Wednesday, August 26, 2009


As I was pulling into my driveway tonight I noticed a significant number on the odometer of my Ridgeline…

No, I’m not referring to the 93 degrees (which was the temperature inside my garage… ugh).  I was referring to the mileage.  I have had the truck 4 years and 14 days, so 30,000 miles isn’t too bad.  Especially considering it has been to:

  • Los Angeles: 3 times (4000 mi)
  • Houston: 1 time (3800 mi)
  • Las Vegas: 2 times (1600 mi)
  • The SLC Airport: about once per month on average (4400 mi)

Excluding those trips I drive, on average, 4050 miles per year, or 337.5 miles per month.  Lately it has been lower, as even including many airport trips and a Vegas trip I’ve only done 4000 miles in the last year.

Fortunately doing so little driving means I only have to fill up the gas tank about once per month.  Not too bad, I’d say.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Apple Tablet!

I have an old college buddy that went to work for Apple shortly after graduating from the Computer Science program we were in together. A few weeks ago he left on less than friendly terms. We recently engaged in a conversation about a project he had been working on prior to his departure. He agreed to tell me a few things about the project, as long as I didn’t reveal his name or exactly when he left the company.

The device seems to match up with what tech journalists are calling the Apple Tablet, or as it is being referred to recently, the Apple iPad. Here’s some of what he has told me:

  • Dimensions: 11.75” x 8.5”, only 1/2” thin. (About the same thickness as the 2G iPod Touch.)
  • Weight: 24.1 oz.
  • Runs neither the desktop version of OS X, nor the iPhone version; it uses a brand-new, previously unseen operating system.
  • Supports both multi-touch finger and pen interfaces.
  • Supports multitasking via a new multi-page, multi-tab interface.
  • Every application supports both vertical (portrait) and horizontal (landscape) orientations.
  • Has an innovative visual search technology, said to be based on Cover Flow.
  • Uses a new edge-to-edge “unbreakable” display technology that is more closely related to the “E Ink” display of the Amazon Kindle than LCD or OLED, but with color. The display does not use any power to maintain state, much like the Kindle.
  • eBook capabilities are set to be competitive with the Kindle.
  • When using the pen, it features a technology that allows both text and graphics to be included anywhere in any document.
  • Incredible battery life.
  • It’s wireless.
  • It is supposed to be very easy to share data with colleagues.
  • Made of all recyclable materials.
  • Supports standard handwriting as well as a new iShorthand that is supposed to be fast enough to enter text at dictation speeds.
  • Unlike the iPhone, applications do not need to go through an approval process to be used on the device.
  • Multiple varieties will be available.
  • Comes in multiple colors, but it seems white will be the most common. Optional binder-style case available.
  • Targets two demographics: college students with educational discounts, and business users with bulk licensing.

[He gave me one blurry photo, which is available here, at least for now…]

It sounds intriguing, but we’ll have to wait and see. I’m glad they have learned a few lessons from the iPhone, with applications not being subject to an approval process, and the “unbreakable” display.

At this point he told me that product release is “imminent.”

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cool setup for taking pictures

I have started using a set of 3 devices that really make the process of taking pictures very cool.

  • Canon PowerShot SD960 IS (really, any camera that uses SD memory cards would work here


  • Eye-Fi SD/WiFi card

  • Verizon MiFi2200

This combination lets me do some cool things. 

Using the Eye-Fi card in combination with the Verizon MiFi is pretty slick.  The Eye-Fi card has a Wi-Fi radio and it can be configured to connect to the Internet via the Verizon MiFi.  This means that I can:

  • Automatically transfer pictures to my computer without removing the memory card from the camera, or plugging it in via a USB cable, even when my computer is not nearby.
  • Automatically upload pictures to a photo sharing site on the Internet from anywhere Verizon has coverage.
  • Geotag photos to record the location they are taken.

The Eye-Fi card transfers pictures automatically whenever it has a WiFi connection, so if I carry my Verizon MiFi with me in my back pocket as I take pictures, those pictures are totally automatically and silently uploaded to the internet and down to my computer as I am taking them.  I don’t have to do anything to make it happen; it all happens in the background.  I can be anywhere that Verizon has coverage and my pictures will be waiting for me on my computer even before I get home.

The Eye-Fi also supports the major photo sharing sites out there.  So when I want to I can log into my account and tell the Eye-Fi servers which site I want use for storing pictures, and the pictures are automatically uploaded to that site in real time.  I don’t have to transfer them to a computer first; as long as I’m in Verizon’s coverage area the photos will automagically appear on my choice of web site.

The Eye-Fi card also supports Geotagging, so the physical location of each picture is recorded automatically. 

Besides all of this cool functionality, I like saying that I connect my Eye-Fi to MiFi over Wi-Fi. 

Now if only I had the Eye-Fi Pro card, which supports the RAW images that I take on my DSLR camera...  Add one more thing to the wish list.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cleaning an HDTV Screen

Over time our fancy HDTVs tend to collect streaks, fingerprints, and even dust.  We’re all tempted to use glass cleaner to clean the screens, but because of the unique coatings on the display glass, glass cleaner can damage the screen.

We also need to be careful about the cloth used to clean the screen.  Paper towels, for example, are really made of small bits of wood fibers, and they will permanently scratch the display.  Household towels contain a large amount of lint that can also do damage to the glass. 

So what should you use?

For the cloth, pick something made of a microfiber.  And preferably brand new, or at a minimum one that has been washed with nothing but other microfiber cloths.

For the cleaning solution, use a 50/50 mix of rubbing alcohol and distilled water.  Do not use tap or filtered water; both contain minerals that will be left behind on your screen.  And I’d have to recommend avoid using anything else, including electronics cleaning products.  Few are designed to be safe for HDTV coatings.

When cleaning, don’t apply a lot of pressure.  If something on the screen is reluctant to come off it’s better to make multiple passes than to rub vigorously. 

To keep it clean, try not to touch the screen. And remind others to do the same.  Fingerprints are very distracting on TV screens, and can be hard to remove.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Verizon MiFi = Freaking Awesome

I have been in Lubbock, TX this last week troubleshooting some computer problems in a pizza restaurant there.  It went very smoothly overall, and a lot of that has to do with a new toy/tool I picked up at the beginning of my trip… the Verizon MiFi2200 3G router.

I’m going to assume that anyone reading this isn’t already familiar with the device.  It is not only new, but a new kind of product we hadn’t even seen at all prior to about May of this year, so I can’t expect that anyone outside the most tech savvy people will be familiar with this type of device.  Essentially it is a wireless Wi-Fi router that uses Verizon’s 3G network to provide Internet access for up to 5 devices simultaneously.  Since it uses Wi-Fi it doesn’t require that any software be installed on the computers that connect.  It just shows up as a wireless network.  Any device that has Wi-Fi, whether it be a laptop computer, cell phone, Zune or other WiFi-enabled MP3 player like an iPod Touch can get on the Internet quickly by connecting to the MiFi’s Wi-Fi network.  With the ability to connect any 5 devices simultaneously, sharing Internet with family or friends becomes possible as well.

The device itself is very small.  Tiny, in fact.  It is exactly the same size as a stack of 8 credit cards, so it easily fits in a pocket.  Or easily left in a backpack without even noticing that it is there.  It’s quite light as well, weighing just a few ounces.

More than half of the volume of the device is for its battery.  And since it is battery powered, it doesn’t have to be plugged into anything at all for operation.  Just press the (only) button to turn it on, and it automatically connects to Verizon’s 3G network and enables its built-in access point.  From there, all you have to do from a computer is connect to its WiFi network and you’re online. If that computer is setup to automatically use the MiFi’s network it all happens without any additional button clcking. Very easy, very slick.

The Wi-Fi router has WPA/TKIP security turned on by default, and the SSID (access point name) and security key are printed on the bottom of the MiFi for easy access.  It also supports WEP (yuck) and WPA2/AES, so all flavors of 802.11b and 802.11g are supported.  The SSID and security key are both customizable.  It also offers many of the other options you expect to find in modern Wi-Fi routers.

This is not my first mobile Internet access device.  I have had several over the years.  In addition to tethering from my cell phone for the last 3 years, I have also purchased a T-Mobile EDGE PC Card and Cricket USB modem.  T-Mobile’s EDGE has worked well aside from the relatively slow speeds compared to those of 3G networks, but I have been on a plan that allows unlimited data for just $20 per month, so I haven’t cared much.  In most areas T-Mobile’s EDGE is a lot faster than AT&T’s (220-250 kbps downstream has been typical), so it has been quite usable.  In the right geographical areas it actually feels fairly snappy.  But tethering is a little inconvenient compared to a USB device, so I picked up the Cricket USB 3G modem a few months ago.  It has worked pretty well, but Cricket’s network covers a pretty small area compared to other carriers.  When I arrived in Lubbock this last week I knew that Cricket would not be available so I borrowed an AT&T 3G card, but its reliability and performance were disappointing at best.  So I picked up the Verizon MiFi about a week ago and I have loved it. 

Setup would have been a breeze if the first one I got actually worked.  It powered on, but didn’t show up at all in my Device Manager when connected to my laptop.  A quick phone call to Verizon’s tech support confirmed my suspicions that I had gotten a bad one, but one more trip to the Verizon store and a swap with another resolved that problem.  Once I plugged in the second one it showed up as a CD-ROM drive on my computer with the setup software.  Once installed and launched, a click on the Activate option got it up and running.  It only took a few minutes from start to finish.  It would have been nice to not have to go through the activation process, but considering how easy it was, it isn’t much of a hurdle.

It has been so incredibly easy to use and reliable that during the 2nd half of my trip I gave up using my hotel’s Internet access entirely in favor of access via the MiFi.  The connection in my hotel was fast, but went down fairly consistently.  I happily gave up the higher speed in favor of something that just worked reliably, and the MiFi and Verizon’s 3G network did not disappoint.  It just worked everywhere I went.

So far performance has been excellent.  Below is an actual speed test for the device I performed just prior to starting this blog post.  The download speed is actually faster than my Internet connection at home, though the higher latency (ping time) makes general web browsing feel noticeably slower.  Upload speeds are quite good for a mobile device (cable modems, for example, usually max out around 0.38 Mbps), though much slower than my connection at home.  Upload speeds really aren’t very important in a mobile environment, though, so I can’t knock it too much.  I don’t believe that this should be considered as someone’s sole Internet connection, but it sure makes a great mobile alternative.

I haven’t really tested its Wi-Fi signal range, but I have read online that it is good to about 30 feet.  Plenty for its intended purpose.  In most cases it will probably be sitting just a few feet away.

The device, as great as it is, isn’t quite perfect.  Because of its small size the battery isn’t very large, and as a result about 5 hours is the maximum anyone can ever expect to get out of it before needing to plug in.  Fortunately, though, it can be charged using an included USB cable.  I found the battery to drain faster than the quoted rate, but a lot of that is due to the fact that I’m a heavier user than most will be.  The more data transferred the shorter the battery life will be, so I expect shorter run times.  As always, YMMV.

It takes around 12 hours to charge via USB, but that same USB connection also provides Internet access for the connected computer while plugged in.  Unfortunately, plugging into a computer via USB also disables the Wi-Fi radio so ONLY the connected device will have access to the Internet.  This is not true of the AC power adapter, however, which both charges the device and allows the Wi-Fi router to remain active.  Charge time is reduced to 7-8 hours via the AC adapter, but that is still a long time.  (One down side is that while being charged the device is always powered on.)  It would be nice if the charge time was less than (or at least the same as) its battery life, but I guess I won’t complain too much.  How often will I need 5 hours of Internet access in one sitting while mobile anyway?  And being able to use the device via USB makes the battery life limitation seem a lot less confining.  It also has a mode that emulates a USB network adapter, so unlike many mobile devices I don’t have to manually dial a connection to get online when plugged into USB; just plugging it in gets me connected to not only the Internet but also my home network via VPN all automatically.

The other big complaint is with the wireless access plan that Verizon offers. At $60/month it is the same as the other major wireless carriers, but it still seems a bit too high for just 5 GB of data.  I would be a much happier customer if that rate were cut in half.  Verizon offers less expensive plans (a monthly plan offering 250MB for $40, or an on-demand plan at $15 per day), but neither of these is really very useful unless a device like this is going to be used very rarely.  (Unlike AT&T, streaming video from the Internet is not prohibited by the Verizon contract, making the need for 5 GB all that more significant.)  I think that anyone willing to invest in this thing is probably going to fall into the crowd where need of 5GB of transfer is more likely than either of the other options.

So far I have not been able to get my phone to connect to it either.  For some reason it doesn’t even see the MiFi’s wireless network at all, and even when I manually enter the information necessary to connect it still won’t make a connection.  Not a huge deal since my phone already has its own Internet access, but it is confusing nonetheless.  I’m going to have to investigate that one a little further.

The purchase price was $150, less a $50 mail-in-rebate with 2-year contract.  Not great, but not terrible either.  The 2-year contract has a $175 early termination fee (which goes down by $5 per month of active service).

Overall I highly recommend the MiFi2200 to anyone who needs mobile Internet.  It offers so much more functionality than other mobile broadband devices, and does so without much of a price premium. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to get anything else right now.

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