Sunday, July 29, 2007

Oh Slingbox, How I Love Thee

I've got to say that my Slingbox has turned out to be one of the most useful gadgets I've picked up over the past several years. By now most of you know what a Slingox is - basically it's a small device that sits between your television and one or more video devices, typically a Tivo or some sort of DVR. Using a small piece of software (SlingPlayer) that you load onto your PC, Mac or Smartphone you are able to view video content located in your home (or wherever you have your Slingbox device located) from anywhere on the internet. I've traveled quite a bit these past few years, much of it internationally, and I can't count the number of times I've watched my favorite TV shows from thousands of miles away while traveling in Europe or Asia. I happen to be a fanatic of The Sopranos, but it just so happens that I was in Shanghai during the much discussed the series finale. I just had to watch the episode while it was showing "live" in the States. No problem...just fired up the SlingPlayer software at 9am in Shanghai and watched it along with everyone else. And as I write this posting I am sitting here up in Lake Tahoe watching my favorite sporting event of the year, the Tour de France, using the SlingPlayer since I have limited television access from up here...very cool!

Surprisingly, though, what I found to be even more useful than accessing my video content remotely was accessing the content while at home. I do most of my work from home, and before my Slingbox I used to frequently turn on the TV and tune into CNN or one of the other news channels while working so that I could listen in on the news of the day. But now with Slingbox I have no need to turn the TV on at all. Instead I just keep a small Slingplayer window open on my PC during the day so I can monitor the latest news while I work. In fact, I can't even remember the last time I actually turned on the TV in my bedroom. So, in my case the Slingbox can actually take the place of one of my TV's, and I'm sure if there was a way to calculate it you can even quantify the savings in my electric bill by not having to turn the TV on at all.

I bet the makers of Slingox never realized its potential for being a green solution :-)

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Old Cell Phone Bill

I happen to be very anal when it comes to record retention...I keep all my receipts, bank statements, etc. for 10 years, and I go through this annual ritual of shredding up all my records from 10 years ago shortly after filing my income tax return for the current year. So, after I filed my 2006 return last month I took out my box of 1997 records and proceeded to load them into the shredder. For some reason or another I decided to open up one of my old cell phone bills from that year; it was from Cellular One (remember them?). Anyway, I was absolutely amazed when I looked at the bill and saw that I had paid about $60 for a month of service that provided a whopping 30 minutes of local coverage per month! What's also amazing is that at the time this dollar amount seemed perfectly reasonable and not overpriced. In contrast to that, it's now 2007 and as I look at my latest T-Mobile bill I am lamenting over the fact that I spend nearly 90 bucks a month with them. This $90 includes 1000 anytime minutes anywhere within the US, unlimited data, Blackberry email and SMS, and unlimited T-Mobile HotSpot usage. It's not only amazing to see how far the technology has come along during this time and the corresponding drop in prices to the consumer, but also our attitudes and perception about these services and what we consider to be good value vs. not so good value for the dollar. Right now I think my monthly cell phone cost is way too high, but after seeing my 1997 bill in actuality it's quite the bargain.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

My Quickie Review of the T-Mobile Dash

I recently decided to give the T-Mobile Dash a trial run, as I've been a devoted Blackberry users for the past 8 years but have been dying to try one of the new Windows Mobile devices. Prior to the Dash I was using a Blackberry 8700, a device which had worked really well for me and which I have no major issues with. Most of my feedback on the Dash is based on comparisons with my trusty 8700.

To make a long story short, I ended up returning the Dash after one week, as I found it to be severely limiting in certain key areas, despite some of the great features of Windows Mobile. Some of the highlights/lowlights were:

  • The unit itself was very, very nice, and its form factor (from a phone perspective) was far better than any Blackberry I've ever used that had a full keyboard. Nice rubberized back and sides, and rounded edges at all the right places. Although I never dropped the device, it felt very sturdy and could probably survive a fair amount of abuse.
  • The screen was crisp and very bright, and was even viewable under direct sunlight. However, it's still not quite as bright as the 8700's screen.
  • The plethora of available Windows Mobile software is staggering, especially when compared to the Blackberry Lots of great utilities and programs written by individuals as well as ISV's. I installed the Skype beta for WM Smartphone and it worked quite well while connected to a T-Mobile Hotspot. And the Slingplayer for WM is perhaps the single coolest application I've seen for a WM device. Practically speaking, though, I wonder how much I'd really use it on a day-to-day basis versus just as a way to show off to my friends :-)
  • The built-in wi-fi generally worked well, both when connected to my home network as well as when I used T-Mobile HotSpot. I did encounter a strange problem, though, in that every once in awhle the wi-fi just stopped working as I was browsing around sites. I played around with some of the wi-fi power mode settings, and found out that if I switched the power mode from "auto" to "best performance" that the problem went away. Looks like this might be some type of WM bug
  • The built-in IE browser does a much better job of rendering standard web pages than the Blackberry, and over wi-fi does this fairly quickly as well.
  • Setting up email access via POP (I'm not able to setup direct push) was fairly straightforward, although T-Mobile makes this a bit confusing too. You can setup POP accounts through WM one by one, but T-Mobile also makes available something they call "My Email" which is a way to centrally manage all your POP accounts through its web-based portal. They say nothing about why you would do this vs. settting up individual POP accounts, and so it left me scratching my head a bit. One advantage of using the My Email service is that when new messages arrive at your POP account that this will automatically trigger a background SMS message to your WM device, and then your device will use this trigger to download the actual message. In theory I suppose this makes My Email a quasi-push type technology, but having setup email both ways I couldn't really tell if this method utlimately delivered messages to me any faster than setting up the POP account to automatically retrieve messages every 15 mins (the shortest frequency allowed by WM).
  • I ran into a strange problem midway through the week. WM has a "messaging" screen which lists all of your messaging accounts - SMS, MMS, POP, etc. For some inexplicable reason WM deleted all but one of my accounts from this screen, making email and messaging totally unusable. The messaging accounts were still active, though. I could see myself receiving new SMS messages, but I has absolutely no way to view any of them because of this problem. When I contacted T-Mobile technical support the only thing they could suggest was to wipe my device clean and start fresh again with the factory defaults. Later, when I returned the device, the salesperson who sold it to me said that he's heard of other users also experiencing this problem. This is a major bug that needs to be fixed!
  • I found no way to selectively filter messages based on subject, sender, etc. With my 8700 I could logon to the T-Mobile site and apply filtering rules for each POP email account, but no similar function seems to exist when using WM and the Dash.
  • I fully expected the Dash to provide much better handling and UI for basic PIM stuff - messaging, calendar, contacts, etc. However, I did not find this to be true at all. Calendar views were extremely limited and inferior to what BB provides (which I also consider to be mediocre), contact management was also a disappointment, and messaging lacked some very basic functions such as the ability to select multiple messages for a delete operation.
  • Profile management in WM just plain sucks. Though they allow you to modify any of the existing profiles, they do not allow you to create your own. I use the "phone only" profile on my 8700 quite a bit, but no such equivalent exists on the Dash. The other thing that annoys me is that the alarm sound for the built-in alarm clock is not independent but is tied to the currently active profile. So, if you happen to be using the "silent" profile you'll never hear the alarm go off.
  • Bluetooth seems to work fairly well, and I was succefully able to pair the Dash with a couple of different BT headsets as well as with my car. For the latter, however, it would not send signal strenght information to the car, which my 8700 could do and which I found to be quite handy since I could quickly view the car's on-screen display to check signal strength vs. having to look at the device.
  • The Dash seemed to lose EDGE connectivity periodically, and the only way I seemed to be able to get it back was to power off/power on the unit. This behavior is similar to problems I had a couple of years back with my old BB 7100T.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed with the Dash and decided to return it. Unless you really need to use a lot of 3rd-party apps or some of its other features (e.g. built-in camera with the worst UI known to mankind) you're better off sticking with your Blackberry.