Category Archives: Gadgets and Tech

Cool gadgets and technology – life is that little bit better with my utility belt

Apple iPhone Upgrade Plan

For those of you that watched the Apple “Hey Siri” event keynote, or have been following up on the Internet, today Apple announced their iPhone Upgrade Plan.

Apple’s new upgrade plan is similar to what some of the wireless network providers are already providing, and aims to allow consumers to take advantage of a new iPhone model every year, without having to wait for contract dates to expire. Just like the network provider offerings, it seems great on the surface – you pay a small amount each month and get the latest technology in return. When the next gen iPhone comes out, you hand in your current model and get a new model. This is very much like leasing a car, you pay for what you use. But how does the total cost over 12 months stack up to just buying the phone outright?

Below is a table I put together in Excel that includes pricing for the iPhone 5s, 6, 6+, 6s, and 6s+, per the numbers published by Apple today and from AT&T. I didn’t include pricing from Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile because their plans are typically comparable (sort of). Besides, the point of this blog post was to differentiate the costs for buying a new iPhone outright every 12 months verses buying into a leasing plan from Apple.

 

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Looking at the table, you can see that I priced out the various iPhone 64GB models, with the exception of the 5s, which only comes with a maximum of 32GB. The calculations in this table hinge on the typical resale for used iPhone devices. I based my resale numbers on the average price that an iPhone 5s, 6 and 6+ sell for today, and then factored the price for 12 months from now. So, the resale of an iPhone 6s plus in 12 months should be about the same price as a used iPhone 6 plus today.

Let’s assume you decide to buy a new iPhone 6s when it comes out next week. If you buy the phone outright you can expect to part with $749 + $99. I’ve included Apple Care because the new Apple Upgrade Plan includes it. After 12 months, when we assume Apple with have the next model version, you’ll still own your 6s outright and can probably sell it for $500. So, you’ll be in the hole by $348, which is about right for a year of wear and tear on an electronic smartphone. Compare this price with the Apple Upgrade plan, which costs $32.45 per month (numbers from the Apple web site).

When Apple introduced the plan in early September, the first thought was that this was a lease plan – one where you hand back the device after you’re done using it. However, the plan appears as an interest free loan (according to @maccast). The monthly payment equates to the cost of the phone, plus Apple Care, spread over 24 months of payments. This being the case, the numbers in the above table are subjective. If you plan to trade your iPhone for the next model, Apple will give you the trade in value based on wear and tear as well as the value from the Apple recycle trade in program. This assumes your phone is free from damage (cracks), powers on, and retains a charge. Anything less than good condition and you’ll likely get less for trade in. Should you decide to keep the phone, Apple will continue to charge you the monthly fee until the balance is paid off, or you decide to pay the remaining balance in full (or so I think). What I’m unclear on is whether you can hand back your iPhone after 12 months, having paid 12 monthly payments, and then walk away free and clear – no more payments, no more device. If so, this is then a leased phone in the same sense as a leased vehicle – hand back and walk away, buy remaining balance, or trade towards the next model.

Next, let’s look at the 6s plus. What’s interesting here is that the loss for buying outright is the same as that of the 6s. Although the 6s plus sells at $100 more than the 6s, you can expect to make $100 extra come time to sell it. However, look at the amount you’ll pay for the upgrade plan – $449.40 – the difference is now closer to $100.

If we’re talking about upgrade plans, we shouldn’t ignore At&T’s Next plan. Again, I’m pretty sure Sprint and Verizon offer something similar, but for comparison sake… With AT&T’s Next program you end up buying the phone outright and the payments are just spread out over a 24 or 30 months term, depending on the plan. Assuming the same resale value as before, you’re at the same loss value, only you had most of the money in your bank for 12 months, making some, if not small, amount of interest.

Finally, there’s the 2 year contract pricing – it appears that the network providers are getting away from these plans, besides, they’re too restrictive in not allowing changing to other providers mid-contract and phone upgrades are limited, so you’d be insane to sign up for one of these plans for another 2 years. The costs aren’t great either – it used to be the case that the network providers subsidized the cost of the phone if you agreed to a fixed 2 year contract. As phones got more expensive (we’re not talking a $99 flip phone anymore) providers realized they were losing money, especially since plans have become more affordable. I found out the hard way when I purchased my iPhone 6, last year, for $299, that AT&T increased my monthly plan charge by $25. Over the life of the plan, that equates to $600, on top of the $299 I’d already paid. That’s more than the cost of the phone at retail.

To conclude – the Apple Upgrade plan isn’t too bad on cost. If you like to get the latest iPhone each year and want peace of mind with Apple Care, then this could work for you. However, if you look after your phone and prefer to take your chances on no Apple Care and plan on selling your phone in 12 months, you could save yourself some $$$. On the other hand, if you’re fine keeping a iPhone one or two generations behind the current, it makes a whole lot more sense to buy outright at the start or amortize the cost over 24 months.

Vista MCE and HD – At Last

Recently – I finally decided to take the plunge with Vista Media Center Edition and High Definition Cable TV…. 

I’ve been a fan of MCE for some time, and up until February this year I’d been using Vista MCE with a standard analogue cable line into a dual receiver Hauppauge tuner card and doing relatively well.  Those of you following my rants about Comcast Cable TV of Montgomery County already know that I’d sell my grandma for a time when a better, cheaper solution to cable TV was available – and that time has finally arrived (I didn’t have to sell my Grandma – besides EBay prohibits the sale of family members).

Verizon now offer FIOS TV in my area, and with a standard premium package inclusive of HDTV on offer for $42.99 a month, it didn’t take much to ditch Comcast ($68.00 a month).

I’ve been keeping a close eye over the last few months on the handful of vendors offering Cable-Labs certified Vista PC’s and decided on the purchase of a new Dell XPS 420 with dual ATI TV Wonder Cable Card Tuners.  My decision came down to the following rationale:

  • Dell offers the cheapest Cable-Card solution (at time of writing).
  • Unless I fork out over 4G for a machine; most Vista machines offering Cable-Card are inferior to the Dell XPS.
  • ATI is pretty much the only supplier of Cable-Card tuner for Vista and Dell sold me a pair for $350, unlike other vendors charging $280 a piece.
  • Dell would ship me a machine within a month.
  • Dell is a well known brand.
  • Internal tuners do not sell me because my machine sits out of the way in the basement.

Two weeks after I place my order for an XPS-420 with 1TB disk, 4G RAM and the dual tuners a new box arrived on my doorstep – ahead of schedule.

Setup of my machine was straight forward – my dell shipped with Vista Home Premium and Cable Card support and the drivers for the ATI tuners installed.  After I uninstalled the free Dell software and turned off all unnecessary services in Vista (it’s a server, so no need for Aero) I was ready for the Verizon service person to come and install Cable Card TV.

At 11am one chilly Saturday morning the Verizon guy arrived – I’d called ahead and placed the installation order for Cable-Card so he came with this expectation.  My new XPS was running in my front room, connected to an LCD monitor (so no XBOX 360 Extender to confuse the issue) and MCE running and at the cable-card configuration screen.

The Verizon engineer had never installed Cable-Card in a computer before, but I assured him it was as easy as installing for an HD-TV.  I read somewhere ahead that each cable-card pairs with it’s host tuner, so make sure you know which ATI unit is tuner #0 and tuner #1 in MCE because the engineer calls in the cable-card serial number with HQ to activate the cable signal.

After a short wait on the phone with HQ both cable-cards were activated and receiving a signal – I was then able to tune Vista to an HD channel.  During the whole process the most difficult part was downloading the correct EPG (Guide) for my area because there are several for my zone and each has a slightly different channel number line up.  With correct EPG installed and tuners configured I was able to watch and record HDTV, the only issue I had was with some of the channels in the guide not being part of my service package, which caused Vista to pause looking for the signal when I tuned to these channels.

After tipping the Verizon guy and wishing him a good day I preceded to move my XPS to it’s resting place and hook up my XBOX 360. As with my older machine, this process was a breeze, and it didn’t take long before I had HDTV on the large screen.  A tip for those hooking up a similar setup – make sure you have a nice fast network link between your XBOX and MCE, no wireless for instance, otherwise HDTV will hog the bandwidth.

The acid test with my new setup was whether my wife would have any issues when she came home.  Lisa is familiar with Vista MCE so the new faster machine scored some brownie points, and the monthly savings on the cable bill also got me a high five.  So far we’ve been doing good with the new channel line up (lots more channels) and HD content.  One quirk we found with Vista MCE is that it doesn’t automatically choose HD channels when scheduled recordings are set to “any channel” – you have to explicitly choose the HD channel otherwise Vista records from the first SDTV channel (since HD channels are higher numbering in the channel list).  An episode of “Dancing with the Stars” in HD was day and night compared to SD, and once I demonstrated the difference it didn’t take much to convince Lisa to reprogram the list of scheduled recordings.

I’ve noticed that my MCE platform is a little sluggish when recording from two HD channels and playing a recorded show simultaneously, so I would recommend a minimum 4GB RAM and a dual or quad core processor if you like uninterrupted viewing.  I’ll report back as my new toy gets more usage…

XV6700/PPC6700 WM6 – At Last!!!

..and a round of applause goes to Hemi from xda-developers for cooking up a WM6 ROM for the XV6700/PPC6700.  I have been drooling, for some time now, at the new PDA phones with WM6 (cross bow) installed and held onto the hope that someone would make this OS available for my $400-new-from-Verizon-phone.  Sure, it’s a cooked ROM, but I took the risk before getting to old age before Verizon ever released a official version for my unit.

So far I am enjoying:

  • Faster response from the phone
  • Less reboots
  • HTML formatted emails
  • Built in software, like WMODEM using it now to write this post).
  • Better connection manager
  • ..and a host of fixes that were just annoying in WM5.

For those of you shy to install a cooked ROM for fear of turning your device into an expensive paper weight – trust me, Hemi did a great job with this build, and as long as you follow his easy instructions you cannot go wrong.

http://forum.ppcgeeks.com/showthread.php?t=7671

This week’s new toy – Jawbone Bluetooth Headset

I finally broke down and purchased a Bluetooth headset for my cell phone.  For some time now I have been managing quite well with my XV6700 Verizon phone (brick) glued to my head whilst on the move (in states where it is not illegal – of course to drive and use a cell phone).  Now that I am on the phone with clients more often I decided to treat myself to a hands free.

A colleague recommended the Jawbone because it contains military grade noise cancellation technology, and I was curious to how good this really is. 

Check out the video at http://www.jawbone.com/meet.html?utm_source=site&utm_medium=promo_demo

I joke you not – the noise cancellation actually works – I had the radio playing in the car, driving at 60MPH and the receiver on the other end of the line informed me the call was crystal clear without background noise interference.

 

The Jawbone retails at about $160 but if you know where to look you can purchase a new working model in various colors for about $75.00.  Pairing with my Bluetooth cell phone was a breeze, battery life is adequate for the amount of daily calls I make, and when I am wearing the Jawbone I don’t look too much like a Borg hybrid.

Now, just because I have succumb to the ranks of the executives that appear to talk to themselves in the street, you will not catch me in meeting, at a restaurant, or socializing with friends whilst this thing is strapped to my head.  Who are these people that think these devices are a fashion accessory and have to wear them all day? [;)]

ADATA 8GB Ready Boost Flash Drive

It’s been a busy, busy couple of weeks, and I’ve not been posting, but I had to mention my new purchase of an 8GB USB flash drive from AData.  Yes, you read that right 8GB!!! Wow, I remember when I thought 512MB attached to my key chain was impressive.  This little puppy is 200x speed with a 30mbs read and 20mbs write speed, which means it is perfect for Vista Ready Boost.

I am about to install a new copy of Vista on a new machine shortly, so I thought I’d try booting and installing from my new stick to see how fast it is.

Cable Labs Certified Media Center – Requirements

Cable Labs is really putting the screws on OEM users, who like to home-brew their media center PC on the cheap.  To view and record HDTV content on a new Vista MCE PC, the following is a list of required components (thanks Chris Lanier):

1) Vista Home Premium or Ultimate
2) HDCP Video Card
3) Special BIOS w/ OCUR bit set
4) OCUR (CableCARD Reader/Digital Cable Tuner)
5) OCUR Product Key (separate from Windows Product Key)
6) Sign MS agreement
7) Sign CableLabs agreement
8) Video drivers that support COPP, PVP-OPM, CGMS-A
9) Sound card to support exact requirements of CableLabs

Thought: The OCUR product key worries me a little, how much does one want to bet that the product key is pre-installed with a new system and not made available to the end consumer – preventing upgrade/re-pave of the system.

So.. essentially you’re looking at a completely new box – no hope of just adding cable card support to your existing MCE hardware.  At present, very few vendors are providing Cable Labs certified PCs, and I haven’t seen much in the way of certified bare-bones systems either.

According to Engadget, Vidabox are coming out with an all sing and dancing cable-card, Blue Ray, HD DVD unit in March, but it at $4500 it’s not cheap:

http://www.engadget.com/2007/01/23/vidabox-rolls-cablecard-into-blu-ray-and-hd-dvd-all-in-one-media/

Conclusion: it is still early days.  Vista isn’t yet mainstream, and many vendors have yet to come out of the “Cable Labs” woodwork.  I expect to see a change throughout this year as devices come onto the market that support cable card HDTV.

Bose TriPort Around-Ear Headphones


I finally decided to ditch my Sennheiser phones today on account of a malfunctioning jack, which meant I could only get sound from one ear unless I contorted my body in a strange angle and held the wire in the air in the direction of the wind.  So I popped down to my local electronics store with a friend and picked up a pair of Bose TriPort Around-Ear phones

The price tag is a little more than I would have liked to have spent ($130), but I justified the cost because I wear phones most of my working day and wanted something comfortable with good sound output.

After plugging the Bose into my SB Audigy PC soundcard and plopping them on my melon I realized that the $130 was money well spent.  First off these puppies are very comfortable – perfect for wearing all day whilst blogging writing documentation – and the dynamic range produces a crisp treble and earthy bass sound.  I had to play with the sound settings on my PC and turn the bass down because the original setting for my prior phones was too much thump, thump in the Bose.

So far I’ve only played my favorite metal tracks, and I’ve been thrilled with the quality of output, so I am sure that I’ll be as equally impressed with some of the more subdued tracks in my collection.  The “Around-Ear” cancels out most background noise – my cell phone rang earlier and I could hardly hear the ringer, and typing this post I cannot hear the keys clack, and let me tell you I am heavy on the keys.

Overall a great purchase.

Current Mood:    ecstatic

[tags:Electronics]

Media Center PC and HDTV

Phew, this HDTV stuff can get confusing.  What with the number of different connections: HDMI, DVI, RGBHV, YPrPb, the various resolutions available, and video card timings and compatibility – it’s enough to make one’s head explode.  In a couple of earlier posts (here and here) I attempted to demystify HDTV, Widescreen and Media Center 2005.  Since then I’ve learnt some more about HDTV.  The following is my experience with connecting my MCE 2005 PC to my HDTV.

I have a Mitsubishi widescreen rear projection TV, capable of 1080i and a Media Center 2005 PC.   Until recently I was not taking full advantage of the large resolution that my display unit had to offer (doofus).  The first problem was with my hookup – to obtain high resolution most display units require either a digital input (HDMI, DVI) or a composite analogue input.  I was using an S-Video connection, which limited the viewable resolution to 480p (doh).

So what connection does one need to hook up their PC to an HDTV? Good question, let’s pull your TV away from the wall and have a looksy at the connections on the back….


If you have an input on the back of your unit, like the one above, then you are in luck, this is an HDMI connection – currently the one of the best available digital connection types available.  If your PC has a similar connection then all you need is an HDMI cable and you are in business.  If you have a DVI connection (pictured below) on you PC then you can purchase a DVI to HDMI cable.  Both DVI and HDMI are digital, so you’ll not suffer any loss in picture quality.


The above image illustrates both DVI-D and DVI-I connections.  DVI supports both analogue and digital signals, and if you have a DVI connection on your TV odds are that it’s either DVI-D (digital) or DVI-I (both analog and digital).  Most modern mid-range PC video cards pump out DVI-D (I have an NVidia Geoforce FX5700LE).  if you have a DVI-D connection on your TV set then all you need is a cable from the your DVI-D PC video connection to your TV.






Older display units (like mine), which support high definition are likely to have RGBHV component or YPrPb component inputs, in either BNC or RCA format.  Both connection types carry an analogue signal, so if your PC delivers a digital output then a conversion unit is required.  Most PC video cards still support VGA, so if your TV supports RGBHV then all you need is cable to split VGA to component RGBHV.  If your TV only accepts YPrPb then you’ll need to shell out about $300 on a transcoder.






If your TV has only one or more of the above connections (S-Video, Composite Video, Coaxial) then your out of luck.  None of the three connection types pictured above support HDTV.  These connection types only support analogue SDTV.

Okay, so that’s the hookup out of the way.  My Mitsubishi supports both RGBHV and YPrPrb, so I opted for the VGA to RGBHV cable for about $30.  Next.. the PC setup.

If you reading this post because you have MCE 2005, then I expect that you at least have a respectable PC video card capable of rendering real-time video with little to no effort.  The video card is probably the most expensive component in your DVR because it is responsible for rendering full motion video.  Both NVidia and ATI produce respectable cards suitable for DVR purposes, and both provide cards guaranteed to work with Windows Media Center Edition.  Video cards that are neither NVidia or ATI may work with MCE but you may find that there is no mention of your card in newsgroups and Internet forums supporting HDTV configuration.

So we’ve hooked up our high performance PC video card to the HDTV, now comes the difficult bit – configuring the display settings in MCE 2005.

Out of the box, Windows XP MCE will not provide resolution settings for HDTV (1280×720, 1920×1080 etc), this is because Windows is configured for typical display resolutions.  This is where Powerstrip comes in.  Powerstrip is a sophisticated application that enables the user to configure the output to non-typical resolution settings.  At this point I won’t confess to knowing all there is to know about Powerstrip (it’s complicated), so instead I’ll refer you to the documentation that comes with the application.

Working with Powerstrip is a trial and error process.  There are m
any options available in the application that may affect the visual output on your display.  The following is a list of recommendations:

  1. Have a spare computer monitor handy – it is unlikely that the default Powerstrip settings will work with your TV, even in standard VGA mode, so having another display available enables you to see what’s going on.
  2. Forget remote desktop – RDP uses it’s own display driver.  Configuring Powerstrip on RDP will only affect the virtual display adapter and not the real adapter.
  3. The following article helped me configure Powerstrip: http://www.digitalconnection.com/Support/cliffnotes_17.asp although I ended up using the predefined 1920x1080i resolution rather than one of the custom resolutions mentioned in the article.
  4. Have plenty of patience, you’ll need to switch from TV to monitor and back several times until you get a picture that works.  If you have a switch box then you’ll have an easier time.
  5. Warning: It is possible to setup Powerstrip to use resolutions not compatible with your TV, using these resolutions for anything more than a few seconds can hurt your TV.  If a particular setting doesn’t work then disconnect your TV from your PC immediately – don’t leave the screen rolling or distorted while you read the manual.  This is where the vastly cheaper secondary monitor is useful.


 

The 1920x1080i predefined setting worked the best on my TV, however the left and right margins were cut off.  Fortunately Powerstrip has an option to assist in cases such as this.  Once you have a picture that displays on your TV, covering at least 100% or more of the viewing area, click the “resolution in a resolution” icon (pictured above).  This nifty option allows you to size a window on the screen of what you can actually see, Powerstrip will then adjust the settings so the image fits within the viewable area of the screen.

Now that I have a Windows resolution working, the last thing left to do was launch MCE and run through the TV display wizard (under settings) to tweak the output. 

Presto – HDTV in MCE. 

This post is brief, and there is lots to say on this subject.  Those readers interested in knowing more about tweaking Powerstrip or HDTV in general should comb the Internet – there’s a lot of information out there. Below is a link to a nice article from Engadget, which discusses similar content to my post and more…

http://www.engadgethd.com/2006/02/08/how-to-connect-your-pc-to-your-hdtv/

H.I.D

Getting away from the software theme for this post… I’ve been giving some serious thought into adding HID (High Intensity Discharge) lights to my 2006 Scion TC. 

What is HID exactly? 

HID is a newer technology for illumination, which uses xenon gas discharge, rather than the typical halogen found in most cars.  This produces a crisper, more natural light deployment unlike the yellow associated with halogen, and enables motorists to see much more distance without the dazzling glare to oncoming vehicles.




For the non-techies (and non-car enthusiasts) you may be asking “what’s the point?” As a friend of mine said, after driving a car with stock HID – “it’s like night and day, with HID you see so much more.”

So, I figured that since Scion’s are easily customized it won’t be hard to install aftermarket HID – right?….. wrong!  After digging around on the Internet in the wee small hours this morning I found out some info about what goes into HID and why it is so expensive.

It’s no secret that HID is typically installed stock in more up market vehicles – BMW first introduced it in 1997, and since then Acura have added the technology to their TL and TSX, Honda added HID to their S2000, it’s pretty much a given on all Mercedes Benz, and Audi also come fitted with HID stock.  Those of us with cheaper vehicles (ahem, me) have to settle for OEM and after market installation.  So what’s involved?

After market HID installation comes in two flavors – drop in replacement units and retro fit.  Like most proud car owners I’m loath to take a wrench and screw driver to my car unless the job is easy and involves little to no custom modification work, so the idea of drop in unit to replace the existing head lamp fitting sounded great to me.  However, after reading up a little I understand that this is a half baked solution.  First off, HID fitting is not just the fitting of a bulb and ballast (device that provides high voltage arc across the xenon gas) – sure this will work but without a projection unit the result is mediocre at best.  To obtain 3x distance illumination a projection device, using optics, is required – this is where the cost comes in.  Most non-HID lamp mounting units are not designed for projector mounting, and a bad installation can sometimes leading to case melting and a variety of other problems.  So, custom retro fitting is the next best approach.

So how to go about retro fitting HID to a Scion TC?

http://hidretro.com is a site, which advertises a service that does all the work for you (not just for Scion vehicles), however the work “ain’t cheap.”  Don’t expect much change out of $2000 (give or take, depending on the projector type, and bulb type).  Of course, one can do a DIY job (instructions here http://www.scionlife.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=75144), which involves tools, spray paint, balls, and an oven (say what?).  Like most things in life, if you want a good job for a cheap price then you need to do it yourself.  Personally, I am not put off by the idea, but depending on whether I need to purchase expensive tools (blow torch), and if I can obtain some spare Scion TC head lamp fittings (incase I botch the job), is whether I go down that road.

A few particulars I found out whilst reading about HID -:

– HID bulbs come in a variety of sizes and color temperatures (specified in Kelvin) – this is not the temperature that the bulb operates, but the color output of the source determined by spectral output curve (whoosh).

– Higher color temperatures are not necessarily better, the lower the color temperature the more natural the light output appears.  Higher color temperatures will give a more defined color, so if purple light is your thing then a 10000K or 12000K bulb will give you the desired result. 

– The Department of Transport (DOT) defines laws on what constitutes as legal HID. 6000K or above is NOT LEGAL in the US and any is not available in any factory fitted HID.  If you fit OEM at 6000K or above you run the risk of penalty, but that’s assuming that a beady eyed cop can spot the difference.  

– Various OEM projection units exist – most of the ready available units in the US are similar or the same as those found in factory fitted HID vehicles.

– In projection mounted solutions try to use D2S size bulbs, and use D2R in reflection systems.

Conclusion – unless I fork out a lot of green, installation of HID in my TC is going to involve some open heart surgery.  From the instructions (link above) it looks like I can get away withy most of the up front work – custom fitting HID parts to a stock lamp fixture – without taking my car apart, as long as I can acquire some extra lamp fittings on the cheap.  So I may try that and see how well I do.  Anyone out there who has done a similar job, and wants to offer some insight would be most welcome to do so.