Monday, January 17, 2011

Choosing between Verizon iPhone or Android

I used to have an iPhone. Loved the iPhone as a tech device, but experienced horrible phone service with AT&T! I experienced dropped calls on approximately 75% of my calls, and could never get service inside my home. But at the time, it was the only good smartphone on the market.

When the Motorola Droid became available, I jumped ship and switched over to Verizon. I had numerous calls to AT&T requesting that they waive the Early Termination Fee (ETF) due to the amount of dropped calls I experienced. In the end, AT&T reduced the ETF by 50%, which was a small price to pay for the opportunity to have reliable phone service. And I was able to sell my iPhone to make up for the rest.

Last week Verizon announced that the iPhone 4 would be coming to Verizon on February 10, 2011. This is the news people have been talking about for years! Good timing too because I will be eligible to switch phones (at the subsidized price) in a few months.

My knee jerk reaction was that I'm switching back to the iPhone. But now that I've had a week to think about it, I think that Android is still the better choice. Here are a few reasons why:

Verizon iPhone 4 is only CDMA - Verizon is about to launch new phones for their 4G LTE network. However, Verizon's iPhone 4 is a CDMA phone, meaning that it will use the slower 3G network. Do you really want to be stuck with 3G speeds for the 2-year commitment that the subsidized iPhone 4 will require?

iPhone 5 expected this summer - It is rumored that the iPhone 5 will be released this summer for AT&T and Verizon. If true, then you would spend the next year and a half (2-year contract) drooling over the new iPhone 5 features. And by the time your 2-year contract is complete, you would likely be faced with the same dilemma of whether or not to a few months to wait for the next generation of the iPhone (iPhone 6?).

Android 4G LTE devices launching now! - Personally, I'm looking forward to the Droid BIONIC (Motorola), but Samsung and HTC have some pretty amazing devices launching too.

I have used both the iPhone 3GS and the Motorola Droid extensively. The iPhone used to have a far superior user interface, but Android has been constantly updating it's user experience and I feel that my Droid is now on par with the iPhone user experience. The main concern I have with Android is that there is no globally accepted PC interface for Android to sync music, photos, videos and apps (such as the iPhone has with iTunes), but that may change soon with all the sync and stream features in Android 3.0 Honeycomb.

If you are set on getting an iPhone, my recommendation would be to wait a few months and see what is just over the horizon. That's a tricky thing to do with tech, because something is always "just over the horizon". But speculation is high that the iPhone 5 will be released this summer. While waiting, check out some of the new 4G LTE Android devices that are launching. You may be pleasantly surprised!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Giving McAfee the boot

MaximumPC published an article earlier this year rating the top antivirus/security apps. They raved about how much McAfee's offering has improved over previous years. McAfee has rewritten it's code to be much faster and have a smaller memory footprint, compared to the bloated joke of previous years. McAfee seemed to have regained their reputation and name as a leader in the antivirus/security field.

Based on this review, I picked up McAfee Total Protection 2010 to give McAfee a shot at redemption. At about $18 for a 3 PC license, I figured it was worth a shot... and it was! The interface was pretty clean and it had a lot of features that I found useful.

I was using it for a couple of months, and then I decided to run a spyware check with Webroot Spy Sweeper (without a doubt the best spyware cleaner out there). And guess what... IT FOUND TWO TROJAN HORSES!!!

McAfee has been in the business for a long time, so I figured I must have done something wrong and that there is no way that they would miss these trojans. So I removed them from quarantine and ran a manual scan with McAfee on the folder where they resided. McAfee still did not detect these two trojans!

I removed McAfee from my computer and installed ESET Smart Security 4, which is built on the outstanding ESET NOD32 virus scanner. ESET detected and quarantined both trojans.

That sealed the coffin for McAfee in this household. I removed it from each of my family computers and have switched everyone over to a combination of ESET Smart Security 4 and Webroot Spy Sweeper. I don't see myself ever returning to McAfee.

All of the client performance improvements in the world don't mean anything if it doesn't do what it is supposed to do... protect my computer from viruses and malware. Stay clear from McAfee if you value your PC's security.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Re-thinking my backup and storage strategy

Remember the days when backing up your data meant saving it to a floppy disc, and a 40 MB hard drive was considered HUGE? Well, that's not the case in today's world of affordable 2 TB hard drives.

I have a 1.5 TB hard drive which holds my media consisting of 69.5 GB music, 44.5 GB photos, and 168 GB of videos. My collection is growing daily as I continue to digitize all of my media. And if you're wondering... yes, it is all legitimately purchased. I want all of my media digitized so that I can stream it to my various televisions without the need to bother with a disc.

I currently use Acronis True Image Home 2010 to back up my data to a Western Digital My Book 500 GB external hard drive. The problem that I run into is that I have outgrown the ability to do a full image backup of my system drive.

Options that I have considered include:
  1. Purchase a larger external drive to accommodate the larger backups.
  2. Purchase another 1.5 TB or 2 TB internal hard drive.
  3. Only back up my media files and not the entire system.
Well, with my goal of streaming my media to other rooms in mind, I decided not to go with any of these. Continuously purchasing larger external hard drives would be costly. And I really don't want to have to keep my computer up all the time, preventing it from entering sleep mode.

I decided to look into NAS (Network Attached Storage) options, and I found an affordable solution that meets my needs. I chose the Netgear ReadyNAS Duo RND2110.

The Netgear ReadyNAS Duo that I ordered comes with a 1 TB hard drive. That's more than enough to store my media. But by adding a second hard drive to the NAS, it will automatically clone the existing hard drive so you have a complete backup of all of your data automatically. And it is DNLA compatible, so you can share the media with a compatible device (such as an Xbox 360, PS3, or any number of devices for streaming media) without the need for the computer to be on!

One of the nice things about a NAS is that it is expandable. This one comes with a 1 TB drive, but I can toss a 2 TB drive in there now as the second drive, and when I set aside some money to upgrade the original 1 TB drive to a 2 TB drive, it is as easy as pulling out the existing drive and putting in the new one. It will then mirror the 2 TB drive over to the new one. If I want to keep an offsite backup, just get a third drive and rotate them out on a schedule.

This is much more appealing than my original three options. It saves electricity by allowing me to shut down my power hungry PC while making my media library available to devices for playback on my televisions. And if I bring additional computers online, all of my media is instantly available via the NAS.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Digital media for your living room

Digital photos and audio have been extremely popular for several years. Programs such as iTunes and Picasa make them easy to integrate into our daily lives, especially with the death of DRM (Digital Rights Management) for music files. DRM basically tied your music to one computer and forced you to only use the music player which you purchased the songs with.

Digital video has been around for a while too, but it has always been limited (and somewhat taboo) due to the complications involved in either converting a DVD to a digital file, or downloading that video illegally from the Internet.

Just recently a push has been made to legitimize digital video content with services such as Amazon Video on Demand, iTunes Store, and Netflix streaming. There is also Digital Copy, which is a digital copy of a movie that comes with several new DVD and Blu-Ray movies. Unfortunately, all of these options use DRM and tie you to using a specific computer, or a specific program to play it. The Amazon and Netflix services mentioned can easily be streamed to any computer that you are logged into their service with, but what about if you want to copy that movie to your laptop or iPod to watch while riding a subway to work, or when you are traveling and don't have Internet access? And if you don't have a device that is compatible with the service then you are pretty much out of luck.

That's a huge problem, and is what is holding back the adoption of this technology from the mainstream public. And Blu-Ray is in a weird limbo too because it is sandwiched in between the established DVD technology (which everybody has), and this new digital media technology.

Digital Copy was also poorly executed. I have several movies that came with Digital Copy versions of the movie, but I haven't activated a single of them because you have to choose at the time of activation whether you want a version that will play in iTunes or if you want a version that will play in Windows Media Player. You can't have both, and you only get one activation. How do I know what computer or devices I want to use that file on in the future. If you have an iPod/iPhone, only the iTunes version will work. But what if you have a Zune HD, or any other device? Digital Copy will never take off as long as it contains DRM and you are limited as to what you can use to play it.

I want to watch movies/videos on my television!
The other challenge has always been how to get the movie/video files to play on your living room television.

Media Center PCs have been around for several years. I have built a few myself, and they work relatively well, and are usually the most diversified in what they will play on your TV. But they are generally high maintenance. You've got to keep up with Windows updates, driver updates, software updates, and antivirus protection. You pretty much have to be an "IT guy" with lots of time and patience in order to even consider this option. And who wants a huge ugly PC sitting in their living room with the loud fan buzzing away? There are some more attractive Media Center PC options available today such as the Dell Inspiron Zino HD and the Apple Mac Mini, both of which have a small footprint.

AppleTV was the first device which made it simple to stream content to your television that was purchased or rented from the iTunes Store. This works great for iTunes content, and is the only device which can play iTunes video on the TV. It has a beautiful simple to use interface. But that limitation of only playing iTunes content is what eventually caused me to get rid of mine.

Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 will stream content from your PC, but both are very finicky about what file formats they support. And neither will play DRM protected audio or video, unless purchased from their own respective online store.

I recently purchased a WDTV Live for a couple of family members. The user interface is nothing to write home about, but it is completely silent and it plays a wide variety of video file types. It has Pandora, Flickr, and Live 365 built into the box. And you can use a program such as PlayOn to stream a plethora of other content to the box, such as Hulu and Netflix. If you need/want something right now, I highly recommend WDTV Live.

However, Boxee has recently announced that they will be releasing the Boxee Box. Speculation is that it will be available Q2 2010, but no official release date has been announced. It has an extremely polished and intuitive interface and connects you to an extensive amount of online content (Hulu, Netflix, etc.) natively without the need for additional software to be run on a computer. And just like the WDTV Live, Boxee has long been known to play a wide variety of video formats. I'm not too fond of the sunken cube look, but the Boxee Box uses an RF remote. This means that you can hide the box in a cabinet because the remote control does not require a direct line of sight to work. I think the Boxee Box is going to change how a lot of people watch their video content. Watch out for this one!

Here's the announcement video for the Boxee Box.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Photo calendars make great holiday gifts

For the past few years, I have been creating calendars for my family using my photos and family birthdays. They've been well received and I'm constantly reminded to do a new one right around Christmas time.

Gather your dates
The tedious part of creating a calendar is gathering and documenting birthdays and anniversary's of everyone that the recipients of the calendars might want. If you are from a broken family, or are giving the calendar to multiple families, then this can be a lot of work. I find that it is best to document all of the birthdays in your address book and group each of the people into tags or groups based on what calendar they should be included in.

If you are just creating one calendar for your parents, then it is pretty simple and straight-forward.

However, if your parents have separated and have families of their own, it becomes much more complicated. You have to split the birthdays into separate groups... one for your father's family and one for your mother's family, because your father probably isn't concerned with the birthdays of your mother's side of the family and vice versa. If you have a sibling who is married, then another group of dates might be required to include their spouses family. When you account for the birthdays/anniversaries of aunts, uncles, and cousins, it adds up.

I find that it is easiest to use Google Calendar to create a separate calendar for the dates that you want on each of the calendars you are going to create. Here is a list of the Google Calendars that I have solely for creating photo calendars to give out at Christmas.

Mother - Includes her side of the family, as well as the dates of her husband's family.
Father - Includes only his side of the family.
Me - Includes everything in the Mother calendar and Father calendar.
Sister's husband's family - Includes only her husband's family dates.
My Sister - Easiest one... includes everything from all of the calendars listed above.

Choose your photos wisely!
The first year that I created calendars, I just used some of my best photos... no people at all!

Once you start adding people to photos, it complicates things. You run into the same challenge of segregating your photos based on who is in the photos. In the calendar examples above, I wouldn't want to put photos of my father in my mother's calendar. And my sister's husband's family probably wouldn't enjoy photos of my parents. Someone is bound to be offended.

If you don't want to drive yourself crazy spending countless hours sorting photos, stick to a common subject or stay away from people photos completely. One year I made a calendar of just photos of me and my sister growing up (there are some embarrassing ones in there!). And for the past two years, the calendars have been of my niece, so that is appealing to everyone! When picking photos, I just try to pick ones that don't include other family members.

Creating and ordering your calendar
Choosing a calendar service for creating and ordering your calendars is important. So far, I have used Apple, Kodak Gallery, and Shutterfly.

Apple - For Mac users it's a no brainer! Create your calendar in iPhoto and order the calendar from Apple. They have the best quality calendars of all three services I have tried, but they are also quite a bit more expensive. Calendar creation in iPhoto is a simple and seamless process. It pulls dates directly from your iCal calendar(s), and the photos directly from iPhoto. I created my calendars in Google Calendar (as described above), and then set up iCal to pull those calendars by the Google Calendar links. Sadly, I don't use a Mac anymore, and I haven't found any other calendar services that offer that level of integration with your existing data.

Kodak Gallery - I used Kodak one time. Overall, I was pleased with the quality of the calendar, but the spiral binding was too small for the calendar pages to turn. So you ended up having to force the pages to flip to the next month. Also, everything was a manual process. You have to upload your photos to the Kodak service using their proprietary photo web uploader, and you have to enter the dates manually. It was a lot of work! In the end, I chose not to use Kodak again due to the issue with the spiral binding.

Shutterfly - This is my second year using Shutterfly, and overall I like them. The overall quality is nice and the pages flip easily in the spiral binding. Unfortunately, you do have to upload your photos to the Shutterfly website using their proprietary web uploader, and you do have to manually enter all of the dates into their website. But the site maintains those dates on your account, so you only have to enter them once. Unfortunately it does not allow you to group the dates or assign tags. Pricing is nice and the calendars are very customizable. I will continue to use Shutterfly in the future unless something better comes along.

Ideal calendar solution?
What I really want to see is a company that lets me use my existing data where it currently resides. I am a Google person, so I would like to use my own Google Calendars, and my own GMail contacts, and my photos from Picasa or the Picasa Web site.

Google already has all of the functionality in place that Apple has for a fully integrated calendar service. Google just needs to add an add-on/plugin built into their Picasa application. Picasa can already pull data from my GMail contacts. I am sure it would be simple to have it input the calendar information from my Google Calendar too. Google wouldn't even need to build the integration. Calendar websites, such as Shutterfly or Kodak, could build plugins so that you could build the calendar in Picasa and then automatically upload the compiled calendar data/photos to Shutterfly or Kodak for processing.

Seems like a no-brainer, but so far nobody besides Apple has made photo calendar creation a seamless process. We'll see what happens next year.

What are your thoughts and recommendations?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Blogger comments needs improvement

As I mentioned in my last post, my main gripe with Blogger is their comment system. I am a big fan of people being accountable for their actions/comments. Most people are honest and considerate. But there are a few who hide behind the anonymity of the Internet and sling rude comments, disrupting the experience for others.

Unfortunately, the only way to dissuade this behavior is to require people to create an account and sign in to post a comment. I don't feel that this is a very good solution, because that's just one more login and password for you to remember.

About a year ago, Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect were created to be your personal centralized identity that you can use to log into any sites that choose to adopt the technology. I run into sites left and right that have implemented Facebook Connect for their commenting system, but aside from Blogger, I haven't seen Google Friend Connect anywhere else.

Google/Blogger was one of the first to embrace OpenID, and I applaud them for that. But what about allowing comments for users of other popular systems that tie an identity to that person, such as Twitter, MySpace, and most importantly Facebook Connect?

Over the past couple weeks that I have been considering switching back to Blogger from a self-hosted Wordpress site, I have investigated options that allow this kind of freedom. So far, I have found only two that are worth mentioning...

DISQUS is free. Their system allows visitors to your site to choose to leave a comment with their Facebook, OpenID, Twitter, or DISQUS identity. Nearly everyone is going to recognize what Facebook and Twitter is, but who in the heck (besides the tech savvy) is going to know what OpenID or DISQUS is? Probably not many, and that's why I won't be implementing DISQUS into my site.

JS-Kit ECHO is not free, but they appear to be on the right track. ECHO allows visitors to choose from several identities, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo, Blogger, and several others. They also allow the visitor to subscribe to the comments thread, include images and video, and also re-post their comment to their personal site (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) if they choose to do so. These features can all be enabled or disabled as desired. The fee for this service is $12 per year.

I am considering JS-Kit ECHO for my blogger comments. It is a nice system and offers a lot of flexibility. They have a 30-day full refund policy if you aren't satisfied, but would much more prefer a 15-30 day free trial instead to see if I want to purchase it.

That said, if Google would just add Facebook Connect as an identity option for posting comments, we wouldn't even be having this discussion.

I'm back on Blogger

After switching back to my self-hosted Wordpress site for the past year, I have decided to hang that up and come back to Blogger. Maintaining a self-hosted blog has a lot of benefits. You have so much more flexibility with what you can do with your site.

But it's a lot of work to maintain. You have to perform upgrades to the software, and do regular backups of the site and databases. If you want to switch themes then you have to make sure that any extra code that you have added is copied into the new template. I just decided that I wanted something simpler that I can focus on writing instead of maintaining the site.

Blogger has come quite a ways. I like that you can now easily use photos from your Picasa album. The one thing that I am going to miss is the ability to use Facebook Connect to allow Facebook users to leave comments via their Facebook account. I know that Google has their Google Friend Connect, and I like it... but I hope that they consider adding Facebook Connect as a means to leave comments and subscribe to a Blogger site.

A lot has happened since my last post. I'll provide details soon.