No more hide and seek.

November 4, 2007 by

Most people have many phone numbers these days, whether it’s the office, home, cell, etc.  Companies for many years have been trying to figure out a better solution for reaching a person than calling a list of phone numbers.  A company called Grand Central seems to have a good option.

After reading about this company in the newspaper many months ago, I signed up immediately.  Almost anything that sounds remotely useful and free, I am interested.  This company assigns a new phone number that automatically rings all of your possible phone numbers at the same time.  Whichever one you answer takes the call.

There are many other features that I like.  While the caller hears a ringing sound, you are given a few choices.  You can answer the call, send the call to voice mail, or listen in on the call as the caller leaves a message.  You can even cut in to the call during a message.  Once the caller leaves a message, the message gets mailed to your email address.  All the settings can easily be modified at Grand Central’s web site.

The biggest snag is that this product is in beta.  Who knows what the company will charge when it releases.  I would hate to give everyone a single number and find that in a few months or weeks I decide to give it all up.  Also Google has bought this little startup.  I have no idea how that will effect Grand Central.

Netgear Home Server (SC101)

June 3, 2007 by

Like most people, I have collected an enormous number of files that I would hate to lose.  I could do a backup to DVD’s, which I do occasionally.  Unfortunately there are too many days between backups, which means I would lose too many files.  Everyone knows that hard drives will crash.  It is not a matter of if, but when.  I wanted a system to mirror two drives.  That means both drives would always have exactly the same data for that inevitable day when the drive crashes.  It looked like Netgear SC101 would be that product.  The Netgear solution is just a box and software.  The user buys and installs the drives. 

Hardware installation was rather straightforward.  I easily opened the box and connected up each of my 500gb drives.  Then I connected the server to my network using a standard Ethernet cable.  The software installation was not as straightforward.  Each computer on the network needed the new software.  That would be fine, but the software installed better on some machines than others.  I had to uninstall and reinstall the software on one of my machines a few times.  What bothered me more were the confusing options.  You could partition the drives and set up passwords for each partition.  I eventually got the server up and running.

Once I got the server working well and mirroring working, anything I put on one drive would be automatically saved on the second drive.  At least that is what I thought.  Each time the Network software is run, it asks to check for a newer version.  I routinely choose yes.  On one occasion, Netgear updated my software and I lost contact with my server.  Not only did that machine lose contact, but also all my machines lost contact.  I had to make an appointment with a Netgear engineer and have him connect into my computer.  In about 40 minutes, he was able to give me access to my hard drive.  What surprised me was that he could not reinstate the mirroring option.  To set up mirroring, I would have to start from scratch with the hard drives.  In other words, I could copy off all my data, set up mirroring and then copy my data back.  He also told me that mirror had not been working for weeks.  I could see the differences between the two drives.

Netgear seems to have missed the boat with this server.  What I wanted and expected from a server was robust mirroring.  When one drive crashes, I could replace that drive and the system would automatically reinstate mirroring.  With this system, I would not even know which of the two drives crashed.  Considering I own many good Netgear products, I am particularly disappointed with this one.

Songbird Developer Preview

February 18, 2007 by

The developers who built WinAmp have released a preview of their newest creation: Songbird. Unlike WinAmp, which ran only on Windows systems and was primarily a media player, Songbird is cross platform and allows music lovers to search for music posted on the millions of blogs on the Internet. It’s also a cataloging tool like iTunes, so you can store the tracks you find on your hard drive. I have only begun to use Songbird, but the amount of great, free music on the web is astounding. If you are bored with commercial music you will find a rich window into the free music world with Songbird.

Wireless Weather Station

February 2, 2007 by

Many companies make weather station kits.  These can cost hundreds of dollars and take time to install the sensors.  I have owned a couple of these over the years with many problems.  At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) I learned about a new one from Oregon Scientific model  OSI WMS801.  Instead of requiring one to install sensors, it uses a service from Microsoft called MSN Direct.  Microsoft gets the weather information and broadcasts it over FM.

This weather station is one of the easiest products to use.  You just plug it in the wall and the unit automatically gets the weather information.  I know that MSN Direct does not work everywhere; so one would have to check the Internet to make sure it works in your area.  I used it in Manhattan, where it worked very quickly.  There are some confusing buttons on the outside, but once you figure out how to change the time zone, you are home free.

The MSN Direct booth at the CES demonstrated many products that use their service.  Most charge a monthly fee, but this one does not.  Once you buy the unit for $125 from Costco, there are no additional charges.  The representative from MSN also assured me the service would be around at least five years.

As mentioned earlier I have used many weather stations.  This one is probably the clearest.  The temperature and humidity are large and bold.  The forecasts for the next three days are in slightly smaller type with the barometric pressure trend, wind speed and direction.

For people who like to know more about the weather than just looking out the window, you cannot go wrong buying this product. 

Travel wireless router

December 7, 2006 by

Travel wireless routers are made for business people who want wireless access in a hotel room.  I recently had a guest who just plugged one into my home network to use a laptop computer wirelessly without touching my wireless settings.  I was very impressed how quick and simple the whole process took.  In my search for a travel wireless router, I found many options.  The cheapest was a Netgear WGR101 for $15 from Amazon.  At that price, it was worth a try.

Some of the Internet reviews were less than stellar.  People complained how hard it is to set up and configure with encryption.  My experience could not have been more different.  In about five to ten minutes, I plugged in the router to my computer and made all the necessary settings.  These included setting the SSID, encryption, and MAC addresses for my computers.  There is a slide switch that needs to be in the correct position during this process, but the instructions were clear enough. 

Since the original day when I configured the router, I have not had to make a single change.  All I do is plug the router into a wired connection and an electric outlet.  It is really that simple.

Washing Machine Flood Protection

November 21, 2006 by

Look at your washing machine hoses.  Do they resemble the same hoses you would use in the garden?  Since the water hoses going to washing machines are usually left under pressure all the time, the pressure and constant vibrations could eventually cause a leak.  Years ago a colleague had this happen and it made a huge flood.  Many people do use armored hoses for their washing machines.  That probably helps quite a bit, but I found something better from a company called Watts.

 

In addition to being armored, these hoses can sense a leak and shut off.  I was a little skeptical, but at around $32 for a pair, I thought it was worth the peace of mind.  That is of course if it works.

 

When the hoses arrived, I had to know whether they could really sense a leak.  I connected them in place of a garden hose and attached a sprayer.  The sprayer worked normally.  I proceeded to unscrew the attachment to represent a leak.  As advertised, the hoses shut off quickly.

 

Although I have no data on the longevity of this product, I was impressed and strongly recommend this Watts product. 

Forever Flashlight III by Excaliber

November 12, 2006 by

I have picked up two of these flashlights for my house. Living on the Gulf Coast as I am hurricanes are a nagging concern and I got these as part of my hurricane preparation kit though they would equally well in routine blackout.

The flashlights operate on the Faraday principle with the conducter- coiled copper wire moving though a magnetic field by shaking the flashlight. The resultant electricity powers the LED and provides light. When I first started looking at these I was concerned about the light intesity. In the stores it can be difficult to tell if the flashlight is even on.

I happy to report thought that in the dark the resultant illumination is more than sufficient to provide light for walking around. Just don’t expect spotlight intensity. The advertising indicates 5 minutes of illumination for 15 to 30 seconds of mechanical work but in my experience the intensity of the light fades after a couple of minutes so I wind up shaking it sooner. Still there is no need to worry about dead batteries making it ideal for emergency situations.

I had also considered “dynamo” flashlights but these do contain a battery, a rechargable one (a fact that is not always clearly shown on the packaging materials), and presumably over time this rechargable battery will lose its ability to store a charge.

The flashlights run from 20 to 30 dollars on average and can be found online but also in places like Bed,Bath and Beyond, The Sharper Image and Brookstones.

The Plantronics Voyager 510 Bluetooth Headset – excellent

November 7, 2006 by

I recently bought the Plantroncis Voyager 510 headset for about $60.

It is by a wonderful, reasonably priced bluetooth headset.  It connected easily and without difficult the my Palm Treo 650.

The headset controls (Call Control, Volume up and Down, on/off) are very easy to differentiate both visually and by touch.

Pairing was a little tricky only because I didn’t wait long enough for the red light to blink and the blue light to blink – actually I was holding the call button + the down volume button instead of the volume up button – but despite that gaff, it was easy to link and set-up.

Call quality is excellent.  In my car, a few people have mentioned my voice was a little quiet – but most have been very happy with the microphone’s quality.  Somehow blue tooth sounds better than a tethered microphone.  The 6 hour talk time exceeds the battery on my Treo.

All in all, this is an excellent single function product.  It beats the pants off the motorola ear piece my phone dealer sold me for $100.

Enjoy, gadgetology.

LibraryThing.com

November 3, 2006 by

LibraryThing is a social networking site for book collectors and bibliophiles. Once you open your free account (which requires divulging no personal data), you can catalog two hundred books for free. This process is so easy and fun that you could fill your free account in an afternoon. LibraryThing has a powerful search engine that is built on top of the Z39.50 protocol, which is an international search standard used by libraries and large retailers like Amazon. LibraryThing.com allows you to search from over sixty libraries, so no matter how obscure your title, you are likely to find it.

LibraryThing is more than just a book catalog. Once you find your title and optionally tag and rate it, LibraryThing will alert you to others in the system that own the same book. It will also recommend books to you based on matching your titles and tags with those of other users. Also, you can write your own review of any title, as well discuss books with other users, in complete anonymity.

For a lifetime membership and the ability to catalog an infinite number of books, LibraryThing charges individuals $25.00; a yearly membership costs $10.00.

Verizon FIOS Service

November 3, 2006 by

There is a fight between cable companies and phone companies.  Cable companies are getting into the phone business and phone companies are getting into the cable business.  Until recently I received my Internet connection and cable from my cable company and my phone from my phone company.  Verizon is my phone company and offers a relatively new product called FIOS, which will ultimately include all three services.  Instead of having individual wires for each, Verizon puts all three on fiber optics.  I chose to take the plunge and move my phone and Internet connection to fiber optics.  Verizon does not yet have approval in my area for cable tv. 

Even though many cities have been wired with fiber optics, not too many individuals have fiber to the home yet.  My phone lines used to come in over copper wires.  Whenever it rained, I got static. One of the benefits I saw with making the switch was to get rid of the static. 

Although Verizon has a spotty reputation for customer service, the representatives for FIOS were great.  They answered all my questions and installed everything quickly.

The whole system has been in for many months with very few problems.  As I had hoped, the static is gone.  The Internet connection is a little faster than my previous Internet connection over cable.  Not everything is perfect with fiber optics.  Power failures can bring down the whole system.  Phone companies power their phones lines over their copper wires.  Since fiber optics are made out of glass and glass is not conductive, the system has to be powered by the homeowner.  In other words, when the power goes out, the homeowner is responsible for the battery backup.  A few weeks ago I lost power and my phone lines did not last many hours.  With the explosion of cell phones, this downside may become less and less important.