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A Day At The Beach

Due to the nature of the infamous "beach ball" experience on OS X (especially on older/slower systems) I propose we call the phenomenon "A Day At The Beach" to kind of soften the blow when it happens.

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Posted by Aaron R. Deutsch on September 28, 2006 | Comments (0)

Returning It To The Man (and Supporting the USPS)

Why go through all of the effort of "Sticking it to the man" when it's just as easy to return it to him at no cost to you?

About one to three times a week I get some form of credit card offer via US post which I generally haven't requested. Here is what I like to do:

Open the envelope, remove the contents and mangle/deface/shred them (be sure to set aside the included postage-paid envelope, you will need it in the next step):

step-1.jpg

Next, stuff the contents in the return envelope:
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Seal and send...
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Enjoy!

Posted by Aaron R. Deutsch on September 27, 2006 | Comments (0)

Getting a HANDle on the Treo 700p

I seem to have strange luck and research blind spots when it comes to cell phones. The last phone I bought, a cute Sony Ericsson T616 was one of the last phones to be sold under the AT&T name, sentencing me almost immediately to mobile carrier purgatory under the new Cingular ownership (couldn't get rollover minutes or other advantages since I didn't have a Cingular phone). At the time I was in need of a new phone so the rush made me miss this major business merger that was in the works.

700p-rofile.jpgSimilarly that phone's contacts and wireless capabilities (or lack therof) finally pushed me to getting a smartphone and while my transition to it is complete and the experience is an upgrade in every way, I am about to embark on a review that will be going stale within the quarter as Access releases the Linux version of Palm OS which will address all of the issues that I have experienced and give Palm more than a fighting chance against the wave of crappy Windows Mobile phones hitting the market.

So the Treo 700p has been a fun project as it has me diving into a new platform head first. I get to bring all of my preconceived notions, hopes, and dreams to this little device and have them realized, or dashed against the cold, hard rock of technology.

Since the Palm OS on the Treo comes from a long line of personal organizers, one must look at this as an organizer first. The sad state of cellphones is (with a few exceptions, of course): if you have more than 300 contacts (like pretty much everyone in NYC does) or if you like people listed in your address book to have, well, addresses you are pretty much required to get a device like this to store all of them. One feature my colleagues and I found surprising is how quickly having our full contact list in our phone caused us to "clean up" our database; people would call us from a new number and the phone would ask after the call if we'd like to add this number to our contacts list as a new contact or a new number to an existing contact. After doing so the change would make it's way back to our computers via a hotsync. Very nice.

The calendar is also a great tool to remember where you need to go in a given day, and it's easy to check appointments, then jump to the internet via Blazer (the built in web browser) to get a google map, all while on the phone.

The phone aspect is top-notch; sound quality is excellent both in the headset and handset. Dialing is easy using the touch-screen or keypad. The only thing I had to get used to was pushing the Function key before hitting # or * as there are not dedicated keys for this.

So the basics are more than covered here. But this is a damned expensive phone/calendar/address book, which is where the popular and established Palm OS comes into play. This device very easily jumps over the line from Personal Digital Assistant to a laptop-computer-in-the-palm-of-your-hand. All you need to do is add the software.


Out of the box it comes with a bunch of full-fledged productivity and multimedia software...

- Email with SSL capability and multiple accounts (VersaMail)
- Digital Camera (1.3 MegaPixel, decent low-light photos)
- Camcorder
- pTunes (iTunes like jukebox, handles incoming calls gracefully like iTunes on Motorola phones)
- Audible.com Player (listen to your books)
- Memos (basically a plain-text editor)
- Office Suite reader/editor
- Voice memo recorder
- World clock has great view/settings and a usable alarm
- Audible book reader software
- Snappy Web Browser (Blazer)

and hardware...

- 2.5mm Stereo headphones/mic combo, corded (surprisingly good)
- Bluetooth
- Speakerphone (liveable, good for voicemail)
weather-in-browser.jpg world-clock-alarm.jpg
Checking a Doppler radar with the Blazer web browser and a nice view of earth with the built-in "World Clock"


Power Up: Add these to jump from PDA to Portable Computer:


FOR LAPTOP-LIKE-MEMORY-MANAGEMENT:
- 2GB SD card (average price: $50) At press time 2GB is the maximum size recognized by Palm OS though 8GB cards are currently on the market. This is an absolute must for anyone using the phone for music, pictures, video.
- UDMH (Unlimited Dnyamic Memory Hack) ($9.95) This is a memory management utility that was originally developed for gamers to emulate more graphic-intensive consoles but turns out to be very useful for those running more than one of the newer Palm applications simultaneously in "background" mode


FOR LAPTOP-LIKE CAPABILITIES:
- Causerie ($19.99) Instant Messenger for all major networks. Supports background mode, encryption, and quite a bit more)
- Screen Shot ($15.95) Good for web and application developers anyone who wants to Apple-Shift-3 their Treo
- Resco Explorer ($14.95 or try File Z for free and HandZipper ($9.99) for the same functionality on a budget). View *all* files on system, including invisible files and directories. Zip and unzip files.
- Dictionary-to-go ($12.00)
- Little John Palm OS (free) Multi-console game emulator.
- Telnet-H ($25.00) SSH2 Terminal emulator. A must have for server admins on the road.
- Adobe Reader for Palm OS (free) Optimize .pdf files for small-screen viewing.
- Chattermail ($39.95) Yes, Versamail is functional and with some tweaking to remove all the "are you sure" messages it can be made to be quite efficient but Chattermail just handles almost everything better. First and foremost, it actually marks messages on IMAP servers properly (when replies are sent and messages are read), it also keeps in sync by itself (separate commands in Versamail), runs very well in background mode and has many notification options. Also does "push" mail for those who like the Blackberry method of doing things, and more.
resco-explorer.jpg telnet.jpg
Resco Explorer folder view and Terminal emulator


FOR LAPTOP-LIKE LOOK AND FEEL:
While the Palm OS is certainly useful and efficient, it is not exactly pretty. If you're a Mac user you'll be quick to appreciate the following two utilities:
- Palm Revolt ($14.95) Add the "aqua" interface to the Palm OS
- iTunes skin for pTunes ($5)
aqua-interface.jpg itunes.jpg
Aqua Interface in action and iTunes skin for pTunes


TO PLAY NICE WITH YOUR REAL LAPTOP:
- Salling Clicker ($23.95) Use your phone as a Bluetooth remote control for all kinds of applications including slideshows, presentations, iTunes, movies, and more. "Proximity" feature can tell how far away from your PowerBook you are and have actions triggered based on distance.
- USB Modem ($24.95) Most networks (including Sprint) have no formal support for Macs to use the phone as a modem either on their data network or DUN. This utility makes it easy to use your EvDO speed to give your laptop an internet connection when wifi isn't available. Buy as part of the "Palm Utility Belt" and get "CardReader" which mounts your SD card on your desktop. I've tested it and it seems safe to rename SD cards from your Mac -- just don't use spaces.

My speed tests at dslreports.com were mixed, but all were better than dial-up:
- 533/39kbps via USB Aug 28 in Brooklyn
- 241/53kbps via Bluetooth Aug 28 in Brooklyn
- 672/36kbps on second USB test in Brooklyn
- 351/51kbps on third USB test in Brooklyn
- 216/42kbps from Hell's Kitchen

We've also received confirmation of this working with reasonable speeds using the Verizon network in St. Paul, MN.


- Missing Sync for Palm OS ($39.95, Mac OS X) Makes it SUPER easy to sync everything on the phone; iTunes playlists for music, folder for files, Mark/Space provided Memo application, iCal, Address Book, etc. No need to install Palm Desktop at all.
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Mounting your SD card as an HD using Cardreader
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A view from the Treo and from Mac OS


Things I like and surprising uses for phone:

- Used superbright screen as a flashlight more than once
- Long battery life lasted morning to night on a recent road trip from NYC to Buffalo, NY. Services used throughout the day: Instant messenger, Email, phone, Camera, pTunes, Memos
- This is probably a New York thing (since it's against the law in many states to drive while listening to headphones) but I love dumping podcasts and radio shows onto the phone for listening on the subway. They're getting awfully crowded these days and, during rush hour especially, a hardcover book is no longer practical.
- Considering what it is and comparing it to other similar products the keyboard is really quite good and a lot faster than graffiti (also faster than some of your friends WPM speeds on full-sized keyboards). The keys are small but the slight bevel makes it easy for most adult-sized fingers to punch the right one.
- Combination USB/charger/Sync cable very clever and utilitarian. You effectively get *two* chargers with the purchase of your phone, enabling you to leave one at your significant other's, office, or country home.
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The utilitarian cable: charge, communicate, and sync


General observations:

- OS is a lot like Mac OS 7. Does have crashing tendencies with some applications. This should be a non-issue with the Linux version and much reduced on Palm OS 5.x when running UDMH (listed above).
- Speaking of "Linux version" one of my early observations was that the Palm OS was a little "linux like" due to the graphical interface changing from app to app. Apparently the UI will be more strict in the Linux version which would be an unexpected surprise.
- Unsure if 2.5mm jack is the best way to go. 3.5 would allow use of standard headphones, but 2.5 is smaller (for when the Treo actually gets thin) and the corded version that comes with the phone is more than adequate
- If you're doing SSL email or anything with a lot of data you need a STRONG network connection with Sprint. If you are in a weak coverage area you will likely get error messages instead of completed transfers. Better safe than sorry, though.
- This is one of those Apple-like features that is built into the OS but not really advertised. Palm OS has a very good "autocomplete" that silently puts apostrophes where you need them, saving you keystrokes
- The Function-search is awesome keyboard combination for system-wide searches and acts a lot like Apple's Spotlight in OS X. Displays results very quickly in major categories like: contacts, calendar events, etc.
- Why exactly is "paste" menu-p instead of menu-v like it is on Mac and Windows?
- For the SAME PRICE as Cingular I have the same amount of phone minutes PLUS all-you-can-eat data on Sprint PCS network. Coverage has been pretty good so far. Can't beat it.
- The size of the device seems like it could be an issue but it's smaller than a wallet and fits in a back pocket just fine. When you have this much usefulness I think one overlooks the size, especially as the competition is pretty comparable. (No, the Motorola Q is not direct competition)
- The "quick off' screen and the easy to access vibrate mode are well thought out and intuitive.
- While you can install and run Java apps (like Opera Mini and many, many others), those seem to be the slowest and least stable. I pretty much ditched Java as there wasn't anything I just had to have
- While phones with scroll wheels are pretty fast for navigation, you still can't beat a touch screen, especially when surfing the web.


Summary

For a tech person on the go this phone is leaps and bounds above anything else in it's category. Though you do have to add some of your own software to the mix, the flexibility that you can gain is well worth it. While the Palm OS is retiring soon, the current iteration still is light and powerful enough to provide quick access to all of the things one would need on the road, has an extensive libarary of software not even touched on in this article, and represents the sweet spot as far as convergence is concerned in this moment.

I've played with a few QWERTY Blackberry devices and they are iPod-like in their beauty, speed, and only-do-a-few-things-but-do-them-very-well philosophy, but the lack of features like cameras, music players, and utilities like Terminal applications means you'll need to purchase and carry extra devices with you. Blackberries are email readers. Good email readers, but not a lot more.

The Windows Mobile phones add a little functionality to the mix but as long as they are programmed for yet-to-be-released hardware there are going to be speed issues, and being Microsoft security and performance will always be a problem.

My hope is that the forthcoming version of Access Linux Platform will bring much of what needed to be purchased aftermarket to OEM status and give users of the new Treos (and other devices) even more value and functionality out of the box.

For the time being, the Treo 700p has set the bar at a pretty comfortable place for it's users.

Posted by Aaron R. Deutsch on September 12, 2006 | Comments (1)

Intuitive Technology

In this world of a zillion hardware combinations it can actually be a problem to have too rigid of a diagnosis script to follow.

Take, for example, a recent case that I recently fielded where one of my clients was having issues with repeated letters while typing.

This first started happening at the time we had determined that they needed a full-machine upgrade as the displayed typing would also fall behind in Microsoft word (on an old 733Mhz G4). So we purchased a Dual 2Ghz G5 which was more than enough power to take care of the typing lag (and other performance issues) but the repeated character remained.

We tried all of the standard fixings like swapping keyboards, having me type for a while and try to recreate (could not), restart, software updates, keyboard preferences, etc. Then I watched this client type for a minute and though not obvious, it occurred to me that maybe his typing style didn't quite jive with the soft elastomer-based Apple Pro keyboard.

stay-puff-keyboard.jpg Swapping USB keyboards with one of our new Dells immediately and permanently solved the problem (both the Mac and Windows XP played with each other's keyboards just fine for the record; they were plug-and-play). It appears that the Apple Pro Keyboard is just too soft for a particular kind of curled-finger keystroke, and is nothing that Apple (or a certified Apple repair shop) could have addressed.

Posted by Aaron R. Deutsch on September 12, 2006 | Comments (0)

Better Quality Coffee = Better Quality Work

I think the biggest factor in my feeling out of sorts last week was the low quality of coffee. I had just purchased a new bean grinder for the Haus Interactive Office and it ended up being defective. But not completely defective; it worked but produced very uneven, blocky hunk of grounds that made espresso impossible, and French Press only bearable.

Anyone who experienced saucy attitude from the tech hotline during this time should not confuse it as lack of being caffeinated but the wrong kind of caffeinated.

After living a few days with the budget industrial work of art called the Infinity conical burr grinder I thought I'd take a brief journalistic "tour of the grounds" from the Haus Interactive Office's cheapest bean grinder to the most expensive. Interestingly enough, the order in which they were purchased and experienced are the same order they are presented here.

Since three of the four grinders we've owned are from Capresso, and since they have some good supplemental (and accurate in this former barista's opinion) information on their website, we'll be quoting them a bit in this article.

LEVEL ONE: BLADE GRINDER, HELICOPTER GONE MAD

Braun Blade GrinderOur first grinder was a propeller with a cover made by Braun. Since we were young and poor at the time it worked not only for drip coffee, but with a little effort (and a LOT longer grind time) it actually allowed a bit of crema to form on the top of espresso drawn from our now retired Mr. Coffee pump espresso machine. It's not for the faint of heart and Capresso says this about our blade grinder:

Blade Grinders "smash" the beans with a blade at very high speed (20,000 to 30,000 rpm). The ground coffee has larger and smaller particles and is warmer than ground coffee from burr grinders. Blade grinders create "coffee dust" which can clog up sieves in espresso machines and French presses. These type of grinders are suitable for drip coffee makers. They also can do a great job for grinding spices and herbs. They are not recommended for use with pump espresso machines.


LEVEL TWO: BURR GRINDER, ENTRY LEVEL ESPRESSO

1-Burr-551.jpgThe Capresso Burr Grinder (Model #551) Joined the Haus Interactive kitchen team along with an Estro Vapore espresso machine. It delivered consistent grinds for more than 5 years and was still working when it was donated to our neighbors a few weeks ago.

From Capresso: Burr Grinders with disk type burrs grind at a faster speed than conical burr grinders and create a bit more warmth in the coffee (10,000 to 20,000 rpm). They are the most economical way of getting a consistent grind in a wide range of applications. They are well suited for most home pump espresso machines. However they do not grind as fine as Conical Burr Grinders.

I think the plastic bean capture container had weakened either from age, from the oils in the grounds, or constant tapping. Constant tapping? Yes.

Capresso has this to say about static:

Looking back, and now knowing that not all grinders have this problem, I can say this sucker could have powered a lightblulb with the static generated. The grind chute was directly next to the spinning blades which would shoot them through the collection jar into it's side. The spot where most of the grinds hit actually took on a brown coffee-bean stain that would not wash out after approx use. Recently I was tapping the container to get all the grounds to settle and a thumb-sized chunk of plastic simply broke off the back of the container. It was a clean break so it was superglued before retirement.

Another problem that developed was the coarseness adjuster (found on the side of the machine), which hag gotten progressively more and more difficult to turn as it aged. Our grinders often switch back and forth from French Press to Espresso so this dial gets a lot of attention. Once the dial smooths out (and the mechanism stops to rotate smoothly) from use there is no way to get any torque and give it a proper turn.

Though I wouldn't qualify this as a problem, this grinder was pretty loud. It sounded like a little chainsaw from a room away.

It was easy to clean which is good as you'll need to take the top blade off about once a year to break slightly hardened chunks of coffee dust/rock out of it so that the beans continue to feed effortlessly into the blades.


LEVEL TWO: BURR GRINDER, MIDRANGE

2-Burr-556.jpgThe Capresso Burr Grinder (Model #556) was slated as our next replacement. The price seemed right ($60) and since model 551 treated us well for all those years it seemed like this would be a slight upgrade and provide the same level of reliability.

The observed Improvements included:

It was nice to see the grinds fall down into the container instead of getting flung sideways into it like the model 551. There is still the static cling effect, though, and it seems like cleaning the twisting coffee bean chute would be a pain...

Also not sure why they chose such an odd shaped bean container. It's rectangle with only a slight slope into the grinder. It is easy to picture beans not all falling into the grinder after only a short amount of use and people having to scoop them there with their hands. Not a safety issue, just an annoyance issue.

All in all this grinder lasted a week in our office before getting sent back. I'm sure it was just a burr-grinder seating issue at the factory and not a fundamental flaw to the machine itself, but the one we got wouldn't grind anything smaller than drip-coffee wood chips. We made sure the top of the burr mechanism was in and firmly attached, etc. No dice. After reading a little more about the next level up we decided to return our faulty one and buy that top level of consumer grinder:


LEVEL THREE: INFINITY GRINDER, THE DEPTH-CHARGE OF MY HEART

3-conical-burr-infinity.jpgConical Burr Grinders preserve the most aroma and can grind very fine and very consistent. The intricate design of the steel burrs allow a high gear reduction to slow down the grinding speed. The slower the speed the less heat is imparted to the ground coffee thus preserving maximum amount of aroma.

Because of the wide range of grind settings these grinders are ideal for all kinds of coffee equipment, Espresso, Drip, Percolators, French Press. The better Conical Burr Grinders can also grind extra fine for the preparation of Turkish coffee. Grinding speed is generally below 500 rpm.

Here is where the fun begins: Almost every single aspect of this grinder is better than the others:

It is a bit louder than #556, but it's a different sound, deeper growl.

Instant turnoff could be a problem with the timer as the "go" button (you should be able to force it down to 0 if you need to...)

Overall this is an excellent grinder and does it's job so well there is very little to add to the bullet point list. For $50 extra you can get the same model in "die cast zinc". Since the interior of the machine (and most importantly the burrs) are the same material this seems like a silly waste of money to us.

An interesting thing we noted is that the more expensive a product gets, the simpler and more elegant the interface gets (finally). We wonder if the average consumer, who can't SEE the improved quality that may or may not be on the inside of a product feel they are getting more for their money by having more buttons and dials to fiddle with, even if they do little or nothing for the product. That, though, is a philosophical question for another post.

**Really the biggest nit we have about the machine is the gaudy bean coarseness label. In the interest of a better designed world, Bronzefinger hereby submits the following PhotoChop rendering of an alternative bean-coarseness label.

Simple dots of increasing (or decreasing) size do triple duty:

intuitive-dots.jpg

Editor's Note: To experience the best taste and karma, make sure your coffee beans are organic fair trade, whole bean (non-ground), and roasted in small batches locally. If you happen to live in Brooklyn we recommend you check out our friends at Gorilla Coffee.

Posted by Aaron R. Deutsch on September 10, 2006 | Comments (0)