How I went from loving to loathing TiVo…

Posted on August 28th, 2010 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Product Reviews,Technology,Television by EngineerBoy

I still *want* to love you, but you're losing me

Dear TiVo,

I read two articles recently that spurred me to write you this letter.  The first article described how at the end of July 2009 you had 3.05 million subscribers, but at the end of July 2010 you were down to 2.38 million.  Five years ago this would have surprised me, but not any more.

The second article was from your site, describing the spiffy new QWERTY TiVo remote with a sliding face and a full keyboard.  I was overjoyed by the news, as I’ve been waiting for a remote like this since I bought and activated my first TiVo back in 2002.  I read the article in great anticipation, wondering how pricey the remote would be.  Hm, $90.  Not unreachable, but seemingly a little steep, which would make it in keeping with everything else you sell.

But then I got to the last paragraph, where the last sentence read:

“The new remote will work with TiVo Premiere, Premiere XL, TiVo Series3, TiVo HD, and TiVo HD XL boxes.”

No Series 1?  No Series 2 or Dual-Tuner?  Leaving us faithful early adopters behind again, are we?

Typical.  This is typical of everything I have come to expect from you over the years.  I still love TiVo-the-technical-solution, but with TiVo-the-company I have gone from love to like to not caring to being annoyed and, finally, to loathing, where I am today.

I now own and use 5 (count ‘em) TiVos, but they are all Series 2.  My disillusionment began in earnest when you released the Series3 boxes, and included things like YouTube browsing that were not made available to Series2 owners.  Now, you had a story for why this was so, which was something about Flash, I think, but I didn’t (and still don’t) buy it.  If you had wanted to make it work, you could have.   But, you chose to have those features and functions be differentiators to try and get Series2 owners to upgrade.

So close, and yet so far away

And it’s continued to be that way over the years, up through the latest insult of not letting us have the new remote (pictured at left).  You continue to add new and improved features and functions, very few of which are made available to your existing base of owners, unless they have the latest and greatest.  Now, I understand this from a business perspective, as I work in technology, so I know that it’s hard to keep the installed base happy.  It’s very easy to add new features and functions to totally new and redesigned devices, and your bean-counters are happy to see the R&D and other expenses that go into anything that will grab new customers and dollars.

I can visualize the meetings where you discussed the strategy of

EngineerBoy’s Review of the Litter-Robot

Posted on August 13th, 2008 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Health and Fitness,Product Reviews,Technology by EngineerBoy
Open the pod bay doors, Mittens

Open the pod bay door, Mittens

We are a pet-intensive household.  Currently we have three dogs and a cat, but we used to have two dogs and three cats.  Having three cats teaches you that maintaining a litter box is an endless, thankless, hopeless, gross, stinky, unhealthy, unending chore.  We used to use the LitterMaid, and went through three of them over the course of five years.  They worked…okay.  However, they had some significant engineering flaws, such as the fact that the rakes became caked with kitty poo, the receptacle filled up super quick when three cats were on the job, and they simply wore out after a year or so.

When we moved to our current house we decided to forego yet another LitterMaid and search for a newer, and hopefully better, solution.  The search led us to the Litter-Robot, pictured to the right.  It’s kind of space-age looking, and looks kind of big, and looks like it might freak out a cat or something, and maybe, just maybe, might refuse to open the pod bay doors.

The good news is that the Litter-Robot works, and it works extremely well.  It’s hard to describe the mechanics of it, but the large, round part on the top is simply sitting in place by virtue of gravity, it’s not attached or connected to the base in any way.  The orb has a couple of windows on the side (you can see one of them in the picture, it’s the black blotch on the side), and when in the normal position those windows are blocked by panels from the inside. 

The orb sits on the base, and the base beneath the orb is open to the drawer below.  Sensors in the unit determine when your cat has used the litter box, and seven minutes later little wheels (hidden from view underneath the orb) start turning and spin the orb counter-clockwise.  Inside the orb is a mesh grate and retaining pocket for the litter, and as the orb rotates the litter flows through the mesh grate and into the retaining pocket.  Anything a little bit bigger than a couple grains of litter can’t go through the mesh, so continue to roll along the inside of the orb as it rotates.

After the orb passes the rotation point where all the litter is contained in the pocket, the movement of the orb engages a lever that starts opening the panels that block the windows.  When the orb is fully rotated, the windows are completely unblocked allowing free access for any dropping droppings to fall into the drawer below.  After a short pause, the orb rotates back clockwise, the panels close the windows, and it eventually returns to the fully upright and locked position. 

Note that on this return turn, it over-rotates by about 15-20 degrees, then comes back to completely vertical.  This movement leaves the inside with perfectly

Review of the Westinghouse 47″ LCD HDTV (TX-47F430S)

Posted on July 9th, 2008 in Product Reviews,Technology,Television by EngineerBoy

Westinghouse TX-47F430SJust over a year ago we purchased a Westinghouse 47″ LCD HDTV (Model TX-47F430S) from Best Buy.  This model is priced at the cheaper end of the spectrum, but it seemed to fit our requirements (reasonably good picture, reasonably cheap, from a trustworthy brand name).

The bottom line is that we love the picture and the features, but some of the fit, finish, and quality are lacking.  We expected this because of the lower price, and are happy (so far) with the price-performance compromise.

The Good
First, the good things.  The picture quality is excellent and sharp, and the highest resolution is 1080p, which is the highest HDTV standard resolution.  I’ve heard rumors that Westinghouse has changed to a different LCD panel for this same model number for the new sets being produced, and that the new panel isn’t quite as bright and sharp, but don’t know that for certain.

The connections are also great.  There are four HDMI connectors for HD content.  There is a PC monitor port which allows you to drive it has a super-high-resolution PC/server monitor, and also takes the sound output from the PC as well (great for PC gaming).  It has composite and component/S-video inputs as well.  You can get more technical specifications here.

We have several things hooked up to our TV, as follows:
Regular definition cable TV via TiVo: We get regular cable TV programming through a cable box, which feeds our dual-tuner TiVo, which feeds into one of the component inputs of the TV.  Movies that are broadcast in widescreen can be expanded to fill the entire screen and look really good (but not as good as true HDTV, of course).

HDTV via DirectTV: We also have DirectTV in order to get the NFL and other (selected) sports in HD.  DirectTV only goes up to 1080i, which is interlaced and not quite 1080p, but is still super sharp looking.

Computer: We have a computer hooked up which we can use with a wireless keyboard/trackball, allowing us to display anything PC-based on our television in very sharp resolution.

Wii Console: The Wii console is connected via the component interface and looks good, but not great.  This is a function of the Wii, however, not the television, as the Wii doesn’t support any native high-resolution formats nor HDTV, so it looks a little pixellated when scaled up on our 47″ TV, but still fun and playable.
Overall, the good is really good on this television.  But unfortunately it’s not all good…

The Not-So-Good
There have also been some annoyances with this set, as follows:

The Closed-Captioning simply does not work.  It gets a few of the words/text, but it’s very jumpy and misses random parts and just doesn’t work.  We rarely used captions, but sometimes it’s nice to have the news on with the sound down and the captions up, so that you can still read what’s going on without the noise intrustion, or when watching a quiet movie that you don’t

Review of CedarCide for Mosquito Control

Posted on August 3rd, 2007 in Product Reviews,Technology by EngineerBoy

We recently moved from a patio home in the big city (Houston) to a cottage in a small, country town (Brenham). In Houston we didn’t really have any outdoor living space as we shared a common courtyard with neighbors, but here in Brenham we purposely bought a house that could provide a nice outdoor lifestyle. We purchased in the fall of last year and since then we’ve made improvements to the backyard, such as putting up an 8′ privacy fence and driveway gate, giving us a private, shady retreat to enjoy.

However, this being the southern half of Texas, the coming of spring and summer meant that the mosquitos ended up taking over and driving us back inside most mornings and evenings. Also, since we have two permanent dogs, and one temp dog that we’re babysitting, our backyard has a certain amount of…how to say this delicately…um…organic….err…excretions? Natural…fertilizer? Canine compost? Okay, dog poop. And with dog poop come flies. We’re excrutiatingly uninterested in policing the poop, and we feed our dogs a very high grade of dog food, so the volume isn’t huge, particuarly for the size of our dogs (80lbs, 80lbs, and 25lbs). Nevertheless, the flies were also annoying and gross, but fortunately not the biting kind.

So we started on a project of figuring out the best way to take back control of our backyard. I won’t say that money was no object, but we weren’t going to penny-pinch and were willing to spend into the low four figures for a good solution. We first looked at the wide variety of mosquito traps out there, such as the Mosquito Magnet, SkeeterVac, Mega-Catch, etc. What we found was that while the underlying concept behind these devices appears to be sound (catching mosquitoes with CO2 and other lures), the implementations were horribly unreliable and the results were spotty.

These devices almost all work by luring the mosquitos in with some set of attractants, such as CO2, lurex, octenol, lights, and/or heat, then using a fan to suction the little buggers into a holding net where they remain stuck until they die. Also, it seems that most of the mosquitos in your yard actually live in your yard, meaning if you can trap and kill the ones in your yard, you break the cycle of population and then only have to deal with ones that stray in from the surrounding area.

But for every story of success, there were three stories of device failure, with most failures occurring at the start of the second season of use when trying to get the traps to start up again after having been stored away for weeks or months. I wasn’t able to find a single personal account of anyone using one of these devices for more than one season without having issues. Also, the company that originally introduced the product and concept, American Biophysics with their Mosquito Magnet, had gone bankrupt and their acquiring company seemed to be completely disinterested in any type of customer service. This

Review of Amazon Unbox for TiVo

Posted on May 1st, 2007 in Entertainment,Product Reviews,Technology by EngineerBoy

If you own a TiVo there is a new service available to you from an Amazon/TiVo partnership called Unbox. Also, if you don’t yet own a TiVo GO AND GET ONE RIGHT NOW!!!!! I’ll wait…

Amazon Unbox is a service that allows you to locate movies, TV shows, and other video content on Amazon, purchase or rent them, and have them download directly to your TiVo for your viewing convenience. No schlepping down to the video store, no waiting for DVDs to arrive in the mail. Just an hour or two of download time, and it’s ready to watch. Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?

It is, kind of. You see, the technology is pretty good, with only a few quibbles, as follows:

You only get the main feature, none of the DVD extras (deleted scenes, commentary, etc)
Video quality is not nearly the same as DVD, for example, there is noticable artifacting in dark scenes
Sound quality is simply “stereo”, not 5.1 or any other home-theater-quality sound
No hi-def content
You have to wait for the entire movie to finish downloading before you can start watching it
You can’t transfer downloaded content between your TiVos or move it to a PC running TiVo Desktop

Other than that, it works pretty good – you log into Unbox with your Amazon credentials, locate a movie you like, click to purchase, tell it which TiVo of yours to download to (if you have more than one), then wait the 30-120 minutes for it to download, depending on the length of the feature and your available download bandwidth.

The big disappointment, however, is the number of titles available for download. When I heard that I would be able to download movies from Amazon directly to my TiVo, I was ecstatic – FINALLY entertainment technology that worked how I wanted it to – I figured with Amazon’s huge selection of DVDs that I would have virtually anything I wanted at my fingertips. But it ain’t so, not by a long shot. As best as I can figure, Amazon carries about 190,000 DVD titles. And how many are available for download to your TiVo? About 3,300. That’s a little less that 2% of the available DVDs. And that makes Unbox extraordinarily frustrating.

Since the service went live a few weeks ago, I’ve looked for, conservatively 150 different titles on Unbox. How many have I found that were actually available? Four. Four measly titles that I’ve wanted to get from Unbox. For this article I combined the top movies from both IMDB and the AFI to get their combined Top 20 films of all time – in other words, the twenty greatest films that have ever been produced according to IMDB and the AFI. Check the table below – one, count ‘em, one of these films is available from Unbox for TiVo:

AFI and IMDB Top 10 Movies of All Time

Title

Available for TiVo

Bruised Apple: The iPod on Windows Experience

Posted on February 1st, 2005 in Music,Product Reviews,Technology by mynagirl

Don’t Stop the Music

I am a listen-to-music-at-work kinda person. Ever since I’ve had a job with enough autonomy and desktime to allow it, I listen to music via headphones while I work. And since I don’t like to have any extraneous apps running on my workstation (much less keep music on a corporate machine), I like to have my music on a device that is disconnected from my actual PC, so I always have something to play my music with. Also, as a former runner, I used to take stuff with me on the hoof. So, I’ve had a few MP3-playing devices in my day.

My most recent device was an iRiver — most specifically, an iRiver 400-series CD player that will play MP3s burned onto CD. (I also have some familiarity with the iRiver solid state MP3 players, having bought the G-I-R-L one for running). The iRiver has a somewhat daunting and extremely tiny interface, but it’s highly customizable once you figure it out. The CD player has limitations, though — a CD can only fit about 200 or so MP3s on it, and after having that same CD at work for a few weeks you get pretty tired of that same mix. Plus, if you buy a new CD and rip those songs into MP3s, you have to re-burn a new MP3 mix CD just to add the 1 or 2 new songs you want to add into the mix. It can be a drag.

Before that I had (and actually, prior to the iPod, still used for exercising) an ancient RCA Lyra device and it’s really unusable — MP3s have to be custom-encoded with specific software in order to get transferred onto the Flash memory through a parallel-port flash reader that’s REALLY SLOW. It’s literally a 30-minute process. You can imagine how often the songs get changed on THAT device… not much incentive to do a 30 minute session on the elliptical when you’ve got the same 15 songs you had 6 months ago waiting for you and your workout.

Under My Thumb

At Christmas, the G-I-R-L (whose Indiana parents use a Mac) came down to visit with an Apple iPod in tow. Although we often had to pry the earbuds out of her ears to get her to actually join family events, I eventually asked her for some details on the little machine and (despite myself) got intrigued. I mean… 20 GB of music right there in such a tiny package is pretty enticing. Plus, we have an auxiliary jack in our Honda Element and the iPod hooks right up to it to put tunes into the car. (The iRiver CD player can do the same thing but it’s much more cumbersome to try and stuff the CD player into the glove box and hook up a power cord, etc).

And I gotta give it to Apple, the clickwheel is a really innovative interface. It feels a bit like an Etch-a-Sketch at first, but it’s a GREAT way to turn the

Review of the NordicTrack CX 995 Elliptical

Posted on August 2nd, 2003 in Product Reviews,Technology by EngineerBoy

We purchased the NordicTrack CX 995 Elliptical Trainer (aka CX995 or NTE1392) recently, directly from the NordicTrack website. The online experience was smooth, and the product was delivered within the promised time frame. Here are our impressions of the unit, so far:

If I Were Already Hercules, I Wouldn’t Need This Thing!

Please note that their delivery company only delivers curb-side, and will not bring the unit inside. They clearly state this in the shipping section, but the full impact does not hit home until the delivery guy leaves you with a 260 lb. cardboard box, secured with straps, sitting on a wooden pallet in your garage. You can take about ¼ of the weight out of the box by schlepping in the smaller bits and pieces, but the main unit, with the attached elliptical ramps, is all in one piece. In our case we were installing the unit in our upstairs bedroom, and getting it upstairs was quite a challenging chore. Be sure you have two strong, competent, affable people to wrangle the thing, because it’s pretty frustrating.

Some Assembly Required, Some More Assembly Required, More and More Assembly Required…!

Assembly is also a bit of a chore, but if you’ve ever bought a complicated piece of furniture from IKEA or some other put-it-together-yourself place, you can probably handle it. Keep in mind that assembly is definitely a two-person activity, as there are several cases where things have to be held in place and aligned, while other things are assembled/inserted/etc. Again, the directions clearly state that two people are needed, so believe it. It took us about 90 minutes to get the thing together.

Oh Baby, That’s Smooth

Once assembled, the first ride was very positive. The machine is extremely solidly built, and the movements are quiet and sure as you ellipse. The machine also comes with a wireless chest pulse sensor, that you wear around your torso, and you can track your heart rate on the console as you work out. There are also heart-rate monitors built into the handgrips if you don’t want to use the wireless one. The handgrip sensors will also measure your body fat percentage (damn them).

The footpads on this model are spaced apart such that the movement feels very natural. We had tried some of the other NordicTrack ellipticals in various sporting goods stores, and the foot pedals were widely spaced, meaning that you were doing a weird sort of bowlegged shuffle instead of a normal-feeling running motion.

The incline of the ramp adjusts electronically, so as you go through your exercise program the unit will hum and you will suddenly be “running” uphill. The motion on this unit is very smooth, and it feels very natural, like running but without the pounding.

This Unit Are Smart

The console provides around 20 different workout programs. They offer such things as hilly terrain, where the slope changes as you run, fat burning, strength training, etc. My favorites are the ones that let you target your heart rate and then the unit automatically varies

Can You Save Your Technology Career?

Posted on August 1st, 2003 in Commentary,Technology by EngineerBoy

Dude, You’re Getting a Career!

Through dumb-luck, I fell ass-backwards into a computer career when I aced my first college computer class back in the dark ages, where I learned Fortran programming using punched cards. I promptly changed my major from Business to Computer Science, and never looked back. When I hit the job market in the early 80′s it was just in time for the blossoming of the Personal Computer (PC) market, which was the Boston Tea Party of the Technological Revolution, and kicked off one of the most explosive periods of technological advancement since the Industrial Revolution.

I rode the first swells of this wave throughout the 80′s, never fearing for my career prospects, and worried only about being able to work with the really cool emerging technologies instead of the old, stale, well-known ones. But as good as I (and my compatriots) had it in the 80′s, nothing could have prepared us for the 90′s, when the rising tide of technology turned into a tidal wave, sweeping over everything else in the business world, drowning some, lifting others, but moving everybody and everything with tremendous, irresistible force.

Those of us who learned to surf this monster had a lot of fun. And after those first violent upheavals, where only the skilled could stay afloat, the wave smoothed out enough that any motivated dork with a boogie board could ride it, too, as long as they stayed in one spot and didn’t try to do anything fancy. The problem with this is that the wave became crowded with neophytes and one-trick ponies who were only surfing the wave because it was trendy and cool, and who made it impossible for truly dedicated riders to enjoy the curl.

But now the wave is getting smaller. Oh, it’s not disappearing, but it’s moving into deeper waters, and becoming a more integrated part of the ocean of business. This is analogous to the Industrial Revolution in America, where the rise of factories and mills created a class of workers who were always in demand, had freedom of movement because there was work everywhere, and could be proud of what they did because it was nothing short of world-changing. The rise of labor unions helped preserve and protect the way of life of a factory worker, and extended this period of economic prosperity for the American working man.

But as heavy industry evolved, it started to develop economies of scale, and to realize that there were skilled workers all over the world, and most, if not all, of them were cheaper than Americans. Also, as technology advanced they found out that automation could be used to reduce the need for human labor, reducing the number of available jobs even more. So industry and labor waged a pitched battle for years, with industry wanting to automate industrial jobs or move them offshore, and labor fighting tooth and nail to preserve the jobs of their members (and therefore keep money in the union’s coffers). But the path was inevitable,

An Open Letter to Palm, Inc.

Posted on June 1st, 2003 in Product Reviews,Technology by EngineerBoy

Way back in the dark ages, I bought my first Palm device – the PalmPilot Pro. It immediately became as indispensable to me as my cell phone, as it enabled me to view, edit, change, and delete calendar appointments, contacts, and tasks while I was out and about, and then synchronize them when I got back to my computer. I used the heck out of it until I lost it, and immediately bought a replacement (used, same make/model) for about 25% of what I originally paid. I used the replacement for several years, then lost it, too. Palm had just announced the forthcoming Palm V, so I waited a couple of months for it to be released before purchasing it.

The Palm V was sleek and small, with a stylish metallic case, sharper graphics, and more memory. I once again used the heck out of it for a couple of years, and then (as you may have guessed, given the pattern so far) eventually lost it. I very badly wanted to replace it immediately, but rumors had begun circulating about a new wireless Palm (the i705, not the Sputnik-sized Palm VII), so I vowed to wait until the release of the new model before making my purchasing decision.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. For almost a year. Palm-less, writing things on sticky-notes, having to *remember* commitments and tasks. It was not fun. Finally Palm announced the upcoming i705. It looked pretty good, bigger than the Palm V, but smaller than the Palm VII, which seemed about right. Integrated, internal antennae, as opposed to the Palm VII’s flip-out, plastic, auto-breaking one. So I weighed my options, between the new color Palms and the wireless, non-color i705, and finally decided that the convenience of wireless won out. I placed my advance order and got my i705 the day after it was released.

It was love at first sight, let me tell you. I activated the wireless service, synched up my information, took it out for a test spin, got my first pro-active, wireless email notification and knew I could never go back to non-wireless. *This* is what a PDA was supposed to do. And I used the heck out of it. *And* we got one for my wife.

And then I began to notice some little, nagging problems. I had to recalibrate my screen every couple of days, because the place I would touch on the screen would be translated by the device to a place near where I touched, but not exactly. And over time it would drift further askew, until it was impossible to do anything. But, recalibration was a 30 second chore, so I figured I could live with it. Also, the gray case was just painted plastic, not metal, and the paint started to flake off almost immediately. This made the device look old and cheap. Eventually the case cracked, right along the edge of the media card slot, which Palm had illogically place directly behind the power button, so