Robert’s Ramblings

Robert Alonso’s Thoughts on Technology and More…

Archive for March, 2008

March-26-08

Apple’s Price Gouging

Posted by Robert Alonso under Hardware, Opinions

I have purchased about one dozen Apple iPods. A few of these were purchased as Christmas gifts and others as toys for myself. I often wish that I had not bought all these Apple devices. The reason is that Apple consistently tries to rip off its customers. The first example I had of this behavior was with an iPod 60 GB player with video. It is a nice device that works well, but the gotcha is that you have to buy a special Apple cable to view video on a TV set. With time, I figured out that you can switch the outputs of a standard $6 cable and get audio and video out of the iPod.

You can buy Apple’s cable and pay $19.99 or you can use a standard 3.5 mm A/V cable with a three plug RCA output. Contrary to what Apple would want you to believe, a standard cable will work. It is just a matter of deciphering what Apple did to make it look like it wouldn’t.

Apple changed the order of the signals sent out from its jack so that the video signal would not come out of the standard yellow RCA plug. Instead it comes out of the red one. If you have a standard A/V cable (You can buy one for about $5.97 at Amazon.com.) you simply plug the cables in as follows:

    Red RCA to Yellow jack
    Yellow RCA to White jack
    White RCA to Red jack

A more recent example of this nickel and dime attitude is evident with the iPod Touch–a device that costs several hundred dollars. To watch video on a TV, it requires an expensive cable that connects to the special Apple port on the bottom of the device. It costs $49 and was designed so that people like me would not circumvent the Apple tax on an already expensive device. To force you to buy the cable, Apple crippled the 3.5 mm A/V port on the Touch so that it would only output audio. As silly as it may sound, I refused to buy this cable and decided to forego using the iPod touch with a TV. It wasn’t the $49 so much as Apple’s price gouging. Fortunately for me (and Apple), a person who knows how stubborn I can be, decided to buy it for me as a gift. (I still have not opened the box and have considered returning it.)

The most egregious gouging that Apple is guilty of is charging $20 extra for five applications that were shipped with the iPhone, but not on the iPod Touch. These applications are stocks, weather, notes, mail, and maps. These are small widget-like applications and not extensive tools. Thousands of Touch owners have complained about this extra charge and signed an on-line petition, but Apple has not budged on this extra fee. It is particularly galling since these new applications are now included in the 32 GB iPod Touch at no extra cost. Those of us that supported Apple from the start and purchased the 8 GB and 16 GB versions are basically told “too bad.”

There is a rumor that the 2.0 version of the iPod Touch and iPhone system software will be free for iPhone users, but cost another $20 (maybe more) to current iPod Touch users. This update will include Microsoft ActiveSync technology for synchronizing with an Exchange Server. Many users will want this upgrade. Apple is counting on this so that it can once again nickel and dime another $20.

Don’t get me wrong, charging for upgrades is fine. I have no problem with a business making money. I just get the feeling that Apple tries to get ancillary revenue on many small and often ridiculous items. I think that it should clearly announce its intent to charge for all minor upgrades and to admit that it treats iPod Touch customers as inferior to iPhone customers. We can then decide to go along with the program or select a competing product like the Microsoft Zune.

Robert Alonso
Alonso Consulting

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March-25-08

Magellan Maestro 4250

Posted by Robert Alonso under Advice, Hardware, Opinions

I recently purchased a Magellan Maestro 4250 to get to sales prospect’s offices for meetings and also to use it’s Bluetooth wireless speaker phone. The speaker phone is critical in New Jersey since we now have a draconian and very paternal law with $100 fines for using a cell phone while driving.

Without getting into every detail of the device I will tell you the good, the bad and the ugly and let you decide whether you want one or not.

The Good

The Maestro does and excellent job of guiding you from one location to another. It synchronizes with GPS satellites almost instantly and works well even inside a building that has notoriously bad reception of all other radio signals. I love that it chimes at the exact spot that you have to make a turn and warns you in advance verbally when you need to make an upcoming turn. The voice it uses is pleasant. It also understands voice commands and has an excellent user interface for entering destinations. You can start with a Zip Code, enter the first few letters of the street name, select the right one from a list and then enter the numerical address and you are on your way.

It has so many excellent features that it is impossible to describe them all without turning this into a user’s manual.

The Bad

Unfortunately, like all good things, there is a bad side to this GPS device–it sucks as a speaker phone. Please note the strong use of the word, “sucks!” The speaker is tiny. The volume is inaudible and the device never reconnects with your phone when you leave and reenter your vehicle. You have to go through the menus and find your phone and reconnect manually. This renders it completely unusable and makes it a gimmick rather than a feature. It is perplexing that the sound is such a problem since the sound for the street directions is crystal clear and adjustable. I read in on-line postings that this would probably be fixed in the next firmware. The current one is 2.24.

The Ugly

After reading that a firmware update would fix the problem, I searched the Magellan web site to find an update and could not find one. I then searched for a customer service number and called it. Their customer service sucks more than the speaker phone issue. Apparently, the customer service department is outsourced to a foreign country and the people there are complete idiots. The woman who spoke with me was more interested in getting information about who I was and where I was calling from than solving my problem. This little fact is particularly annoying since she did not use this information to call me back as she said she would at the end of the call. The support agent’s idea of customer service was looking up what I was asking about on the web site. I told her that I had already searched the web site and needed to know when a new firmware release would be forthcoming. All she could say is that one was coming, but that she did not know anything about the timeframe. I then asked her what the current version of the firmware was to see if I had the most recent and she could not answer this question. When pressed, she agreed to call me back with the information. It has been a week and no call back yet. This is pathetic and should not be called “customer service.”

I have some advice for consumer goods companies; bring customer service departments back to the United States and give them real information so that they can help customers. This is not the first time that I have experienced horrible support from off-shore call centers.

If you are interested in finding out more about the device, reading other reviews or buying it, go here.

Robert Alonso
Alonso Consulting

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March-23-08

SD Memory Cards

Posted by Robert Alonso under Advice, Hardware

Unless you have been hiding in a hole somewhere, you probably already know that SD cards are now the most popular memory cards for cameras, PDAs and Smart Phones. It is also likely that you share some confusion with the rest of the consumers of these cards about the differences between SD, miniSD and microSD. On top of that confusion, you also have to deal with SD versus SDHC cards and the various speed ratings for these cards; like 12X, 150X, Class 4 and Class 6.

Card Size

An SD card, mini SD card, and micro SD card from top to bottom.

SD cards are the larger of the cards and are typically used in cameras and portable GPS devices. The miniSD cards are the mid sized cards. These were mostly used in PDAs and various Smart Phones. Recently the PDA and Smart Phone market has moved to using the microSD cards. Since the phones and PDAs have shrunk in size, so have the memory cards for these devices.

Most computer stores and camera stores now sell adapters that allow you to use the smaller cards in devices that take the larger cards. This is useful for transferring data from a micro or miniSD into a computer that only has an SD reader.

The image above on the right shows the comparative size of these memory cards. (The image comes from Wikipedia’s site via the GNU Free Documentation License.)

Memory Capacity

The “HC” that is appended at the end of a card name stands for High Capacity. The capacity limit of non-HC cards is 4 GB. HC cards start at 4 GB and have a specified limit of 32 GB although theoretically larger capacities are possible. However, most devices have limits that are far smaller than that. For example, a Smart Phone that I purchased recently has an upper limit of 8 GB for microSDHC cards.

Speed Ratings

The 12x, 150X, various multiples in between, and Class ratings refer to the transfer speed of the cards. The number preceding the X is multiplied times 150 KBs. This usually refers to the highest speed that you can read data from the card. Writing to the card is usually slower. Faster write speeds are required by cameras that record video or take pictures with more megapixels.

The Class ratings refer to the transfer speed for HC cards. The number following the Class refers to the MBs that the card transfers. The three numbers that are used at this time are 2, 4 and 6.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has made it a little easier for you to decide which card to buy. Just remember to read the user’s manual of the device that you purchased and buy a card with the right size, capacity and speed for that device.

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March-16-08

OpenDNS – Safety for your Home and Office

Posted by Robert Alonso under Opinions, Service

Most computer users do not know that when you type the name of a web site like alonso.com that the name is looked up on one or more servers on the Internet. These servers are known as DNS servers because they provide a lookup database that matches a name with the numerical (IP) address of the server that hosts the web site that you are requesting. The DNS stands for Domain Name Server. When you sign up for Internet service you are provided with the address of one or more DNS servers. You usually put these addresses in your router. When a computer on your network starts up, it gets the DNS addresses from the router and then will look up all the sites that you request using these servers.

OpenDNS provides a free service that allows you to send all your DNS requests to them. When you use OpenDNS, they can provide you with a foolproof way of locking out sites that you do not want your children exposed to or that you do not want employees visiting. I have been using OpenDNS for both my office network and home network for months and can attest to the excellence of the service.

Signing up is easy. Just visit http://www.opendns.com and click on “Get Started.” You will be able to block content by categories, like adult sites, gambling, webmail and many other categories. You will also be able to block specific sites and to exclude sites that fall within a blocked category, but you find acceptable. In addition to this, you get phishing protection against malicious web sites that mimic real sites for the purpose of stealing your passwords.

One of the usability enhancements that OpenDNS provides is typo correction. that will attempt to take you to the site you intended to visit even if you typed a couple of transposed letters. It also gives you another time saver–shortcuts. You can use this to set up words that you type into the browser address bar  like “mail” to automatically take you to any page you want. “Mail,” for example, can be set to take you to your web-based e-mail. I had some fun with this feature by setting up “handsome” to take family members to a picture of myself on the Internet. Your imagination can guide you to the many uses for this feature.

I recommend this service wholeheartedly. Alonso Consulting can help you set it up should you have any difficulties. Please call us at (973) 575-1414.

Robert Alonso
Alonso Consulting

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March-15-08

1-800-GOOG-411

Posted by Robert Alonso under Opinions, Service

Google has a free 411 service that should be on everyone’s speed dial. If you have ever wanted to call a local pizzeria and just didn’t remember the phone number, then this service is for you. You dial 1 (800) GOOG-411 or 1 (800) 466-4411 and speak your location and business type and you are given a list of matching businesses. When you select the correct one, you are automatically connected. The best part of the service is that you won’t be charged anything–unlike the phone companies which charge $1.00 or more per 411 call. Once you try this service, you will wonder how you lived without it.

Robert Alonso
Alonso Consulting

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March-11-08

Windows Live Writer

Posted by Robert Alonso under Software

If you are a user of Microsoft Live Messenger, you recently received a notice that there an update was available. If you decided to update your version of Messenger, you probably also noticed that you are given a chance to download additional software at the end of the process. One of these programs is called Windows Live Writer. The name does not make it clear what this software does. My first guess was that it was a free word processing program. In a way, I was right.

Windows Live Writer is a low end word processor, but it dedicated to creating and posting entries to blogs such as this. In fact, this posting was written in Windows Live Writer. I have to say that the program is excellent for the task. It is easy to set up and “understands” how to work with many different types of blogging software. Initially, it asks if you want to set it up with Microsoft software and services, but once you say that you are using something else, you are prompted for the type of software or service and guided through the process.

I am pleased with the way it works. It automatically downloaded information from this blog and presented many options for formatting this posting in a word processing format. It also provided me with ways to add hyperlinks, images and even videos. Because of its ease of use and cost, I recommend it. Try it.

Robert Alonso
Alonso Consulting

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March-9-08

Software 602 (Inexpensive Office Replacement)

Posted by Robert Alonso under Software

I recently tried software from a company called Software 602. They have excellent alternatives to Word and Excel that are compatible in terms of file type, user interface and functionality. The best part is the price. You can buy this software for $39. The company also offers a groupware product that gives you e-mail, shared calendars, folders and documents in addition to many other features. It is a breeze to install and works remarkably well. I also recommend it. You can get it for $499 for ten users. Please visit the company’s web site and look at the many other features.

Robert Alonso
Alonso Consulting

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March-9-08

TrueCrypt Open Source Encryption

Posted by Robert Alonso under Advice, Software

One of the best security software packages that you can get is TrueCrypt. This open source application will allow you to designate a file as an encrypted volume in which you can store your sensitive files. When you mount the file, it becomes an unused drive letter and you can use it the same way you would use any other drive on your Windows or Linux-based PC. The software can also encrypt entire disk partitions and USB drives.

The latest and greatest version now supports Vista and can encrypt an entire hard drive. This is particularly useful for people who travel and have sensitive information on their notebook computers. Using this software might decrease the number of news stories on television about thousands of social security numbers or bank account numbers being stolen along with a notebook that was left unprotected. Come to think of it, this software should be mandatory for anyone with sensitive data.

The latest version can be downloaded from this link: http://www.truecrypt.org/downloads.php. Keep in mind that the software is free.

Robert Alonso
Alonso Consulting

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