Showing posts with label gadgets. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gadgets. Show all posts

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Beating the "Always On" Inverter Syndrome

In order to camp away from electrical "shore" power, one need not be a Gandhi or Thoreau wannabee. In fact I rarely think about after-market "boondocking" equipment or most sections of "how to" forums; and I avoid obsessive modifications to my camper trailer.

It is only when a real problem shows up, that I go on the war-path. When a leaf spring broke recently on my trailer, weight-reduction became my 'Cause.'  The most immediate and large weight-reduction was to downsize the 6-volt (golf cart) batteries from four to two.

One project has been to break the habit of leaving the DC-to-AC inverter "On" 24 hours per day. (I use DVDs as sleeping pills at night.) Although I have an inverter that has a low "idle" power draw, this parasitic draw still totals up to 10 Amp-hours over a 24 hour period. One could argue that this is small compared to the nominal capacity of the battery pair (235 Amp-hours.)

Still, this is my current project, and it is fun. Consider how crazy the voltage situation is, in an RV: every electronic gadget comes with a "power adapter module", that is, a big black brick that weighs as much as the gadget itself. After plugging in two or three of these monstrosities into the usual outlet strip, you are out of plugs.

"Easy," you say. "Just google 12 volt DC gadgets or appliances." Not so fast! That just pulls up specialized, over-priced "12 volt" gadgets and appliances that are sold to truckers. A shrewd consumer prefers to buy mass-produced "AC" gadgets, at the usual big boxes or websites. But if you do that, you have to waste energy with your inverter!, which is what we our trying to get away from.

But wait...all the black power brick does is convert 110 volts AC back into 12 volts DC, or some other DC voltage. This latter voltage is what is coming down the power cord, into your gadget. Therefore an RVer can just cut the power cord, throw the brick away, and wire your gadget directly into the 12 volt DC system of the RV.

Part of my graveyard of unnecessary power bricks, now that I've become a DC purist.
It's funny. I saw somebody on a "practical" forum say, "all the televisions available only run on AC." But that just isn't true. They run on DC because that is what comes out of the black power brick. I guess the poster never looked at the label on the dozen black power bricks that he already owns.

Unfortunately not all black power bricks put out 12 Volts DC  -- they might put out 19 Volts DC like the laptop I am typing on. I presume that large televisions use more than 12 Volts DC; but why would a serious camper need a large television? My effort here is at helping the redeemable -- not hopeless sybarites, who debauch themselves with 54" diagonal televisions. My 13 inch television uses 12 Volts DC.

Some gadgets such as cameras, cellphones, or MP3 players, use 5 Volts DC. It is supplied through a standard USB cable and connector, and plugged into your laptop. But you can just as easily plug that USB into an adapter that plugs into a standard 12 Volt DC "cigarette socket." (These can be bought everywhere.) Therefore you can charge any of these 5 Volt DC gadgets without running your computer or an energy-wasting inverter.

Another reason to turn OFF the inverter or laptop: several devices (MP3, cellphone, Wilson Boost, and camera) are powered by 5 Volts DC through a standard USB cable. You can buy an inexpensive adapter that converts 12 Volts DC from a standard cigarette plug down to 5 Volts Dc.

I was delighted to read the power bricks on my blue-ray player and external computer speakers (for music): they too put out 12 Volts DC to power these gadgets. These gadgets and the television are using the energy that I am prone to wasting at night.

Result: I hardly need to run an inverter, especially at night when it really counts. If you want to give your inverter a rest at night, buy gadgets whose AC black power bricks put out 12 Volts DC. They are always labelled. Snip the brick off, and throw it away.

Notice I have said nothing about gadgets made by Apple. I just assume that with the rest of the industry using 5 or 12 Volts DC, Apple uses 3.87 Volts DC, or something deliberately incompatible with the rest of the industry. But like the commercial says, Apple makes such cooooooool adapters, dude...

Besides all this practical trivia, consider the philosophical appeal of no longer converting your DC battery voltage to AC via the inverter, wasting energy, and then using a black power cube brick to convert the AC back to DC, and wasting more energy. 

If this gives you some satisfaction, maybe you have just learned something about one of your past lives: perhaps you were a federal surveyor who laid out the Northwest Territories along regular geometrical Cartesian lines. Or maybe you wangled your way onto the French committee that designed the metric system, during the early days of the Revolution.

Addendum: OK I got my new "laptop DC power adapter" to charge my 19 Volt DC laptop. Sometimes "laptop car charger" might work when doing internet searches. Its input is a cigarette style automotive plug that plugs into the matching female socket, which you can buy at any auto parts store.

Its output is 19 Volts DC, as required by my laptop. And there is the right connector that fits the laptop. The DC power adapter came from .

The DC power adapter runs at slightly above room temperature. I don't actually know that it is more efficient than an AC power adapter (black power brick) that plugs into household AC wall outlets.

But the overall efficiency should be better with this DC approach since it allows the DC-AC inverter to be turned off most of the time.

Well, that does it. I have achieved electrical perfection in my camper-trailer.    

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What If You ALMOST Need a Generator?

Long-suffering readers know that I like to poke fun -- gently I hope -- at campers who are Gandhi or Thoreau wannabees. They also know that I am not a solar purist. A rational and professional camper uses technology up to the point of diminishing returns. (Or more correctly, the point of diminishing marginal utility.)

And yet there are solar purists who make it work for them. People who have vans or motorhomes probably don't count, since they can always charge their house batteries from their engine battery on a cloudy day. So let's only discuss trailers.

A trailer-puller can connect their tow vehicle to the trailer, and run the engine. But that charges too slowly, perhaps 7 or 8 Amps.

So what do you do when you finally admit that even Arizona is not sunny every day, and that you occasionally park under trees, or near the perpetually cloudy Coast? Buy a windmill? Never heard anything good about them. Besides, you need to supplement a solar system with a secondary system that doesn't depend on the weather.

You could always suck it up and pay to camp at some place with electricity. But let's not give in to defeatism. We will remain loyal to the Cause.

What is so bad about good generators?, such as a quiet-running Honda 1000 watt inverter generator. Well of course, there is the $850 cost.
  1. You must put it inside at night, worry about it walking off, or increase your insurance. Lifting a 30 pound device into a vehicle is asking for a back injury. You must be careful.
  2. Do occasional maintenance, and drag a gasoline can around. Invariably you will forget to fill the gas can when you fill your vehicle.
  3. Find space for it. (probably in a plastic tub, that won't leak oil.)
You must also get a 30 amp, three-stage, battery charger. Of course you need one of them to plug into shore power, although it could cost less.

So I tried an experiment:
  1. Hook an inverter to the battery of the tow vehicle, and run the engine.
  2. Run the output of the inverter to a battery charger for charging the house battery.
Obviously I run the van's engine when the inverter is sending 500 Watts to the battery charger in the trailer. I use a common outdoor 25 foot long extension cord to connect to the charger in the trailer.

The furring strip screwed to the bottom of the plywood keeps the whole thing from sliding off. I added an external fuse to the positive line of the inverter and the charger.

So far, so good. Remember, this is only to be used occasionally, as an alternative to buying a generator. (About 20 days per year.)

I did learn not to take the nominal ratings literally [1].  So I downsized the battery charger to a Samlex 30 amp charger [2]. Initially it eats 500 Watts from the inverter. After 15 minutes it has charged four flooded golf cart batteries to the point that they are going into the second stage -- so called "absorption" stage -- of charging, and the power falls gradually. I plan on shutting everything down after 20 minutes total.

You might consider this solution a bit of an extravagance: the pure sine wave inverter did cost $250, after all. Perhaps a modified sine wave inverter would have sufficed, and cost $100 less. But I have had mixed with results with these. 

And the new inverter will be my backup inverter, and perhaps be able to power a 110 VAC tire inflator or powerful tools with it. If it were really necessary, you could get double duty out of your house inverter, if you made it easy to remove.

[1] A 45 amp IOTA battery charger was too big for a 1000 Watt pure sine wave inverter (Xantrex ProWatt SW 1000), even though the nominal ratings would suggest otherwise.

[2] I always buy electrical controllers, inverters, etc., from in Oregon. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Crappy Cellphone Service

From time to time, most cellphone users must have wondered why, with all the progress in telecommunications technology the last 20 years, cellphone voice quality is not as good as landline voice quality when Alexander Graham Bell was still alive. But then they push the issue aside because every third TV commercial is about the latest and greatest, cool, smartphone; so the world believes in all this exciting "progress" taking place in that field; so why think thoughts that make you feel like a crank?

It is very gratifying when I actually find something on the internet that is worth reading. And it happens so rarely, I feel like a fool for wasting as much time on the Internet as I do.

There is an interesting article on Karl Denninger's blog today about cellphone service ("The Destruction of Quality"). You don't have to agree with his politics to enjoy the article -- the article isn't political.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wanna' Be the Successor of the Apple Cult?

Please don't think I'm on some kind of vendetta against Apple. I'm not. But the decade-long run that might be ending for their stock and company is quite unique in the history of the gadget industry. Are you likely to see something of the same kind and degree during the rest of your lifetime?

If you pay any attention to the gadget industry or the stock market, you might be getting tired of articles about the rise/fall of Apple. I am getting several such articles per day and I haven't even asked for them from . They don't seem badly written. They are the professionals -- I am just an amateur. (Hence, you should never take anything I say about investments as the basis for buying or selling anything.)

So what can an amateur expect to accomplish by writing about stocks, or Apple stock in particular? Some of the professional analysts seem like young whippersnappers who spend too much time playing with a spreadsheet program. They take the published financial results, subtract off This, add That, divide by Whatever, until they reach column ZZ in the spreadsheet. Then they present a slick-looking graph with too many curves and illegible legends. With all that math it looks scientifically-respectable and professional.

But the more quantitative a financial analyst tries to be, the more he drives the car by looking in the rear-view mirror. Would a quantitative analysis, based on past numbers, have caused you to be optimistic about Apple Inc. and its stock during the first year of the iPod, a decade ago, and made you rich?

Let us leave the spreadsheets to the professionals and ask ourselves what they are overlooking. What considerations or interpretations are outside their "jurisdiction?" Let's apply this to the Apple Cult. 

By chance I happened to read a book about non-mainstream religious sects, cults, and alternative religions. Most were founded around that seminal era of 1820--1830, or later. The book was "the new Believers", by David V. Barrett. He accomplished the difficult feat of discussing each sect with as little prejudice as possible. For instance he does not start off with the idea that a non-mainstream group is inherently crazy because they aren't "average" and conventional. Nor is he out to bury religion in general. When history gives us  a semi-solid -- and usually lurid --  fact about the group, he tells it bluntly, rather than trying to sugar-coat the history of the sect.

According to Barrett and others, the crucial time in the life-history of a new religion is the death of the founding Prophet. (Chapter 6, "When the Prophet Dies") Can they hand off his or her authority to a successor without losing momentum or fracturing into a dozen pieces? The founding prophet typically squirts charisma out their ears and eyeballs. Charisma is tied up with Authority and believability.

Why should the Successor be as charismatic as the founding Prophet? Maybe the founding Prophet doesn't even want him to be, lest the Successor upstage the Founder in reputation and legend, and then feel impudent enough to alter the religion. Or perhaps a powerful and charismatic underling would never get that far up in any pre-existing hierarchy in the first place; he would make too many enemies and rivals. Thus the Founder can only choose from cautious "committee men". If safely bland, their annointment as successor might not split the religion. This type of person is unlikely to provide any new "visions".  In that case, the best the new religion can do is coast along with the momentum that the Founding Prophet created. The religion might not even want the gift of prophecy to be given to He who Follows.

The usual course of evolution for a new religion is from "prophet" to "priest", and from a visionary individual to a committee of administrators and bureaucrats.

Another possibility is that a competent -- but non-charismatic and non-visionary -- successor will walk the new religion back to the mainstream.

Now think about poor Tim Cook, Steve Jobs's successor. No matter how expertly he manages headcount, supplier relations, finances, or anything else, he will come off as mere caretaker, a mediocrity. No small success, nor a long sequence of such, will matter to the iFlock. Only blockbusters will! And how many form factors are left? The video/movie content industry is wary of Apple. Verizon and ATT are sick of paying tithes. Competitors are everywhere.

Tim Cook took a big step towards the mainstream when he introduced the mini-iPad. If he chases the larger screens of the iPhone to 5 inch "phablet" status, he will be following the industry -- he won't be parting the Red Sea, like Charlton Heston. There will be endless criticism that the visionary, Jobs, would never have done that. It would be boring and trivial to take the "tech" news literally. But it really adds perspective to look at the mythology that lies just under the surface.

Clearly the "magic" (Authority) of Steve Jobs has not been transferred to his successor, as happened from Moses to Joshua, and from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young. Tim Cook is seen as a mere mortal, born of woman. If this is the final result, it will be a missed opportunity. Steve Jobs was not killed like Socrates, Jesus, and Joseph Smith, but he did die relatively young. In that sense, a myth was begging to be born, such as what happened with entertainment industry stars who died too young in airplane crashes or by drug overdoses.

Another way of walking the Apple Cult back to the mainstream of the electronics industry is falling profit margins; the fear of that is what has spooked investors the last few months.

But what if Cook did try to have a "vision", that is, came out with a high-risk, high-gain device that flops? The criticism will be even more severe.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Update -- Why Do Some People Dislike Apple So Much?

iSchadenfreude is everywhere! It is another bad day for AAPL stock due to a slowdown in the Apple pipeline of orders. AAPL bears are rejoicing -- they want to see the stock fall down through $500 because of the psychological significance. Even though I am an Apple hater, I will try to take a philosophical look at the anti-Apple syndrome.

First of all, why should any of us hate Apple? Is it just envy? How can we not be grateful for the innovations that Apple has brought forth, with some even benefiting the consumers of rival products? And what about all the jobs? (Some are even in the USA.)

One of the more emphatic critics of Apple is Karl Denninger, who recently said:
There are plenty of people who hate the linkage with iTunes that comes with Apple products...
Everyone on Wall Street wants to talk about ecosystem, but what they're really talking about is a walled garden -- and the wall has razor wire and broken bottles embedded in the top.  It's a prison, which appeals greatly to Wall Street types but it only works for consumers so long as the illusion of free choice and beauty persists. 
The underlying problem for Apple is that the company has stopped innovating.  Love him or hate him (I'm in the latter camp for those who don't know better) Steve Jobs was one of those guys who could make teens scream and then buy all the crap he produced, irrespective of how good it really was...  [emphasis his]
For my part, I became furious at Apple after it tried to "take over" the music library on my computer. I naively downloaded something from another blog. Then a box came up and said that I needed to download Apple's QuickTime player, which I soon did. Fortunately I was able to uninstall that piece of crap, so that my music wasn't wiped out. (I won't mention names, but you're able to guess, perhaps? Grin.)

Can we at least all agree that Apple is less of a technology company than a consumer cult? The average fanboi thinks that he deserves to get all the hot babes at Starbucks just because he has shown up with an iPhone a half a millimeter thinner than a commodity Android phone, or because his iPad has more rounded or more square corners, depending on whichever is de mode this year. 

Contrast that to a no-nonsense consumer who wants the most benefit for his hard-earned dollars. The fanboi cult doesn't seem to care about that -- such concerns are only for the uncool. It angers us consumer-nerd types to see marketing and media have so much control over human behavior.

Much of the credit for weakening Apple's aura of invincibility redounds to Samsung and its Galaxy phones and tablets. Windows Phone 8 hasn't really reached critical mass yet, and of course we don't know whether it ever will. But let's be optimistic, since it is in the interest of the cellphone carriers to promote and subsidize Windows Phone 8 in order to take the iPhone (subsidy) down a notch.

There is hope that the next generation of Atom chips from Intel will do a good job running real Windows 8 (not RT) on a tablet. At a good price, and with a keyboard docking station, you'd think a device like this would quickly dominate the field. So much for the iPad's days of glory.

Update: I've really been enjoying articles by Ashraf Eassa on Seeking, a financial website. Today's article about the Pro (non RT) version of the Microsoft Surface Tablet was quite informative. The moral of the story is: don't be an early adopter and get sucked into those sub-Windows RT tablets based on ARM chips. Wait for lower-power Intel chips and lower prices to appear on the Pro (Windows) tablets. This might take a year or two. Don't think for a moment that a chronic early-adopter will listen to this advice. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Real Progress in Batteries?

Hey, I'm excited about what I read this morning about lead-carbon batteries. I've never heard of them before. So far, an RVer has only had two choices: good ol' flooded lead-acid batteries, and expensive AGM batteries.

But it's really nice to read about a third choice. This is an investment article  -- we're not talking about a science lab show-and-tell project here. Do you know of anybody who uses the new lead-carbon batteries in their RV?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Will the Windows/Nokia Phone Succeed?

"Postscript": At the end of the day I noticed that NOK stock had gone up 13% in European trading. Gosh, I didn't know that this blog had so much clout! Being a "market mover" is just too much responsibility. (grin) 

People who have no interest in the world of investments are missing out on a fascinating part of our culture. What's worse is that they are doomed to poverty in old age since we will probably be in a Zero Interest environment for many years to come, while real inflation cruises along at two to three times what the government officially admits to. People tend to underestimate the damage that inflation can do to their standard of living. (Unlike cynical ol' Boonie, a true optimist and positive thinker would hope to die before too many years of negative real interest rates reduced him to panhandling.)

Readers know that I'm not a qualified investment adviser, so they must promise not to take anything I say as the basis for buying or selling a stock. But any amateur is "qualified" to write about what interests them -- and that is all. Besides, my money-back guarantee for daily infallibility is restricted to the rather narrow field of sex, politics, and religion. (And camping aesthetics.)

Without a doubt Windows Phone 8 and Nokia is the business/investment situation that interests me and many others, at the moment. Wireless internet has been a rapidly growing area over the last few years and no doubt it will continue to be so. But the industry is just plain bizarre.

Since the wireless carriers (e.g., Verizon, ATT, Sprint, and some smaller fry) are so consolidated, they are in a strong position to squeeze the suppliers who actually make their telecom equipment, e.g., Qualcomm, Alcatel, Nokia-Siemans, Cisco, "Motorola" (Google), Tellabs, etc. Most financial analysts would agree about the unenviable position of the telecom equipment makers.

Here is what seems strange to me: isn't Apple just another supplier (of the wireless carrier oligopoly) that needs to be squeezed? Why then do the wireless carriers permit Apple's iPhone to be in such a strong position? Isn't it high time for Apple to be taken down a notch or two? The wireless carrier oligopoly subsidizes the purchase of iPhones to the tune of several hundred dollars for each customer who signs a two year contract. That must sting!

In olden times (2007) when the iPhone first came out, ATT had a monopoly on selling it. It was worth it to ATT to subsidize the iPhone, because smartphones caused more bytes to be consumed than dumb-phones, and with customers whipped up into a horny frenzy by Apple's brand cult, they could be distracted from the poor coverage of the ATT network. Without the sexy iPhone monopoly, most customers would have chosen Verizon in preference to ATT.

All well and good, but that's ancient history now. Google's Android has made the smartphone a commodity, although every other television commercial screams about this or that hot new phone model being unbearably cool and necessary for you to buy. Aren't they living in the past?

What isn't a commodity (I think) is seamless integration with office reports, spreadsheets, or anything else you do with your Windows office desktop computer or laptop. Although I do read many tech reviews, I still don't know if, say, the average cubicle rat in the metropolis could connect his Windows Phone 8 smartphone to a thumb drive or his Windows 8 office computer, and peck away at reports or office email while he sits in traffic.

In any case, you'd think that what would matter today is which phones the wireless carrier oligopoly chooses to subsidize. Don't they have a vested interest in promoting Windows Phone 8 and its Nokia embodiment in order to take Apple and Google (Android) down a notch or two, and make for smaller cellphone subsidies? And Microsoft wants a success in "mobile" so bad that the wireless carrier oligopoly should be able to soak It for some of the advertising expenses. Microsoft has tens of billions of dollars in the piggy bank earning squat.

Tech reviewers have a hard time believing that Microsoft/Nokia can ever get their groove back, at least in the mobile arena. They will also have a hard time believing that Apple has already reached its high-water mark. 

After writing this post I did a little more homework on, and found some articles by George Kesarios on this Windows Phone 8/Nokia 920 theme. You might enjoy reading the link for corroboration from a professional analyst.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pop Quiz on 'How to Read a Book'

Occasionally it is fun to see if I can catch the readers sleeping by giving them a pop quiz. A couple comments about eReader gadgets recently revealed an opportunity for me to move in for the kill (grin). There seems to be a misunderstanding of what it takes to read a book comfortably

This is an important topic for those of us who see internet addiction (on trivial and repetitive websites) as a serious problem to overcome. Has anyone ever beaten a vicious habit by trying to replace it with a vacuity? I doubt it. They need to replace it with something that has a positive existence; something that is tangible, lively, and takes up time. In my case that means giving up the insulting trivialities of the blogosphere and going back to reading "books."

Now for the multiple choice quiz: which factor has the greatest beneficial effect on your comfort, endurance, and attention span when reading a book?
  1. Display size of the eReader, i.e, 7", 10", etc.
  2. Operating system of the eReader: iOs, Android, proprietary, etc.
  3. Tactile appeal. Are the edges rubber or slippery plastic?
  4. Weight and thinness.
  5. Battery life.
  6. The chair you are sitting in when reading.
  7. The "coolness" factor: when you sit down at Starbucks, does a hot babe at the next table cast furtive, but meaningful, glances at you.
  8. Percent rag content in the paper of the book.
  9. Ink chemistry.
  10. Idiotic or irrelevant marginalia left by the previous reader of the used book.
Now, while you are still cogitating, I'll insert blank lines so you can't see the answer on the screen.


Decided yet? The answer is of course #6, the chair. This might not be the right answer for a rubber-boned teenager who can read comfortably in any bodily position. But it's certainly the right answer for old farts or anyone who has a physical problem. I have no back problems, yet I find that 30 minutes in a crappy chair or overstuffed sofa puts me into a surly mood, even if the book is trying to be interesting.

I have gone for years at a time without one of those standard folding chairs that people put outside their RVs. I can't stand sitting in them. Even if you bought a high-end one that was comfortable, consider what it would be like trying to read outdoors: in the sun you would need a windproof parasol, made out of reflectorized mylar film. If you moved the chair into the shade of your rig, you would need to put on a hooded goose-down parka. Or ants would be crawling up your leg while you try to focus attention on the book, which you'll probably fail at anyway since there are too many other distractions outdoors.

The only way to shield yourself from these distractions and to control your environment is to read indoors. Sofas are uncomfortable. "Easy chairs" are designed to induce the catatonic state, which is the optimal attitude for watching television. 

After years on the road, have you ever visited a friend or relative in a beautiful home and felt a powerful impression of luxury and space when first walking into the house, only to discover later that all of that money has not managed to produce a decent reading chair and light? (The latter total up to $200; the rest of the house costs $600,000. And the damn toilet won't even flush right.)

In fact the only comfortable chair is the modern swiveling molded office chair, with good lumbar support, adjustable arms, and caster wheels. That probably means you are at a desk, reading. Now that you are at a desk, all of the vaunted advantages of eReaders and tablets are irrelevant. Any modern laptop or $300 netbook will do the job beautifully.

Are there really consumers out there who are so naive that they can't see the psychological gimmicks of eReaders? Once you blow some money on the gadget you are more likely to buy books from Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Apple to "justify" the gadget. And those companies are in "give 'em the razor, sell 'em the blades" mode. They want to keep you captive in their walled garden, rather than reading books downloaded on a Windows computer in which the consumer can shop around at a variety of bookstores for the best deal.

Now that we have killed off this cultural nonsense about over-rated gadgets, let's ask why Americans are so obsessed about the latest and greatest gadget, and are eager to swallow any lame excuse for another one. Is it just one more symptom of a declining middle-class standard of living? We can't afford to buy a new car without a 7 year mortgage on it, put gasoline in the car, go to the doctor, or eat out at a restaurant. But we can amuse and distract ourselves with latest electronic gadget, since they usually get better and come down in price.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Two-Netbook "Minimalist"

Go ahead and laugh. I responded to the news about the $500 Windows RT tablet by going to Walmart to buy a second Acer Aspire One (model 722-0473) netbook. This is the first time in my life when I've owned two computers. I panicked into concluding that, over the next couple years, the computer industry will kill off the netbook and leave the chumps only the following sorry options:

1) $800-1000 WINTEL "ultrabooks" or,
2) $500-600 tablets based on ARM microprocessors, similar to those in smartphones, that only offer a "half-internet" experience or,
3) inexpensive 7" tablets that are basically just smartphones without the ability to make phone calls. Or call them vending machines for media consumables from Amazon or the iShackle store (Apple's iTunes). Last but not least,
4) the usual overpriced "walled garden" at the Apple store, built around its notorious iShackle media store, and incompatible connectors and operating system.

None of these is an attractive choice for a no-nonsense, "bang for the buck" type of consumer. But for a camper living on batteries it's even worse. Until I learn otherwise I'll assume that the WINTEL ultrabooks use a couple Amps DC -- tech reviews never bother to say. A year ago I experienced the bliss of replacing an old laptop, that consumed 4 Amps DC, with this netbook that used only 1.1 Amps DC. (Thanks again to Thom Hoch for getting me onto the right trail.) I paid Target's loss-leader price of $200 at the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. 

Despite the (probably intentional) misinformation in tech reviews, this netbook was capable of doing anything a non-gaming mainstream user might throw at it: web surfing, office applications, reading eBooks, Picasa editing of photographs, playing music, and high definition videos. Admittedly you wouldn't want to do computer modeling for NASA with it.

I was appalled when Microsoft announced a $500 Windows RT tablet that has:
1) A 10.5" diagonal screen. Yes it will be a touch screen, but who cares!
2) No keyboard.
3) 32 Gigabytes solid state "hard drive".
4) A subfunctional operating system that is not compatible with all previous Windows applications. Gee, isn't that why we buy Windows?

Compare this to the Acer Aspire One netbook (model #722-0473), normally priced at $325:
1) An 11.5" diagonal high definition (1366 X 768) screen.
2) A full sized keyboard for touch typing. By "full sized" I mean it works for big ol' ape-man paws, not just for Japanese schoolgirls' hands. For ape-men 10" netbook keyboards are too small.
3) 320 Gigabytes (spinning) hard drive, TEN times what that silly RT tablet has.
4) Windows 7 Home Premium, an excellent operation system.

The whole touch screen fad is overrated to users who aren't so interested in mobility, perhaps because they use their computer on a desk at home 95% of the time. Occasionally it gets carried to a library or coffee shop, and at those times it's nice that this netbook is reasonably light and small. It has the same footprint as an 8.5" X 11" piece of paper, so you can carry and protect it in any number of inexpensive items from an office supply store.

The over-hyped touch screen fad is also aimed at pre-literate kindergarteners who don't know how to touch-type. For all I know, the public schools might have abandoned the teaching of touch-typing because it was deemed politically incorrect or perhaps just too rigorous.

How long will this netbook last? Beats me. Every computer that croaked on me did so with a hard drive crash. My guess is that these netbooks will last just as long as a laptop costing three times as much because the hard drives in them are made by the same duopoly that makes hard drives for the entire world, regardless of the nominal "brand"?

Admittedly the keyboard feels cheap. But if it croaks I will just overlay it with an external aftermarket keyboard.

Some people say ol' Boonie is cynical and too hard to please. Maybe so. But that's a two-edged sword, since an endorsement by me really means something! Consider hauling your little patootie down to Walmart and paying $240 for a new Acer Aspire One (722-0473) netbook before the warehouse is cleaned out and the computer industry shackles you into buying overpriced and overpowered ultrabooks or overpriced and sub-functional tablets.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Public Wi-Fi Experience

It wasn't so long ago that "AT&T" charged $20 per month for wi-fi at Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, McDonalds, and various hotel chains. Now all the wireless telecoms are delighted to give you free wi-fi at such places. Off-loading data to wi-fi hotspots to lessen the data traffic jam at cell towers is a huge trend these days. In theory this should be a nice help to travelers.

Having failed to win any looks of envy (or even respect) at Starbucks with my new $200 netbook, it seemed like McDonalds might promise more success: surely some toothless old man would be impressed with my spiffy new machine; you know, the old boys who find section D of yesterday's newspaper and read it in slow motion while drinking bottomless refills of senior coffee.

Old habits die hard: walking into the store my eyes scanned the walls for an electrical outlet. First, they seem to design public wi-fi places without a single electrical outlet. That must be deliberate; they're not running a public library for internet-savvy elderly vagabonds. (Also, just imagine the first multi-million dollar lawsuit against McDonalds when an oldster falls and breaks her hip after tripping on another customer's power cord.) Secondly, my netbook is low power and can actually operate a few hours without juice, unlike the patio-brick-style laptops of old.

Then I scanned the store for another laptop user. In his area there was something emitting a high-pitched scream; maybe it was coming from the soft drink feeding pens. How could he think over that noise? Maybe it's his hearing.

So I abandoned that section of the store and went to the center, where a huge boob toob was playing CNN news. Carrier IQ has probably worked out a system for correlating clicks on the customers' smartphones and laptops with the TV channel and what the customers order at the counter. But at least the volume was turned up so I didn't have to listen to "music" over the ceiling speakers. And I was so hoping to enjoy a black female vocalist doing a screeching and lewd version of Rudolf, followed by a pseudo-rap version of the Little Drummer Boy (which admittedly is a rather good choice for rap-ification).

Soon I gave up on the center area, ruled as it was by the TV hegemon. That left only the back of the McDonalds. After I got the sticky food debris cleaned off the table, it started to seem like I had finally beaten the system. But every time the door opened I could feel Santa Anna-like wind rushing in to fill the vacuum of a flushing toilet. Also, it was distracting to think of the signs (in Spanish) that McDonalds considers necessary to remind customers to put the toilet paper in the toilet instead of the waste basket.

But at least I was finally getting some work done. Then suddenly I practically catapulted off my bench in the booth. A huge fat guy had sat down behind me in the adjacent booth. His bench was mechanically linked to mine so that the whole structure seesawed. Oh well, you don't go into fast food outlets and expect to see willowy supermodels. I tried to not let it bother me, but I could feel every movement of his. Did I say "movement"? Oh dear, what happens when he gets up and walks toward the restroom door! I fled back to my RV and used my Verizon mi-fi.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Forever Un-cool in Gadget Land

It was a thrill for this chronic late-adopter and used-computer-buyer to finally have his first new computer. I boldly squatted in the parking lot outside the Target where I bought my new 11.6" Acer netbook at the loss-leader price of $200 and brazenly challenged a security guard or parking lot Zamboni to even try to kick me out. Nobody dared.

I stayed up until midnight -- real midnight, as in media noche, as in mitternacht, not motorhome midnight of 9 p.m. -- transitioning to the new netbook. I had always feared doing this but it ended up being fun watching functionality and the software breath-of-life appear on a soul-less machine, step-by-step.

At 530 in the morning I practically leaped out of bed, wondering if Starbucks would waken at 6 am. I didn't have to drive far in New Mexico's megalopolis, Albuquerque, to find one. Soon I was ensconced in a chair next to a personable floor lamp, with a scone and a (disappointing-tasting and over-priced) espresso, and pretended to be a hip urban technorati.

Then my bubble burst. This experience was supposed to be a ceremonial ritual to honor the new netbook; I'd imagined urban sophisticates, with their $5 double foo-foo lattes or whatever and their white iPads, casting furtive glances of envy and lust over towards my new machine. But it was not to be. Apparently a bargain netbook from Target educes the same respect from jaded gadget-sophisticates that an entry-level Toyota Corolla would pull out of a NASCAR gearhead.

Why is the tech media so anti-netbook? They look down on them and give all the glory to tablets. Most tablets do have beautiful, high-resolution displays. Great, so you sit in a coffee shop trying to look enviable, blobbing and gooing your wonderful touch-screen with buttery fingers as you eat your toasted onion bagel. Of course you could squander some money on a protective plastic screen; but what does that do to the crispness of the display? And how long does that plastic cover last? (Gee you don't think that's the whole point, do you?)

I  recently played with an iPad for the first time in a coffee shop in the boutique mountain hamlet of Ouray CO.  My friend, a former IT professional man, surprised me by confessing that he didn't know how to do real, ten-fingered typing. That explains a lot about corporate IT departments as well as the hype and hysteria about touch screens. Although it was fun to play with it for a couple minutes I will remain a clamshell and keyboard man. Something about touchscreens suggests a regression from a second grader to a pre-literate day schooler who expresses himself by finger-painting.

Buying a new gadget has a way of pulling a sucker into a concatenation of expenses the same way that buying a puppy does. ("Honey, just imagine how cyoooot Fi-Fi would look in this darling angora sweater; and it's on sale for only $90!") In fact despite my boast of being a bang-for-the-buck, no nonsense type of consumer, even I went into the big-box gadget pushers the next day and fawned over "accessories." (But I wouldn't have done that if my pride hadn't been wounded at Starbucks.)

There were $80 "genuine leather" protective covers for the iPad at Walmart for gawd's sake! A cynic might have expected that this entire aisle (!) of iPad ecosystem junk was made in China for 50 cents a pop. But apparently it was being made by hand by old world craftsmen of the kind who used to make shoes in Italy or watches in Switzerland. (Youngsters are probably unaware of the panoply of cutesy, expensive add-ons and gotchas that were sold with the Palm Pilot back around year 2000. Isn't it ironic that tablet mania gets so much credit for being "new".)

Still stinging from that morning Starbucks rebuke I turned up my nose at all those over-priced cases, bags, keyboards, ad infinitum, which were supposed to turn your iPad into something more productive than a vending machine for the iTunes store or protect it from a fall from your cream-cheesey fingers onto Starbucks' granite floor -- imported from the Dolomite mountains, you know. (This wasn't too hard; the netbook has an 11.6 inch display, while the iPad accoutrements are made for a 10 inch machine. I measured them just to make sure. Blush.)

Finally I got my rightful revenge: an 11.6 inch netbook is the same size as a standard piece of paper, which is 8.5 by 11 inches; therefore many standard office supplies, even from the kiddie school supply aisle, can be used to store and protect my netbook. I ended up buying a padded mail envelope for a dollar. But it was made of genuine paper and plastic bubbles.