Category Archives: shopping

Simple.TV vs Aereo — A Replacement Review

I just bought a Version 1 Simple.TV (aka STV1 or STV-1000 or “the white one”) via Amazon with “Lifetime Premier Service Included” for around $120 total.

What you will also need:
– a spot to put it such that it has ethernet and antenna access (no wifi, but one could use a powerline ethernet adapter)
– an ethernet cable long enough to reach
– a second OTA antenna
– a spare USB2 or USB3 hard drive
– a little patience
a Roku, chromecast, etc. (But you probably already have one if you’ve been using Aereo)

I only needed to buy an extra ethernet cable and for now am putting up with an old smallish HD and a less-than-ideal antenna (meaning I am not getting one of the 17 channels I should be getting) but I wanted to test things before I bought something better.

SO FAR SO GREAT
I mean, it’s not as easy as the zero set-up / zero hassle of Aereo, but it’s working well.

PROS vs AEREO
– no monthly fee. It will be break-even in 10 months
– quality of programs seems to be at least as good as a the aereo quality we were getting via our Roku 3.
– slightly better show guide layouts both in Roku 3 and browser

CONS vs AEREO
– no ABC until I get a better antenna
– not cloud… one needs a place to put the gear (and the patience for setup) and stuff can break and who has time for more junk?
– My white rev1 has only one tuner, but there is a rev2 model with 2 tuners, though I have heard it has a fan, so this is a tradeoff depending on where you need to put it
– Their scheduler for recordings doesn’t have a few nifty filters that the Aereo one had, but fingers crossed that it will improve
– My old USB drive is only 40GB so it holds 17 hours which is good, but I had 60 hours with aereo, so I might buy a $50-$60 drive like this one and then I’ll have even more than 60 hrs

I will update this in a few weeks to let you know how it’s going… whether it’s a pain, or what.

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Where did the netbooks go?

My 2014 inexpensive laptop buying advice….

Q: Dell, Acer, Asus — all used to make 7″ and 10″ netbooks. We have a great Dell netbook called the Dell Inspiron Mini 1010 from several years ago with Windows 7. It has a 10″ screen and no CD/DVD drive, but otherwise is a very functional laptop with a full-sized keyboard. Perfectly great for email and facebook and Netflix and youtube and such. Why don’t they make such things any more in 2014?

A: It seems like they do, it’s just that they call them inexpensive Ultrabooks now. For example, the Dell Inspiron 11 (Haswell/Intel Celeron 2955U based) looks great for $300.

Q: But what about a “chromebook” like the new Acer C270?

A: It’s a tradeoff. A Chromebook is much simpler, but if you are ever going to want to have the option to run actual Office apps or Steam or Minecraft or Portal, etc, etc. for video games (for example), then one has to go Ultrabook route.

Finally: One of my most important qualifications is a laptop must be dead-simple to install more RAM. Some laptops make this difficult, but with others one can do this in 3 minutes.

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Erik explains: Hulu vs HuluPlus on your TV

Q: Can I watch Hulu (free! not HuluPlus which is $8) on my TV in my living room?

A: Yes! I do this all the time with a Mac Mini. A less expensive option in 2013 is a $200 Chromebook.
So just get a:
$200 Chromebook w/ a HDMI plug
$350 Laptop w/ a HDMI plug
$550 Mac mini (which all have HDMI plugs) and a wireless keyboard and mouse

Normally you can only use HuluPlus via Roku (we love our Roku for Netflix!), AppleTV and other streaming services. But HuluPlus is a paid monthly subscription, whereas Hulu is free. As are most “recent episode” archives at the websites of the major networks — ABC/CBS/NBC/etc.

HuluPlus advantages:
– Of course, do the math… a $200 chromebook is 25 months of $8/month HuluPlus. And a Roku is very easy/handy vs it is a bit of a pain to use a laptop w/ one’s TV.
– more episodes
– HD (Hulu is not usually HD)

Hulu vs Chromebook. Chromebook allows:
– flash games
– web/facebook/email/twitter
– google docs / office-like apps
– use it in a different room than the TV occasionally

(Even better than a Chromebook… but more expensive/heavier/slower to start)
Hulu vs $350 laptop w/ HDMI. A laptop additionally a laptop allows:
– games/Steam
– real Microsoft Office apps

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Ooma Review

Thinking about dropping your traditional phone service for an IP-based phone? Look no further. Buy an OOMA TELO immediately and decision made!

OOMA TELO on Amazon.com. Are those enough 5-star reviews for you?

All you pay after the initial purchase is some ~$4 telecommunications fees you already pay on your “normal” telephone bill.

INSTALLATION:
People seem to be confused about this. But it couldn’t be easier. Just make sure your old phone system is unplugged from the street or Cable or FIOS or whatever it was connected to. And then plug the OOMA “to phone” line into a jack in your house and voila, every jack in your house now has phone.

Our Ooma (actually, we have 2… I also use a separate one for my home office phone number) have worked almost perfectly for 4 years. There are VERY occasional moments where the phone will weird-out, but that is (to me) totally worth the $200+ I save each year.

If you aren’t interested in saving money, then there is probably no reason to not just keep using your normal phone.

E-911 works PERFECTLY for us. Just make sure you keep your address updated.

The voicemail app at the website is great. There is also an interesting feature where you will get an email or SMS if someone calls 911 from the phone.

So, to summarize:
– You will like it
– Only drawback is VERY occasional flakiness
– Oh, and your phone won’t work when there is a power outage unless you are able to power your internet and the ooma device. This doesn’t bother me at all because 1) we hardly ever lose power and 2) if we do we can use a cell phone.

Some random advantages:
– 7-digit dialing local dialing. But you can enter 10 or 11. No confusion.
– no “1” needed for long distance calls. But you can!
– VERY cheap international calling via prepaid minutes at their website.
– You can bring your phone number with you. Just take the ooma on vacation and plug it in to the ethernet/wifi.
– I’ve personally had very good luck with their technical support when things have been glitchty.

OOMA TELO on Amazon.com.

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low-flow showerheads review

Over at the wirecutter they write in their article about showerheads: “If you go less than 1.5 gpm you’re going to have to spend so much time in the shower rinsing off that you will waste more water than if you didn’t.”

That’s totally not true (in my experience). We have been very happy with our 1.0 gpm Bricor and that includes the resident with VERY LONG AND THICK hair. No complaints. At all.

It’s also probably news to the 140 people giving this 1.25 GPM showerhead (Niagara Earth Massage) a 4.5 out of 5 star rating at Amazon. It’s also a cheap experiment, since it’s less than $10.

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REVIEW: LEGO CREATOR 3-in-1 brings back the LEGO magic!

OK you lego-loving moms and dads…

In case you were wondering where all the cool lego sets of your youth went and find yourself explaining “when I was a kid” look no further than the LEGO CREATOR 3-in-1 sets. After being unimpressed with the overly branded sets and the overly complicate technic sets, I have found lego nirvana for me and my kids!

My 5 and 8 year olds can typically build these LEGOs together without Ma or Pa. The 5 year old can pretty much to it himself, but likes when the 8 year old helps. But totally depends on the kids. Sometimes I help because I like LEGOS too!

BTW, if you have kids younger than 5 and 8, you should run not walk over to Amazon.com and grab a LEGO DUPLO TRAIN — the one with the electric engine. And buy a load of switches! The advantage being that with a 2 and 5 year old, you and/or the kids can play with this together without the 2-year old choking on anything or biting/tearing all the little yellow-arms off minifigs, etc, etc.

BTW, another aside… our 5 and 8 (and I!) still often have a lot of fun with the duplo train too. DUPLO fun does definitely not stop at age 5 if you buy tons of cool long pieces at bricklink.com or the like.

OK, so back to the 3-in-1 creator sets…

What I find works best is to keep each set in a gallon-sized ziploc/ziplock along with the instructions. One can of course mix sets altogether, and that is of course great for totally free-wheelin’ builidng but makes building from sets a hassle — takes a long time to find individual special pieces.

And speaking of “special pieces”, I think that (along with the 3-in-1 instructions!) makes these sets great. There are very few of what I call “special pieces” — pieces that are made pretty much just for that one set. Most are typical pieces found in many different sets.

OK, here are a few of our favorites (and some wish list items) around here. Most of these should be in the sub-$20 category. There are a lot of them. Here goes!

1. LEGO Creator Construction Hauler 31005 — 18 wheeler with digger/backhoe, cherry picker, offroad transporter with dune buggy

2. LEGO Creator Highway Speedster 31006 — sports car, roadster/hot-rod, tow-truck

3. LEGO Creator Super Racer 31002 — Formula 1/F1 race car, go-kart, quad bike/ATV

4. LEGO Creator Red Rotors 31003 — twin rotor helicopter, propeller plane, twin-rotor hovercraft

5. LEGO Creator Blue Roadster 6913 – -sports car, roadster/hot-rod, jeep/off-roader

6. LEGO Creator Thunder Wings 31008 — robot, car, jet plane

7. LEGO Creator Street Rebel 7291 — motorcycle, moped, chopper

8. LEGO Creator Propeller Adventures 7292 — propeller airplane, jet, hovercraft

9. LEGO Creator Super Soarer 6912 — jet plane, helicopter, dual-hull speed boat

10. LEGO Creator Dune Hopper 5763 — dune bugger, quad bike/ATV, trike/motorcycle

11. LEGO Creator Helicopter 5866 — mountain rescue helicopter, air show bi-plane, speed boat (online instructions for 4th model: high-speed swamp boat)

12. LEGO Creator Fierce Flyer 31004 — animals! eagle, scorpion, beaver

13. LEGO Creator Power Mech 31007 — robot, helicopter, pickup truck

Any I am missing? There are some more expensive ones too, but I prefer these cheaper ones. The more expensive ones get to be a bit much for my kids. And older kids I think would prefer Technic or Mindstorms. Most of these are pretty recent (circa 2012 or 2013) and should be available at Amazon. Just watch for price-gouging. If stock is low, stay away from the sellers looking for prices above MSRP.

You might be asking… how many different sets can LEGO make with a car, helipcopter, plane, ATV, hovercraft. One of every color perhaps? The tricky thing is that they don’t label the sets all that clearly. A helicopter can also just have “Rotor” or “Copter” in the name, or might not mention any of this at all if it is one of the alternate 2 designs.

See also:
REVIEW: Magna-tiles vs magformers

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Just say IPad Mini? (2012 Holiday / XMas Tablet Shopping Guide)

When the IPad Mini was released, the first review I read was negative, but it seems like many prefer the Mini to the fullsize. I think it really depends on your needs. I already have a 10″ Android tablet that gets used around the house primarily for Youtube and Netflix and games. No need for another tablet here. But if I commuted daily on the train, I could see it being useful to have an LTE IPad Mini or Nexus 7.

Preference: Apple IPad Mini
(Pros – LTE available, Price, weight, size=>easier to fit in purses, jacket pockets, etc)

Businessweek

ZDNET

The Wirecutter

NY Times

Preference: Apple IPad “3” (and current “4” w/ faster A6X Graphics)
(Pros — LTE and Retina Screen)

Dave Winer/Scripting News/Gizmodo,
article 2

Background on the Apple IPad Mini

Marco.org

Vs Androd / Nexus 7 / Amazon Fire HD (Pros – price!)

Apple displays are better color wise but the Android 7″ displays hae higher resolution

Bottom line

Overall? IPad Mini or Android 7″ tablet (Google Nexus 7, Amazon Fire HD). I think this really comes down to whether you know there are Apple/iOS only apps or games you want/need. If not, you might be happier with Android because of price and screen resolution.

Price? Android 7″ tablet (Google Nexus 7, Amazon Fire HD)

Games? Apps? IPad Mini

Eyesight/reading? IPad 4 or 7″ Android tablets (all are “Retina”)

Second iPad: IPad Mini

School/Work: Apple Macbook Air / Thinkpad T430 or Dell Laptop!

Wait for Retina IPad Mini? This will take quite a while. Don’t wait.

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REVIEW: MAGFORMERS vs MAGNA-TILES (also: Icosidodecahedron using Magformers)

I used to think magna-tiles were the clear uncontested champion in comparison to magformers. But now I’m not so sure. They aren’t on top either, it’s just that each has it’s uses. I’ll explain briefly here, then follow up with some better pictures.

ADVANTAGE MAGFORMERS
– 3D geometrical shapes — one can make a number of these Archimedian solids if you have enough pieces.
– less expensive

ADVANTAGE MAGNATILES
Everything else! They have slightly weaker magnets, but they are solid (get the translucent ones. prettier) and are better for:
– 2D arrangements (they sit perfectly flat) such as: (and here I will just include everything my kids have used them for…)
— roads/racetracks/airplane runways
— functional checkerboard (we used 2×2 duplos as the pieces) when stranded in a snowstorm without checkers!
— making words
— making numbers
— 2D planes/people

3D buildings
– matchbox car and airplane parking garages/hangars
– forts/castles
– mazes
– stairs
– some simpler 3-D shapes hold together if you are VERY gentle, but the magnets aren’t strong enough to realistically build things like a icosidodecahedron for example.

OK, so I guess that’s still a pretty long list in the magnatiles column. Still, if you want to make cool geometric shapes the magformers are where it’s at.

Anyway, here are links to the sets I personally can recommend:
MAGNATILES 100 piece translucent set
Here is a link to all the magna-tile sets at Amazon… circa 2013 they list more options than they did back in 2011. There are also some less expensive compatible competitors that seem to get decent but slightly mixed reviews. See update below.
Magformers — perhaps buy 2 of the “Magformers 48-Piece” sets to get enough to do some good stuff? To do the bigger 3D geometrical shapes you’ll need a lot. Including (ideally) some of the very big 6-sided pieces. Though the 3 4 and 5 can make a GREAT rhombicosi-dodecahedron!

Just make sure you have enough pieces, especially the magnatiles! It seems like approximately 100 is enough for kids (or grownups!) to feel like they aren’t being held back too often by a lack of pieces. They will want to build very elaborate villages of buildings, walls, roads and runways, plane and car garages. And stuffed-animal houses! You will be AMAZED!

And again, my favorite thing about these toys is the ability of age-mixed kids to play side by side. The little kids are safe (no little legos to chew on or swallow) and can actually build a few things, and the older kids are still quite well entertained.

=====================

2013 REVIEW UPDATE:

1. Magnatiles continue to impress big time. The kids are now 9 and 6 and they still pull them out and play for hours/days at a time quite regularly. A MUST HAVE TOY. They paid for themselves a million times over in kid (and dad!) fun! Still better than Lego in this household. Although Lego Hero-Factory/Bionicles does come first!

2. A new player on the scene is a company named “Magnetic Stick N Stack” which sells Magna-tile compatible tiles. From reviews it sounds like the magnets might be a TINY bit weaker, but the price is lower. Could be a good alternative. “Magnetic Stick N Stack” at Amazon. (They also seem to have a few different types of shapes including windows and wheels, but I doubt those matter much… the standard Magnatile shapes are classics. The kids never cared much for the magformer wheels…)

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