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Sunday, June 5, 2016

HTC Vive hands on

I've long been a huge fan of Virtual Reality.  I was turned on to the subject during the first VR boom of the early 90's.  This was spurned on by a visit to Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center where I was able to check out a public test of what would become Disney Quest.  The technology was the best at the time but the results were still primitive.  After pulling on the huge head mounted display (HMD) that was so heavy it was supported by a ceiling mounted pulley system I was treated to the streets of Agrabah and chasing Iago to the castle on the Magic Carpet.  After that experience I stuck around to speak to one of the Imagineers.  He turned me onto a book called "Garage VR".  I poured over that book many times and still have it to this day.  Unfortunately I didn't have the ability to make my own VR headset as per the instructions (holy crap were LCD screens expensive back then! A 1"X1" screen was over $150!) it was something I kept following.

Years later I heard about the Occulus Rift.  I had hoped this would catch on.  The project kept dragging on and only development kits were being released.  I promised myself I would wait until the technology was done before I would try it or even buy it.  I've yet to have the opportunity to try the Rift, but to my surprise the Microsoft stores are running a demo of the HTC Vive.  I was able to spend 10 minutes in their demo and get a feel for this headset.

The experience was beyond my wildest expectations.  I was immediately reminded of a few things from my experience with the Disney Quest system but I could see how the new Vive was a light year beyond.  The old Disney Quest HMD and others of the time had a point of view that was very narrow.  On top of that processing power at the time wasn't where it is now.  It's easy to forget that the GPU we all know and love in PC gaming wasn't a thing until the late 90's or early 2000's.  The Disney Quest systems were powered by Silicon Graphics rendering servers.  The best way I could describe the experience to you would be to have you hold two paper towel rolls up to your eyes, blink very fast, and try to walk around your home.  These were the primary issues that caused VR to stall out in the 90's.  They had to wait for display technologies and computing power to catch up to the idea.

There were good points to these experiences.  There were two VR experiences at Disney Quest that I was able to try.  The "Magic Carpet Ride" and a scifi pirate raid.  The magic carpet ride had you jump on this very oddly shaped chair that felt very weird until you put on the headset.  Once it was on and you looked down you saw the Magic Carpet from the movie and suddenly the odd feeling of the chair translated to you holding onto and riding Aladin's magic carpet.  In the pirate experience there was a stick you held that in the game appeared to be a "laser sword" (Disney didn't own lucas arts at this time!).  The Aladin experience worked well as the "Chair" controller was largely stationary and didn't need to be tracked meaning that there wasn't a slowdown in the game introduced by having to track the controller in space.  The laser swords however made the pirate game chug to 10 frames per second or less.

The Vive demo was the culmination of this technology growth.  Instead of two tiny CRT displays like what was used in older VR headsets they use one large(ish) LCD panel similar to that in many cell phones.  The point of view is very good and when paired with a computer meeting the recommended specifications everything flows well.  The best analog I could give you is to get a pair of safety goggles, use black tape on the sides and remove the plastic lens.  This was about the viewing angle I got.  After a minute I was able to ignore the "goggles" viewpoint and I felt like I was there.

The Vive controllers were probably the best part of the demo.  Google them if you don't know what these look like.  They track in real time just like you do.  The tracking is so accurate that they feel like natural extensions of your hand in the environment.  They also can be inserted into each other in both the real world and in VR showing how perfectly these are tracked.  They can be used in a number of ways in applications ranging from paint brushes, shields, weapons, or hands.  Honestly the only way this could be better is if HTC builds the VR gloves we all saw in the 90's.

Right now there are VR experiences out there that are pretty cool and some games that have been retrofitted to work with this system.  I do believe that if you have the money and the interest it is a worthwhile investment.  For those of us who don't have $799 for the Vive and a $1000 - $2000+ gaming PC to drive it I would suggest waiting for the new Google Daydream specced phones and HMD system that's coming out this fall.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A new project

Over the last few years I've been looking for something new to do.  Work is good, but honestly I've been looking for a new project to tie somethings together.  Last year my wife and I purchased a home that was built in the 60's.  Minimally updated and in need of a lot of love.  With the help of my friends I've ticked off some of the projects that are needed.  I've had to run through the process of how we accomplished the projects enough that I thought it might make an interesting video series.

This idea has grown into an idea for a YouTube series "Deep Dive DIY".  Basically showing the process of deciding on what equipment to use, ordering, sorting, getting permits, installing, testing, and finally resolving issues as they arise.  My main issue with other DIY shows is everything is too clean.  Rarely does anything go wrong, and when it does it's resolved by the behind the scenes team.  You also have a crew of carpenters and craftsmen helping off set ensuring projects are completed on the shows schedule.  Have you seen a basic bathroom remodel over two days, and when you try it yourself it takes more like a month?

This video project will be edited for time, but I will be including a real time clock showing how long the project is taking.  At the end of the project I will include a cost breakdown and a set of photos of the completed project.  Unlike other DIY shows the end of the project won't mean the end of information on the project.  As time progresses I will include information on energy usage, maintenance issues, and continuing costs or savings occurred.

The initial project is the installation of a Air Conditioning system in my home.  It's something I was going to tackle anyway, and it might prove to be interesting as unlike other AC installs you'll find on YouTube you'll see the entire project from start to finish.  Also I'm not a HVAC company using YouTube to solicit your business.  If things go well and and the Kickstarter is successful I have additional projects planned as stretch goals.  Ranging from installing a roof, Solar Hot water, Solar power, and a new boiler.  If things go extremely well I'm more than happy to tackle the Tesla Home Battery...  :)

Here's the project.  Please take a look, watch the video, and if the project sounds interesting please consider funding me.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1455557351/deep-dive-diy

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Lets revisit cost cutting!

So we're at the cusp of another possible government shutdown and many of you may need to look into tightening your belts. As a number of things have come out or changed in the last year I thought I would revisit my previous article and show some new options. With little fanfare here we go! 

TV:

For TV service if you're in range of the broadcast towers you can instantly cut your bill by switching to an antenna. The number of stations you will receive will drop but for the most part everything will be in HD. You don't even need a new antenna. Any TV antenna will pick up the over the air signals (even ancient antenna towers, roof antennas, and rabbit ears). You just need a TV with a digital tuner or a digital adapter. The kind of antenna you will need is easy to determine. Visit AntennaWeb and plug in your address. It will give you a list of channels you should be able to receive as well as the antenna color code you will need. These color codes are on the boxes of new units in stores. Also the color codes describe the type of antenna if you just want to see if what you have will work. Please note that this isn't a complete list of channels you may receive. With new HD channels you can get multiple channels of programming in each number. Where in the 80s you may have had one PBS with rabbit ears, now you'll have three PBS channels each showing something different. I have about 20 stations. Your mileage may vary.

Personally I live near the broadcast center of my town. I have had great luck with the following products. One is an indoor antenna you can hang on the wall behind your tv, the other is a exterior mount antenna. Both never need to be adjusted. If they can't pick up a signal that's because you need a more powerful directional antenna. Directional antennas are able to pick up signals from further away, but the issue is they only pick up things in a shotgun like path in front of the antenna. This means if you're in the middle of your broadcast towers you'll only pick up a few at a time and you'll need use a motorized antenna rotator to turn the antenna (remember those!?)
 The Indoor Antenna
 
The Outdoor Antenna
 
 More Powerful DIRECTIONAL Antenna
 
 Now a word to the wise. The indoor model I listed comes in multiple configurations. If you're near your broadcast center you don't need an amplifier. As such you can get the cheaper models. If you're further away I would recommend the outdoor antenna for your whole home before getting antenna's for each tv. It might be a little more work, but you'll save money. Also walking around your home won't interrupt the TV signal which is possible with indoor models.

This gives you signal. You can just wire the antenna to your TV and have service, but as many of us have become accustomed to having DVR service with the ability to pause, rewind, and record live TV with a guide lets look at your options. Antenna TV is actually easier to do than Cable as you're not being screwed with by the cable industry. Any Windows Media Center or Tivo solution that works for cable TV will work for an antenna setup. The nice thing about this is that if you already have one of these setups you don't have to give it up and you can easily move back if you so choose. Now there are new products that are antenna specific.

The first is the SimpleTV. This device is a network DVR. This is a little different than what you're used to. It does not hook up to your TV. It hooks up to your antenna, your wireless router, and finally you need to hook up an external hard drive to store to. This unit is controlled by your phone, tablet, apple TV, roku, chromecast, or Plex receiver. Now like a Tivo you either buy the device cheaply and pay $14 a month for service, or you pay a bit more and you'll never have a monthly bill. This device is from Silicondust the makers of the HDHomeRun. Now this can be used on "ClearQAM" cable as well (unencrypted basic cable) so if you find your antenna doesn't work you can still use this box.


Another similar option is the Tablo. Same idea as the SimpleTV. Same need for a Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast on Televisions. And the same need for a monthly subscription to the Tablo data service. The main difference is that you can get a four tuner version which is handy for larger households.


Finally there is the ChannelMaster DVR+. This unit is rather impressive to me. For those of you who want a direct cable company DVR box experience and don't really care about watching TV on your tablet this unit is for you. You set it under your TV like a cable company DVR. Unlike any cable company box this thing is about half an inch thick. It will need an external hard drive to store to. If you don't have internet you get guide data for a few hours via the antenna. If you do have the internet it can download up to 14 days of guide data. This box does not have a monthly service cost or need extra equipment, but you need one per TV. As such if you're a one TV household this is a great option. If you have more than one TV in your home you'll be better served by a Tablo or a SimpleTV. If you want to stream to your tablet or phone you'll need a slingbox 500 add on.

ChannelMaster DVR+
 
Slingbox 500
 

For the above options (Either Simple TV or Tablo) you need a Roku, Apple TV, or a Chromecast on every TV you want to stream to.  Here are these products if you don't already have them.  I should warn you that the Chromecast doesn't have a UI of it's own.  As such you must have a phone or tablet to control it.  The Roku and Apple TV can be used normally.

The Roku

The Apple TV

The Chromecast

I'm a huge fan of cutting the cord down to internet access only. If you're in an area where you can't do this try hooking the cable up to your TV directly and run a channel scan. If you're lucky enough to not have Comcast there is a good chance you get at least antenna channels unencrypted. If you pay for more you may find you get more channels. This means you can use the above options as though you are using an antenna and cancel all service from your cable company but internet. You will possibly loose the extra channels but you will keep the basic stations.

As for those of you who are stuck with Comcast. They decided last year to start encrypting all video including that which you can get with an antenna. This means if you use them for internet you will not be able to just split the signal and send it to your tv. You will need to either get an antenna or keep comcast service.

Cable TV

Now as for Cable TV options. If this isn't an option at all because you want all of the stations possible you can still save money by getting rid of the leased equipment and buying your own. The average monthly cost for a simple stupid two tuner DVR from a cable company is about $18 after taxes. The actual cost of the box is difficult to nail down, but I could build a replacement with all new equipment for $150. So in the course of a year you could have just bought your own and saved cash. The more advanced "Whole Home DVR" systems are about $50 a month for two TVs, and another $18 for each additional TV. I can build a similar system for $450 for the first TV, and $90 per each additional unit.

What you can do is fairly limited thanks to lobbying by the cable industry. You need a DVR that supports cable card devices. There are three good options you can use. Two of which are Whole home DVR equivalents, one is more of a standard TV tuner with no DVR.

1) Windows Media Center: Have a Windows 7 or 8 computer sitting around doing nothing since your shift to tablets? Stick a TV tuner in it and turn it into a great whole home DVR. There are many ways to do this. Desktops have a few more options with internal upgrade cards from Ceton, but you can use even laptops and a network TV tuner like the Ceton Infinitv6 eth or the HDHomerun Prime. Then at each TV you just need either a Xbox 360 with a remote or a Ceton Echo. The PC will need to be on constantly so a laptop may be better for power usage and the fact that a power brownout or outage won't bother it. The nice thing about this setup is you can modify everything about it. Adding more storage is easy. You can even get some cool software from The Green Button to add new features such as automatic commercial skipping. The issue here is you will want to avoid using the PC for anything else. While you can continue to use the PC, I've found some software combinations do cause WMC to become unstable. A dedicated PC is better. Also while Windows 7 includes WMC for free, windows 8 you need to pay for it in the windows store. You do not ever need to pay for guide data.

Now this seems like a lot of equipment, but if you look it over you might find you have a lot of this already. If you have a Windows 7 or 8 pc lying around you've got a big part of the expense. Many people already have at least one Xbox 360. At that point you just need a Xbox 360 remote and the tuner. After that it's all setup, and the setup is fairly easy. All you will need after that is a cable card from your tv provider. This should be free for the first card, but some companies charge up to $4 with tax for the card.

Ceton 6 tuner Desktop card.
 

Ceton 6 tuner Network Card
 

Ceton Echo
 

Xbox 360 Remote
 

HDHomeRun Prime
 

As for the Xbox, I do recommend picking one up used. I've seen the 4gb new xbox 360 for around $90 used or remanufactured. If you insist buying new...
 

2) Tivo: Tivo's have been around for a long while. Most people know about them already and the website does a great job of describing everything. Basically they work like the cable company's Whole Home DVR where you get one main box and then smaller "Tivo Mini" units for any other TV in the home. Just like Windows Media Center all TV's have access to the same pool of tuners and recorded shows. The main difference is you need to pay for the Tivo service which is either $15 a month, or you shell out $500 for lifetime free access. The Tivo mini also has fees per tv. $6 a month per Tivo mini, or $150 for permenant access. Tivo is a great product with great support. You will need a cable card from your provider. In the long run even with the expense of the lifetime service you will save money in two years vs a whole home DVR setup, but you do need to shell out a hefty amount up front for the devices and service contract. While if you're made of money you can have multiple full Tivo units in your home, for the most part you only need either a Four or Six tuner main unit, then Tivo mini's everywhere else. This is a great option for people who don't have spare PC hardware, or don't want to bother with that and you want something that "Just Works".

A Four tuner Tivo
 

A Six tuner Tivo
 

Tivo Mini
 

Internet

Now I always recommend people get Cable internet over AT&T. Mostly because Uverse's top speed is no where near Cable, and you cannot own your equipment on Uverse. Cable modems are easy to get and rather cheap. Most cable providers charge $10 with tax per month for cable modems. These can be purchased for $50 on up to what ever you want to pay. Most good units are $75 and I recommend the universally supported Motorola surfboard products.


Now there are cable modems that integrate cable modem and your Wifi network router. I do not recommend these. They are quite expensive and you are tying yourself down to a wifi router you'll have no ability to upgrade or replace later. The cable modem won't need to change for years, your router you may find you want to swap out in two years if a new technology comes out. It's always best to buy this seperately. Many routers support faster network access as well as printer sharing and file sharing. Here's a good example.


Phone

In the past I've used an Ooma for a land line phone. I still have one for family members. It's a great device. Sort of a set it and forget it. You only need to pay local taxes per month for the line and 911 access. This comes to about $4 a month. The Ooma box has buttons to act as a voicemail access, or you can hit their website or an app to get voice mail that way. All in all it's great if you want your old land line stuff to work (Including fax machines!). They have some premium features such as bluetooth handling to sync with your cell phones. If your phones work only in one room of your home just sync them to the Ooma and your Cell phone calls will be forwarded to your land line network.


If you want to spend less than $4 a month, how about $0? Another contender is the Obihai series of devices. They use your google voice and hangouts account to provide phone access. Just like the Ooma you hook it up to your landline and you get dial tone. The only issue here is that you cannot use 911 with Google. You will need to subscribe to a third party 911 provider (I hear these are $1 a month). This is a bit more technical. If you're a "Set it and forget it" type of person you are better off with the Ooma.


Cell Phone

Thanks to 4G LTE technology most cell phones can be unlocked and taken to other carriers. In most situations I recommend people switch to T-mobile. If you can unlock your phone and bring it with you great. If not (or your phone is too old) you can get a new affordable phone and not be locked into a contract.

Another option is Republic wireless. They have phones that use the Sprint network ranging from $99 - $399 for the phone, then the monthly expense is anywhere from $5 (wifi calling, wifi text, and wifi data only) to $40 a month (unlimited sprint talk, text, and web). The great thing is you can change your plan twice a month. If you have a family member who doesn't need a phone outside of the house get the $5 plan. If you're all going on vacation for a week bump it up to the $40 plan for that week then change it back later. The only issue here is there is no phone support. Everything is web based. Also tethering is not supported.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reducing Cable Costs without Cutting the Cord

So after a call with Comcast I have found out that they have started encrypting even basic TV channels that you used to be able to get with just a digital TV.  Until now ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and a few others that you could get with an antenna you could get on your TV without renting one of their boxes.  Now you must have a box from them or a cable card ready system of some sort.  They are very quick to blame the government mandated transition to digital TV for this inconvenience.

Let me be very clear.  This has nothing to do with the digital transition.  The digital transition only covered antenna transmissions, and those affected could either get a converter box for free or purchase a digital tv.  Cable companies were not actually part of this.  There was only one governmental regulation on cable companies that has a direct affect on us as customers, and it's actually a positive.  It's called cable card.

Now Comcast does not readily tell you about cable card.  In fact they fought the standard for a few years and dragged their feet implementing it.  Consumer groups realized that with all the encryption and standard shifts cable companies were doing that caused standard TVs to stop working without special boxes and associated fees consumers were getting screwed.  So they petitioned the government to put a standard into effect that had a universal gateway.  This way people could buy a cable box of their own and only have to get a free part (called a cable card!) from their cable company that would allow their own equipment to work.

Now a lot of us already own our own cable modem to avoid rental fees.  Imagine how much money you could save if you owned your own cable box!  fees range from $10 - $24 a month per tv.  If you have more than one TV this could get very expensive.  These new multi room box setups start at $30 a month and go up quickly. 

After a bit of experimentation I have come up with a great setup that not only enables you to use every screen in your home including your tablets, tv's, computers, etc to watch TV it will also allow allow you DVR functionality to record shows in one spot in your home and watch it anywhere.  To begin with you will need a network cable card tuner.  Two that I recommend are the Silicon Dust 3 tuner and the Ceton 6 Infinitv ethernet box.  These attach to your home wifi router and to your cable company coax. Once this box is installed you just need a cable card from your provider.  Comcast provides the first for free.  Make sure you get a M-card cable card.  This means the card supports multiple tuners.  


This puts your cable service on your home network.  Any device on that network can access the tuners with the right program.  Add a windows pc into this mix and you get DVR functionality with Windows Media Center.  Most Windows 7 versions included this program.  Windows 8 has it as an option that you have to pay $10 for.  It is a descent DVR if you're not someone who is technically inclined.  You can watch TV on the pc, and any other xbox 360 you have in your home.  It basically acts as a multi room DVR without the monthly cost.  There is one issue with this setup.  Most DVR's today will record an entire show from the beginning even if you hit the record button half way through.  WMC won't do this.  It will record from the point you hit record.  Otherwise all other functions are the same.


Now if you are a bit more technically inclined check out XBMC.  You can install it on any system (Mac, linux, Windows) and use many different end points as clients (Ouya, tablets, ipads, apple tvs, Rokus).  It has all DVR functionality included. 


The one really nice thing about this is other than saving fees is that you can eliminate a lot of splitters from your home.  If you've ever noticed that some TV's in your home have a better picture than others you're seeing the effects of over splitting.  When you shift to this system you can eliminate all splitters except one.  You just need a two way splitter on the incoming feed from the cable company.  One line goes to your cable modem, the other to the network cable tuner.  Every TV in your home will now have the same picture.




Monday, October 21, 2013

Cutting the Cord

Thankfully the current government shutdown has come to an end and people who are reliant on a functioning government for their paycheck are now getting paid once again.  Unfortunately many republican senators have expressed their desire to repeat this idiotic crap again in January.  Many people I know started running around wondering how they would pay their bills and keep the lights on.  Others were scrambling to trim back services to their bare minimum level to keep expenses down.  These same people are shocked at what little I pay monthly yet I keep up with all of my shows and carry around a smart phone.  Despite all of this my monthly expenditure is half if not a quarter than what others spend for the same services.  The trick is to use some pre-planning and a very old fiscally conservative trick.  Spending a little more up front for long term savings.

Budgeting

First off I'm not an accountant.  I'm not going to run through how you can make a household budget.  I'm assuming you know how to take your monthly income and subtract off your bare necessities of food, shelter, clothing, and utilities (Heat, electricity, water, etc) to determine what you have to work with.  If you can't quite frankly stop reading this article and Google how to create a budget.  

Now I'm going to cover four main areas where you can massively cut your monthly "Communications" bills.  These would be Internet, Television, Cellular, and your Plain Old Telephone Service (aka POTS).  I've found over the years people are massively over paying for all of these services because they are not aware of alternatives.  Some of these alternatives are new and different than what we are used to, but once you do get to know them you probably find you enjoy them more than the older alternative.

Internet

The backbone of everything we are going to discuss here today is all reliant on you having a solid Internet connection.  For the remainder of this article I will assume you live in a community where you have either Cable, DSL, or are a really lucky person and you have fiber to your door.  If you're someone who has chosen to live out in an extremely rural without these options I wish you luck here.  I intend to do an article in the future on how your community can install and maintain their own infrastructure in the near future. 

The first thing you will need for this process is a high speed Internet connection.  These are not all created equally.  I suggest looking into them in the following order.  Fiber, then Cable, the phone company's DSL, finally a cellular data connection.  Fiber is your best possible connection, but unfortunately it is not everywhere.  Google and Verizon are the only two major carriers for it in the US.  If you live in one of the limited number of areas that have these as options look here first!  Google has Internet only package that has an installation cost and then is free after that.  Cable is your second best choice.  While it is a shared connection, there is plenty of bandwidth on a cable loop to keep everyone in your neighborhood purring along on the Internet quite nicely.  Finally if neither Fiber or Cable is available to you then consider DSL.  DSL is considered a high speed Internet link, but truthfully it does not hold a candle to the other two.  While the phone company has tried to retool their infrastructure to help speed this up, they still do not offer the bandwidth of even cable.  Truthfully only use a phone company's high speed Internet service as a negotiating block to get a better price from your local Cable company.  A cellular data connection is great if you're a road warrior and travel constantly, but the monthly costs are quite high for unlimited data.  That and if you want to stream to more than one device at a time would limit your experience.

Now lets talk price.  Honestly $30 - $50 a month is a good range for a high speed Internet connection.  You want something that has at least 15Mbps.  More is always better, but balance this out with the price.  Also ask if there are any deals in your area for recently moving, or switching from another service.  I've been at $30 a month for a cable internet service who's list price is $60.  I keep it that low because I keep calling up and negotiating a 6 month deal.  I only negotiate a price on my Internet service and I make a point to NEVER BUNDLE!  While bundling sounds like a great deal you usually get stuck with a typical "triple bundle" package of your home phone, Internet, and television.  This price usually comes in around $100 - $250+.  As you add basic features to your home phone and television packages that make them usable (like caller ID, or DVR functionality) you quickly increase the price of your monthly bill.  For now stick to your guns and stay with only an Internet connection.  The rest will come later.

Finally don't let your provider give you a modem or router for your connection.  The rental cost per month is usually $10 and it's completely avoidable.  A modem will usually run you about $80, and a router can run anywhere from $10 - $150.  A good home router is usually about $30 and can be cheaper if you catch a sale.  In about a year the savings on your monthly bill pays for your equipment.  Maintaining this is also quite easy.  Setup is a one time thing, then in the future you may have to do minor things like restart the equipment by turning it off then on again.  Don't let anyone talk you out of this for fear of future compatibility.  The stuff your cable company rents out is anywhere from 1 to 10 years old.  What you buy today will be more future proof than what they hand to you.

Television

Maybe you've heard about this major movement that is freaking out the cable and phone companies called "Cutting the cord".  Basically this means you pay for only an Internet connection and using a variety of devices you get all of your programming over streaming services.  I know this sounds like a huge expense but really it isn't.  In fact you may already have everything you need to cut the cord and may not even realize it.

Now if you have a video game system such as the Wii, WiiU, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3 or 4 you already have a device that can handle streaming.  Also included would be any TV with built in Internet apps, blueray players with Internet apps, Roku, an Apple TV, or any number of other devices.  Another option is if you had a spare PC lying around you could re-purpose it as a home theater PC.  

If you don't have any of the above devices first off I'm somewhat shocked.  It's rather difficult to dodge buying equipment without built in streaming apps.  I usually recommend people buy what they are familiar with.  If you have an iphone, ipod, ipad, Macintosh, or another apple device I would suggest Apple TV's at each TV in your home.  If you're a gamer pick up a game console.  If you're not all that technical, you're not a Apple product owner, and you don't like to game I would suggest a Roku.  Finally if you know your way around a PC, and have a few of them in your garage I suggest building a HTPC.  Now if you're someone who is starting off needing a new television I suggest buying one with Internet applications built in.   

Ok, before we go any further I want you do do a little homework.  Grab a pen and pencil and write down every show you're interested in seeing.  Now head to hulu.com and netflix.com and start searching.  You may find everything you want to watch is available on these two services.  If not head to amazon and itunes and see if the show is there.  Now lets say the worst case scenario is that you need Hulu, Netflix, and either Amazon or Itunes to watch everything you want to see.  Hulu and Netflix are about $8 a month for the streaming service each.  So that's $16 a month.  Now lets say you're watching a couple of shows that you don't want to wait to hit hulu or netflix such as a Showtime, HBO, or an AMC show.  These are usually around $42 - $60 per season or $3 per episode.  If you wind up buying all of your season passes in one shot this adds up to a high one time bill, but extremely cheap costs the rest of the season.  Where as the cost of cable is constant plus the cost of equipment.  

Ok lets run a comparison.  Lets take a typical home that has 2 televisions and no additional equipment.  In both cases we will need to either purchase or rent equipment.  Also for cable TV we will need a package that includes HBO, Showtime, and DVR's for both rooms.  This is usually $99 a month.  On top of that you need to add equipment and taxes.  For this example I'll ignore tax.  For the other example I'll use a typical price for a streaming box which is about $100, and in month one we'll buy three season passes for $45 each.

Equipment / MonthCut the CordCable / Phone
Equipment Cost$200 One time cost$30 Monthly
1$151$130
2$16$130
3$16$130
4$16$130
5$16$130
6$16$130
7$16$130
8$16$130
9$16$130
10$16$130
11$16$130
12$16$130
Total$527$1,560

Big difference huh? We've only tackled one of the three big bills that haunt most people.  Let me show you what more we can do...

Cellular Phone

There are a lot of options for cell phone service.  Most of these are over priced.  Severely over priced.  This is due to the practice of subsidization the price of the phone usually giving it away for free or a low price and making that cost up over the life of the contract with a healthy margin.  You can cut your bill by combining your plan with family members, but that only goes so far.  If you buy your own phone ahead of time, or hang onto an old phone you can switch to a pay as you go service.  If you're willing to fore-go traditional support you can save even more.

For this  section we will be looking at unlimited talk, text, and data plans.  Also month one will include the initial equipment cost.  I will be comparing three services.  Your typical provider AT&T, MetroPCS, and a relative newbie called Republic Cellular that functions on a combination of the Sprint network and your home wifi.  Republic wireless  cuts costs by offering no phone support line.  Support comes from their website only.  To cut down costs of airtime the company encourages you to use your home wifi for data and it can use any wifi to make calls instead of using the Sprint network.  This savings is passed on to you.  The only thing is you give up MMS messages (aka picture messages).  Instead of sending or receiving picture messages Republic wireless recommends emailing these items.  They may add MMS later.


AT&T (not truly unlimited)MetroPCSRepublic Cellular
Equipment Cost$1.00$399$299
1$95$50$19
2$95$50$19
3$95$50$19
4$95$50$19
5$95$50$19
6$95$50$19
7$95$50$19
8$95$50$19
9$95$50$19
10$95$50$19
11$95$50$19
12$95$50$19
Total$1,141$999$527

So by giving up a little in terms of services provided you can save half your annual bill, and a hell of a lot monthly.  Also there is no weird addition when you want to add additional lines for a family plan.  It's just $19 a month per line, or if you don't leave home much you can spend $5 a month for a wifi only line.

Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS!)

If you are someone who wants to have a old style phone line for your home because you want to fax, you have poor cell phone reception in the area, or you just like having one this section is for you.  For years a POTS line was our only way of communicating over distance.  You used to pay one provider for local calls and one for long distance.  Local calls were essentially free, but the per minute cost on long distance was expensive.  Now unlimited nation wide calling plans can be hand from AT&T for $44 a month. Now they are overpriced.  Many less expensive options for adding a line to your home exist.  The only advantage a POTS line offers over other methods is that in the case of a power outage your phone line is guaranteed to work.  With these other options if the power goes out, even if you have a battery backup or generator you may not have a home phone, but the cost savings may be worth this.  

For this comparison I'll include four options.  AT&T, Vonage, Ooma, and a more DIY setup with Google Voice and a box called an Obihai 202.  In all cases I will list the equipment costs upfront and include it in the first month cost.  All services include common phone features such as caller id, call waiting, and unlimited local / long distance. Taxes are not included, but in the case of the Ooma the per month cost of service is $0 + local taxes.  As these vary based on your location I will not be including them.  Also Vonage offers a price break for the first three months of your contract if you sign up for 1 year.  I'll use these figures in my pricing. 


AT&TVonageOomaObihai 202 + Google Voice
Equipment$0$0$130$70
1$45$9.95$0+tax$0
2$45$9.95$0+tax$0
3$45$9.95$0+tax$0
4$45$24.95$0+tax$0
5$45$24.95$0+tax$0
6$45$24.95$0+tax$0
7$45$24.95$0+tax$0
8$45$24.95$0+tax$0
9$45$24.95$0+tax$0
10$45$24.95$0+tax$0
11$45$24.95$0+tax$0
12$45$24.95$0+tax$0
Total$540$254.40$130 + 12 months tax$70

The pricing of a standard phone line does include the security of tech support and a line that will work in the even of a power outage.  Vonage and Ooma may not work in a power outage (it might if you have a battery backup hooked up to it, your router, and your modem and your provider has power) and still include tech support.  The Obihai with Google Voice does not have tech support.  Again if your ISP has backup power, and you have a battery backup hooked to the Obihai, your router, and your cable modem it may work in the case of a power outage.  The question is would the security of a guaranteed working phone line be worth $540 annually?  Remember that equipment costs are sunk and you will own that equipment for the life of the service.  So 2 years of an AT&T line is $1,080 while the Ooma is still $130 + 24 months of taxes.  The Obihai 202 only costs you the initial $70.  

The Best Case Scenario

Lets say you decide to upend all of your service providers and switch to something far more affordable.  While your first month may be costly as you may need to buy a lot of equipment your monthly costs will be greatly reduced.  Using my numbers above I'll compile a best case scenario.  Remember this isn't a one size fits all as you may have game systems to stream TV with, you may already own an unlocked phone, etc.  I'm including the costs for Internet, Television, Phone, and Cellular service below.


Best Case
Equipment$569
1$205
2$65
3$65
4$65
5$65
6$65
7$65
8$65
9$65
10$65
11$65
12$65
Total$1,489

With a little creative cord cutting your monthly bill can be less than just the bill for your phone bill.  By investing upfront in your own equipment you reap the savings.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shaving costs

As with many men I shave on a daily basis.  Over the years I've had a few razors.  My first was a Sensor Excel.  A fairly basic razor by todays standards, but it was very serviceable and I have used it as my travel razor until three years ago.  Since that time I've had multiple other razors.  Some were free samples mailed to me (a Mach 3 razor).  Others were gifts friends or family gave to me over time (a Fusion mPower, a standard Fusion, and a few others I disliked so much I stopped using after two shaves).  Over time I've defaulted to using my two Fusion razors as my primary blades.  One for travel, one for home.  In this way I had hoped to keep my cartridge costs down.

Dull blades can pull, cut, or even cause issues such as ingrown hairs.  It's very important to swap out your cartridge as soon as you start noticing these issues.  Usually for me I was getting a solid 7-14 days before the blades started to dull on my Fusion.  A few weeks ago I realized I was on my last cartridge and would need to pick up some refills.  Considering I've gotten a few good years out of this handle I decided to set it aside for now and see what my options for a change would be.  I was unimpressed with most options out there, but I did see a new store brand razor from Kroger that was essentially a Fusion, but with blade replacement costs one quarter that which Gillette charges.  Unfortunately the refills will not work with the Mach 5 handle.  As I would be buying a new whole new razor I decided to keep looking.

While at the mall I ran across the "Art of Shaving".  I was impressed with the interior and decided to browse a bit.  I found their stock to consist of Straight razors, Double Edge safety razors, and custom Fusion razors.  A number of years ago I had considered a DE safety razor as a replacement for my aging Sensor excel, but I was intimidated at the time.  After trying out straight razor shaves at my barber and noticing how much better my skin was when I did I decided to give it another go.

Now the Art of Shaving store is a wonderful place.  The staff is patient and more than willing to explain the almost lost art of shaving using a Safety razor, brush, and soap instead of a aerosol foam and razor.  The only thing is that the prices they charge are astronomical.  Many of the Safety razors they sell are in the $70 - $200 range.  Considering they sell a custom finish Gillette Fusion razor for $200 - $300 where as the standard Fusion can be had for $11 pointed out to me that a more affordable Safety razor handle could be located.  So off to Amazon I went and quickly found a $17 Lords Safety razor kit with a small random selection of blades so I could try a few options out.  As I was going completely old school I purchased a kit with a soap dish, shaving soap, and a brush for $9.  So for what I would have spent on 4 to 8 Fusion refills I got a shaving kit with 16 razors.  I did buy a Alum (Styptic) pen from the art of shaving store as the girl working there spent so much time with me, but I do have to admit $14 for one was way over priced as you can get Styptic pens for $2.


Coming from the cartridge razor world I was rather stunned to find out that all Safety razors were essentially compatible.  As such you could buy razors from any manufacturer with any number of different materials and coatings until you found a combination you liked.  Once you lock in that brand you can buy blades in bulk packs of 10 or 100.  10 blades tend to cost $2, while 100 cost $10.  This alone made it worth the attempt to shift to this new (old?) shaving system.  

I've been using the new system for a week now and have noticed the following benefits:
1)  I do get a closer shave than I did with even the 5 blade Fusion.  The "more blades are better" slogan is complete BS.  I will say it has taken a little practice to get that close shave.  The Fusion would give me consistent results without skill or effort.  The Safety razor takes practice and effort to give a great shave.  The first few times I used it I am afraid I had massive patches where it looked like I didn't shave since I held the blade at the wrong angle.
2)  My skin is clear.  I've had issues with ingrown hairs and zits since I started shaving.  Since switching to this old system my skin has been free of this.  I'm not sure it's due to the new razor, or due to switching to a non alcohol based shaving soap from my old shaving cream.
3)  Shaving takes longer, but it is satisfying.  I found this weird.  I genuinely hated shaving.  I would grow my beard just to avoid this chore.  Since switching I find myself happily shaving daily.  It's almost as if by simplifying the process so much we took away the joy. 
4)  I do cut myself.  Usually a small knick or two on my neck.  My Fusion would bite me once in a while.  When it did it hurt like hell.  Probably due to 3 more razors passing over the cut.  When the Safety razor bites I usually don't feel it at all.  I only know I am bleeding because I look in the mirror after I'm done.  This is where the Styptic pen comes in.  Just a touch and the bleeding stops.  Screw using little toilet paper squares!

All in all I have found the move worth while.  If you're tired of burning a ton of money on increasingly overpriced and gimmicky cartridge razors you should give this old style razor a try.  Just be aware you may need to wait a week or two for shipping unless you have a store that sells common Safety razors for a appropriate price.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Raspberry Pi!

I love tech.  A giant server with massive storage?  Oh yea.  A small netbook that I can use on a plane for 6 hours continuously?  Set that right down here!  So when I heard of a computer that can do 1080P video, fit in the palm of your hand, and cost only $25 I already had my wallet in my hand!  

The group over at http://www.raspberrypi.org/ have built a computer platform based around a broadcom ARM processor.  The reason for their work was to build a inexpensive high quality computer that will allow school children direct access to hardware.  The old 8 bit computers of the 1980's were understandable by most hobbyists.  These computers have been kept up and working because they were easily maintainable, and modifiable.  People like you and I created interface cards in our spare time to get new functions in these machines on shoe string budgets.  And if we damaged something, in the back of most of the manuals we had the full system schematic for the boards and necessary parts lists.  Usually you could fix these pc's with nothing more than a soldering iron, a chip puller, and a screw driver. 

Modern PC's with high speed buses are not as easily modified.  Understanding the base hardware at a chip level is almost impossible, and you won't find many home made pci-express cards.  That and who wants to risk frying their $500+ home computer with a home made part or two?  Especially since these machines really are not user serviceable.  You fry a chip, you replace the whole motherboard.  

The problem is that this type of tinkering is exactly how you learn!  Kids today don't have access to the wonderful rough and tumble machines I had when I was a kid.  That's the point of the raspberry pi.  It's a very simple computer system that is immanently hackable.  It gives a user very low level access so you can start coding even in BASIC right off the bat of turning it on, works with equipment you probably already have, and  costs next to nothing.  If you do wind up frying this little guy while trying to create something awesome, you can just get another one.  

All in all this is a great achievement.  Currently these little guys are not yet for sale, but will be soon.  You can bet I'll have on in my hands shortly there after and I'll post a full review!