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Archive for the ‘Tech gadgets and software’ Category

Back in 2009, I posted about my extremely positive experience in purchasing and using the MagicJack, when I decided to let go of more traditional land line options. About two years ago, I updated to the MagicJack Plus, once I heard it was out and no longer required being attached to a computer. It was the easiest thing to install and get working, and at the same low cost of the MagicJack. The unit itself is about $20 more expensive than the MagicJack but the annual phone service fee is still as low (around $20/year). The price of the MagicJack Plus, which includes first year service is around $70. Because I still have people asking me about it from time to time, I figured I’d do an update. I refer people to my blog posts for info on how to get started. So here’s the update.

The MagicJack Plus (MJ Plus) plugs into your router or modem, with no need to anchor it to a computer. That means you also don’t have to leave a computer on for it to work. Here’s what I wrote in my last post about the cons of the original unit – the MagicJack. The updates about the MJ Plus are written in bold after each item.

What are the downsides? There are several, so this is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

  1. You have to have high speed Internet and at least Windows XP. Still true with MJ Plus
  2. Your computer has to be on to pick up incoming calls. Otherwise, incoming calls go directly to voicemail. Not true with MJ Plus, since the unit plugs into your modem.
  3. The MJ software opens upon starting your computer. And a 3″ x 4″ window pops up everytime there is an incoming or outgoing phone call. There is no way to turn off the software. A small annoyance for me. Not true with MJ Plus. Nothing plugs into your computer and there is no software installed on your computer.
  4. The MJ phone service does not guarantee integration with local 911 emergency services. You’ll want to read the fine print carefully and see if that’s an issue for you. This may still be true. Best to dial 911 once, to see if it works. If it doesn’t, you can always return the unit to the store if you are not comfortable with that. I do get 911 services with it.
  5. This next one came via Ben S, who commented to this post. Alarm devices (home health care alert, burglar/fire alarm) that want to dial a central monitoring station will not be reliably able to dial out when there’s an emergency … particularly if you shut off your computer when you are away on vacation. Likely still true.
  6. There is no easy way to uninstall the software. “The process required to uninstall the software requires multiple Windows Registry edits and the removal of several folders on the Windows system.” (http://uninstallmagicjack.com/). No longer an issue with MJ Plus, since again, there is no software installed on your computer.
  7. I’m presuming MJ has a lean tech support crew, based on reviews. [Update 6-9-09: Have never needed to use them; everything has worked perfectly since installation.]. Still true, but I’m here to report four years later, than I have NEVER needed support from MJ.
  8. You have to get a new phone number with MJ. But you get to choose your area code and prefix, from a few choices, and MJ.com selects the last four digits. I received the most easily memorizable number that I’ve ever had. This is still true if you purchase MJ Plus without ever having had the MJ original unit. My MJ number switched over to the new MJ Plus unit, but I did lose my year’s subscription to MJ, and had to repurchase a year under MJ Plus. As I understand it, the licensing of it (your cost for using it) goes to a different developer, with a different pricing structure. Still even with the loss of maybe a half-year’s MJ annual license, I have captured a huge savings over other land line or other VoIP options.
  9. It runs through the Internet, which means you lose phone service if your Internet service is down or you have an electrical power outage. That’s what the cell phone is for…backup! Still true with MJ Plus.
  10. If you use only a laptop at home, the MJ and phone have to follow you around with your laptop, unless you get a dedicated computer for the MJ that lives in a permanent location in your home. You then have to think through how to add phones (see next bullet). I presently have a desktop in my office area, so that’s not an issue. If/when I replace it with a laptop, I’ll just keep it for the MJ connection. This is a non-issue with MJ Plus, since it’s connected to your modem, not your computer.
  11. You have to think through how to add extra phones, if you want more than one. I wanted to maintain the same distribution of phones that I had – one in every room. I came upon an excellent solution on how to keep all my existing phones using my existing wall jacks. I give credit to an Office Depot clerk who gave me the skinny on how to do this. I am leaving instructions at the very end of this post, if you’re interested. Still true for MJ Plus, but my solution in my original post is still effective for MJ Plus.

After 4 years, I’m still a very satisfied customer. And I should add, no one on the other end of the phone has indicated any quality issues. Go MagicJack Plus!

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stitcher5

I believe I mentioned in a prior post that one of the things I love about having an iPhone is that it serves double-duty as an XM-like radio. I can pull in ad-free radio stations (tons of them) on demand, for no extra cost beyond my monthly Internet fee.

One of my favorite radio applications is Stitcher Radio, for keeping up with technology. I find I no longer have time or patience to download podcasts to my portable device. I want them streamed, on demand. And with Stitcher, that’s exactly what you can get.

It’s free and is currently available for the iPhone and the Blackberry. Once installed, select the Stations button, then any of the choices which interest you. In my case, I’m interested in the Science and Technology option which then provides the following station/podcast choices:

  • Apple and Mac (TUAW, Today iniPhone, MAc Observer, EZMac)
  • GamerZone
  • Learning Center (Quick and Dirty Tips, Harvard, UCB, How Stuff Works)
  • Technology (TechCrunch, WJ Tech News)

In one spin around a St. Paul’s Central Park the other night. I learned why Microsoft might actually compete in the world of cloud computing followed by everything you might want to know about Open Street Maps.

Pretty cool stuff.

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With the news today that the iPhone may be offered by non AT&T carriers by next year, this might be a good time to post a personal review of the iPhone for anyone interested in what I have to say on the topic. However, don’t get too excited yet; there is plenty of evidence suggesting that AT&T won’t easily bow out of their exclusive contract.

I have put my 3G iPhone through an extreme gauntlet, tossing at it anything and everything I could, to see just how much it could flex, multi-task, and serve double duty. The latter has to do with maximizing the additional $30 Internet fee per month and eliminating my need to purchase other desired technologies, such as a GPS device or XM radio a la carte. Make no mistake – I have drunk the Coolaid and won’t look back. This little device suits my techno-personality to a tee and allows me the freedom to multi-task anywhere/anytime I choose to, using many of the same software products that I would use on my computer, in iPhone format. At the end of a long day, instead of firing up the computer at home after sitting in front of one all day long, I check my must-see items (Facebook and email) and am good for a long night’s rest.

You will note that I have many items listed below under the “My Dislikes”  and “What’s Missing” sections below, but that should be no surprise. As humans, we are all too capable of immediately locating faults and expressing our desire for fixes. The iPhone is only in its second generation for Pete’s sake, and the anticipated release of  the new OS this summer should incorporate several of the “What’s Missing” elements. So, I will be reasonably patient and await whatever enhancements come through updates and OS version releases.

My Likes

  • Great call quality (no complaints, can’t remember any dropped calls after 100 days)
  • Ease of use, smooth and very responsive finger touch, finger slide
  • Web material moves from portrait to landscape with phone rotation (not true for all apps, however)
  • Access to wireless 3G network wherever you get cell phone reception – that alone is pretty impressive
  • Doubles as a mobile GPS unit. Its built-in GPS function is simply awesome. It’s a mashup of an online search capability, retrieving search hits and respective addresses/phone  numbers, mapping software for all hits, and GPS. Plug in what you’re looking for, anything at all, and the phone will map it out for you, complete with a route and directions from your current location
  • Doubles up as an XM-like radio source so you can get streaming video or music via AOL Radio, Pandora, and satellite radio stations. I rarely listen to standard radio stations in my car anymore. With the MP3 jack in my car, I just plug my phone in and listen over my car speakers
  • Doubles up as an iPod, podcatcher, and mobile game device
  • Ability to search the Web while talking on the phone. However, this is about the only two things it can do at the same time; see dislikes for more on that
  • Having built-in keyboard and softphone (dial pad) pop up automatically when you need to use them.
  • Easy app download
  • Availability of so many apps, with most being free and the rest being quite inexpensive (between $2-3 for the most part; some are higher)
  • That the usual favs have already been designed in iPhone format (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, Google including the sub-Google functions, such as Google Reader and Google Docs
  • Free app updates 
  • Camera is decent enough for me for a 2 megapixel shooter, but you will find reviews which say otherwise
  • Although it took some getting used to, I do like the Contacts navigation by touching the letter of the person’s name and then easily flicking  to pinpoint exact location
  • Good output on speakerphone
  • Battery to date has been quite adequate, but some reviews say otherwise. To be sure, the rich media capability is a power hog. If interested in technical review, see link at end of this post
  • Super easy email integration with the built-in email app. You add your non-firewalled accounts the same way you would using Microsoft Outlook on your home computer
  • Great email-reading format
  • Data fields in emails integrate effortlessly with Contacts list. Anything that shows up in an email such as anybody’s email address (say in the cc: list) or phone numbers  – it all can be imported into a new Contact record or added to an existing contact record, eliminating the need to type any new info in. Awesome!

My Dislikes

  • Being a Windows user, it’s not Windows-like. There’s no menu or back key for navigation. It’s a single “app-at-a-time” OS and therefore doesn’t multi-task well (by design apparently)
  • Browser pages are not great to view if the app isn’t formatted for iPhone. They work ok, but everything is quite small, especially finding and working with login boxes. But for general reading-oriented Web sites (blog posts, magazines and journal articles)  you can double-tap and the iPhone will resize the output to best fit your viewing window (very cool feature)
  • Can’t put app icons in folders to organize them (i.e., put all your news feed or music apps together). You can move icons, but it is ridiculously clumsy, especially moving icons across pages. As you download more and more apps, you have to scroll across several pages of icons to locate what you’re looking for. This has to be my worst complaint. Who invented this system?
  • The phone, while quite sleek, is slippery, evading a grip without some means of traction. This makes having a skin of some kind mandatory
  • You can only have one window open at a time; so whenever you jump to another application, say via a link,  your first app is automatically closed. I would really like to see cross-application functionality, via a back button or a minimize/maximize function
  • You need to be connected via a wifi connection to download apps or updates over 10 MB. But I’ve found when camping onto area wifi networks, I can’t get into the App Store for these big downloads. I get an error message, saying no connection to the App Store. So that leaves me generally unable to download large updates
  • Small keyboard resulting in making a fair amount typing of mistakes. It’s pretty much one-handed operation, rather than the old two-thumb mode used on prior phones. But I can go as fast as my old phone, so the speed isn’t terribly frustrating. Would like to see frequently used symbols placed on the alpha page such as the @ sign and . (dot). Now you have to toggle back and forth between a numeric page and an alpha page, but it’s still easier than button-type phones, I think. All of this could be augmented by having a landscape keyboard which would give the finger far more breathing room for less errors, and possibly allowing the frequently used symbols to co-exist on the alpha page. You can download a landscape keyboard for a small fee, but it’s only for emailing, not texting, and takes few more clicks to transfer your message to your email application
  • Touch is overly sensitive sometimes. If you don’t get completely out of an app you can easily find your phone calling someone or surfing a Web page unintentionally, as you move your phone from hand to pocket or purse. On the other hand, if you are successfully closed out of your Contacts application, dialing someone inadvertantly cannot happen, as it can with a button keypad phone
  • Touch is not sensitive enough in the car – exactly where you want it to be. Seemingly, the road vibration puts up a barrier to the touch recognition. Taking triple the effort to get the phone to accept your touch instruction, this delays the return of your attention to where it should be, on driving. Voice dialing would resolve that
  • Quite slow to load Web pages in spite of claims of faster browsing on the 3G network. I was expecting something closer to the speeds you get on a computer using a wifi network. Not so. I’ve timed page loads at anywhere between 20 and 45 seconds. When reading multi-page articles, that means multiple wait times between pages. Apple recommends always using an existing wifi connection if one is available for faster surfing
  • Lack of effective search results in the App Store when using search terms by subject or topic. Excellent results if you happen to know the exact name of an app. I’m glad I have a DVR when watching the iPhone TV commercials. They don’t tell you the name of the app, so I rewind and carefully watch for the name of an app just before the finger touches it. Their search enginge needs better tagging, to be sure 
  • The camera’s white balance can’t handle bright sunlight, but that’s not unusual for a camera phone
What’s Missing?
  • Video recording
  • Multi-messaging text (coming with next OS)
  • Landscape keyboard (coming with next OS)
  • Voice dialing, although you can purchase an app for this
  • Flash support for the Web browser (disappointing)
  • Memory card for file transfer
  • Built-in office software. To create documents, you’ll need to purchase Quickoffice Mobile Office Suite – $19.99. Or for read only access, use Google docs; a perfect solution for mobile document viewing
  • Copy and paste functionality (coming with next OS)
Beside the Phone, the Features I Use the Most (and in this order)
  • Retrieving email (personal only, as my workplace does not support the iPhone yet)
  • iPhone apps for Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds which include my favorite news sites and blogs
  • Streaming radio/music stations: satellite radio, Pandora, AOL radio, NPR radio (includes podcasts)
  • GPS – I can find my way to anything
  • Games – while waiting anywhere
  • Checking the DOW
  • Identifying songs/artists of music heard on the radio or played anywhere, even at a coffee shop (very cool software available to do this)
  • Watching streaming videos (YouTube, streamed TV clips, news streams)
  • Listening to my iPod tunes
  • Checking movie schedules – except during my annual Academy Awards chase, when this will definitely move into first place :)

I’ll post some of my favorite iPhone applications in a future post.

CNET 3G iPhone Review

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iphone-apps3

My new research interest? The exponential growth in the iPhone use and development of iPhone apps since the release of the iPhone 3G.

 Here are some facts according to Apple: (source: http://events.apple.com.edgesuite.net/0903lajkszg/event/index.html)

  1. Apple’s app store has been open for only 8 months
  2. In that time, 50,000 developers have been added to the cadre of iPhone app developers. Size or notoriety of your business does not matter. You have an idea and the smarts to develop something? The odds are with you. Why?
  3. Of the now 25,000 iPhone apps available, 96% of the apps submitted to Apple for consideration were approved
  4. Of those approved, 98% were approved in 7 days or less
  5. Since the opening of the app store 8 months ago, iPhone owners have surpassed downloading 800 million apps to their phones (I account for about 50 of them)
  6. Apple makes a software development kit (SDK) available to would-be developers which includes the same APIs and tools that Apple uses. 1,000 new APIs is making it increasingly easier for developers to create new apps and add new functionality to the iPhone

index_sdk1For the full story, watch this video at Apple.com. Long, but interesting. Also includes a preview of the iPhone OS 3.0 to be released this summer.

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iPhone OS 3.0 image

iPhone OS 3.0 image

For all you iPhone users, you’ll be happy to know there are plans for the release of a free operating system version upgrade this summer, which promises to offer increased functionality. As a relatively recent convert to the iPhone minions, I am keeping a watchful eye on what the new OS is about. I love a lot about the iPhone, but I also don’t like some very specific things; mostly what’s lacking. The new OS will take care of at least a few of my major complaints.

From Apple.com:

Advance preview of 100 new features

When iPhone OS 3.0 arrives this summer, it will introduce over 100 new features, including the ability to:

  • Search your iPhone
  • Cut, copy, and paste
  • Send photos, contacts, audio files, and location via MMS*
  • Read and compose email and text messages in landscape

When you’ve got some time, relax and watch Apple’s recent (3-17-09) presentation in Quicktime movie format –previewing the new functionality. It’s long, but worth watching it to learn lots of interesting info about the developer process of the now 25,000 iPhone apps as well as the new functionality to be unveiled this summer.

If you’re less interested in the developer info, jump to minute 7 where they begin talking of the OS 3.0 new functionality.

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Before I begin launching into this post, let me say I am very aware of the myriad “Proceed-with- Caution” reviews on the product called MagicJack; a relative newcomer in the world of VoIP phone companies which offers extremely cheap phone service using your existing Internet connection. This is the story of my journey to explore using it as an alternative to a costly monthly land line.

  • * * * * * * * * * * * *
Magic Jack

Magic Jack

I fall into the category of the baby boomer set who can be technologically progressive and old school at the same time. Facebook, texting, iPhoning – they all work for me. But darn, if I’m not also resistant to parting ways with some of my old tried and true technologies, no matter how prehistoric they seem to the 20-something crowd. In this post, I’m revealing my angst in deciding – once and for all – whether to abandon the home land line. How could I continue to justify the $40 per month fee when there were so many other ways in which I now favored communication? Around Christmas time 2008 I began a several month “search and deploy” mission. Well, a year, if I count all the waivering. What to do, what to do?

Go cell phone only? Too many things kept me from going there, not the least of which was trying to keep track of my cell phone in the house. How many times in a week do I have to call my cell from my land line only to ping it in a deep sofa crack?

After researching the costs of switching to other telephone companies, such as Vonage, or bundling my home service with cell phone service, nothing emerged a winning candidate for a cost-effective land line replacement option. I wouldn’t change unless I could find a radical savings. I use Skype when in coffee shops, but I don’t want to be teathered to my computer in the house in order to talk on the phone. Not to mention that the quality of the VoIP with Skype is inconsistent. I often have to abandon the Skype call because people at the other end report that I’m breaking up.

I soon found myself paying great attention to those MagicJack infomercials. $20 a year for phone service? Anything this good couldn’t be true, right? I’m here to say, so far, wrong — although there are some drawbacks and easily-Googled concerns. Here’s how it works.

It’s a gizmo a tad larger than a thumb drive. You plug one end into a USB port on your computer. You plug your phone into the other end, which has a standard phone  jack (4P4C connector). The device is automatically detected and the software is installed in about 1 minute. Easy-peasy. It’s phone service via the Internet. Not quite the same as a land line over the land-based phone lines, but it is home phone service.

You can buy the MagicJack off the Infomercial, if you find it playing, or go to http://www.magicjack.com/. Otherwise, it’s for sale for $40 at Radio Shack. [Update 6-6-09: Just saw it advertised on TV at Best Buy]. That includes the first year’s phone service of $20. For the $20, you get the caller ID, call waiting, voice messaging, and free long distance in the U.S. International calling options are available for under 5 cents a minute.

You also get the software which is like other VoIP products such as Vonage, listing your incoming and outgoing calls, voice messages, contacts list, etc. You can listen to your messages over the phone or on your cpu or have them sent to email or text. In two clicks on my iPhone, I can listen to my voice messages without having to dial anything. Love it!

What are the downsides? There are several, so this is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

  1. You have to have high speed Internet and at least Windows XP.
  2. Your computer has to be on to pick up incoming calls. Otherwise, incoming calls go directly to voicemail.
  3. The MJ software opens upon starting your computer. And a 3″ x 4″ window pops up everytime there is an incoming or outgoing phone call. There is no way to turn off the software. A small annoyance for me.
  4. The MJ phone service does not guarantee integration with local 911 emergency services. You’ll want to read the fine print carefully and see if that’s an issue for you.
  5. This next one came via Ben S, who commented to this post. Alarm devices (home health care alert, burglar/fire alarm) that want to dial a central monitoring station will not be reliably able to dial out when there’s an emergency … particularly if you shut off your computer when you are away on vacation
  6. There is no easy way to uninstall the software. “The process required to uninstall the software requires multiple Windows Registry edits and the removal of several folders on the Windows system.” (http://uninstallmagicjack.com/)
  7. I’m presuming MJ has a lean tech support crew, based on reviews. [Update 6-9-09: Have never needed to use them; everything has worked perfectly since installation.]
  8. You have to get a new phone number with MJ. But you get to choose your area code and prefix, from a few choices, and MJ.com selects the last four digits. I received the most easily memorizable number that I’ve ever had.
  9. It runs through the Internet, which means you lose phone service if your Internet service is down or you have an electrical power outage. That’s what the cell phone is for…backup!
  10. If you use only a laptop at home, the MJ and phone have to follow you around with your laptop, unless you get a dedicated computer for the MJ that lives in a permanent location in your home. You then have to think through how to add phones (see next bullet). I presently have a desktop in my office area, so that’s not an issue. If/when I replace it with a laptop, I’ll just keep it for the MJ connection.
  11. You have to think through how to add extra phones, if you want more than one. I wanted to maintain the same distribution of phones that I had – one in every room. I came upon an excellent solution on how to keep all my existing phones using my existing wall jacks. I give credit to an Office Depot clerk who gave me the skinny on how to do this. I am leaving instructions at the very end of this post, if you’re interested.

I read an online review of the MJ as I was seeking useful tips about installation. Someone recommended having an externally powered USB hub for the MJ stating: “This will lighten the electrical load on your USB interface with the computer, also making magic jack more reliable.” I first plugged my MJ directly into the cpu. Had no problems. Still, I went for the extra USB hub with external power, for another $30.

In the MJ informercial, the announcer says, “Fire your phone company!” I did and boy did it feel good. I’m only five days into life with the MJ but service has been excellent. I do have to remember to turn my computer on if I’ve turned it off, in order to receive calls when I’m home, but people tend to call my cell if they don’t reach me at home. Callers have said the quality is clear (no static, or fish tank echoes).

My Total cost so far: $40 for the MJ and $30 for an AC powered USB hub, which I will make use of for other things. I will breakeven in less than two months. My new monthly phone bill? $1.67.

People thought I was crazy to move all my bill paying efforts online in 1990. I took the plunge and never looked back. I hope this plunge turns out to be equally positive and that there are no bait and switch price increases, or that the MJ service provider doesn’t go belly up, or the FCC doesn’t come down with some violation ruling. Anyone who knows me, knows I did my due diligence and found good reviews from the likes of the NY Times, PC Magazine, and CNBC. Still, I found an equal number of bad reviews and those warning of its Spyware tactics. Well, for however long this seemingly free lunch lasts, I will be saving money and I still have a land line. Yea!

How to Use  Your Existing Wall Jacks for Additional Phones

  • You’ll need a phone cord and a splitter/duplex wall jack adaptor.
  • Locate where your existing phone service comes into your house. Unplug it. This may be the hardest part of the setup if you don’t know how to find it. I ended up finding it quite easily as it turns out, as Comcast (my phone service provider before MJ) had installed a box into my utility cabinet, into which both the outside coaxial cable and the main phone line were plugged. The phone line was plugged into the box with a standard plug, so no cutting or unscrewing of wires was needed.
  • Plug the Magic Jack into your computer USB port as instructed. Then instead of plugging your phone into the other end, plug a standard phone cord into it running the other end of the cord into one slot of a duplex or splitter jack apadator. Plug that adaptor into your wall jack.
  • Now plug your phone into the other slot of the duplex jack adaptor.

When you do this, now all your existing phones work, and run off the MJ in one complete circuit. The whole process took me no more than 20 minutes!

[2013 Note: I've have since purchased the MagicJack Plus and replaced the MagicJack unit. See my updated post about this.]

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The Space Navigator

2D controllers move over. Here’s a relatively new product from 3Dconnexion, a subsidiary of Logitech. The Space Navigator  was originally designed as a controller for 3D applications such as CAD/CAM or 3D graphics programs. However, the Popular Mechanics review of the gadget (video below) claims that 3Dconnexion is billing it as a Google Earth controller.

 

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGBPKMgvSJQ&feature=user]

 

So imagine the possibilities of using this thing in Second Life (SL) for example. Well, imagine no more. Torley from Linden Labs just posted a YouTube video yesterday indicating how Linden Labs and 3Dconnexion are collaborating so this device can be supported in SL.

 

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEAyMDDSh5g&feature=related]

 

Here’s one more video, showing Beast Linden demoing the product.

http://www.3dconnexion.com/solutions/sl_video.php

The price of it? A quick Internet search showed it going at $52 at the low end. If anyone is using this product, let me know. User posts only (vendor posts will not be approved).

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