How do I use this gift again?

December 26, 2009

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, I’m told. That means evenings with family and friends, delicious food and new gadgets you can’t figure out how to get working.

Unfortunately, in the chaos that comes with the holidays the manuals and instruction books have gone missing. What’s a person to do?

Well, even before you try navigating the manufacturer’s website, you might want to try PDFgeni.com. This website has a wide variety of manuals and other PDFs (Portable Document Format files that are often read using Adobe Acrobat Reader) that are posted online, and while the search function is pretty basic, it is pretty accurate at finding that wayward manual.

Another useful website to check out during the holidays is RepairClinic.com, on this site you can get rundown of what the most likely problems are with your overused home appliances and what if anything you can do to fix them. Often the end result of the troubleshooting questionnaires is that you have to take the appliance in question to a mechanic, but it is nice to try some of your own repairs first.

Do you have any tips for making the holiday season brighter or the gadgets in your life more efficient? Let me know in the comments and happy holidays to everyone.


A Week with the Coby PMP-3522

August 29, 2009

Given the troubles I talked about last week with my MP3 player, I decided to break down Monday and go to J&R to investigate Coby‘s PMP-3522. They actually had one on display with some battery power left that I was able to try out before I  bought it. I was pretty impressed with it on the floor, but it had no price on it. I figured this would be the beginning of disaster, but I had my printout of the website price and was ready to defend my position if necessary. I found a sales clerk pretty quickly and asked for a price check. He told me it was $70, and I said I would take it.

I took it home and the first thing that impressed me was the sheer amount of cabling that was included. Most players try to nickel and dime you to get the additional cabling you need to actually use the product. This item came with no less than 5 cables and that’s not including the headphones that were included. The other thing I was pleased to see is that the USB was a standard mini-USB plug-in. This is a pretty common standard and I already have a couple of these cables lying around, so that was nice to see. The output cables seem proprietary, but I don’t plan on using these very much anyway.

The player itself has an impressive large touch screen, and a tucked away stylus to use on it. Movie playback is a joy. I watched The Princess Bride on it and it was a very nice experience. The quality of the output is very good and the sound was great.

This also applied to the audio I listened to. It all came across very nicely and some of the podcasts I listened to sounded better than on my previous player. Both audio and video players can remember where you last left off on the movie or audio you were on, so when you turn it back on, you can pick it up again.

The FM tuner was pretty good. It had a nice scan function that scanned the dial and marked the frequencies that had a quality connection. It was very easy to flip between stations. You do have to use headphones with the FM Radio as they serve as the antenna. Reception was acceptable but not stellar.

The games that come with this are not very good. If you are intending to get this for game play functionality, forget it. The 200+ word dictionary is good when you want to pronounce a word you know how to spell, but it is less good for spelling words you can’t remember how to spell. It has no spell check functions or anything to help in those situations.

The e-book reader, calculator and most oddly paint software are all adequate, but I don’t foresee myself using these features very often.

The battery life on this is pretty impressive. In watching The Princess Bride, I used the external speaker and turned up the brightness levels and still had significant battery power left after the credits rolled. I’m hopefully that the battery life for this item will continue, but since it is detachable, you could buy a new one to replace it.

Now, I will mention some of the problems that I’ve had with the player. Certain podcasts, for no observable reason that I’ve noticed, cause the player to crash. It also took a few tries to get the right format of videos playing from DVDs I  had ripped. The instruction list a wide variety of formats that the player plays in, but I did have some trouble with some of them. Sometimes no video would be displayed and sometimes no sound. I did eventually find a reliable format, and when I did the movies ran very well. Just be sure to have a good conversion program at the ready. The conversion program provided by Coby did not run in Vista, but seemed to work fine in Windows XP. There are many fine conversion programs out there though. I’ve been using Handbrake for a while.

Amazingly, this item is completely incompatible with an Intel Mac. It won’t even see the player as a portable hard drive, which is quite a disappointment. It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but is something you should be aware of.

Overall, I’m very impressed with this unit for the price I got it at. I wouldn’t pay it’s retail price of over $300, but for $70 it has a lot of functionality at a good quality.

Any questions on my review? Leave a comment here.

UPDATE: Since the time I bought this, it has been removed from J&R’s website. It is still available at Amazon, but either direct for over $300 or from a re-seller for about $150. At those prices, you are probably paying too much, but you may want to keep your eyes open to see if the price comes down again.


An MP3 Casualty of Vacation

August 23, 2009

I had a wonderful time on my vacation, but there was a bit of a tragedy as I lost my Creative Zan Nano Plus 1GB MP3 player. It’s a shame because I had gotten such a great deal on it during the CompUSA liquidation. The price for it now is around double of what I had paid two years ago.

Without another liquidation on the horizon, I decided to do a search for some of the best values around, as we like to do here on Techeap.

Everyone’s search is going to depend on their selected criteria and what they are looking for an MP3 player to do. My main use for this is primarily podcasts, and I rotate through those pretty quickly. Therefore, I don’t need a large amount of storage space, so I’m looking for other features to tip the balance. I’ve also considered adding on video, so I can start to catch the video content that is floating out there on the web.

Here’s the list of things I’m looking to find.

  • At least 1GB for audio (5GB for video)
  • FM Tuning (and preferably recording)
  • Voice Recording (I sometimes like to make little notes for myself)
  • At least 12 hours of battery life
  • Having an expandable SD card slot would be a big plus

Here are some of the items that I found.

With those things in mind, here’s what I found.

Coby seems to lead the way with selection for value-minded customers. Reviews across the net to seem to indicate that there are some lemons, but the people who have gotten their working seem to be pretty happy with them.

First up are a link from 6th Avenue Electronics. I should note that while these links don’t have the absolute rock-bottom prices. I have dealt with this store before, and I like the format of their spec sheets. It’s definitely worthwhile to look elsewhere after reading about them here.

Coby MPC-694 was a nice baseline for me to work from. For about 30 bucks, this item had basically everything that I was looking for except for video playback. The reviews I had found though confirmed my suspicions that it had a very light feel and seems to be prone to scratching.

SanDisk Sansa Clip 1GB has a very nice aesthetic and spectacular reviews. The worst thing people said about it is that a few had bad batteries and some times the clip broke off. It was about the same price for about half the memory and a few other features missing, but the reputation did mean something.

I didn’t realize how expensive it would be to add video to an MP3 players. Most of the items that played anything resembling a standard format like AVI or MPG were all well into the $100 range.

Finally, I came across another selection by Colby that really impressed me.

Coby PMP-3522 had a list price of over $300, but with a ticket price at $70, they certainly had my attention. There are, however, very few reviews for this item. The good news is, however, the Amazon re-seller is actually a local business for me, so I’m going to go check it out in person before making any decisions.

I’ll keep you posted of the results here. I should mention that I did actually consider the iPods, including the Touch, which has a great amount of functionality beyond that of an MP3 player, but the Apple tax just put them completely out of my price range.

What do you think the best value in this market is? Leave some thoughts in the comments.


Fax Check

June 28, 2009

The year I am writing this is 2009, yet sadly the fax, as in facsimile, machine is still in common use. A machine that was first demonstrated in 1851, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, and one that has been in offices since 1948 has not substantially changed. A document here goes in and it ends up slowly over there.

The problem with this is that it is slow, expensive and wastes a lot of resources. You have to have a separate machine in order to things most computers are capable of doing on their own.

Of course, there are lots of ways around this, but here I’m going to look for the least expensive possible. That, of course, means free.

First, we’ll deal with the easy part sending your faxes to someone else. There are a number of sites that do this, but I’ve used and like GotFreeFax.com. Here you simply enter your name and e-mail, and the name and fax number of the person you are sending to into a form. Then, you can enter text into an editor (RTF, if you care) or you can attach a PDF or Microsoft Word DOC formatted file. Hit Send Free Fax, and you are done.

The drawbacks with this site are that you are only allowed 2 faxes a day with a maximum of 3 pages, but since I rarely ever fax anyone and there are other sites with different restrictions, this has not been a problem for me.

You will have to confirm your fax by clicking on a link sent to your e-mail, which slows down the process a lit bit, but it sure beats having a fax machine and paying for a phone call.

The other side of the equation receiving a fax for free seems to be a little trickier. I’m hoping that the opening up of the Google Voice beta will eventually lead to some better options in this area, but that remains to be seen.

For now though, the best thing I have found is K7.net, which will issue you a free Washington-State-based number to receive faxes and voice mail messages on. I know a number of podcasts use this technology in order to get messages from their listeners onto their shows and the quality of that has been pretty good. I did have some problems and delays using it for faxes though. In fairness to them, all of my faxes did eventually get through and were e-mailed to my account as a TIF image file. However, there was a significant delay for some of them of a few hours.

If there’s no particular rush and you don’t want to deal with having a fax machine this may be a good solution for you. One other drawback is that an inactive number is returned to them after 30 days without use. This is something to keep in mind, if like me you are an occasional receiver of faxes.

Do you have any great tips for avoiding the pain of the fax machine? Let me know in the comments.


Cell Phone Resolution, Mostly

June 21, 2009

In case you have not been following the blog, (shame on you) last time I talked about cell phone options for my wife and me. You can read more about it here.

After some consideration, my wife and I did end up sticking with the Straight Talk/Tracfone split. I’ll continue using my beat-up Tracfone for now and my wife, who uses her phone more will get the new Straight Talk plan. We’ve had the phone for a few days now, so let me give you some impressions. The deciding factor for me was that I was a little nervous about buying a first-generation smartphone. There is always some concern that one of parts was designed poorly and will break down prematurely. This decision allows us to buy some time to see how the Pre and the applications for it develop and gives the flexibility to change should the timing be correct.

As far as executing our decision, first, we went to the Straight Talk website and ordered a phone which was sold through Wal-Mart’s online store. There were three options of phones to  choose from: the LG200, which is a very basic model, the Motorola W385, which has quite a bit more functionality including a camera and web browsing, and finally the Motorazr V3a, which is the most expensive and has upgraded components.

We ended up selecting the least expensive phone, the LG200. We though this would minimize our losses in the event it got lost or stolen and would do the job we needed it for. After some use though, we decided it might not have been the right choice for us. First, this phone does not come with any web-browsing abilities at all. After taking a wrong turn on a trip we were on, we realized that the ability to use the 30 MB of data on the Straight Talk plan would be a useful thing. It also seemed to be a shame to not take full advantage of the plan we had gotten for ourselves.

The phone itself was very light and easy to use. For some people, including the less tech savvy among us, this may be the perfect choice. The only disappointment in this regard is that the buttons may be just a little too small for an elderly person with arthritis to be able to use effectively. Otherwise, this might be a great plan for someone who wants a very basic phone and wants to talk on the phone sometimes, but not too often.

The reception on the phone, however, was very good in our area in Brooklyn and in Northern and Central New Jersey. We did not have any trouble with dropped calls, and was very pleased with the Verizon-supplied service.

Ultimately, we’ve elected to return the phone, and upgrade to one of the other models. This is where the Wal-Mart store will come into play. Since we’ve already paid for the first month’s service in order to use it, our plan is to return it after the first month’s time is up. Wal-Mart has a 90-day return policy on this item, so it could be a simple matter of just returning the phone, buying a new one and porting the new number over. Of course, any number of things could go wrong with this plan, so we’ll keep you posted and see the real resolution of our cell phone conundrum.

Thanks to the great post in the comments, and if you have any thoughts, comment away.


Cell Phone Conundrum

June 13, 2009

My wife and I are now in the market for a cell phone. I’m currently making do without one, while she borrows my pre-paid phone that I used to use. She had been on her family’s plan, but the time has come for us to strike out on our own.

I’m ambivalent toward cell phones in general. While I like being able to contact others, I’m not very happy with being “on call” at every moment. Of course, I’m under no obligation to answer the phone at all times, but there is some social pressure that is placed on you once you do have a cell phone.

For me a pre-paid plan through Tracfone worked very well, I could use it only when I really needed to, otherwise it was simply not affordable to take calls. Buying the full year card, I had about 20 minutes a month to use, and the net cost was about $15 a month, including the phone itself. This works well for me because obviously I don’t use this phone very much.

The major drawback for me, though, is that I’ve lost the wonderful world of wireless data. To be able to uses the internet anywhere is a pretty amazing ability to have. The latest phones also have GPS all included in one device for all those times on the roadways that I inevitably get lost on.

These abilities of course come with a cost. Billshrink.com comes up with an excellent break down of the comparison of costs between the latest smartphones out on the market: The iPhone 3GS, the Palm Pre, and the Android G1. Ultimately, over the life of the contract (and hopefully the phone) the iPhone costs $3800 vs. $3150 for the G1, and $2600 for the Pre. This is, however, for unlimited service. Right now, with my raggedy pre-paid TracPhone, I would be paying about $15 a month. For the next two years, assuming the phone holds up that’s a grand total of $360.

$2240 is a significant investment for the functionality of the Pre and $3440 for the iPhone simply seems extravegent when compared on a dollar for value ratio.

However, there’s also a new plan out called Straight Talk, which seems to be a new branding mechanism for TracPhone. The idea here is that you pay $30 a month for 1000 minutes, a 1000 texts and 30MB of data with no overages. It seems to be offered through Wal-Mart, which is a bit of a problem since there are no Wal-Marts very close to New York City. Also, the web pages link to the phone selection is down, so you can’t see the upfront costs and phone selection. The way this plan works is that you can either have the phone automatically renewed for $30 each month, or you can buy additional cards to extend the service, but if you are not subscribed for a 30-day period, you lose your cell phone number.

This may be the perfect way to split the difference. $720 plus the cost of the phone over two years is still a lot less than the $2600 for the Pre.

At this point, I’m still torn between all of my options. If you have any ideas, please add them to the comments.

Should I stick with the basic Tracfone serive, upgrade to StraightTalk or go whole hog with something like the Palm Pre?

Decisions, decisions…


Some of the Surprising Results of Content Piracy

May 30, 2009

Content piracy is a very controversial topic, and as a blogger focused on getting stuff on the cheap, it seem like an appropriate area to look at and discuss. As I suspect most people are deep down, I am generally anti-piracy. I feel that intellectual property is a meaningful term, and that content creators should be able to market their wares for some value in order to create additional content. I do acknowledge that industry forces put a stranglehold on some content and put it at prices that are not sustainable in the marketplace.

My solution to that problem thus far has been to simply ignore that content, but there are many out there who fell justified to in a Robin-Hood-like mentality of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Of course, there are other who simply feel that digital content should be free to sample and if you want to support a creator than you simply give them money directly in various ways.

I see value in both arguments, and I’m clearly not here to solve this issue today. Today, I want to talk about a couple of the interesting results of piracy and what effect it has a content creation and consumption. (I discuss torrents below, which are one of the most popular methods of content piracy) to find out more about this technology, check out this About.com tutorial.)

Slashdot had a very interesting post by a former indie-music producer who argues that The Pirate Bay (the most popular torrent tracker) hosting actually strengthens  the hegemony of the music industry. That is to say, piracy actually keep big industry content popular. I have heard arguments that content piracy is the best thing for independent artists because it gets more people to consume their content, but do these statistics prove the contrary. It is a difficult question, and I hope you check out the argument for more details.

One other interesting aspect of this discussion is the use of language by each side to describe its habits. Those who are using unauthorized content first called themselves file-sharers, casting themselves in a benevolent light. Then, the content industry labeled these people as pirates evoking greedy thieves, but this move backfired in the sense that these users took back the term to cast it in the positive ‘Disney-fied’ pirates as romantic, swashbuckling heroes. Things like The Pirate Bay and torrents (by definition, a turbulent, swift-flowing stream) evoke this romantic sense of the terminology. I look forward to seeing what the next volley in the language war will be.

As always, feel free to leave your thoughts on the topic in the comments.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note. Since one of my most popular stories last year was on the announcement by Apple of their by a computer get an iPod deal for students and educators, I wanted to mention that it has begun again this year. You can check out the details here.