Why You Need a Solid State Hard Drive

***  UPDATE 6/7/12 – See how I corrected a fairly major problem with my particular SSD in this article. ***

I recently upgraded my computer because it was beyond showing its age and was getting to the point that it couldn’t even complete certain tasks anymore.  The component I was looking forward to most was the new hard drive.  Isn’t a hard drive just a hard drive?  Don’t you always get so much more space than you’ll ever use?  Why care about that so much?

TL;DR:  I bought an SSD.  It sped up my computer a lot.  I think everyone would love one and should buy one.

For years I’ve dreamt of the day when really fast hard drives would be commonplace.  Sure, having a multi-core CPU and a killer video card are great, but think about what you wait on most of the time:  stuff loading, saving, and copying.  I imagine a time when the computer truly is just an appliance like TV.  You push a button and it is on and ready to go.  This requires some type of ultra-fast storage.  Enter the solid state drive.

You can think of a solid state drive (SSD) like a USB flash/thumb drive with much higher capacity and a much faster transfer rate.  There are no moving parts.  They are silent (obviously).  Theoretically, they will last longer and are more rugged than standard hard drives.  They use less power and, most importantly for me, they are much much faster.  Although this article at Tom’s Hardware is getting a little long in the tooth, I think it gives a pretty good idea of the typical hard drive vs solid state hard drive speed.  In particular the video on this page gives a good impression of the differences.

Why doesn’t every computer ship with an SSD?  The only reason I can come up with is cost.  When I purchased mine, it cost me about $280 for 256GB.  Ouch!  It was by far the most expensive component of my upgrade.  When I went back to check on the shipment of my order the next day, the price had dropped $50.  A few days after that when a friend asked what I ordered and I went to grab the URL, the price had dropped by $80.  At the time of this writing, the price is back up to $250 so I guess there was a temporary price war with someone.  You can check the current price by clicking here.

You can see that I decided to buy this component from Amazon.  I preferred their return policy on SSD’s over NewEgg’s.  Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t offer a price matching guarantee, but overall I’m happy purchasing the drive through them.

IDIOSYNCRASIES
SSD’s do have a few unusual things that should be taken in to account:
1.  You should never sleep or hibernate an SSD.  In certain cases with certain drives in certain configurations, this can mess them up.  I haven’t read anything about the percentages here, but I gather that it is a small number but large enough to pay attention to.  Besides, SSD’s use so little power when idle, there is much less need to sleep them so why take the risk.

2.  You must never defrag an SSD.  I noticed when I installed Win 7 on my SSD, it automatically turned off defragging on this drive.  Apparently, defragging an SSD can cause it to become non-functional and at the very least puts unnecessary wear on it.  It wouldn’t speed up the operation of it anyway.  Don’t worry, you can reclaim the unused space by…

3.  Do use TRIM.  This is a process that goes in and reclaims the unused space on your SSD once a file is deleted.  If you are running Windows 7, when you install your SSD, it should automatically detect what kind of drive it is and start running TRIM on it.  You can check to see if TRIM is running by doing the following:  1. Open Command Prompt with Administrative privileges (“Run as administrator” when you right-click the command prompt icon is one way)  2. Enter the following command “fsutil behavior query DisableDeleteNotify”  3.  If the result is ‘0’ TRIM is enabled.  I didn’t have to do anything special.  Win 7 detected the SSD and, when I checked, it was running TRIM.  If you don’t run some sort of reclamation software like this, the performance of the drive will degrade the more you use it.  If you don’t run software like this I imagine you’d have to eventually reformat the drive to get it back to a useful speed.  Why not run TRIM though?  It only operates when your computer is idle and it maintains its performance.

4.  Do set your mode to AHCI (or RAID if you are setting up a RAID array) before you install Windows on it.  I ended up having to install Win 7 twice because the first time I didn’t do this properly.  Win 7 still worked but I wasn’t getting all the speed out of the drive that I could.  I honestly don’t know the details, but AHCI works with SSD’s better.  You can see how to set it up in this video (at the 12:00 minute mark) and by following the instructions that came with your motherboard.  NOTE:  I set the BIOS to AHCI for the SSD, but I missed the step to load the AHCI driver before installing Win 7.  Basically, when you insert the CD and start the installation process, you will get to a point where it asks you which drive to install Win 7 on.  Notice down in the lower left-hand corner the button labeled “load driver.”  Now is the time to load the ACHI driver – before Win 7 is installed.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS
Yes, an SSD is a noticeable speed increase.  It isn’t the instant-on for everything that I was hoping for but it is so much faster than a standard hard drive.  Google Chrome loads about a nanosecond after you click on the icon.  Other programs take a little longer.  Windows 7 takes about one minute to be operational from the moment you press the start button (about half the time is the BIOS POST’ing and about half is Win 7 loading from the SSD).  It took about ten minutes to install Win 7 on this drive instead of the suggested 30 minutes for a normal hard drive.

Since SSD’s are silent, I notice the fans in my computer much more now.  What I always used to assume was the sound of the hard drive as a program loaded I now know is the CPU heatsink fan spinning up.

The SSD I have has not made me think of my computer as an appliance just yet, but it has reduced my wait times to almost nothing.  If I had it to do over, I would purchase the exact same SSD and be very happy that I did.  I cannot imagine a situation where a computer user would NOT appreciate the performance boost of an SSD.

Please note that most SSD’s are sized to fit in laptops (2.5” bay) instead of desktops (3.5” bay).  I thought I already had an adapter bracket or that I’d be able to buy one locally.  I was wrong.  Don’t fret.  Every SSD I looked at had a version with a bracket and one without.  Just remember to order the one you need or plan to order the bracket separately as I had to do.  Some of these stand-alone brackets even allow you the option of stacking two SSD’s in a single hard drive bay.  If only I had the money for two SSD’s so I could put them in a RAID array…  There is always something better and faster.

Best Android Apps 2012

As I mentioned before in my iPhone 4S apps article, we’ve upgraded to smartphones finally.  Here are the best apps I’ve found for Android.  Preference is given to free over paid apps.  What I’ve looked for are things that improve the experience of the phone and make it a more useful tool.  I’ve run these apps on a Galaxy Nexus so they work with Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS).  I’ll be the first to admit that they have not been tested extensively by me, but this should be a great starting point for anyone that is new to Android smartphones.

TweetDeck for social media management.  I’ve always liked TweetDeck on the desktop so I’m giving it a whirl on the phone.  It makes me sad that it still doesn’t incorporate Google +.  I picked it over the native Twitter app because it also works with Facebook.  I think I prefer it over the desktop experience since scrolling is so fast and easy.

SeekDroid for tracking and securing a lost or stolen Android phone.  It costs $2.99 so I almost went with the completely free Prey but in the end I went with one that a few sites liked.  You can have your phone play an alarm if you lose it.  You can also track it if it is stolen and even lock and wipe it remotely.   Also, the app’s James Bond icon makes me happy.

Tiny Flashlight + LED is a free app that turns both your camera flash and your display into a flashlight.  The best part is the widget that turns the light on or off without having to go through a series of menus.  Just push the button just like a regular flashlight.  What puts this one over the top for me is that you can also change the color of the light, have it flash Morse Code, and strobe in various warning patterns and colors.

Red Laser scans a wide variety of barcodes and product codes to identify items.  The app will then do cost comparisons from other vendors both online and nearby.  If food is scanned it will provide the nutrition label.  From my few tests it has worked very quickly and accurately.

Astrid is a free top-rated to-do list.  I’m not sure I’m going to use it but it seems to be the best of the bunch.  It is easy to set up tasks.  I love that it has a little stopwatch to time tasks which is great for freelance work that is billed by the hour.  For $1.50 I decided to try Astrid Locale which is supposed to make your to-do lists location sensitive.  This would be great if it worked, but I’ve read complaints of spotty accuracy.  Time will tell.  Basically you can set an alert to say “buy milk” when you arrive at the grocery store.  I’ve got it set to go into vibrate mode whenever I’m at church.  The thing that bugs me is that I had to buy another app to make it work!  Maybe I just missed it in the lingo or didn’t read carefully enough but it wasn’t clear to me that I also needed to buy the app Locale to make it work.  What is worse is that Locale doesn’t have the greatest reviews and is $5.00!  I’ve noticed that Locale has changed my wallpaper once already.  I hope this isn’t more of a hassle than it is worth…

DropBox is the standard way to quickly and easily share large files with many people or just use it to back up documents to the cloud.  If you have a DropBox account (free), it makes sense to have an app to be able to access it on your phone.  The app is simple, straightforward, formatted just like the desktop program, and works well for everything I’ve tried.

My Tracks is a Google product that creates paths overlaid on Google Maps utilizing the GPS receiver in your phone.  You can save the tracks, edit, and annotate them.  It seems to work fine.  I’m hopeful that this will be nice software to have when I go hiking and want to share my route with others.  Google reminds you that your GPSr really drains the battery on your phone.  They mentioned that it will reduce most phones to a five-hour operating window.  If you don’t need to see the map as you record your path, they recommend switching over to airplane mode to extend the battery life.  You will still be able to record your path but it will be overlaid on a grey background instead of the map until you turn your other antennas back on.

Shazam is a song identification app.  Simply hold your phone near the music you are listening to and it will attempt to identify it as well as provide the lyrics.  I was only able to stump it with one relatively well-known chiptune song.  Sadly, it didn’t recognize any of my singing or humming.  I wanted to try SoundHound but any link I clicked on for it in the Google Apps store was dead.

iTriage helps you determine what you might need to do or which doctor you might need to see based on symptoms you tell it.  It then gives you a list of the nearest places to get that treatment.  It was really a toss up for me between this app and WebMD.  Both look good but the little info video for iTriage is funnier and it has many more reviews than WebMD.  I know they aren’t the best reasons to make a decision but it doesn’t look like you can go wrong with either one.

Google Chrome web browser is my favorite for desktop browsing.  It is a cool idea that the tabs you have open on your desktop will be open on your phone.  Basically it sounds like the syncing that occurs with Gmail but in browser form.  It is supposed to be faster than the built-in ICS browser on my phone.  Unfortunately, it is still in beta and according to the reviews is prone to crash.  I’ll keep my eyes on this one, but I’m not installing it for now.

While it isn’t the most practical app, Sky Map is probably the app that I was looking forward to the most.  With Sky Map you simply point your phone at the sky and it tells you what celestial bodies you are looking at.  You can also put in the name of an object and it will direct you to it.  I have found it to be roughly accurate.  In other words, things didn’t line up exactly where I hoped they would, but it was obvious what was supposed to be what.  Some of the reviews lead me to believe it is either a bug with the Nexus or the ICS implementation.  So maybe it will work even better on your phone.  Go get it.  It is free, simple to use, and I really love it.

Geocaching was a must have app for me.  Melanie and I love geocaching.  If you don’t know about this game check it out at www.geocaching.com.  It makes spur-of-the-moment caching a breeze.  Just turn on the app, see if something is hidden nearby, find it, and log it directly from the program.  I recommend going in to the settings and changing it to show only caches that you haven’t found because it doesn’t have icons to make those distinction on the map (On the website version smilies show caches you’ve found and boxes show caches you haven’t).

Movies by Flixter is the full name of what everyone refers to as Flixter.  It is a simple fast app to see movies, theatres, and show times but the real power is that it is tied in to the Rotten Tomatoes rating system making it a pretty complete movie selection app.  Very useful.

Pandora’s app for Android is probably not as practical as their desktop software.  This app can consume a huge amount of data unless you are on a wi-fi network so beware.  It runs smoothly and works well though.  Just in case you haven’t heard of Pandora, it is personalized radio over the internet.  You enter an artist or genre of music and a station is created around it.  You don’t have control of exact songs that are played but they are pretty good about sticking with the theme you set and you can certainly hear a much wider variety of music than you’d ever find on the radio.

WordPress is a decent little app if you have a blog on WordPress.com or use their software to host your own WordPress site.  You can see your stats or post stuff to your blog.

Yelp is a great tool not only for reading reviews of restaurants, but for finding local shops that are difficult to find online otherwise.  For example, my barber is listed in Yelp but a Google search will not turn it up.  The website is really fantastic for tracking down local independent places to eat.  I’m not completely convinced the Android app is quite as good as the website, but it is certainly easier to navigate when using a phone.

Dictionary.com may even work a little bit better than the website.  Fast and easy to use.  Plus, with text-to-speech you can make it say “fart.”

Google Translate is pretty neat and I think it will become a very good product in a short while.  Using the already excellent speech recognition software built in to ICS you can simply speak a word or phrase and translate it into one of about 50 languages which will be written and spoken.  It seems to do a very good job translating English to other languages, but not quite as good of a job going the other way.  I tried a little French, Spanish, and Chinese with limited success.  Of course, it could be operator error.  I did get an F in French one quarter.  On the bright side, I can confirm that it does an excellent job translating “fart” into Chinese and back to English.

Hanping Chinese Dictionary works very well from my limited ability to test it.  It got all the Chinese words I still remember.

Wikipedia Because many arguments can be quickly settled with a trip to the website, why not get there quicker and easier with the app?

ESPN ScoreCenter is one free convenient place to get all of the scores from all of the games and a little bit of news.  You can customize one page to follow the specific teams you like. Yahoo! Sportacular appears to be a worthy competitor.

GateGuru may takeoff as a one-stop app to get you through airports easily.  I like it because it provides a list of places to eat and shop and a map of the airport.  It is obviously set up to rely on crowdsourcing for ratings, wait times in security lines, etc.  This will work well if the user base grows.  As of now it seems that some of this info is woefully out of date, but I’ll keep it for the terminal maps if nothing else.

Google Goggles is not quite ready for primetime but is such a neat concept and it does work more than half of the time so it makes the list.  Basically it turns your camera into a Google search option.  Take a picture of a logo and it will take you to the company website.  Take a picture of a famous piece of art and it will identify it (I tried it on two movie posters and made sure to leave out the text and it got them both).  Translate foreign signs.  Scan barcodes.  They want to get it to the point where it can identify a plant by its leaves.  That would be really neat!  Similar to this is Layar where you hold up your camera and it overlays info about what you are looking at.  Seems like it would be great for sightseeing.  Supposedly too much unorganized info where it works and it only works well in the biggest cities so I didn’t try it.

Light Flow Lite – LED Light Control does just what it says.  If you have a phone with a notification light, this may be something you like.  It allows you to change the color of the notification light but it also allows you to organize how all of your notifications are handled.  I got it mostly to be able to play with the color of the notification light.

UltraChron Stopwatch Lite  is a voice-controlled stopwatch and countdown timer.  It has the option to countdown to zero by voice alert followed by an alarm.  It has editable laps.  It continues working and the alarm will still go off even if your phone goes to sleep.  Basic, simple to use, helpful.  The only issue is that it is rather ugly.

Let me know other great apps I should try.

How I Kicked Cable TV and cut the Cord in 2012: Part Two – The Plan

As  I detailed in this post, we had been thinking of ditching cable TV for a while and finally reached the tipping point about a week ago.

We have both had cable TV almost our entire lives and had the ability to time-shift programs for at least six years using Tivo.  Don’t get me wrong, we love Tivo and would still have the service if we intended to keep cable TV.  I can’t remember the last time we watched a show live or even looked at a TV guide and it has been wonderful.  We just told Tivo the shows we liked and watched whatever it had recorded the previous day.  We even chose to delay watching football games about 45 minutes just to be able to fast forward though the commercials.

When it came time to find a cable alternative we knew we wanted the time-shifting ability.  Now there are so many shows and movies available on demand for a flat monthly fee we thought that just maybe we didn’t need to worry about a DVR anymore.

Our Goals
1.  Watch TV within a day of broadcast
2.  Watch movies within a year of broadcast
3.  Have access to all of our favorite shows
4.  Be able to time shift anything we are watching

This would be incredibly simple if Hulu Plus had deals with all of the TV content providers.  You’d need a relatively high-speed internet connection. Then you’d just use hardware to stream media from your computer to your TV.  Content would come from Hulu Plus for current TV and movies would come from Netflix.  In fact, for many people this solution would be great right now.  They could cut their cable bill significantly and receive all the same TV plus a lot more movies.  For other folks with very basic cable, they would be able to receive many times more high quality content than they currently get for about the same cost.

The killer for us is that we apparently don’t like the same shows that most Americans do.  So to get the programs we look forward to the most we are going to have to do some extra work.

Below is a chart comparing our existing system to what we are in the process of assembling right now.  Once we’ve had some time to test it out, I’ll report back with what works and what doesn’t.

This system is going to have some drawbacks for us:
1.  We are going to be paying about the same amount.  Yes, we will get A LOT more stuff to watch but that isn’t a priority.  We already have more to watch than we ever do.
2.  We are going to have to put up with commercials on Hulu Plus.
3.  We may not have access to all the shows we want to watch.
4.  Live sports may be a real problem.

If you are interested in the options we looked into before deciding to try this plan, please read this post.  Check back later to see how this system worked out.  Better yet, subscribe to this blog through your favorite social media site so you’ll know exactly when we update.

How I Kicked Cable TV and cut the Cord in 2012: Part One – The Options

I will be doing at least three posts on this subject.  Check back for future entries where I’ll update you after I’ve had time to install and test various components of my solution.  You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, or have posts emailed to you.

About a month ago I got my final warning from Comcast that all-digital TV would soon be here (4/3/12) and I needed to make preparations.  For most people this would not be a big deal but we still have an old CRT TV that we inherited from my parents when they upgraded.  Because the TV isn’t digital we would have to get a converter box.  Hassle.  Our Tivo would only be able to use one of its tuners.  Problem.  Add in the additional cost of cable and Tivo’s monthly fee and we reached the tipping point.

I did some research on the current cable TV alternatives.  You can see my thoughts on each below or just  jump to this article to see my actual plan if you have a really short attention span.

Be forewarned, my exact solution may not be the best for you.  You will have to have a high speed internet connection.  If you can stream movies to your computer, your connection should work fine.  Also, you may have to live without live sports.  This is the deal breaker for many people.  I don’t watch a lot of sports so I may be ok, but the ones I follow I want to be able to see.  I’ve watch live legal football games on my computer before so I’m hopeful this will pan out.

Current Cable TV Alternatives
Hardware
Roku  is a box about the size of a deck of cards that you attach to your TV.  It is designed with one purpose in mind:  streaming content from your computer/internet connection to your TV.  It is supposed to be a plug and play simple solution.  It uses a remote so the experience should be more like watching TV rather than pulling up videos on a computer.
Pro’s  Small, cheap, no monthly fee, simple to use, fast (some devices like this are supposed to lag pretty badly), wide variety of content (Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc),  wireless and Ethernet connection options, works with digital and analog TV’s.
Con’s  Does not support Flash-based media like YouTube natively (There are work arounds though).  You must have a high speed internet connection for this device to work properly.  By default, you don’t have complete access to media on your computer.  That means if you have videos saved on your hard drive that you want to watch on your TV or you want to watch a show from a website that hasn’t partnered with Roku, there isn’t a built-in solution.  I understand the need to prevent people from illegally watching movies that they have torrented however a lot of legal content is left out in the cold too like YouTube and broadcast channels like PBS.  There are supposed to be several legal workarounds for this problem but they aren’t obvious because Roku (the company) doesn’t support them in any way.
My thoughts:  The lead-painted plaster and brick walls of my house pose an almost impenetrable barrier to wireless signals so having an Ethernet connection is critical.  The ability to connect to analog TV’s is also critical for me.  Unfortunately, only the top-end Roku has an Ethernet port so that meant a choice between a Roku 2 XS or a Roku 1 XDS.  The XS is newer, faster, and comes with a better remote which works off Bluetooth so you don’t need line-of-sight like the XDS’s IR remote.  Until fairly recently (9/2011), the XS did not work with PlayOn (detailed below).  Apparently this problem has been sorted out so now both the XDS and XS work with PlayOn.  Here is a pretty good review of the Roku 2 XS.  http://reviewhorizon.com/2011/07/roku-2-xs-review/

Blu-ray Player or Game Console  Many have the ability to stream online media or content from your computer like a Roku player.  I didn’t even consider these because we are hoping to skip Blu-ray entirely and just stream HD content whenever we upgrade the TV.  We don’t play enough games to justify a game console.  A Roku player is cheaper and less obtrusive than any of these solutions so that is what I focused on.

Redbox is one you shouldn’t forget.  They offer old-fashioned DVD’s from vending machines.  They are consistently the cheapest pay-per-title place.
Pro’s Cheap, good selection, excellent choice when multiple rentals are to be made at once.
Con’s Inconvenient, can be more expensive than other choices once gas to and from the vending machine is factored in.
My Thoughts:  It amazes me how many people do NOT use their computer to find and reserve their movies before they go to the kiosks.  Go to the website, make sure the movie you want is there, reserve it, and then when you show up at the physical location all you have to do is swipe your credit card and all your movies vend.  I’ve also heard that an online streaming option like Netflix is in the works.

Ceton is a company that makes computers and computer components specifically targeted at viewing media on your TV.
Pro’s  Looks like an all-inclusive solution, could be a decent price for what you get.
Con’s  May be too much of a techy experience rather than a casual TV experience.
My Thoughts:  At half the price, I’ll try a Roku player first.

Simple TV is basically a DVR for over-the-air digital channels.  It has the capability for season pass recording like Tivo (a critical component of a DVR in my opinion).
Pro’s  Expensive for features offered, simple to use, season pass recording, streams content wirelessly to any device in range (iPad, computer, etc)
Con’s Season pass is $5/mo subscription, limited to locally broadcast stations, single tuner (but multiple units can be ganged together to for multiple tuners), no hard drive included for recording (but is easy to install via USB), not available until “Spring 2012.”
My Thoughts:  Antenna digital is supposed to provide the best picture quality so with this setup your channels are free and you get a high quality image.  This might be a solution once the price starts dropping.  I can’t see paying $150 for a single tuner item that only gets over-the-air channels, requires a $5/mo subscription for what I think is a critical season pass feature, and requires that I provide a hard drive to record it on.  At $25-50 this item begins to make sense.  Then you could gang two together and really have a nice solution for local channel recording.

Axio TV appears to be a combination of a Roku player and a Simple TV with some Tivo thrown in.  It can DVR over-the-air channels as well as subscribing to streaming media a la carte.  Curiously it has two different websites here and here.
Pro’s  Compiles many features in one box?
Con’s  Expensive.  It won’t be available until “Summer 2012.”
My Thoughts:  I’ll admit I don’t really understand this product.  I buy a box for $200 then I pay $15/mo in a subscription fee then I have to pay for the content I want to watch on it.  That sounds like Tivo’s strategy which I’m trying to get away from.  It also sounds like Roku’s strategy but the Roku box is half that price and I don’t have to pay a monthly subscription fee.  Of course with Roku there is no built-in option for live TV.  Axio TV isn’t available now so there really is no point pursuing this one further until it is.

Google TV looks very exciting to me, but just isn’t ready for prime time yet.  As Google is good at doing, they appear to have put an umbrella over all kinds of media and made it searchable for easy access.  Google TV incorporates live TV, on demand TV, movies, pictures posted by you/family/friends, YouTube, web surfing via Chrome all with the ability to utilize picture-in-picture.  It is even designed to allow creators to write apps for it.
Pro’s  Every type of media you could want available on your TV.  No monthly fee.
Con’s  Slow to change channels, seems to require cable TV to have access to channel guide, may not be able to do season pass recording, current iterations of hardware are prone to crashing, a few (many?) media outlets (like Hulu) are blocking Google TV from accessing content.
My Thoughts:  This thing seems like it is still in beta testing.  Not an option for me.  The biggest problems with this system are the hardware, which Google doesn’t supply, and the deals they don’t have in place with some providers to allow content to be shown on the system.  These are both challenges that can be overcome and with some time, maybe they will be.  There are currently two hardware choices: Sony NSZ-GT1 Wi-Fi-Enabled 1080p Blu-ray Disc Player Featuring Google TV for ~$200 or Logitech Revue for ~$160.  Apparently some TV’s have or will have hardware to access Google TV built-in.

Apple TV is very similar to Roku.
Pro’s  Well-made equipment, low price.
Con’s  Slower and supposedly slightly harder to use than Roku, limited sources for video (supports Netflix and iTunes and not much more), only works with HD TV’s.
My Thoughts:  Unless you already have a lot of Apple hardware in your house, I don’t see a reason to pick this over Roku.  Even then I think it is still hard to pick Apple TV over Roku.  Maybe I’m missing some sort of Mac-only feature that would make this a winner, but until Apple has a lot more content options, I don’t see the point of this one.

Boxee  is designed to bring the internet to your TV.  It appears to have a very nice interface.  Many people really like this system.
Pro’s  Low cost way to bring the internet to your TV, can watch live over-the-air TV with a dongle.
Con’s  Much less focus on TV and movies than other choices or at least a smaller selection at this time. Cannot DVR anything from the live TV dongle.
My Thoughts:  There are a dedicated group of fans for Boxee so it must be doing some things right.  I’ve read some comments that suggest the hardware it currently runs on is not the greatest but the software is great.  Not being able to record live over-the-air TV is a huge miss.  If they get that straightened out this could be a good cable alternative.  If you are not in the market for a solution right now, I’d keep an eye on these guys.  A future product from them could be a real winner.

Software
Hulu Plus  This monthly subscription service provides access to many current broadcast and cable TV shows.
Pro’s  Access to most TV shows the day after broadcast, ability to watch shows on multiple platforms with one account (iPad, Roku’ed TV, smartphone, etc.).
Con’s  Monthly fee, not all channels or shows are supported (CBS and PBS are two big gaps), you still have to watch ads even though you are paying a fee.
My Thoughts:  Hulu is different from Hulu Plus.  Hulu is free but is blocked from all portable devices (and the Roku).  Hulu Plus is supposed to have a much wider variety of programming and with a more extensive backlog.  I would gladly subscribe to this service along with Netflix and be done.  Unfortunately, many of our favorite shows are on PBS and CBS so we’ll need some other service(s) to fill the gaps.

Netflix  is another monthly subscription service.  While primarily known as a movie viewing service, Netflix provides access to many TV shows (including TV shows from HBO) once they are about year old.  I’ve read that about the time a TV show is packaged for DVD release, it is available on Netflix.  Movies are released a little after they are available on DVD.  I’ve read that it is about the same time they are available on Redbox.
Pro’s  Large selection of movies and TV shows.
Con’s  Monthly fee, both movies and TV shows available are not current
My Thoughts:  The Roku is supposed to have been designed specifically to stream Netflix so the two should work very well together.  The amount of content that Netflix has is very impressive for the low monthly payment.

PlayOn turns most (all?) audio and video media viewable on your computer into a selectable channel on a Roku player.  This is supposed to include media saved to the computer’s hard drive as well as content streamed from the internet.
Pro’s  Fills the content gap between Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Con’s  Supposedly a little finicky to work with.  The PlayOn website even says  something like “Try it.  If it doesn’t work, then it probably won’t no matter what settings or configuration changes you make.”  It is not supported by Roku.  It has a monthly fee.
My Thoughts:  I’ve seen many reviews for the Roku that include comments about PlayOn.  Most say that it is a great way to get the additional stations and shows that cannot be found otherwise.  It has also been mentioned that Roku does not like PlayOn and offers no support for them.  I’m going to try one of the free services that supposedly does the same thing as PlayOn first.

Plex supposedly works like PlayOn but it is free.
Pro’s  Fills the content gap between Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Con’s  Supposedly easy to install, but can also be a little finicky.
My Thoughts:  This is what I plan to try first.  Here is a video review of it in action.  It is available for the Roku but, seeing that it was just released at the beginning of this month, I expect that it may not work 100% correctly.

Vudu is a movie streaming service like Netflix.
Pro’s  No monthly fee, movies guaranteed to be available the same day they come out on DVD.
Con’s  Pay per download, not available on Roku (as of now), owned by Walmart.
My Thoughts:  Since it isn’t available on Roku I won’t be using it.  I’m never as concerned about seeing movies right when they are released so using Netflix and Amazon On Demand should easily meet my desires.

Amazon Prime  is a multi-use service.  You get access to cheaper and faster shipping of goods bought through Amazon.com, the ability to share digital books, and all-you-can-stand-to-watch movies and TV.
Pro’s  If you are already a Prime member “free” videos are a nice feature.
Con’s  The most limited selection of content of any of the choices listed here.  Must buy an annual subscription instead of monthly.  Easy to confuse free Prime content with pay-as-you-go Amazon Instant Video when browsing media on Amazon.com.
My Thoughts:  I’d be an opposite customer for them.  Most people get Prime for great shipping options and watch free video as a perk.  I’d get it if they had an excellent video selection and the shipping would be icing on the cake.

Amazon Instant Video  is the only service we’ve actually used on this list yet.  It works with our Tivo and so far the performance has been flawless.  We have only downloaded movies and TV shows so I don’t know how well the streaming service works yet.
Pro’s  Many movies and TV shows available about the same time they are available on DVD.  Trusted internet company for financial transactions.  Good customer service.  Run deals offering free and 99 cent movies/content from time to time.
Con’s  Pay-as-you go can get quite expensive with this service – especially if you are using it to watch a TV series.
My Thoughts:  A good back up for when you absolutely “must” see that movie right now and Redbox + gas is more expensive or you just feel lazy and don’t want to leave the house.

Other Software
The following is a list of other software that you may find helpful.  I’ll only look into these options if I don’t get what I want from the software listed above.

Roksbox creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer

Chaneru creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer

roConnect creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer

Gabby creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer

NokNok creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer?
Notes: Links at the bottom of the site don’t work.  Links at the top do.  Not available yet?

Tversity allows you to stream stuff to the Roku player?

If all of these options have your head reeling, just wait for the next article which will focus on my specific plan.

The Best Apps for the iPhone 4s in 2012

We upgraded from our stupid phones to smart ones very recently and Melanie chose an iPhone 4s.  She loves it and is quickly adapting to life with the internet in her pocket.  Checking around with friends and various websites revealed a few of the best apps for the iPhone 4s.

Our criteria:  free, available through Apple’s app store, useful

Overdrive – This one is required to by our local library to download e-books and audiobooks.  So far we like it.
Redlaser – Bar code scanner.  This one seems to be the defacto standard for scanning products for more info and price comparison when shopping.
Runkeeper – Turns your phone into a GPS running watch.
Shazaam – Identifies songs by listening to them.
Web MD – For viewing the website.  I don’t know if this one will work out to be any better than just going through the browser.
Wikipedia – For viewing the website.  I don’t know if this one will work out to be any better than just going through the browser.  Oftentimes what you want to find out is info from Wikipedia so this a quick way to get to it.
Yelp – For viewing the website.  I don’t know if this one will work out to be any better than just going through the browser.  Great for finding local establishments.  When looking for my barber shop I could not find them even using a Google search but they were on Yelp.
Mapquest – Turn-by-turn directions.  It is tricky to find a free Garmin-style navigation program it seems.  Mapquest has worked for Melanie so far.
Gmail – Melanie wanted a separate app to view personal email.  It keeps labels intact unlike the built-in email app.  It is supposed to be able to do searches much faster too.
Dataman – Can set up a warning as you approach your monthly data limit.
Flixster – Movie app.  Haven’t tried it yet.
iHandy Flashlight – One of many flashlight apps.  This one also allows the light to strobe.
Grocery IQ – For making grocery lists.
Pandora – For streaming music.
Geocaching – This app by Groundspeak is the only app on this list that costs something.  It is $10 but it is an all-in-one geocaching app.  You can look up, find, and log geocaches all from this one app.  It makes geocaching a zero-prep event so you can just focus on playing.

Many of these apps Melanie has only had a chance to try out once or twice so I don’t know how robust they are.

Here are a few more that were recommended but she didn’t want:
Wunderlist – To do list.
Seesmic – Puts Twitter and Facebook stuff in one place.
Peak.ar – Tells you the height of nearby mountains just by pointing your camera at them.
Olive Tree Bible Reader – The only app on this additional list that costs money.  There are free ones available but this one is supposed to be very good.   Of course, I like the website http://www.biblegateway.com very much.

What other apps do you highly recommend?

100 Push Ups

Have you ever been able to do 100 push ups in a row?  I didn’t think so.  Wouldn’t it be cool if you could?  What if I told you there was a simple 15-minute program that could take you from lump to push up master?

A friend of mine went from being able to do just a few (maybe none) to 100 in a row on her toes in just a few weeks.  She said the secret was the free program at www.hundredpushups.com.

I looked over the schedule at hundredpushups.com and was impressed.  It meets you at whatever level of fitness you have and builds you up from there.  If you can’t even do one push up it has other exercises you can do until you can.  From there it tests you and puts you into a specific track for training.

So far I’ve found it to be just about a perfect balance.  When you finish you don’t feel injured but later that day your muscles feel worked.  I’ve read and been told that optimal exercise wears you out but doesn’t break you down.  It is tricky to balance an optimal work out against one that is damaging but if you can strike that balance your body is supposed to respond the quickest.

Because you are focusing on only one exercise, it would be easy for anyone to fit this program into any schedule because an entire day’s workout can’t take more than 15 minutes.  Admittedly I’m starting in better shape than the average person who might undertake this program, but so far I’ve found that I don’t even really breathe that hard and have yet to break a sweat doing it.  My point is that I think just about anyone that has the desire can successfully follow this program.

They have a rudimentary program to track and share progress on the site but I have not been able to get it to work for two people on the same computer so I’m just tracking our results on a spreadsheet.  They have a smart phone app but I don’t have a smart phone so I can’t speak to that.

I mentioned on Facebook that we were starting the program and invited anyone interested to join us.  Several people have taken up the challenge and we tested this past weekend and started on Monday (1/9/12).  If you are interested in tracking your progress and want the subtle accountability and inspiration of publishing your results online, please feel free to use the comments section below for that purpose.

When you finish this program, start mixing in some of the other programs.  They have plans for squats, dips, pull ups and more.

Do something good for your body!

Ricotta-Filled Orange French Toast

In the second recipe post of the week I’m going to reveal a secret family recipe that my mom has been using to wow visitors for years.  It will be perfect for your overnight or early morning holiday guests.

This recipe is simple, delicious and impressive looking.  The best part is that you prep it the day before so the morning it is to be served it just needs to be popped in the oven.  So far we’ve never had anyone turn their nose up at it and, in fact, when it was prepared just a few weeks ago, one of our guests photographed it to show his wife.

There is very little to say about this recipe other than it is a good one to personalize.  Basically, you are cutting a loaf of french bread into slices, stuffing it with a flavored ricotta cheese filling and soaking it in a flavored egg mixture to make fancy pants french toast.  It calls for oranges but you could substitute your favorite citrus.  We’ve tried tangerines to great effect (I think I like the taste even better than orange).  You can top them with maple syrup, butter that has orange rind in it, confectioner’s sugar or nothing at all.  If you use confectioner’s sugar you can get really extreme and place a stencil or doily on the toast to create a pattern.

You may want to half the recipe if you don’t have guests to feed.  One batch (as shown in the recipe below) makes about 16 pieces of toast and, depending on what else you serve, an adult can eat two pieces.

One last note, I use three tablespoons of sugar in the eggs and six in the filling but the original calls for two and four respectively.  I have a sweet tooth.  What can I say?  I also like eating them plain so that may be part of the reason.  Oh, and I also prefer two teaspoons of orange rind but the original recipe calls for one.

Ricotta-Filled Orange French Toast (Printable PDF)
Makes about 16 pieces of toast – about 8 servings

(2) 10oz loaves french bread
FILLING
6 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups ricotta cheese

EGG MIXTURE
6 eggs
3/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 Tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Grand Marnier, Triple Sec or Brandy (optional)

Cut bread in thick slices (about 2″).  Placing a slice on its side on a cutting board and supporting it from the edges where your hand won’t get cut, cut a pocket into one side of the bread.  Repeat for all other slices.  Mix sugar, vanilla and ricotta cheese to make filling and stuff slices with filling.  Place stuffed toast in (2) 9″ x 13″ pans.  Mix together ingredients for egg mixture and pour over stuffed toast.  Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours but preferably overnight flipping toast over halfway through the soak.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Wrap a cookie sheet in aluminum foil and spray liberally with cooking spray.  Place toast on cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until golden making sure to flip toast halfway through cooking.  If you do not coat the foil with enough spray, the toast will stick.

Rosemary and Strawberry Christmas Tree Scones

Hi guys.  This week I’ll be posting two short articles in time to help with your holiday entertaining needs.  Today’s article is an idea that my mom had to modify this recipe for rosemary and strawberry scones turning it into a holiday treat.  Just be sure to watch anyone who shows up with a large purse very closely.  Once they try them, the temptation to shovel the rest into their handbag may be overwhelming.

First let me say that the original recipe is great on its own.  The combination of the sweet fruity strawberry jelly and the bright lemon icing counterbalances the  robust woodsy rosemary flavor creating a scone that is unexpected, complex and delicious.  When you add the Christmas tree shape, it just makes things better.

Step One.  Get a four inch Christmas Tree Cookie Cutter.  I noticed that Williams-Sonoma had them for $7 but I found one that worked just fine at a Michael’s craft store for $4.  They appear to be a seasonal item and were on an island display in the front of the store I visited.

The Cookie Cutter I Used

Step Two.  Get this rosemary and strawberry scone recipe.

Step Three.  Follow recipe as directed substituting Christmas tree cookie cutter.  Pay attention to the icing notes below.

* Makes twelve Christmas tree scones.
* Scones look better without icing but may not be sweet enough for some palettes.
* Recommend adding lemon juice slowly to the powdered sugar for icing.  In my case, I didn’t need any additional water and would have preferred even a little less lemon juice so that the icing would have been stiffer and could have been drizzled on the sconces (like a white garland) instead of having something so runny that it made an even coating over the whole cookie.

Icing is Runny - Coats Evenly But No Decoration is Possible - Suggest Thickening

*  If you don’t use a ruler when rolling out your dough, I recommend guessing a little thicker than 1/2″ instead of thinner.  The scones have a better feel at this size – a little more scone-y and less cookie-ish.
*  Offset the Christmas ball jelly ornaments instead of lining them up like I did.  I was afraid to get them too close to the edge of the cookie but the jelly didn’t really spread at all during cooking.  Unfortunately, it does stain the white icing around it making the scones look a little bruised once the icing is applied.
*  I tried substituting raspberry jelly thinking that it might be more Christmas flavored.  It is fine but strawberry is better.

Overall, this recipe is extremely easy.  It is certainly no harder than making chocolate chip cookies, but the sophisticated flavor will have your party guests spoiling their appetites if you put them out before dinner is served.  Hooray for holiday gluttony!

A Faux Treatise on Doughnuts and The Donut Shoppe

DOUGHNUTS
While I try to eat healthy most of the time, I’m no stranger to junk food and I love doughnuts (or donuts – both deliciously acceptable spellings).  In high school it wasn’t unusual to tuck into a cruller or Bavarian creme at Krispy Kreme after everything else but Krystal had shut down for the night.  With the slowing of my metabolism, I have to be more intentional about how often I eat these treats and, therefore, more selective when I spend the calories in my doughnut bank.

I’ve never had a doughnut better than Krispy Kreme.  Of course, I’m only talking about those that you get directly from one of their stores.  The hideous hardboard franken-nuts available at gas stations and grocery stores only share the green box and name with the genuine article.  If you want to tell me that Dunkin’ Donuts are a viable alternative, get out of my blog you lightly-sweetened bread eater!  You might as well have a piece of frosted toast.

Generally a shop can be judged on their plain glazed doughnut because there is almost always a direct correlation between the plain and the fancies.  When hot, it should dissolve almost without chewing like angel’s breath, cotton candy or a dream.  When room temp, it should have some chew but still be delicious and never too bready or greasy.  These magical properties must surely come from a recipe that is both 100% fat and 100% sugar.

I’ve heard many times before about how this local doughnut place is better or that doughnut shop is best.  In every case, the statement has been a lie.  Recently, a trusted doughnuteer recommended a local place I’d never heard of –  The Donut Shoppe.  I was immediately skeptical, but he assured me that the doughnuts were great – “the best,” in fact.  “They aren’t like Dunkin’ are they?”  “Of course not.”  “They’re really the best?”  “They are great.”  “Better than Krispy Kreme?”  “Wellll… As good as.  You should try them.”

He had withstood my withering cross-examination.  Maybe, just maybe, I’d found a Krispy Kreme alternative.  Dare I dream?  Perhaps even a new doughnut king?  I had to give them a try.

THE DONUT SHOPPE

There it is in the Righthand Corner

The Donut Shoppe is located in Jacksonville, Florida in the Arlington neighborhood close to Jacksonville University.  As with almost all really great local one-off establishments there are Soup Nazi quirks and rules.  In the case of this place I’d been forewarned of two things:

1. Get there early.  These guys don’t play.  They make what they make and when they sell out they shut down for the day.  Arrive after 10 am and you won’t have much selection.  Arrive after noon and you’ll probably be greeted by a locked door.

2.  Know what you want by the time you get to the counter.  The line will probably be kinda long and the store is tiny so others can’t go around you and they don’t want to wait forever on you.  The staff will be polite but they keep things moving.

With the rules fresh in my mind, I pulled up to the shop one weekday morning around 9am.  I’d been told parking is a problem and that wasn’t a joke.  Every available legal and illegal spot had been filled at the shop and the connected gas station.  I ended up pulling around the corner and parking at a mini-park.

As I approached the front door I noticed the line of happy people extending out of it.  There was even a vacationing family getting a group photo in front of the building.  All signs were pointing to yum.  My wait was short lived as the line moved at a steady clip.  I got to the glass case and noticed a variety of old standards.  This would not be a crazy combo place like Voodoo Doughnut (another shop I’d desperately love to visit) but its lineup could certainly compete with Krispy – perhaps even topple it, I thought.

Soon it was my turn and I cracked off an order for a plain glazed, custard-filled, lemon-filled and an apple fritter (trail plop).  Confident that I had selected an excellent cross section of the available ‘nuts, I paid, returned to my car and headed home to test.

Look at the Size of that Fritter

I wish I could be more dramatic about the actual tasting but they were exactly what I expected them to be – deliciously predictable.  With my advanced planning, I had forgone breakfast so I was able to shovel all of them into my gut not wasting a single bite or saving any for a later snack.  It was the equivalent of five doughnuts in one sitting.  I’d be sorry later, but at the time I couldn’t have been happier.

The verdict:  As good as Krispy Kreme.  Please note, I was not able to compare any hot off the presses so they may fall a little flat there but this is the highest praise I’ve ever given a non-Krispy doughnut.  In addition, with this place you get the “in the know”/local-secret excitement when you visit.  I would definitely go back and would recommend it to anyone.  Well, not to a diabetic.

THE DONUT SHOPPE
1721 University Blvd N
Jacksonville, FL 32211
(904) 743-1844

Pro tip:  I’ve since learned that you can call in an order.  Do it.  That way you are assured you’ll get something before you drive over.

The Donut Shoppe on Yelp

The Donut Shoppe on Urban Spoon

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I’ve been trying to get The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on audiobook from our library for ages.  It is extremely popular but my patience finally paid off a couple of weeks ago when I was able to check out a copy.  I had heard nothing but good things about it and the story quickly captured my attention.  Unfortunately, this book has some problems…

Was it a fast-paced book perfect for listening to on a long trip?  Kinda.  It was exciting. Not as fast-paced as something like a Reacher book.

Were the characters interesting?  Very.  The most compelling part of the book was the two main characters.  Believable and unique.

What about the setting?  Great.  It was wonderful to have it set in a location that you don’t read about much.  Added a whole other layer of interest.

What’s the problem?  Waaay too much casual sex and graphic depictions of rape.  I didn’t understand why a perfectly good story had to be completely ruined by that crap.  If it was that central to the story it could have certainly been hinted at like the murder in an Agatha Christie novel.  The author went overboard and he did it on multiple occasions.

It was a very memorable and well-written book but I couldn’t recommend it to anyone.