And the Winner Is …

Okay, for many, many months now I have been agonizing over getting a new phone. My trusty LG Fusic on Sprint (now for sale on eBay) has been with me for over 3 years, and with the advent of all the new smartphone options available I wanted something a little more versatile.

I live out in the woods of North Carolina, and wireless phone coverage is iffy at best. Sprint seems to have the best service (which is why I’ve used them since 1998) but it is only best because the other major players have closer to no coverage.

However, over the last year everyone but AT&T introduced a femtocell product. This is a small device that plugs into your broadband internet connection and instead of making calls over a cell tower, it acts like a bridge between your phone and the network. It’s like having a cell tower in your house. This has opened up some options for me.

Unlike many people, I was pretty happy with Sprint. They have a good network and as long as you don’t ever, ever, have to talk with customer service you’ll probably be happy with them. The downside is that they rarely have cool phones.

Verizon has the best network overall, while AT&T is oversubscribed and T-mobile is a newcomer to the North Carolina market, but the latter run on GSM networks which means your phone will work practically anywhere. I travel enough overseas that this is a consideration.

In my hunt for a new phone I narrowed it down to the following choices:

  • Sprint and the Palm Pre: The Pre was the first exciting phone to hit the Sprint network in years. I seriously considered it until I realized that it was pretty much dead on arrival. The issues they experienced when trying to create a developer community didn’t help much either.
  • Sprint and the HTC Hero: This is the best phone Sprint has right now. It’s designed well, exciting and powered by Android. The main issue holding me back from this phone was the lack of synchronization between the desktop and the phone for things like contacts. Sure, you can sync through Google, but as much as I like Google I don’t want to host that kind of information on a third-party server. There may be an app to address my sync issues, but the Android Market website is so weak that you can’t browse all of the apps. It says “For a comprehensive, up-to-date list of the thousands of titles that are available, you will need to view Android Market on a handset.” This isn’t possible if I don’t have a handset, and I won’t get a handset unless I know that basic synchronization is available. (sigh) Kris Buytaert seems to like his, though.
  • Verizon and the Blackberry Storm: A friend of mine has one of these and loves it. The first generation came without Wi-Fi, but that has been corrected. It also supports both CDMA and GSM, so you can use it overseas. The downside is that it is a proprietary platform. Not a show stopper, but a negative.
  • AT&T and the Apple iPhone: I use a Mac as my desktop and I have an iPod Touch, so the iPhone is definitely a contender. Although it is a closed platform, we do develop some apps on it in house, so I am a little bit familiar with the hoops you have to jump through. It is GSM, so I could use it anywhere and almost everyone else at the office has one and likes it. The problem is almost no service where I live.
  • Verizon and the Droid: This is the Android phone I’d been waiting for. A full featured Android phone on a great network. But the more I read about it, the more disappointed I became. I was told that the version offered in the US would not support GSM. When I got into examining Verizon’s pricing structure, it seems like they nickel and dime you for everything. Plus the fact that their “unlimited” plan is limited to 5GB a month, with additional traffic costing $50 per GB, made me hesitate. I mean, I think 5GB is a lot, but I really don’t know, and I’d hate to get hit with that fee.

So, the day before the Droid launch I was a little disappointed. While no GSM is not a deal-breaker, the fact that I wasn’t sure I could sync my contacts, coupled with the exceedingly high prices Verizon charges, had me thinking about waiting a few months more.

But then I found out that AT&T’s femtocell offering (the 3G Microcell) had just become available in my area. So I am now the owner of a 32GB iPhone 3GS, replacing my iPod Touch and Fusic.

The Microcell meant that I could get AT&T service at my house. At $150, it was a full $100 off of the price of the Verizon solution, and with the plan I got it included another $100 rebate, making it even cheaper than Sprint’s $100 Airave (which requires an additional $5 per month as well as using minutes). With AT&T I got the lowest minute plan at 700 minutes per month, but for $20/month extra I get unlimited calls on the Microcell. With rollover minutes I don’t think I’ll ever run out, since I make a lot of calls from home.

The Microcell installed pretty easily. It requires a GPS signal so that they know you aren’t using it overseas (where the roaming revenue lives) and thus you have to have it near a window, but since I have skylights in my living room (as well as an Ethernet switch) it was simple to install. It took it about 20 minutes to become active.

The Microcell is Cisco-branded, and I thought it was interesting that it included a disk full of copies of the GPL and other licenses (but no source code) for a number of common GNU/Linux software. I wonder how hackable the Microcell will be? A nmap scan shows that it only responds to ping, so I’m not sure there is a way to get into it over the network.

There are a few downsides. One was that my Sony Ericsson K610i phone (a gift from Alex Hoogerhuis), while 3G, wouldn’t connect to the Microcell (although it connected to AT&T’s network just fine). I don’t know if it was because the phone is unlocked or just because AT&T’s 3G isn’t necessarily the rest of the world’s 3G. So I ended up getting my wife a Sony Ericsson W518a instead, and it connected just fine.

The second was that Embarq had their quarterly DSL outage just after I got everything set up. Without broadband the Microcell is useless, so I was back to one bar (if that). Everything was back up in about 2 hours so I shouldn’t have to worry about it again for another few months.

As for the iPhone – I like it. I knew pretty much what I was getting into since I had a Touch. Since it now supports the bluetooth A2DP protocol I can stream music over FM using the MotoRokr T505 in my car. The voice control is pretty cool (just say “Play Songs by Spoon” and voilà) but it had a lot of trouble with voice dialing. I think it had something to do with the 1300+ contacts I had in my address book. An hour or so spent pruning it down to 300 (I had several dead people listed, for example, plus a number of ex-employers personnel lists) seems to have helped. The camera is crappier than I thought it would be, but the reviews of the Droid camera aren’t much better.

I expect my next phone to be powered by Android, but that is at least 2 years away. A friend of mine just bought a Droid and he’s also an iPhone user, so I look forward to his review.

Anyway, being on the ‘net almost everywhere I go is a little addicting, and I’m on the lookout for must-have iPhone apps. Please send along any suggestions.

The Son of Mac

I like tattoos. I don’t have one, but I think they’re pretty cool. The reason I don’t have one is that I haven’t really thought of anything I’d want to have to look at on my body for the rest of my life.

I am the same way about stickers on laptops. Some folks like Coté cover their laptops with stickers.

Image yoinked from here

I’ve thought about it, but never found ones I liked enough to use.

That was until I saw the “Son of Mac” Decal on Cult of Mac. Mine showed up today.


I’ve always been a fan of Magritte, and it should have dawned on me that the “apple” theme in his work would translate well to the Mac, but once I saw this sticker I knew I had to have it.

Image yoinked from here

Cool, huh?

Why Netflix May Fail

I’ve been a fan of Netflix for years now, but I’m thinking that they are moving down the wrong path.

I just cancelled my subscription after several years due to the second price increase in six months for Blu-ray access.

The justification they give is that Blu-ray disks cost more, but I think the reasoning is that people with HD televisions and Blu-ray players are probably a little more affluent than average, and Netflix would like to exploit that fact. Blockbuster has a similar plan to the one I had with Netflix with no Blu-ray surcharge as well as free in-store exchanges.

In addition, the Netflix representative made no attempt to retain me as a customer. We watch one, maybe two movies a month, so I assume I’m one of the people Netflix loves to have as a customer (versus those people who watch 2-3 movies a week). If you do the math, those high volume customers barely cover the cost of postage, whereas I’m almost pure margin. That didn’t appear to matter.

Netflix has one of the best designed websites out there (Blockbuster pales in comparison), as well as a very responsive delivery system, but as soon as they stop focusing on their customers is when they start to fail.

Epic Support Win: Apple

Yesterday I wrote about my failing Macbook battery. While the Apple rep told me that it would take 4-6 days, a new battery was shipped FedEx Overnight and I got it this morning:

Talk about under-promising and over-delivering, this is great. And my battery stats are much better:

The best part was that in order to return my old battery, all I had to do was tear off the top part of the mailing label, which revealed a return label underneath, and drop my old battery back in the box.


Support Win: Apple

We use Macs in the office. When someone new joins the group they get a state of the art Macbook with an Apple Care contract, and they are told that they have to live with it for three years.

We’ve been pretty happy with them. My only complaint is that while there is an Apple Store nearby they really don’t have “business-level” turn-around times (I can’t be without my laptop for a week while it gets fixed).

I still have a year and a half left on my laptop and I’m considering going Ubuntu or Fedora on my next purchase, but there are certain little features in Mac OS X that I’ll miss.

One of those concerns battery power. When my battery gets low I get a dialog box that warns me of this. When I connect it to external power the dialog box goes away, without my having to click on any buttons.

I don’t know why that impresses me so much (and if it has been duplicated in a Linux distro I’d love to hear about it).

Anyway, lately I have been missing this little amusement because, without warning, my Mac just shuts off. No warning, no sleep or hibernate, just off.

Now I try not to bother support people without at least searching for a solution, so I ran some queries and tried out many of the suggestions, such as resetting the PRAM, which sounded reasonable, to repairing disk permissions, which didn’t but I didn’t think it would hurt anything.

This morning, bam, goodbye power.

I called Apple and was quickly connected with a support technician. Is it me or do all of the Apple support technicians sound alike? I always think I’m talking to some young, twenty-something, skinny white guy.

Now here is what I love about this support experience compared to others I suffer through. The guy did not treat me like an idiot. Once I told him that I’d reset the PRAM he didn’t insist that I do it again. Instead he just asked me for some battery statistics from the System Profiler, specifically the “Full charge capacity” and the “Cycle count”.

Once I told him the values he quickly determined that my battery was going bad and that they needed to send me another one. So a new battery is on its way and all I have to do is send the old one back (Note: I checked David’s Macbook and both of those numbers are doubled on his machine).

It’s service like this that will make it hard for me to switch. There are three main things that I took away from this exchange:

  1. He treated me like an intelligent adult.
  2. He knew exactly where to go and what to ask to for in order to diagnose the problem.
  3. He resolved the problem quickly with no added stress or wasted time.

Bad batteries are probably pretty common, so I don’t think this qualifies as “heroic effort,” but it was still a nice change from “do you realize your password is case sensitive” and “have you tried powering the unit off and back on” and other script drones with which I usually have to deal.

Papa's Got a Brand New Bag

Well, not really, but my luggage did arrive at the hotel this morning, so I’m back to khakis and OpenNMS shirts.

I’ve been noticing a lot of “bag” related links on Coté’s blog so I thought I’d share my opinions on the best luggage out there.

For traditional luggage, I’m a huge fan of Eagle Creek. I own two pieces from them. The Switchback 25 is both wheeled luggage and a backpack. While I rarely use the backpack function it does come in handy when either hiking to a laundromat on long trips with a bunch of dirty clothes or navigating places with lots of stairs (such as Paddington Station in London). It comes with a detachable day pack that is very useful for bringing a small subset of your stuff on board the plane and you can then reattach it when you arrive at your destination to make it easier to lug around.

I also own a Tarmac 22 as a carry-on bag. It’s smaller than the Switchback but it is the largest Tarmac that still fits in the overhead bin. It is also expandable should I find myself with more stuff to bring home than I took.

Both bags are extremely well made and come with a lifetime warranty. I actually used the guarantee for my Switchback when a zipper broke, and outside of the cost of shipping it to them the repair was free. In fact, I ended up with a completely new bag which was a slight bummer since the model I had came with a curved handle (the handle didn’t pull straight out of the bag but instead was curved slightly making it easier to pull) which has since been changed to the standard straight handle you see on other bags.

I’ve also spent a lot of time looking for the perfect laptop bag. Outside of standard features I also had the additional requirement that it be small enough to fit inside the saddlebag on my motorcycle.

The first bag I bought was from Timbuk2. My friend Demetri owns one for his 12-inch Powerbook and it is pretty slick – nice and compact but with a lot of room for expansion. Unfortunately, the design wasn’t as pleasing to me when in came in the larger size to accommodate my 15-inch Macbook Pro. It wasn’t as “tight” feeling and seemed to flop around on my back, so I returned it (the process was very painless). To paraphrase Goldilocks this bag was too big.

Attempt number two was with a bag from Booq (I forget the exact model but I think it was a Boa). These are really nice bags with a wonderful design, but it was too tight. Once I had the bare minimum of stuff loaded into it, there wasn’t room for anything more. I’m often picking up a book or two to read on the plane and it just ran out of room. This bag was too small. It went back as well and with about the same ease as the Timbuk2 bag.

I finally found my dream bag at Briggs & Riley. The “Vertical Computer Brief/Backpack” meets all my needs. It comes with three sections: one for organizing cards, pencils, pens, etc; a cushioned center section for the laptop and cables (it is very easy to extract and replace the laptop when going through airport security) and a third section for papers, books, camera, etc. While I have never used it as a backpack, it converts very quickly.

Its vertical configuration takes a little getting used to, but I’ve grown to rely on it. Since it slides perfectly under the airline seat in front of me, having access through the smaller end means I don’t have to pull it out as far to remove things during flight. Plus it does just fit inside my saddlebag. This bag was just right.

The only complaint I have, and it is a small one, is that if you place the bag over the handle of your roll-aboard luggage there isn’t much room to grip the handle. The upside is that the vertical orientation seems to be more stable and I don’t find the rolling bag listing from side to side as much.

Anyway, in the spirit of community I just wanted to share what I’d found and hope that someone finds it useful.

Happy Birthday Macintosh

Unless you’ve been away from the news for the last week, you’re probably aware that today is the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh computer. It all kicked off with the famous “1984” Super Bowl ad.

I didn’t use my first Mac until 1986 and I didn’t buy one until 2003, but in between I often used the machines of friends or at work. Also in 2003 I rescued an original Mac that was on its way to the dump.

When Giles Turnbull asked on Cult of Mac if anyone still had an original Mac that worked, I wrote up a short history of this machine and he was kind enough to post it on his website.

I think my Mac is a little unusual in that it has been upgraded and can be connected to the Internet. You can’t really do much with it outside of FTP, but there is rudimentary support for web browsing (Through MacWeb and NCSA Mosiac) as well as IRC (through ircle). I hopped into the OpenNMS channel on freenode but that screen shot didn’t make the article.

It’s a lot of fun to see both how far things have come in 25 years, but to also realize how far ahead of its time was the original Mac.

The Games We Play, Part II

Today is my 43rd birthday. When you get to be my age, it is just another day (although please don’t let my blasé attitude lead you to think I’m not happy to have made it another year) and I tend, now, to only focus on those birthdays that end in a zero.

Over the weekend I got not one but three video games for my PS3.

It’s funny. I have had my Playstation for almost a year and these were the first titles I’ve gotten for it. I bought it mainly as a Blu-ray and media player so I never really have played games on it (although we did borrow a few). As an old guy I tend to use the Wii (insert joke here).

I’m pretty excited to see what the state of the art of gaming has become. The first game I got was Grand Theft Auto IV, extry crispy edition, which comes with a CD with the music from the game, a duffle bag and a keychain all contained inside a safe deposit box. I got it from my friend Bob, who told me it was cheaper to by the set than just the game. Nothing says I love you like hookers and violence.

I also got the latest Tomb Raider. I played I-III on the PC and I’ve always liked these games, although they have become a bit dated. I’m eager to see how well the franchise has aged.

But the game we’ve been wasting most of our time on is LittleBIGPlanet. It is pretty much the polar opposite of GTA IV. It’s kind of silly but a load of fun, and the Stephen Fry narration is priceless.

I haven’t searched for it yet, but my guess is that LittleBIGPlanet is going to be the next big platform for machinima. With the ability to highly customize both the characters and the environment it is a natural, and while the characters don’t “talk” neither did the guys in Red Vs. Blue so perhaps that won’t be a problem.

I wanted to write about something fun on my birthday, because if my time on this planet has taught me anything, it’s just that you really need to enjoy what you do. I love working on OpenNMS, and am I thankful for all of the folks who make it possible for me to do so.

The Games We Play

Working with OpenNMS brings me into contact with a lot of system and network admins, and I’ve noticed certain trends. For example, many have a penchant for high-end photographic equipment. It’s pretty easy to start a flamewar with this group just by asking “which is better, Canon or Nikon?”

Many also enjoy gaming. Video games, of course, are popular, but I’ve also come across pretty much every other type of game; from board games, to old-school table top role-playing to cards (I like bridge myself).

So I thought it might be cool to bring up a game I was introduced to recently. Back in November I took a vacation to New Zealand via Fiji, and in Fiji we played “Vidi Vidi” (pronounced “vindy vindy” or “vingy vingy” in the local dialect).

Vidi Vidi on Navini Island

The game is similar to pool or billiards, but it is played on a square wooden board using little plastic disks instead of balls. One disk, the striker, is slightly larger than the others, and you “flick” it to strike the other disks in an attempt to sink one in the corner pockets (“vidi vidi” means “flick flick”).

It’s a lot of fun, and when I came back to the States I went looking for a board.

I didn’t find one, but I did figure out that Vidi Vidi is based on an Indian game called Carrom. Luckily, an importer of carrom boards is close to where I live, so over the holidays we bought our very own tournament-grade board (from his scratch-n-dent pile) complete with nice strikers and wooden carrom men (or “coins”).

Andrea and Jeff playing Carrom

We’ve had a lot of fun with it so I thought I’d throw it out there in case others were interested. Or am I completely ignorant and this is just new to me?