My Recommendations for Products and Services
|My Philosophy on Products and Services|
|DVD recordable media|
|PDA s (Palm Pilot)|
I want two competing things when looking for products:
- I want a product that is really well built, does everything I want, and will last forever
- I want it cheap
Notice that I didn't say I needed the very newest thing to keep up with the Jones. I also don't care much about coolness. The solution for me is to buy mostly used products that were top of the line a couple of years ago. If this philosophy doesn't make sense to you, these recommendations won't either.
My main criteria for a good service is either:
- it should be consistent and highly competent
- it should be personal
I've always figured that there was a big difference among brands of CD recordable and DVD recordable media, but wasn't sure which ones are best. Now I know (TDK, Taiyo Yuden, Maxell, and Sony if you're in a hurry). This is a comparison of DVD recordable media, but I have also heard that Taiyo Yuden and TDK are the best brands for CD recordable media.
The best long distance options I know about:
- Acculinq - 6 cents/minute if you are in a "local" area (which includes 2500 cities according to them. I am in one), 9 cents/minute otherwise. 1$ per month billing fee if you make any calls that month. No per call fees, 6 second billing increment. This card is a credit card auto-pay.
- ConnectTo - 3 or 4 cents/minute for prepaid calling cards. This was my main calling card for a while, but I am using Acculinq as my main calling card again because it seems to be the most reliable over the years.
I have been through 4 or 5 long distance card companies in the last 10 years or so, and these two companies are the best so far. Most telephone companies will rip you off eventually, though. Sometimes they will suddenly jack up the rates, some of them will have good rates to some areas and not others. It's a scummy business. Always use pre-paid cards or auto-pay cards that allow you to set a cap on how much money can be spent in a month. I had a $250 phone bill one month because I didn't do that, because a provider (CCom) had cheap rates to everywhere except one place (Hawaii) which was $.75/minute.
K7.net gives free voicemail, and they are the only free voicemail that will send your voicemail message in standard WAV format to your email. I use this so I can be on the modem all day and still be reachable in case of emergency by people who don't have email (like most of my family). They have been around since 1999. They used to say in their FAQ that they give this service for free as a demo of their technology. I was told by someone else that the real reason is "access charges" that they can charge other carriers, the more incoming calls they get, the more money they make.
You get your own phone number (no extension!) in Seattle (206 area code), and there is an option to buy a toll-free number through their parent company. You can also receive faxes, which are sent to your email as TIFF files.
I have been using this service since November 2002 without any problems.
If your web browser isn't Firefox and you haven't tried it, get Firefox now.
The Sony MDR-V600 headphones are studio-quality headphones for around $75. I've used mine until the foam is falling off (which is their one bad quality - weak earcushion foam). I compared them head-to-head against much more expensive Sennheisers, and they sound significantly better on an unamplified headphone jack. You'll find many fans of these headphones on the internet.
The Canon Powershot A75 is by far the best value on the market today (February 2005). It's $200 and has every feature a non-pro would want: 3.2 MP (good enough for 8x10 prints), lots of scene auto-settings, full manual if you want it, movies with sound. I bought one new this Christmas because it was a better value than the cameras available on Ebay. It's not just me, either; the A75 is the Consumer Reports top pick this year too.
UPDATE: the A75 had a little accident with my wife, so we got a Canon Powershot A510 to replace it (December 2005). It's almost the same, just a little more resolution (4.0 MP), only needs two instead of 3 AA batteries, and has a better movie mode. Go Cannon!
The Palm m100:
- uses PalmOS, which is very easy to learn and use
- around $20 on Ebay
- fairly small
- lasts three weeks on a couple of AAA NiMH rechargable batteries
- has 2 MB memory (do you really need more memory than that?)
- is old, so any decent sync software supports it
- has a backlight, unlike some of the current entry-level PDAs
The only feature that is really lacking is a vibrating alarm. Nothing is more annoying and embarrasing than having an alarm go off in a meeting or class. It's as bad as a cell phone.
UPDATE: a used Palm m500 is less than $70 on Ebay (January 2006), and is a nice upgrade from the m100 if you want to spend a little more. Most importantly, it has a vibrating alarm.
UPDATE: only a year after I wrote it, this section is nearly entirely out of date, unless you're like me and think 802.11b is plenty fast enough. The industry moves so fast that it's almost impossible to learn what is good and what is not, so all the companies seem to shoot for price over quality.
Summary: All the consumer gear is flakey and unreliable for at least some of their models. So far I've had good luck with:
- [PCMCIA 802.11b card] Orinico Gold Classic (old Lucent ones on Ebay, not the new Proxim Orinoco!)
- [Standalone bridge] D-Link DWL-810
- [Access Point] Linksys WEP-11
Wireless networking gear can be very frustrating. There is no "good" brand. Every brand or chipset that gets a good reputation seems obliged to destroy it. For example, the Orinoco Gold card has long been the gold standard for 802.11b (pun intended). Now the Orinoco line has changed hands two times (Lucent -> Agere -> Proxim), and you really don't know what you're getting. Many times, a single model will go through 2 or 3 different chipsets (the Linksys WRT54G has 6 different chipsets)! Since the chipset is much of what defines the quality of wireless gear, this makes it impossible to find the "good" models. Currently, the best way I could find to get a "real" Orinico card cheaply was to buy a Dell TrueMobile 1150 off Ebay ($41 shipped from getyourtech). That could change by the time you read this, though. Another example of this is the Linksys WRT54G router. Version 1.0-2.0 are very good, but version 2.2+ has a bug so bad that the router will need rebooting every few hours on a heavy connection. Of course they don't put the version number on the box...
I have had good luck with the Netgear MR814v2 access point (from newegg.com for $31 shipped after $20 rebate). I then tried the Netgear bridge (ME101NA, $75), which was complete junk. It claims to be "IEEE 802.11b", but it isn't, because it doesn't support ad-hoc mode. The reception was also poor, and range was much less than an Orinoco card. Then I tried the Linksys bridge (WET-11, $85). Its range was so poor that I was getting 33% connection at 15 feet from the AP in an open room. I'm assuming that it was defective, but some research online led me to believe a replacement wouldn't be much better. Finally, I got the D-Link DWL-810 (not the DWL-810+), and it is fantastic. It could have more features, but I'm not complaining at this point. The reception is superb, maybe even slightly better than an Orinoco card (probably due to higher transmit power, but I'm guessing here). The one major failing of the DWL-810 is that it's not possible to connect an external antenna, but considering it has better range with its internal antenna than the Netgear ME-101NA with a 12dB external directional antenna, again I won't complain too much.
The authoritative source for GNU/Linux drivers of wireless gear is by Jean Tourrilhes.
I hate inkjet printers. As stated in my philosphy section, I want stuff that lasts forever and is cheap, and inkjet printers are neither. I have never seen one last more than a year if you don't print regularly, because the print heads always clog. The Epsons are the worst, because when the print head clogs, you might as well throw it away. If you must get an inkjet, get an HP or a Canon, they're the easiest to replace the print head. Also look for a model that has a big black ink reservior. On the other hand, if you print every day and want the best quality output, Epson is well-regarded.
I love the HP Laserjet III and IV models. They last forever, and toner can be refilled for $12 (Tonerkits.com) if you're cheap like me. The Laserjet III is smaller, but it's also older, so I recommend a Laserjet IV. Every major city has several entrepreneurs who buy these two models from companies at auction, refurbish them, and sell them on Ebay for around $125. The best way is to contact them through Ebay and then buy it from them locally; this will save you $50-$70 in shipping, because these things are heavy.
A used Thinkpad is the best laptop you can buy. Dells, Toshibas, Sonys, and so on are flimsy junk in comparison. The keyboard alone is worth any price difference. If you spend any amount of time on a laptop, you will be glad you got a Thinkpad. I have purchased over 10 Thinkpad 600Es over the last couple of years for myself, friends, and family. Despite this model being seven years old and only $200-$250 on Ebay (in April 2005), I haven't had any major problems with any of them. If you get a 600E, make sure it has the maximum memory (288 Meg).
Although I haven't owned one because I won't buy a computer without a 3-button mouse, I am impressed with the Mac laptops too. They're very well-built, and very easy to use. If you don't want to install and learn how to use GNU/Linux, you should be using a Mac.
UPDATE (2006): make that 12 Thinkpad 600Es. Bare-bones they're going for $50 on Ebay, and they make great digital picture frames.
UPDATE (2007): three of them have finally had problems. The most common problem for very old laptops is that the backlight tube will burn out (it's just a flourescent light bulb). They still make great audio servers running softsqueeze with the Slimserver system even without a working screen.
My favorite mouse is the "IBM Optical Navigator 4-Button USB/PS2 Mouse". I bought it at Provantage [I get no commission on any links]. It is a right-handed optical mouse with very precise motion and a very good feel. The only drawback is the click it makes is a little loud.