  (That one's pretty easy because we already have digital phone service, but has nuances as you'll see.)  What if we got rid of our Cable TV service, can we watch our shows solely on the Internet?

We are looking to reduce our bills.  We are sick of the game where you pay $140 a month for all 3, and after a year it jumps up to $210 - unless you call and threaten to disconnect, in which case they are authorized to offer you this deal to keep you - for another year.  Here's what we have found, and I think you'll agree there are some eye-openers.  My mother once (yeah, once!) said, "If it sounds too good to be true, it is."


In transitioning from traditional service sources of Cable TV and Digital or Land Line phone, it is important to consider how much more traffic (and eggs) you put in one wire (basket).  Therefore, you need to think about or experiment with Internet bandwidth.  Pay attention to Upload and Download speeds - Download is important for watching shows and consuming data, but Upload is important for me because I work from home and frequently send large files.

18 Mbps is the fastest service in my area from AT&T, for about $62 per month with taxes and fees, no discount, not bundled with any other service.  They of course offer discount packages so it ends up being just over half that for the first year, but that is a lot less than the U-Verse U300 bundle for $140 discounted rate.

If we are to truly "cut the cord" with TV and Phone, then we need to ensure we have good Internet for all the services.  U-Verse gave us 2 dedicated DSL lines to our house; Comcast Xfinity had a wire shared by the street, so that when the neighbors got on and did a lot, it slowed us down.  I have been streaming movies heavily for a year, and had (2) VOIP phone lines for a long time, doing Web meetings with screen sharing, and more with no issues.  It is feasible.

Home Network

Don't forget that a lot of your experience with speed has to do with the equipment in your home.  I had an old Linksys 802.11g router, which gives on a good day about 10 Mbps.  I upgraded earlier for about $90 to a D-Link dual-band 802.11n router, which is about 250Mbps over the air - much faster.  However, it is dual band (more about that in a minute), and most importantly, the Ethernet wire port on it is Gigabit.  If you don't have Gigabit network in your house to connect everything else, it gets slow (assuming you are using wires somewhere).  I bought some 5-port Gigabit switches for about $20-$30 each, Gigabit network cards for the PC's when I had them for about $5-$10 each, and voila, Gigabit.

The dual band router gives me 2 broadcast frequencies at 2.4GHz and 5GHz, so it effectively gives me 2 WiFi SSID names.  I segregated my Set Top Boxes (Apple TV's, XBox 360) to the 5GHz band, and put computers and tablets/phones on the 2.4 (some of that was hardware related, since the iPhone and iPad don't connect to 5GHz frequencies probably to conserve battery).

So streaming videos to Apple TV from my cloud drive on the network doesn't interfere with streaming videos from the Internet to a phone or tablet - segregated networks.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Why Windows?

Tell me again - why Windows?  Today I was trying to do what I thought would be a basic, simple task.  Take a picture from the integrated camera.  Simple, right?  So, how do you do that in Windows?  Hmm, let's see.
  • Paint - no, doesn't have anything to take a picture.
  • I know, Start, then search for camera.  That shows the devices.
  • How about search for webcam?  Devices.  Nothing to let me take the pic.
  • My old friend Google produced this - a person who asks the same question.  Look at the answers he gets, I mean really, is it that hard to take a picture from the webcam in Windows?  One guy suggests a screen shot (snipping tool), doh!  One guy says "use the software that comes with your computer" - doh!  This is a Lenovo,  so let's go to Thinkpad Productivity Center.  Hmm, wireless, powering on and off radios, device configuration, help and support.  Nope.
  • Oh, I know, Skype uses the camera.  And?  No tools to take a pic, just take a damned picture!  Really, guys?
So, fumbling around, and I guess I have to find some software, download and install it, just to take a *$%&#$ picture.  How do I do it?
  1. Take a picture with my iPhone
  2. E-mail it, or file in my Dropbox folder that is synched to my PC
  3. Open from my PC

If that were the only thing, it would be frustrating.  But that is indicative of everything in Windows, just about.  There are a few intuitive things, but overall - klunky.  And people call this multimedia, advanced?  I have been struggling the same for years with how to scan from the scanner.  You need some special software, hopefully provided by the scanner manufacturer.  I first tried to use the scanner on Windows at home about 3-4 years ago, never did figure out how to get my wife's HP laptop to scan from the Canon WiFi all-in-one.  So, I got her a Macbook Pro.  Problem solved.

With the Mac, you don't have to think about it.  Any software, you want to make a PDF?  Just print, and on the standard Print dialog is Save as PDF.  You want to scan?  Just run the built-in Preview app and import from scanner, or most graphical software provides scan functionality.  You want to take a pic?  Any graphics app you can just import from the scanner, camera, etc.  And people say a Mac costs a lot?  I'd rather have a used, 5-year-old Mac than a brand new Windows PC.  How's that for someone who's used Macs for 3.5 years, and Windows for 25 years?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Calling All Geeks - Submit your entries for Error Message Hall of Fame!

 Entry #1: CATIA / SmarTeam "Dead lock" error

Yes, I have finally done it.  I have finally decided to start an Error Hall of Fame (or Shame?).  Have you ever been scratching your head trying to figure out what that incomprehensible error message means?  Ever seen one that simply makes you laugh out loud (literally, not just "lol")?

(Apollo landing computer infamous for Error 1202 that almost aborted the landing mission)

I am soliciting your input - what criteria should we capture?  Do you have any nominees for Best and Worst Error Messages?  Here is what I am thinking about for data to capture:
  • Software and version
  • Title
  • Content
  • Cause
  • Fixes (if known)
  • Helpfulness - on a scale of 0 (total obfuscation) to 10 (totally clear)
  • Narrative or commentary
Here are the Acceptance Criteria for a submission to be inducted:
  1. The error must occur in software.
  2. There must be a recorded component - spoken errors like on a phone system can be recorded as a digital sound file, screen video or screen grabs are best.
  3. You must include all information, especially the software and version.  If it is very esoteric or obscure, perhaps the software manufacturer as well.
  4. If the cause is not known, put Unknown.
  5. If fixes are not known, put Unknown.
  6. E-mail them to

Send me your suggestions - attach screen shots or recordings whenever possible.

Our first entry:
  • Software:  CATIA V5R20 and SmarTeam V5R20
  • Title:   CATIA / SmarTeam "Dead lock" error
  • Content:  SmarTeam Error(4). Dead lock.
  • Cause:  Unknown, thought to occur with frequent Connect and Disconnect from SmarTeam
  • Fixes:  End Process on CNEXT and SMARTEAM, restart apps.
  • Helpfulness:  1
  • Commentary:  Because the term "deadlock" is meaningful in computer science, I don't rate this error as a 0 Helpfulness.  It does help that we know there is a deadlock.  Somewhat.  OK, not really, but it kind of tells us something better than other entries.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

iPad vs. Leappad, who is better for the munchkins?

Over the holidays, my 3.5 year old got a Leappad for a gift. As a tech savvy guy he is already familiar with iPad and iPhone so this was no big stretch. However I have been struck by a few glaring differences.

  • Market - As you may know, iPad has already sold over 100 million devices as of October 2012; I highly doubt Leap has even come close to 10% of that. Then, as they say, along came the iPad mini.  iPad is targeted at basically everyone, while Leappad is targeted at toddlers and young kids.
  • Usability is comparable, with the Leap device dumbed down for the wee ones.Where my toddler has "issues" is in his random exploration of the interface - randomly launching apps, randomly tapping this and that.  The Leappad is tightened up so he can't change WiFi settings or something destructive like that.
  • Price is quite disparate. The iPad options start at what, $250 and up? Leappad II was about $100. Definitely much better for ages 3-8.  While the target market demands a more rugged product, there was nothing we could do for our Leappad to protect it from a 3-year-old breaking its glass.  iPad at least has the availability (for more $$ of course) to purchase rugged cases that can withstand spills and impacts.
  • Manageability - and by this I mean ability to back up, transfer apps, etc. iTunes is a premier complete package for managing your devices. Apple has a well known universe for their devices. Leap has an app you download on your computer that gives you an App Store, but here's how our experience went. The device came with coupons to download free apps. So we did, and bought a couple. Prices were a lot more than Apple apps, $15-20. Elliott broke his Leappad (it has a plastic body, and glass screen), so they replaced it under warranty. However, when we got the new one, the apps didn't transfer.  So the apps we downloaded as software were not usable on the new device.  Only the cartridges that you plug into the top were transferable.
  • Tech Support - Apple is well-known for creating raving fans.  Leap - they need to go to Apple school.  We got the replacement unit (with the unbroken glass) and couldn't transfer the apps we had bought.  Their attitude was, sorry, that's how it works, when we called them and spent hours on the phone waiting on hold, explaining, and finally complaining that we spent the money and couldn't transfer the software apps we downloaded under our account.  It's like they mate you with a device for life, never expecting you to upgrade or replace it!
  • Company - Leapfrog (NYSE: LF) has been around for almost 20 years precisely in the business of portable kid-friendly devices.  Stock is around $8/share, $574M market cap.  Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has been specifically in this business for 4 years, and is way down to $450/share, $424B market cap.  More than 50x share price, 1000x market cap.  20 years, 4 years (for tablets that is).
  • Pudding - As in, the proof's in the.  Now that he has had the Leappad for 5 months, what have I seen?  He uses it very infrequently.  You have to find some special charger to charge it up, you can't just use a standard USB adapter.  The number, variety, and price of games means we just can't afford to constantly buy apps for it - while a bunch of free and less-than-$5 apps for iOS means we use it constantly.  Since his tastes vary, he sometimes plays with the Leappad, but primary prefers the iPad.  The Prince Has Spoken.
  • Conclusion
    • Admittedly LeapPad II is an inexpensive device.  If you are getting a device for a small child, perhaps that is a consideration.  However the quality, support, price and availability of apps, range of options and accessories, support, compatibility, support, transportability and wide-ranging use, resale value, support, long-term viability, and did I say support?  For all that, I think I'm going to recommend sticking with Apple.  Even over Android tablets, which are more competitive on the other features.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Searching Woes in Windows

Is it me?  Am I the only one?  For a long time, I used Google Desktop to index and search my PC.  It made me very productive - where was that e-mail or file or whatever with a person's name, a customer's name, and some function call in it?  Instant results, most information on my desktop indexed.  Yes, the index file was gigabytes.  Yes, when it got big, often the index got corrupted and I had to delete and reindex.  But it worked, and search results were fast.  They were integrated with Google website, so I can just do one search, and the results from my desktop or web based on what I choose.  Awesome.  Then, they discontinued it!  Why?  Because Microsoft included a new Windows Search.  But of course, like all things Microsoft, it is poorly implemented, and it sucks rotten eggs.

So, yes, you can download the last version of GD, but of course no improvements in the past few years or ever. I assume it will eventually stop working on later versions of Windows.  So what are the alternatives?  For a while, I used Exalead Desktop, who also mysteriously one day gave up the Desktop version.  Copernic didn't work at all for me, plus it is loaded with advertisements that take over your computer (so much for free).  Plus, Copernic search terms are very difficult to use, and not very flexible like Google searches.

So let's examine what exactly is wrong with the Windows Search feature:
  • Doesn't index network drives
  • It is folder-centric; that is to say, first, the search window only appears in the Windows Explorer window.  Second, when you do a search, it occurs within the folder.
  • It is app-centric; on the Start menu, the search only searches for application names and document file names, not even document contents.
  • Advanced searches with multiple and complex expressions? Fugghedaboudit. 
  • It doesn't search everything. And I also use gmail, so it doesn't search the online as well as offline in the same query. 
Typically, how do users use a search?
  • Why do you search?  Because you can't remember what folder you put it in, or what you called the file.  But you may remember when you did it, or some key words that are in it.
  • How do you search?  By some word, phrase, name, or date, or combination thereof.
  • Where do you search?  You may search your entire knowledge store (everything that is mine).  You may limit your search to a location - perhaps a drive, a folder, or even a computer on which you know it resides.  You may restrict by type of data (file type, e-mail message, text message, chat log, etc.).
Google Desktop is still the most fantastic search engine - it is Google for your desktop.  It searches across Outlook and GMail, as well as files.  However, it lacks a central repository for "all my info" across devices, across computers.  And, most importantly, it lacks the support of the developer.  I would suggest to an entrepreneur to raise capital and offer to buy Desktop from Google, and put it out as your own product.  I think there's a market, even on the Mac.  If you can integrate with Spotlight, or make a side-by-side product (pull-down in the menu bar like Spotlight, that replaces it), that would be the ultimate.