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Apr 5, 2014

Amazon's Fire TV User Interface & Voice Search Performance

I recently picked up the just-launched Amazon Fire TV.



Although I have an Apple TV (3rd gen), a Chromecast, a PS3, and PS4, I use the Apple TV for the bulk of my streaming, because its dedicated remote is highly functional (the lack of remote is why I use the Chromecast the least), and the device is reliable and quite quick.

I bought the Fire TV for two main reasons: 1) it's the fastest dedicated-streaming device on the market, 2) it has voice search. I'm always on the lookout for more speed, but in particular using the Apple TV remote to input text is a burden.

As the video (my apologies on the contrast--I'm quite inept as a videographer!) demonstrates, this is indeed a quick unit. Its voice search also works well, but mainly it covers only Amazon content; Vevo and Hulu Plus are included, but Netflix, Youtube, and others are not. I hope (and frankly expect) this to be fixed in the future.

Jan 17, 2014

Restoring data from Carbonite and an external drive



I have been a happy user of Carbonite's cloud backup for a couple of years. I'm up to about 220 GB of data backed up. During this time, I've attempted two restores of my data, both successfully.

The first restore was due to a hard drive failure. Upon rebuild of the PC, I restored everything without issue. The second restore I attempted recently when I moved to a new desktop PC.

Carbonite and External Hard Drive Hybrid backup.

If not Carbonite, I strongly urge everybody to have some sort of off-site backup. However, just as relying on one's hard drive to not fail is flirting with disaster, I also think it's sub-optimal to rely on a single cloud-based solution. As such, my preference is to occasionally back everything up to an external drive (if not two on a rotating schedule--it may sound unnecessary but mechanical hard drives all have life spans).

Carbonite has documentation on restoring, but I couldn't find much online about restoring after a catastrophe first from an external drive, and then using Carbonite to fill in any recent gaps. This is preferable because if the bulk of data can be restored from a local source total restore time will be much quicker than downloading everything over the net. This is a similar approach to Carbonite's courier recovery (they mail you a data dump if you need to restore) minus the additional costs of that approach. So, I tried it this way. The following are the steps I took:

  1. Copy all data from the external drive to the PC drive. Folder structure and files were not changed whatsoever, and went to the same location on c:\ they originally had been
  2. Installed the Carbonite client and, of the various setup options, chose the one about moving Carbonite to a new computer
  3. Carbonite went through its restore steps. First it builds folder structure, then it restores files. But wait, weren't the folders and files there already? Yes, and evidently Carbonite is smart enough not to recreate them.
  4. 2-3 hours later the process was complete. Restore report popped up, and Carbonite then offered me the option to unfreeze my backup, and begin backing up as normal

My internet speed can't move 220 GB in <3 hours, so clearly Carbonite functioned as hoped: it's smart enough during a restore to not overwrite already-existing files. In retrospect this would have been a good chance to test its gap-filling ability: I should have deleted a few local files before the restore. I didn't do that, but it seems entirely reasonable to think it would have restored missing files.

Nov 3, 2013

Stop paying sticker price for your internet, satellite, etc.

I continue to be surprised at how many people I speak to who pay sticker (i.e. advertised) price for some of their services, such as cable internet, satellite TV, etc.

I haven't paid the standard rate for these services for years, and you shouldn't, either.

At the moment I am paying
  • $15-20/month less on internet, locked in for 12 months.
  • $14/month less on SiriusXM (50% off each on two vehicles), locked in for 12 months.
  • $20-30/month less on DirecTV, locked in for 12 months (at least I was; I have since dropped DirecTV)

Let's start with cable internet. The simple reality is that once the infrastructure has been laid to service an area, the operating margin on individual internet subscribers is extremely high. This means that even though Time Warner, for example, may want you to pay the sticker price of $50/month, you're still profitable as a customer at $40/month. My guess is that the cost to maintain satellite subscribers (TV or radio) is even lower; additional users require more licensing fees and back-end support like customer service, but they do not increase load to the system.

Turn 20 minutes into $200.

Most providers of a service entice new subscribers with low rates. At the end of an introductory period, the rate defaults to standard. Your goal is to step in before the end of the introductory rate, and ensure you do not get defaulted to standard. All this takes is a phone call.

As soon as you call your provider (online customer service won't work--you must call), you have two main options:
1) Ask if they can lower your rate. Simply asking is often enough (it has been with Time Warner in my experience).
2) Threaten to cancel service.

If you truly are ready to cancel service unless the rate can be lowered, you'll receive steep discounts. I like SiriusXM, but not at $14/month, for example. They have no problems letting you stay for a much lower rate. In the case of DirecTV I was absolutely ready to leave even though I was still under the two year contract. I received an extra $20/month off on top of a discount I had requested a few months earlier.

All of the calls should be pleasant--if you're courteous they are likely to be, and more likely to help you out.

Of those I've recommended locally to call Time Warner, every single one has received a discount off the standard rate. The entire process is not unusual or difficult--give it a shot!

When asking for a discount won't work

Some services do appear to have a same-cost-for-all, such as Netflix, your power company, etc.

Aug 15, 2013

How to Game Amazon's Review Rankings

I like Amazon a lot, and I shop there a lot. However, there is a problem with Amazon's review rankings.

On August 4, 2013, I was ranked as the 3,806th highest reviewer on Amazon.com.

On August 5, 2013, I was ranked as the 2,933rd highest reviewer on Amazon.com.

Aug 12, 2013

Aug 10, 2013

Dropcam HD Review


The Dropcam HD is a reliable, easy-to-use security camera that, for the most part, delivers on its promises.