An easier way to find TV shows online

There are several great ways to get TV shows online, both paid and free. The problem is they are spread out between things like iTunes, Amazon Video on Demand, Hulu, and TV network websites. Clicker is a great aggregator that serves as a TV guide for all of this content, and allows users to find shows from many different sources.

In an instant

There was some fanfare when Starbucks made their VIA instant coffee packets available a few months back. Its pretty good, although I prefer iced coffee. So I was pretty excited when they made an iced VIA flavor available this month. It is pretty good and couldn't be easier to make - empty the packet into a bottle of cold water, and you have a pretty good "iced" coffee.

Make your own cell tower

As much as I enjoy my iPhone, like many others, I've found AT&T's coverage to be less than satisfying. While it certainly has gotten a bit better, the fact that I have dropped calls in my own home is an annoyance.

So I was excited when AT&T announced a home "microcell" device some time ago. This is a consumer version of the expensive in-building solutions cellular providers install in shopping malls, convention centers, offices, and stadiums to blanket the area with cellular coverage.

It took a while, but AT&T has finally rolled them out in my home area. At $150, it isn't cheap, but it does work. The device is only slightly larger than your typical home WiFi router. Included in the box is an ethernet cable, power supply, and instruction manual.

Each microcell has a unique serial number used to register it. Using a fairly easy tool on their website, I was prompted to enter the serial number and enter my home address where it would be located. AT&T needs to know the location of each device for E911 and regulatory purposes. I also had to authorize the cell phones that I wanted to be allowed to use my microcell. 

The microcell is then connected to my home router and power. AT&T recommends placing it near a window as it needs a GPS lock to work to verify its location.

It took some time to boot up. About 20 minutes later, I received a text message from AT&T indicating it was activated, and a few minutes later, my phone's signal indicator went from displaying "AT&T" to "AT&T M-Cell".

Call quality was great, about what you'd expect on a normal 5-bar cell phone call. I also authorized my Blackberry, and it connected right up.

I did have a few issues. My first activation attempt didn't work. The lights on the device came on, but neither of my phones would change to the "M-Cell" network. AT&T recommended deactivating the device via their website and then reactivating, but this ended up requiring a call to customer care and about a 24 hour wait for the call to be escalated to the proper engineer. Once I reactivated, though, it worked like a champ.

The other issue really comes down to cost. AT&T should be handing these out; even if only in response to a large number of dropped call reports. I shouldn't have had to invest more money to fix their network. Further, the backhaul for the calls is my own Internet connection, but AT&T still deducts minutes from my account (or text message credits) for calls I make while connected to my own microcell. For an additional $20/month, I can sign up for a plan with unlimited calling while connected to the microcell. The pricing is steep and doesn't earn AT&T any goodwill, but the bottom line is that the device works pretty well to improve coverage in areas with low or no AT&T signal.

Unlimited data

Our friends at AT&T announced new data plans for smartphones today, including the iPhone. Currently, for $30/month, they offer unlimited Internet access. They now have two new plans, for 2GB and 200mb at $25 and $15/month, respectively.

When I first read this, my reaction was that my bill was about to go way up and this is how AT&T will increase profits. However, after poking around the AT&T website this evening, I found they have a pretty nice usage reporting feature. I ran my data usage for the last 6 months. On average, I use about 250mb of data - a lot less than I thought, and only 1 month when I had a large amount of travel did I ever go over 500mb. This is all without doing any spur-of-the-moment budgeting - its unlimited, so I use it.

While I certainly won't complain about a price reduction (since I can easily "handle" the $25/2GB plan, and maybe even the $15 plan) I'm still trying to understand the move on AT&T's part. I use my iPhone quite a bit and considered myself a heavy user. I don't do a tremendous amount of streaming audio or video; primarily web surfing, email, twitter, etc, and some occasional photo uploads. I also take advantage of WiFi a lot, so I suspect a good portion of my usage is offloaded.

The problem is, AT&T (and Apple) have both said iPhone users use a tremendous amount of data. While I'm sure there is a subset of users in the 2GB+ club, based on my own usage I'm guessing the majority are not - so why make such a huge change that potentially upsets a lot of people but will only change behavior or drive additional revenue from a small percentage of customers? I'd almost rather they keep the 5 bucks a month and make the network not drop every other call. (or heck, throw in unlimited texting since it costs them nothing anyway)

Of course, after writing this, it occurs to me AT&T collects $30 a month from me to transfer what would fit on a 1999-era ZIP disk, but maybe, just maybe, they could do it a tad faster.

Gadget disposal

I recently learned about Gazelle, a service that will buyback a wide variety of used gadgets. The website works like a "reverse" You search for electronics that you own and want to get rid of. For each, you are asked a few questions to rate its condition, then add it to your "box". You are given an offer for each item.

Depending on the total value, they may send you a box or you can use your own. Gazelle provides a ship-back label that you tape to the box. Once received, they check the gadgets out, ensure everything matches the condition you specified, and then pay you. They offer payment in multiple forms, including PayPal, Amazon gift card, and check by mail. For items with no resale value, Gazelle will recycle it in an environmentally responsible manner for free. 

Overall, the process is pretty easy although I ran into a few snags. On my first order, I chose gift card as my reimbursement method, but the gift certificates never arrived via email. After a few contacts via their online customer service chat, the agent was able to manually email me the claim code. On my second order, I returned a working iPhone 3G. Their inspection indicated they couldn't make a call with it. This lowered their offer price and my choice was to accept the lower offer or they would return in.

Again, I contacted their customer service via online chat and indicated the phone was working and requested a second check. The rep indicated it was unlikely the decision would be changed but requested re-inspection - and as it turned out, the SIM card they used for testing was not activated properly. They restored the original offer price. It took a little over a week for the check to reach my mailbox in this case.

Despite a few minor snags, I'm pretty pleased with the service. As the service grows, I hope they clean up the process a bit but in the meantime they offer a good alternative to old gadgets collecting dust in the closet.

Who needs an app for that?

After a few days experience, I'm still very pleased with my iPad acquisition. Many have called it a huge iPod touch, but after the last few days, I think the iPhone/iPod touch is actually a small iPad.

While it is still early, I think we'll see a major difference between the apps available for the iPhone/iPod and the iPad. On the smaller form factor devices, there is limited display space and more of a need for immediacy - user wants to start an app, get the info they need, and get out. Great for a phone.

I think the iPad will prove to be a more casual device. What brought this to mind for me was after looking for an official Facebook app for the iPad. After searching for a few minutes, it hit me - duh! - open Safari, go to, and login. There's not really a need for a Facebook app.

The web browser really is so good that apps that are essentially scaled down versions of websites for the iPhone/iPod don't need apps for the iPad. If you don't need an app on a desktop PC - you probably don't need one on the iPad. The main exception - so far - seems to be video, but as more sites adopt HTML5 and H.264, even those apps will be unneeded. 

Where iPad apps really have a chance to shine are offline content reading, highly interactive user interfaces (see Google Maps), and games. Now that developers have a chance to see their apps on actual iPads, not simulators, we will see some very innovative new applications.

First Impressions

UPS was kind enough to work on Saturday this week and delivered my 64gb iPad earlier this morning. Box itself was very minimal; the iPad itself was wrapped in the plastic wrap Apple usually uses to protect laptop and iPhone screens. Other than that, there is a small instruction card, 10 watt USB power adapter, and USB to dock cable. Pre-ordered accessories seemed to have shipped separately.

The iPad has been reviewed elsewhere, so I won't write a rundown of everything it can do, just a few first impressions:

The screen is really nice. Very bright, very sharp and very vivid. Response to any touch, scroll, or flick is instantaneous; the custom A4 chip clearly does its job well. I also was pleasantly surprised by the on screen keyboard, especially in landscape mode, it is very usable. Not quite as fast as a physical keyboard (which you can use via bluetooth, BTW) but significantly faster than the iPhone. Another note: the iPad can be used in any orientation. The base OS and most apps work just as well in landscape as in portrait, and you can never really hold it upside down - the screen auto rotates.

iPhone apps will of course work, but compared to the native iPad apps, they look almost comical. They sit in the center of the screen and appear pretty small. The "2x" button will blow the display to nearly full screen, at the cost of large, blocky text and graphics. Most websites look great; the only disappointment I've seen so far is Google Reader defaults to the iPhone interface. Hopefully, Google will have a nice iPad-specific interface soon for Reader just as they do for GMail.

The native Apple and 3rd party apps, though, look and work great. The iPad version of Evernote is fast and really easy to use. I have only played with iBooks a bit, but the Amazon Kindle app works very well. I am reading REWORK. The app picked right up where I had left off reading earlier this morning on my 1st generation Kindle. Somehow, I don't think I may be using that much any more.

I also downloaded the Netflix and ABC player app. In both, videos look great and audio was a lot better than I anticipated. Certainly better than the iPhone/iPad sound - its on par with the sound from my Macbook.

I'm sure I'll have more to write soon - more apps and new versions of iPhone apps will be released, making it an even more useful device. 

Call on Line 2

Line2 was recently reviewed in the NY Times. I was able to get a copy despite some problems, and am very pleased with it so far. Line2 and the associated Toktumi service combine services like Google Voice and Skype. The Toktumi website allows you to setup a new phone number with some fairly advanced call handling options, including different forwarding rules for different callers, auto-attendant, and voicemail. The Line2 app runs on the iPhone. It adds VoIP calling to the mix, allowing calls to be made anywhere you have WiFi access. Voice quality is great, a bit better than SkypeOut calls from my experience.

It can make VoIP calls over 3G, but they recommend against it. Besides, when the service detects that your Line2 app isn't running, incoming calls are instead forwarded to your "real" cell phone number. (you do use your cell phone minutes when in this mode) To make an outgoing call, start the app - if you are connected via WiFi, the outgoing call will use VoIP. If not, it connects to a Toktumi bridge number and connects your call. (this way, the caller ID always shows your Toktumi number)

The service is $15 for unlimited domestic calls. The Line2 app is available in the app store for $.99 and more information is on the Line2 website.

Kindle for tablets (read: iPad)

Amazon announced today their iPad compatible Kindle app. While it still needs to be approved by Apple, some competition in the e-book market would be a good thing. Barnes and Noble have similar plans to make books available on the iPad. Hopefully Apple doesn't lock things down to prevent competition with their own iBooks offering.

It will be also interesting to see what the reading experience is like on a backlit device such as the iPad vs. the e-ink display on the Kindle. I have used the Kindle app on my iPhone, and currently I prefer the e-ink display - although a lot of this has to do with screen size.

New blog

I decided to give this another go and have relocated my blog.

For a while, I have been tinkering with creating my own custom blog website in ColdFusion or ASP, as I wanted some flexibility and still have the standard blog features. Well, that never got done so I am giving Squarespace a try. Squarespace has a lot more than blogging going for it; you can really setup and heavily customize your site. They also have a pretty good blog importer and export tool, which is nice so I'm not tied into their platform forever if I don't want to. There is also a nice iPhone app.

So what's next?

As much as we are all enjoying iPhone 3.0, here’s a completely random list of mobile technology I’d love to use:

  • Parallels/VMware for the iPhone - no, not to run Windows 7. It would be great, though, to run a virtual Blackberry. It could be isolated or as integrated as the iPhone user and/or the BES administrator would allow. Right now, I carry a Blackberry for work and an iPhone for everything else; this would give users the best of both worlds. (likelihood of happening: slim to none)
  • Mobile docking station - rumors of an Apple mediapad or small tablet continue to fly. But why do I need another computing device to carry? The iPhone already has enough processing power; all I need is a larger screen (8-10”) and some way to connect the two. There should also be USB ports for external keyboard and mouse, if I don’t want to use multi-touch.
  • iPod classic with Bluetooth - while the Bluetooth connection wouldn’t benefit iPod-only users, it would be great if iPhone could see the contents of an iPod. I like to have a large media library with me. Imagine keeping a 320gb iPod classic in your bag and having all that media available to your iPhone, wirelessly
  • WiFi in airplanes (all of them)
  • CDMA handsets that do simultaneous voice and data. Very geeky, I know, but my iPhone can be in a call and still get on the ‘net. As far as I know, no CDMA devices can currently do this.
  • WiFi tethering. The MiFi is great in that it is a small battery powered device and any WiFi device can connect to it. Since iPhone, Blackberry, and many other smartphones have WiFi, why not turn them into portable access points?
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Public Service Announcement: Crystal Reports 2008

I spent more than a few hours today fighting with the Crystal Reports 2008 Enterprise installer. For some reason, no matter what options I selected for installation, the thing hung up with the following message:

“Please wait while the installer finishes determining your disk space requirements”

After fiddling with settings, checking Windows installer, and the general registry/.dll hacking that makes Windows tick, I found the answer:

Install the Crystal Reports French language pack.

I had no idea why, and wasn’t able to find any reason why installing the French language pack makes any difference in how the installer works, but it installed without a hitch afterwards.

Hopefully this post makes it to Google and saves someone else several hours of banging their head into the wall.

Merci, BusinessObjects

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Finding a happy media(um)

This post started as a rant about how Netflix announced a rather large price hike for Blu-ray disk rentals. Starting in late April, access to Blu-ray disks will cost an additional $5 a month (up from $1/month) on the 4-at-a-time plan. While their timing is simply perfect - I purchased a Blu-ray player about a month ago - Netflix is claiming that the increase is due to the increased cost of Blu-ray disks.

While retail prices for Blu-ray disks are in fact higher, producing a high def disk simply cannot be that much more expensive that producing a DVD. Its more of a matter of new technology being priced higher than older, established technology.

I think the Netflix price increase has to due with the problems inherent with physical media, and is a sign that Blu-ray may be the last mainstream physical video format we see. For the first 11 years or so of its existence, Netflix only had to stock one version of each movie in its catalog: the DVD. Of course, they had multiple copies at each distribution center, but each disk was identical, and it didn’t matter which customer got which physical disk. Bringing in Blu-ray, they must now stock two versions of each title: one DVD, and one Blu-ray. Only customers who request Blu-ray should get that format, everyone else should get DVD. Now, their entire distribution model is split in half - the scalability of all of their systems relied on only have one set of disks per movie. Now, they need to manage two.

Where is this leading? Speeding up adoption of digital distribution! Netflix has a growing collection of movies and other video available for streaming to computer as well as televisions. As of yet, there is no additional charge for this service, and Netflix has seemingly gone out of its way to make it easily accessible. While it started on PCs, streaming is now available on Macs, too. They also have a $100 box to connect to your TV and formed partnerships with companies like TiVo to make Netflix easy to view in the home theater setting. All for “free” with your Netflix subscription.

Digital distribution is much more scalable than having to effectively double physical inventory, and thus, can be offered less expensively.

Digital video distribution still has some problems, of course. Netflix doesn’t currently offer offline access - their offering is streaming only - not useful on an airplane, for example. Competitors like Apple offer some movies for rental in digital format, but come at a higher price and some serious restrictions (only a 24 hour viewing window) Of course, none offer the same quality as Blu-ray - not even the “HD” offerings on iTunes. I suspect this will change as bandwidth becomes cheaper. Considering my home cable modem gives me the same bandwidth that just a few years ago would have required a T3 costing thousands per month, this will only continue to get better. In the meantime, Netflix will collect a few extra bucks from some of us - and hopefully invest further in their digital offerings.

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GrandCentral is back!

Link: GrandCentral is back!

GrandCentral is a service I’ve blogged about before. It was a web-based service that assigned you a single phone number, and allowed it to be forwarded to other numbers. Calls could be routed based on caller, and the service had other great features like visual voicemail.

Google purchased the developer a few years back, and the service seemed to stagnate. Today, however, Google announced Google Voice, based on the GrandCentral service. In addition to the original features, Google Voice now has voicemail transcriptions, SMS support, conference calling, and support for international phone numbers. I’m looking forward to trying this out when it goes live.

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Impressed with Comcast

I know, the headline is hard to believe. I just found a problem on my Comcast bill and decided to give their online chat service a try.

A agent was connected to me nearly immediately, didn’t type entirely from a script, and knew what she was talking about. Further, I got a six month promotional discount that will save me about $40 month on my bill.

Comcast has historically not had the best customer service (actually, from previous personal experience, they have been the downright worst) but based on this brief encounter I’m hoping they are getting their customer service act in gear!

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Is Palm back?

Link: Is Palm back?

I was recently reminded of my fondness for PalmPilot that occurred about 10 years ago. Palm hasn’t done much in the “neat cool innovative” category in a while, but today at CES they announced the “pre” - their new competitor to the iPhone.

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