Posted on July 17th, 2013 4 comments
Should I buy a Smart TV? That’s a question that I got recently from a reader of one of my articles about fixing a Sony Wega TV. I think that even though she had gotten her HD TV back up and running, the thought of replacing it when it wasn’t working was overwhelming since there are so many TV choices available these days. You can choose from Plasma, LCD, and LED display technology and features like SmartTV, 3D, etc. And now it seems every company is offering flat screen so-called “Smart” TVs. But there is no real standard definition of what a ‘Smart TV’ is. My understanding is that it’s a TV that has a networking connection that can stream content from computers in the home or from Internet services. Streaming content from home computers is not that new, and it is still problematic since the standards don’t seem to be working all that well together, but services that stream video over the Internet like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and other sources are starting to catch on in a big way.
I have been experimenting with devices that connect to the TV that do some of the same things as Smart TVs for many years. These devices can all play content directly from services on the Internet or from PCs on the home network. Some even have USB ports where you can insert a thumb drive and play the music, pictures, or videos from the thumb drive. I have 5 devices under my TV that fit into this category: An Xbox 360, a Wii, a D-link DSM 520, a Sony Blu-Ray player, a Roku, and an Apple TV box.
I used to work in this area at HP, having helped to introduce one of the company’s first digital entertainment products back in 2001, and that’s one of the reasons I have so many of these ‘smart’ devices. At the time, I recognized that they would eventually find their way into every living room, it’s just taking much longer than I expected. I am not a gamer, so I rarely use the Wii or Xbox for games, but I do use them for their media streaming capabilities. These game consoles have their firmware updated automatically on a regular basis and thus they were able to add this functionality after I had purchased them. When I first got them, many of the Internet streaming services didn’t exist but they have been added with new firmware updates. There are a number of Internet video streaming services, the most well-known being Netflix. But Netflix doesn’t carry all of their available content in streaming mode. Most of the really good movies on Netflix are on their DVD rental side, which costs extra. It approximately doubles the $8 monthly cost of the Internet-only fee. But I figure it is just a matter of time before they move all of their content to the Internet streaming side, possibly charging extra for movies you’d actually want to watch like Amazon Prime does with Amazon Instant Video.
A smart device can access Internet content from a number of content providers but be aware most of these have monthly subscription fees. Some of the smart devices can access content on your PC, such as your music and photos and videos stored there. But it requires some effort to get that set up and working properly. It’s not always as easy as it sounds due to incompatible streaming protocols, digital rights issues, and media formats.
But do you really need smart capability built directly into a TV? It depends on your situation, because you can get this capability in any of a number of $100 devices such as most BluRay players. This capability is also available in the $99 AppleTV box which can stream from local and internet sources. Roku boxes cost less than $99 but are limited to internet sources, no local content can be streamed. And if you have a gaming console like a Wii or Xbox 360, you’re already likely to have the capability, even if you didn’t know it. So I wouldn’t pay more than $100 extra for a TV that has ‘smart’ capability. Granted, it may make managing the remote controls easier if the menu for accessing Internet content is built into the TV but dealing with multiple remotes is pretty typical these days. We have so many remotes on our coffee table that it takes a lot of effort to keep them all straight. 🙂
There is often a strong desire for products in this category to be WiFi enabled. However, I’ve found that having these devices connected to a wired Ethernet cable to be essential unless your Router/WiFi access point is in the same room. Streaming video requires a lot of bandwidth and is not tolerant of any delays or interference. Having a few devices in close proximity accessing a WiFi connection can be problematic because they can interfere with each other. And the last thing you want while watching a video is to see some interruption telling you it’s downloading more of the show or that you need to start over. A wired Ethernet connection can help prevent that from happening. You will need to run a cable, but once that is done, it’s a simple matter to add an Ethernet switch that can serve up to 8 devices. In addition to the 5 boxes under my TV, I also have a Comcast HD DVR which also requires an Internet connection. That’s 6 Internet connections in a very small space, so wired Ethernet connection and switch is essential to prevent interference and maximize networking performance. I do like the convenience of WiFi, but it’s really only a necessity for mobile battery-powered devices. Anything that sits stationary and is plugged into an outlet should have an Ethernet cable if it needs permanent Internet connectivity.
Another good reason to use wired Ethernet is due to the encryption key needed for wireless networks. I just had to replace my router and had to reprogram every device with a new wireless password. That’s not easy to do on devices that have no keyboard and very limited display capabilities. So far, no one has figured out a foolproof way to input WiFi passwords without a keyboard and display.
I noticed that the ‘Smart TV’ capability is often used as a way to help segregate a brand’s high end TVs and charge more for them. I am more than a bit reluctant to depend on a TV manufacturer to keep the firmware up-to-date to add new services as they come along. Game console manufacturers and companies that are making TV-streaming devices like Roku and AppleTV know that they need to keep those devices up-to-date to be competitive, but I would think that TV manufacturers may ignore that duty, just using that Internet connection as a way to reel in customers who are afraid they might miss out on something if they don’t get the most expensive TV model. Once they have you, they have little incentive to keep the Smart TV functionality up-to-date. That’s another reason I’d be concerned with having that function built into the TV. If some cool new ‘must have’ service comes along and you’re at the mercy of waiting for the TV’s manufacturer to update the TV’s firmware, you may be out of luck.
So I’m holding out on paying extra for a SmartTV. The numerous devices that I already have work fine, even though some are missing services that the others have. I have the same feelings about paying extra for a 3D TV, but that’s best left to another article.
Posted on December 31st, 2012 2 comments
I am often amazed at how some websites don’t manage to update the copyright notice at the bottom of the page to the current year. As I write this, I have hundreds of pages that have a copyright notice and in about 12 hours from now (since today is December 31st), they will automatically update to the year 2013 without me having to do anything. I noticed that when a new year arrives that for several months many websites will have the latest copyright date set to last year, and in some cases, they can be years out of date. When I see that, it makes me feel that someone is asleep at the switch.
Google uses more than 200 ‘signals’ to measure the influence of a page, and it would surprise me if they didn’t include the latest date in a copyright notice as something that might be of interest. Fresh content is king, and stale content is like two-day old bread and that’s why the bots never stop crawling your content. But to see a copyright that is years out of date on content that has obviously been updated today, well, it makes the site owner look like he’s just not paying attention to the details.
So, how does my copyright update without my intervention? Well all of my pages are sent through a PHP parser, and my copyright notice has this little snippet of PHP code:
Copyright © 2001-<?php echo date(Y); ?> Lee Devlin
When it’s run through the PHP parser and rendered on a browser, it translates to:
Copyright © 2001-2017 Lee Devlin
I have that code in all my footers, both on my WordPress and static pages, and it updates the second date every year, without me having to think about it.
If you want to edit your footer, WP themes generally keep the code in a file called footer.php in the wp-content folder. Feel free to copy that code into your footer, you have my permission. Just remember to change it to your name ;-).
Posted on December 20th, 2012 3 comments
I’ve found myself answering questions about the FlipPal for some of my friends who are interested in buying a portable scanner and so I thought I’d write up a review of it. I’ve owned a FlipPal for over a year have been advertising it on my website. The reason I promote it is because I think it’s a great product, but without an explanation, people don’t know how it would benefit them over owning a conventional scanner which you can get built into a printer these days.
The Flip-Pal is a mobile scanner whose scan window is 5″ x 7″ which makes it great for scanning printed photos that were taken by film cameras. The resolution of the scans will allow you to produce images that are indistinguishable from the original and I find the image quality and color accuracy to be better than other digital scanners I’ve used. The images I have of my childhood are all on prints and if I want to share these photos I need to put them in digital format. And scanning a photo to a digital format is a good idea anyway for the sake of preservation, since printed photos will continue to degrade over time whereas digital files do not.
If you already have a scanner and you are comfortable using it to scan your photos, then there’s not as much incentive to getting a Flip-pal unless you need one or more of its unique features. The thing that differentiates this scanner is that it is battery powered and doesn’t need to be connected to a computer to work and that makes it very portable. It’s slightly smaller and lighter than an iPad so it’s easy to take with you. There are no other portable flat bed scanners like it that scan without having to be connected to a computer. It allows you to take the scanner to the photo, as opposed to bringing the photo to the scanner. That might be important if you have photos you want to scan, but the owner of the photos doesn’t want to part with them or risk sending them in the mail.
Could you use a digital camera to make a digital copy of a print photo? Sure, you could do that but the result would likely be a disappointment because it would look like a picture of a picture and you’d have to deal with focus, glare, distortion, and lighting issues. The Flip-Pal allows you to make high quality digital images of existing photos whereas a digital camera is very clumsy to use for that purpose and would produce a rather poor result.
I have an 8.5″ x 11″ flatbed scanner that is built into my printer. When I want to use it, I have to launch the scanner software and wait for a minute or two for it to start and then put the picture under the lid, click the mouse a few times, preview the image, resize the scan area (since the software always seems to guess wrong size), scan it, save it and if I have a few items to scan I find myself standing up, walking over to the printer and back to the computer, and sitting back down for each photo and it’s an inconvenience. The Flip-Pal scans directly to the SD card so you can do a bunch of scans and then later you can unload the photos and then crop, edit and rename them on your computer when you have time. This makes work flow associated with scanning multiple photos much more convenient. You can work your way through scanning a shoe-box full of photos or a photo album during the course of watching a TV show or having a phone conversation. It also has a feature that if the photo that is in an album with a protective transparency over it and removing it from the album could risk damage to it, you can flip the scanner over and scan the image through the transparency in the album. This is possible because you can see ‘through’ a window on the bottom of the scanner to align it on the photo (hence the name, Flip-Pal). It’s a lot easier than trying to put a large photo album on to a flatbed scanner where it almost always scans at a skewed angle and is prone to falling off or shifting during the scan. The FlipPal also boots up instantly so if you’re in a hurry to do a single scan, it’s much faster than a traditional flatbed scanner.
The SD card is probably the most common of all memory cards since many laptops have SD card readers built-in. The Flip-Pal also includes an SD reader that fits in your USB port just in case you don’t have a card reader on your PC. And using this technique to move the images around gets over the issue of being Mac vs. PC compatible. Both Macs and PCs can read its SD card format and jpg files with no problem.
I find that having my old photos in digital format makes them much easier to share. An old photo shared on Facebook is much more likely to get noticed because they bring back so many wonderful memories. Anyone can upload the latest images from a smartphone, and many do, but if you want to make someone’s day, show them an image from 40 years ago of their mom when she was a child, and that will get some attention.
Does it have any disadvantages? I would say that the 5″ x 7″ size can be a limitation if you want to scan a larger image. But it comes with ‘stitching’ software and so if the image is too large to fit in a 5″ x 7″ area, you can take several scans and have them stitched together on your PC using the included software. But I find it to be enough work that I generally will use my large scanner when the need arises to scan a large image.
Some people have commented about the small size of LCD screen, but it’s important to recognize this little screen is just part of a user interface, it’s not intended to render a high resolution image of the scan so you can’t compare it to a display on a smart phone. It’s there to make the device more convenient to use. If you want to share scanned digital photos, you’re not going to use the internal display to do it, you’ll still want to move them to your PC for viewing/editing/sharing.
I like the fact that the FlipPal requires no software to be installed on a PC to work. How many times have you upgraded to the latest operating system and found that it no longer supported your old printer or scanner because the manufacturer didn’t provide drivers for it? That can’t happen with the FlipPal.
The FlipPal is a great tool for anyone involved scrapbooking, archiving, or just for sharing the old family photo albums where it has found many ardent fans. I enjoy its convenience and simplicity. There’s nothing to learn, just press one button and you’re up and making scans in no time. If that sounds appealing, head on over to the FlipPal website and get yours today.
Posted on November 14th, 2012 82 comments
I’ve been hearing an ad on the radio lately about a discovery that the power company doesn’t want you to know about from a guy named Frank Bates. He mentions that he could get in a lot of trouble for talking about it and calls the power companies and the government “incompetent, lying crooks who are counting on your ignorance and fear to keep your electric bills and heating bills criminally high.” OK, I’m intrigued, so what’s this guy selling?
He wants to show you the secret of how he beat ’em, and how you can beat ’em too. It’s described as a “weird” trick on the website. It sounds almost too good to be true. You can hear the commercial along with a video at the Power4Patriots website.
Upon looking further into what Mr. Bates is selling, I discovered it’s a CDROM and downloadable access to a series of pdf ebooks (about 300 pages total) and videos covering the topics of solar and wind energy. Much of it involves DIY information on how to build your own solar panels, wind turbines, and solar water heaters from components you can find in local hardware stores and online for less than you can buy equivalent off-the-shelf products. The value of this ‘package’ is $297, but with the 90% discount, the CD and downloads can be yours for only $27 + 2.99 S&H. After purchasing it, you’ll find that if you pay $67 more, you get a physical spiral bound book along with 3 DVDs that also cover solar and wind DIY projects which is basically the same material, just in a format that might be more convenient for you. If you turn that down, you’ll be offered the printed book for another $27. After that, you’ll be offered heirloom seeds for another $67 to help you through any upcoming societal collapse. So there’s a lot of upselling going on after the initial $27 investment. I’m also now on the email list and I suspect I’ll be hearing a lot more from the company in the future.
How do I know this? I know this because I invested the $29.99 in the ebook/CDROM product. After all, what kind of blogger would review a product he didn’t own? I gotta tell you, this guy’s good. I’m surprised I got out without spending another $134 for the physical book/DVDs and heirloom seeds.
You’d have to be living under a rock if you haven’t heard all the fuss about how Chinese solar panels are coming down in price so fast that they are putting companies out of business that were trying to manufacture solar panels in the U.S. Witness what happened with Solyndra and Abound Solar.
One of the ebooks and 6 of the videos are related to making your own solar panels. I was curious to see just how cheap these homemade panels would be and the book shows a bill of materials of $175 for a 65 watt panel. That’s almost $3/watt not including your labor, and the amount of labor looks quite substantial. I’d estimate the labor at 10 hours per panel or more. That’s not cheap, especially now that you can get manufactured panels that are $1/watt that are already assembled and guaranteed. The manufactured panels are designed to last 25 years, are safety agency-approved, and can withstand all kinds of weather, including hail up to 1 inch in diameter. So trying to roll your own solar panels would be a waste of time and money. And the cost of a solar system doesn’t just depend just on the panel cost. The inverter costs about $.50/watt which is quite expensive in the grand scheme of things, or about half of what you’d be paying for the panels.
And then there’s the installation cost. Of course, you can do the installation yourself if you’re capable and comfortable working on roofs. Once you add in the other ancillary parts and equipment, you can put together a solar system for about $2/watt these days using off-the-shelf components. That’s about half of what they cost just 4 years ago, thanks primarily to the drop in panel costs.
A typical house in the U.S. uses about 730 kWh in electricity per month. To satisfy this need, you are looking at approximately a 5 kW system. That system would cost about $10,000 for materials even if you’re handy and can do the installation yourself. With U.S. electricity rates now at an average at $.12/kWh, it would take about 10 years to pay for itself. That’s not too bad, considering most things you buy for your home will just depreciate over time and not save you a dime, let alone break even or start making you money in the long run. My grid-tied solar system is 5.6 kW and I haven’t purchased any electricity since it was installed nearly 4 years ago but I do get charged about $8/month to be connected to the grid. I have accumulated a surplus (about 5000 KWh) on the meter that could run an electric car for more than 20,000 miles.
The radio commercials imply that you could slash your energy bills and live free of these greedy utility companies but you cannot do that if you install a grid-tied solar system with net metering, which is the most common kind. To disconnect from your utility company, you’d need to have a battery storage system, a charge controller, and a backup generator for those times that you may have a few cloudy days in a row. A set of batteries that would hold a day’s charge of 24 kWh would cost at least another $4K and generator would add another $1K to it. So you’re looking at a much bigger expense when you talk about completely disconnecting from the power grid, I’d say at least $5K more. And those batteries would need to be replaced every 6 years or so. That makes the whole payback period kind of a moot point because of this extra recurring expense so unless you live in an area where there is no grid power, or you believe we are on the verge of complete societal collapse, it’s hard to justify an off-grid system when you can get away with the less expensive grid-tied solar system.
There are some other books included in the package related to making and installing a wind turbine (probably good for 5-10% of the average household energy needs), and some simple solar hot water and solar hot air DIY projects. Bonus materials include ebooks on surviving disasters, storing emergency water, and building a solar cooker.
So for $27, you get 10 ebooks all of which contain some useful information, especially if you’re into renewable energy or worrying about Armageddon. I didn’t feel ripped off afterwards, although the quality of some of the graphic images in the pdf files was pretty poor. I don’t know what the printed materials might look like, but the numbers on many of the charts were unreadable like the image shown below.
I’m always intrigued when I hear an over-the-top advertisement for an energy product. Most of the time they turn out to be truly worthless and horrible investments. But this one is harmless enough, and you might even find a few good ideas for your $27. But don’t get your hopes up that you’ll take your electric and heating bills down to nothing without a significant investment in time and money even if you follow all of the DIY information in the ebooks.