Netflix – Streaming video from the Internet

April 30, 2011

I’m just amazed at the quality of videos which you can stream from the Internet to your home PC monitor. For a lot of the YouTube Videos you can stream in “HD” mode and have very high resolution videos playing on your large computer monitor. This also works for online TV Shows from the different network web sites.

We currently are signed up on Netflix, which is a video streaming service that allows you to select and watch videos on your home PC. It’s a great service, as you can watch TV Shows and Movies from thousands of titles, with the cost being $7.99 US per month.

In addition to watching videos on a Internet connected computer monitor, you can also  stream videos to other portable devices. For example, I routinely watch videos from Netflix on my iPod Touch and iPhone 4 which is really convenient when I’m traveling on the road or while lying on the couch at night. In the past I did have a few issues with the video stream stalling for 1 or 2 minutes at times before continuing, and some large pixelation, but over the last week the video streaming has improved quite a bit. I’m not sure if the issue was with the Netflix’s servers, my Comcast internet connection, or the speed of my home WiFi router, but in any case the video playback performance has been very good lately.

My son’s Nintendo Gaming system has Netflix capability built-in, so we can stream videos from the Internet (his Wii is WiFi enabled) to our TV set very easily. We often use this option so he can watch children movies/shows on our TV when there’s nothing he likes on the cable channels. This option has worked flawlessly– just like watching a normal cable channel show. So with this setup, our main home TV can be used to watch any video available in the Netflix library.

Currently, I’ve been watching old episodes of the TV Series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The SyFy channel was playing a few of the episodes over the last few weeks on cable and then abruptly stopped. So to continue, I found them on Netflix and have been watching them every night. It’s really cool that I can watch whatever episode I want, whenever I want, and with no commercials!

So, this is definitely a good services if you like watching movies and TV shows and have a relatively fast Internet connection. So if you’re in a hotel, stuck at an airport, or just lying on the couch you can pull out your mobile device and begin watching whatever show suits your fancy!


Acorn – My new graphics app!

April 24, 2011

Since moving from a Windows 7 PC over to my Apple iMac, I’ve been struggling with finding a suitable replacement for my favorite graphics App: Paint.net. This freeware app only runs on the Microsoft Windows OS, so I couldn’t continue using it on my iMac. I tried out Gimp, Seashore, Pinta, etc. and none of them really worked for me. Either they were cumbersome to use (e.g., Gimp runs on top of X11) or they didn’t have the features I needed, or they just crashed a lot. Pixelmator was one that had the most promise, but I found it a bit difficult to use and it crashed way too much for a paid app.

Finally, I came across an app called Acorn which seems to fit the bill for my needs. It’s a Mac app that can be purchased from the Mac App Store for $29.99. I was able to download a trial version from the developer’s web site, and the app really works well. It’s also very easy to use and most importantly, the developer has some great tutorials on his/her web site. In my opinion that is a smart thing, and it helps users get up to speed on using Acorn for the most common activities.

So, I’m going to keep using the trial version until it expires and if all works out well, I’ll purchase it from the App Store.


Your iPhone/iPad keeping tabs on you?

April 20, 2011

Here’s a recent posting that explains that the iPhone and iPad are constantly tracking your location:

Engadget Post

If you want to see if your i-device is also tracking your whereabouts, you can run this nifty open source program to map out the data:

iPhoneTracker

I tried running this on my iMac (which I sync my iPhone 4), but the iPhoneTracker app couldn’t find the consolidation.db file among my backup files.


Calendar mayhem!

April 17, 2011

I have trouble remembering appointments, family events, birthdays, etc. so I rely heavily on a calendar to keep my life in order. This is true for both my personal and business life, so like to keep two separate calendars to keep things compartmentalized. The issue I’ve been struggling with is finding the most efficient way of dealing with these two calendars and keeping them synced with my computers and mobile devices.

So here’s what I have available:

  1. Personal calendar for my personal appointments and events
  2. Business calendar for my work appointments, travel dates, etc.
  3. An iMac at home running Snow Leopard Mac X OS
  4. A Dell laptop running Windows 7 for work
  5. An Apple iPhone 4 as my smartphone
  6. Microsoft Exchange Server for my work email, calendar, and contacts
  7. Apple MobileMe for Calendar, Email, and Contacts
  8. Google Calendar and Contacts
My goal, is to be able to view and edit my calendar appointments (personal and business) on my iMac desktop computer, Dell laptop, and iPhone device. I know there’s all kinds of 3rd-party freeware and commercial software for syncing calendar data between applications and the cloud, but I wanted to minimize that as much as possible to eliminate any chances of “foul ups”.
I ended up using this solution: Create two calendars with my MobileMe account that allows me to create,view, and edit appointments. If you’re unfamiliar with MobileMe, it is Apple’s cloud-based system which allows for centralized email, calendar, contacts, and offline disk storage. Using this method, I can always access my calendars via a web browser with an Internet connection. Because the majority of my devices are Apple-based, it made sense using this method for syncing purposes. So, I now use the Apple iCal application to access both MobileMe calendars on my iMac desktop computer, and the built-in Calendar app on my iPhone for doing the same. For my Dell laptop (running Windows 7), I use the Microsoft Outlook application along with a MobileMe syncing utility (provided by Apple) to sync my two MobileMe calendars with Outlook for local access. This method seems to work well so far, but I need to always make sure I’m viewing the two MobileMe calendars in all my apps and not the default local calendars (which should be empty).
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Watching live TV on my iPhone 4

April 17, 2011

At home, I’ve got an EyeTV HD device connected to a Comcast digital cable box for recording TV shows on my iMac desktop computer. The system is entirely automated, where scheduled shows are recorded, commercial removed, and finally converted to iPhone format and placed in iTunes for syncing. This allows me to watch my favorite shows at my leisure, usually at night on the couch or in bed. A few weeks ago I was on a business trip and I forgot to schedule my EyeTV to record an episode of Stargate: Universe, and it was not playing on any local station in my hotel room. What was I suppose to do?

Luckily, I have an app on my iPhone that allows me to control the EyeTV HD software on my iMac at home and also watch live TV through it via the Internet. So, I decided to give it a try, even though the hotel’s WiFi connect speed was incredible slow and virtually unusable. So instead of trying to use WiFi, I decided to just use my cellular connection via Verizon to stream the Live TV from my iMac at home to my iPhone.

Surprisingly, the video stream worked great! I was able to watch my show with no pausing or dropping of the TV streaming image. On a few occasions the image got a bit grainy (heavy pixels), but for the most part it looked just like watching an mp4 video file on my iPhone.

If I do switch to an Android phone in the near future, this will be one thing that I’ll miss. I don’t use this feature a lot, but when I do it works great.


iPhone 4 WiFi personal hotspot

April 17, 2011

A lot of the cell phone carriers are selling MiFi devices which are often labeled as “personal hotspots”. These small devices act as a portable Wireless Router which you can carry in your pocket and make Internet connections with your laptop, iPad, etc. via WiFi. Usually they are priced at $100-$200 US and then have a $60-$100 monthly charge for data usage. These MiFi devices are a great choice if you need to connect multiple devices to the Internet while on the go (I can see a traveling business person using one of these for his or her smartphone, laptop, iPod Touch, and iPad).

Some of the newer smartphones have the ability to act as personal hotspots, with some charging a small fee and others not charging anything. From what I’ve read, the Android phones provide this service free of charge but the iPhone requires an additional monthly charge (depends on the carrier, but usually runs $20-$30 per month).

If you’ve jailbroken your iPhone, you can use a small utility called MyWi which allows you to connect your WiFi devices to your iPhone (wirelessly) as if it was a personal hotspot. Using this method, you shouldn’t be charged the extra monthly fee as described above (but, you will be charged data usage according to your current plan).

As a test, I decided to download the trial version of MyWi from the Cydia App Store (available for jailbroken iPhones) and see how well it worked. After downloading and installing this simple app, I was able to configure it and use it within just a few minutes. First, I fired up my Windows 7 laptop and checked for WiFi Routers in my area, and sure enough my iPhone appeared in the list. I connected to it and did the speedtest.net speed test to see how fast the connection was (via my Verizon cellular connection). On average, my laptop saw 3.60 mbps download speed and 3.60 mbps upload speed (not too bad!). I then tested my iPod Touch connected to my iPhone via WiFi and got similar speed results. So, it seemed that the MyFi app is a good solution if you want to convert your iPhone into a personal hotspot without paying the extra monthly cost. Of course, you can only use this method if you jailbreak your phone and your average iPhone user may not want to go that route.

Note, that MyWi isn’t free (it current costs $19.95 via the Cydia App Store), but for a small one-time charge you’ll get a personal hotspot without any extra monthly recurring charges.


Trip Tracker – A great smartphone app for travelers

April 16, 2011

Trip Tracker is a great app that I use to keep track of my airline, rental car, and hotel reservations. It’s made by Page Once, and available for free for the iPhone and Android smartphone devices. I’ve been using the iPhone version and am very, very pleased with its functionality. Once I’ve set it up to access my airline, rental car, and hotel frequent traveler accounts, it will automatically download my latest reservations to my iPhone. It will also display my current frequent flyer miles/points for those accounts as well. Finally, it will send me notifications alerting me of upcoming travel via my email and popup notification on my iPhone. What a great app!

For airline reservations, it will show you the arrival/departure times and gate numbers at the airport. What I really like about it is that I can check my reservations without having to fumble with paper printouts or search through my emails for my travel confirmation information. Best of all, it’s free, so I recommend anyone who travels to check out this app.


Smartphone Transition

April 16, 2011

I’ve been using smartphones for a number of years and find it valuable to have the Internet at my fingertips while on the go. Accessing my email, web pages, and GPS-enabled maps for navigation has been great while on business trips. I started off by using a Motorola Windows Mobile 5 device, then upgraded to a Palm Pixi WebOS, and now I’m using a Verizon iPhone 4. I really like my iPhone 4, but I may have to turn it in as I’m looking for a new job and this phone is provided by my current employer. So what new smartphone should I get?

The iPhone 4 is nice and I know I would be happy with it, however, it is on the Verizon network and my family currently uses Sprint. I’d prefer to stay with Sprint and get a new line on my family’s plan, so getting a Verizon iPhone with a new account, etc. has its drawbacks. HP/Palm has re-entered the smartphone market (after delays during Palm’s acquisition), but their new Veer and Pre 3 phones won’t be available until this summer. Besides, the Pre 3 is a bit too chunky for me and I’d prefer to not have a slide out keyboard. I’ve seen “spy photos” of a new Pre phone that looks appealing (it actually looks like my iPod Touch), but who knows when that will be released. Finally, there’s a bunch of Android phones available on the Sprint network including the Nexus S Google phone which looks really nice (with the new Gingerbread OS version).

Whichever phone I choose, I want to make sure I get the same functionality as my current iPhone 4. I started by examining the apps that I current use on my iPhone, and it turns out that they are all available for the Android smartphone as well. I’ve used the Sprint Navigation app in the past as well as the Verizon Navigation app (both I like), but I noticed that the Nexus S won’t have any Sprint apps loaded. Fortunately, it will have the new Google Nav app which apparently works just as well (or even better) according to the video I watched on Google’s site. So I think I’m covered there.

Finally, I really want a phone that will have enough juice to last me through an entire day (7 am through 7 pm). My iPhone 4 has great battery life, and if I switch to an HP Pre 3 or Nexus S Android phone I’ll need to have equivalent battery life. I have a feeling it will be close, so I do need to take that into consideration.

So for the moment, I’m leaning towards getting the Nexus S Android smartphone with the Verizon iPhone 4 closely behind. I’d consider the HP Pre 3 as well once it is released and I can check it out (although I still don’t like its slide out keyboard). Decisions, decisions…


Dragging my old laser printer into the future

April 16, 2011

I’ve got an old HP Laser printer which I inherited when the company I worked for abandoned their local office years ago, and I’ve been using it as my main printer workhorse ever since. As time progressed on, this laser printer continues to work well, but the advancement of technology will soon make this printer obsolete. For example, this laser printer has an old Parallel Port interface for connecting it to a PC. When was the last time you saw a computer with a Parallel Port? Most modern PCs and laptops have USB ports for connecting to printers and the Parallel Port has disappeared from nearly all motherboards. To get around this issue, I bought a Parallel Port-to-USB-Port converter cable which allowed me to use my PC’s USB port to access the laser printer for printing documents via a special device driver. This option worked well for me for a few years until I dumped my Windows PC in favor of an iMac. Unfortunately, this handy converter cable doesn’t work with my iMac since I don’t have the required special device driver.

Luckily, this HP laser printer has a RJ45 Ethernet Cable Connector on the back since it is a “Network Enabled” device. At my company’s office we had the laser printer connected to our local LAN so everybody could access it, and it seems that this may be my ticket for extending the service life of this printer for my use. So, how am I going to get this printer connected to my home wireless network so I can access it from my iMac and other computers I have in my house?

The solution I chose was to buy a Wireless Access Point device which will allow me to connect the printer to it, and have the printer available on my home network. There’s a few such devices available, but most of them were a bit too pricey for my wallet (over $100 US). I was able to find a model made by TP-Link which was selling for $35 US at newegg.com, so I ordered that and was able to successfully hook it up to my HP printer.

The way it works, is that the TP-Link Access Point is set to “Client” mode, and I configure it to connect to my home wireless network. The small device is placed upstairs in my office, and acts as a wireless access point. I can then plug any network device into the Ethernet Jack and be connected to my home network. It’s as if I’m connect my laptop, PC, etc. directly into my wireless router (which is located downstairs next to the cable modem). In my case, I connected my HP laser printer to it, and configured my laser printer to use a static IP address. I did this so that my wireless router wouldn’t change its IP address and I can use that address as a permanent network printer for my iMac. Luckily, after configuring everything my Windows 7 laptop easily found this printer on my home network and added it to my printer device list.

So, it seems I can continue using my ancient laser printer for a few more years until computer technology changes again. By that time, I’ll probably run out of Toner for my printer and will be looking for a new solution…


Back to using Google Chrome!

April 16, 2011

I’ve used the Firefox web browser for years on my Windows PC and now on my iMac, and I briefly switched away to Google Chrome a few months ago. I really liked the speed and clean look of Google Chrome (especially the Ominbar which is a combined search field and web address bar), but I was having issues accessing certain sites properly which prompted me to switch back to Firefox.

It seems that over the last few months Firefox and Google have released updated versions of their browsers that boast speed improvements, etc. I downloaded and installed the latest version of Firefox (4.0) and it seemed to work well, but some of my extensions weren’t available for the newer version. Specifically, the layout theme that I had been using with the previous version of Firefox (which basically makes it look like Google Chrome) was not available. I guess I’m a bit picky, as I didn’t really like the default Firefox 4.0 appearance. As such, I decided to switch back to the latest version of Google Chrome and give it a try again.

So far, so good with Google Chrome. The pages do seem to load faster in my tabs and most of the web sites that I visit load ok. I haven’t tried the “troublesome” web sites which I had previous problems, but if I really need to view those sites I’ll just fire up Firefox. The cleanliness of the Chrome browser is really appealing to me, so I’ll stick with using it for a while until Firefox comes up with some newer features…