Props to Hulu.

We’ve caught up on all the Hulu shows we watch, no new ones for a couple of months. There is really nothing we need from them until the new season is available. Went to cancel my subscription, with the intent of re-starting in April or May. Hey — they let you “pause” your subscription for up to 12 weeks. Sweet!! Exactly what I needed to do. Thanks for anticipating our needs, guys.

Dumping Hulu

Hulu was more or less OK, but we’re switching to DirecTV Now. Same price, but they have AMC AND a program guide. How did I ever miss the fact that Hulu doesn’t carry AMC?? I have no idea, but that’s a deal breaker. And I got really freakimg tired of no program guide, and being forced to scroll through the crap networks we don’t EVER watch, every time I wanted to see what’s on.

DirecTV Now isn’t perfect but so far it beats Hulu for streaming live TV. We may pick up basic Hulu from time to time if we want to catch up on some of their series, but I’m not keeping them on the payroll any more.

Hulu Support contacted me via Twitter to say they do have a program guide. Let’s just say their idea of what qualifies as a program guide differs from mine. You can get a listing of what is on RIGHT NOW, and the next show on each channel. No indication of whether a show is new or a rerun. No time grid to see what’s on later. No way to filter the channel list other than very recently viewed channels, or scroll through all of them whether you want to or not. Don’t ever care what’s on BET, MTV, Cartoon Network or whatever? Too bad. Oh, and whatever you were watching is gone while you’re looking — no audio or background video, like with cable or DTV.

At this point we’re new to streaming our live TV, so my loyalty to any vendor is zero. We’ll switch until we find something we like, and if I find something better we’re gone.

Cord cutting update

Well, we’ve been watching Amazon Prime and Hulu Live for a week now. We have not yet needed to switch back to cable, which is good. It has not been quite the seamless transition one would hope for, but it’s not a complete pain in the ass either. Compared to watching cable, it’s a lot more labor intensive. Lots of button pushing, menu navigating, and we seem to have a disruption of some sort on average at least once a night. Wrong video streams, app crashes, Fire TV reboots, etc. It may not be a deal breaker, but then again it may be. It certainly is a pain in the ass.

My short take on it is, this whole thing is great. Or it would be, if the apps were written by people who actually gave a damn whether things actually worked for more than a few hours at a time. I’ve started doing a power-on reset of my Ooma box once a week to keep it from wandering off the path of righteousness; it looks like the Fire TV Cube may need that once a day or so. Unfortunately, there is no way to force reboot either one remotely so it turns into me remembering to go unplug the stupid things.

Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly so far…

The Good:

  • The shows we watch are automatically recorded, so we can watch them whenever we please.
  • Video and audio quality seem to be very good. I haven’t tried any lower quality settings to see how it impacts things.
  • So far, I don’t think we have found any of our shows that we can’t watch.

The Bad:

  • Navigation is just clunky, there’s no other way to describe it. There’s lots of button pushing, and you have to be careful of lag and slow response.
  • Different apps for different shows. Amazon Prime for Jack Ryan and a couple of others, Hulu for most things. Not a huge deal, but integration could certainly be better.
  • Data burn. We’re on a 1TB/month plan. We had been using 2-5 GB/day; now we’re hitting peaks of 25GB or more. Average seems to be around 15, which is still OK… but we’ll actually need to pay attention to our data usage, which is not ideal. Obviously streaming video is going to burn bandwidth; this was not unexpected.

The Ugly:

  • Alexa commands are a joke. Tell Alexa “Tune Discovery on Hulu”… no dice, Alexa says Hulu can’t find that channel. We use the remote for most everything.
  • The Hulu app is not what I would call stable. I have started force terminating it once a day, just to keep it from crashing at inopportune times.
  • The Fire TV Cube is also not what I would call stable. roughly every other night or so, it will just spontaneously crash and reboot in the middle of a show.
  • Hulu’s inexplicable and stupid lack of a program guide. It’s idiotic, there’s really no other way to describe it. Guys, you’re selling this as a LIVE TV service, why not act like it and put up a damned program guide?
  • Occasionally, our sound bar will simply power itself off in the middle of watching something. What turned it off? Why? No indication, it’s a mystery. And of course, that means you have to grab another damned remote… unless you tell Alexa to turn the sound bar on, which Alexa will, and then you lose the audio stream from the Hulu app.



Cutting the cord? Or part of it…

So the Cox bill has been getting out of control.  After the latest package deal ran out, the bill bumped up to nearly $240 per month, mostly for crap (in the form of TV channels and phone features) that we don’t want.  That’s a ton of money.

The requirements are:

  • Landline with caller ID
  • Live TV with the channels WE watch.  Local channels, Fox News, History, Discovery, AMC, HGTV, several others. 
  • Internet to support full time telecommuting

I already switched the phone service over to Ooma.  I bought a Telo and signed us up for Ooma Premeir service.  That gives us caller ID, voicemail, and unlimited calling in & out.  That will reduce the monthly phone service spend from $53.62 (I shit you not, that’s what Cox was charging me) to less than $20 per month — for more service.

Now, next up is cable TV. Cox’s bill comes to a little over $154, including taxes and fees and surcharges.  I could reduce that by about $24 by dropping HBO and Showtime, which suck anyway and we only have because they were included in the discount package that has expired.  Still WELL over $100 a month for, quite frankly, an awful lot of crap.  200+ channels, but of course they include crap we’d never watch in a hundred years just to try to justify the insane price. 

The last time I looked at alternatives like Hulu, Netflix, Sling, etc. — and it was not that long ago — they all fell woefully short of meeting any of our requirements.  We stuck with cable TV simply because there was no other way to watch, for example, The Walking Dead, or Fox News, or Nebraska football games, live.  A few hours or days or a year after the fact, sure.  Or not at all, depending on the service.  And we’d probably need to sign up for several, resulting in a total bill exceeding what we were paying for cable in the first place.  Oh, and get an antenna up that would work for the local channels, since NONE of them covered those.

Well, it seems the picture has changed significantly.  For about $40 a month Hulu will give you all their stuff, plus live TV covering all the channels we watch (BTN for Husker football included, woohoo!) and a DVR service.  It’s worth a try.  We already have Amazon Prime, mostly for the shipping.  The decision to go with a Fire TV Cube was pretty simple.  I received and installed that yesterday, and signed up for a free trial week of Hulu with live TV.  Oh, and as a side benefit…  it looks like this may also negate the need to try and find yet another “universal” remote control, potentially saving another few rubles.

Last night was our first night watching Hulu on the Fire TV Cube.  Overall the user interface ranges from “fair, needs improvement” to “frustratingly clunky” to “ridiculously obtuse”.  Some of that’s the Fire TV, some is Hulu.  It’s bearable, and I hope it improved with future app updates.  We also had not one, but THREE screwups while trying to watch live TV.  The first was innocuous and not a big deal — watching the news, but the program guide listed it as some oddball foreign cartoon name.  OK, no big deal.  Then we tried watching Vikings on History Channel.  Several minutes into the episode it restarted,  restarted again, and when we tried to get back to the live stream it switched to some episode of “Forged in Fire”.  Horrifically frustrating.  10-15 minutes later we got back to Vikings, but of course missed part of the episode.   We’ll have to watch it again.

Then we tried watching another show, “Curse of Oak Island”.  What we got was an old episode of “Stargate SG-1”, which most definitely has not improved with age.  It would have been funny if it were not for the fact that we couldn’t watch the damn show we wanted to watch.

I will say that non-live streams seem to work perfectly, and the video quality seems to be great.  And we can watch some channels for hours with zero issues.  I chatted with Hulu support today, and the agent says it’s a “known issue” that they’re working to resolve.  IF they resolve it soon, and completely, we’ll have a winner.  If they do not, we’ll need to decide whether we stick with Hulu and adapt (watch things delayed a little), or scrap it and pare our Cox cable back to the minimums and deal with the expense.  Or something else entirely. 

Once we have a final solution to this question, I’ll post a monthly spend and savings analysis.  I think we can probably save about $100 a month, to be honest.  I’m glad I don’t own stock in Cox or any other cable company.  We’ll still have to use them cor Internet access, of course, but who knows how long that will be true?


Re-lighting the basement

Our basement has a bunch of recessed can lights in the ceiling.  Like, 16 of them total, if you count the two in the stairwell.  Originally they were all populated with 65 W incandescent flood lamps.  Quite a while ago, I replaced them with CFL bulbs that only required 15 W each.  Since I was using the basement as my home office, that was quite a savings.  Assuming the lights were on around 12 hours a day, it saved roughly 9.6 kWH of electricity daily.  Those CFL lamps were not cheap, about $14 each as I recall…  but they paid for themselves in under a year, if I remember the math right.

Of course CFL lamps don’t turn on at full brightness immediately.  They took a few seconds to get up to snuff, maybe half a minute or so after they were installed.  It was OK, not great, but not bad at all considering the energy saved.  Over time, though, they took longer and longer to turn on.  They were also getting dimmer and dimmer over time.  Lately it’s been turn on the lights, then go do something else for five minutes or so — and the light is still not great.  It was time to replace them.

I ordered a batch of Feit 90+ CRI 75 W replacement, dimmable LED retrofit kits.  These replace the lamp and trim, and give substantially more light for roughly the same power consumption.  They’re rated at 14 W and 850 lumens.  So far I’ve installed 10 of the 16, and the difference is striking.  Of course they reach full brightness as soon as you flip the switch, which is nice.  They’re also quite a bit brighter than the CFLs ever were, so the amount of available light as gone from inadequate or barely adequate to “plenty”.  And these were cheap, at an average of less than $7.50 per fixture after shipping. 

The real surprise was how long those CFLs had been in place.  I didn’t realize it, but I found a notation on one that it was installed in mid-2007.  I’m pretty sure that was a replacement for one of the failed original lamps, because they were supposedly warrantied for a few years.  I’ll say this — after eleven years, those CFL bulbs owe me nothing.  If I get the same life out of the LEDs I’ll be a happy guy.

Now to figure out how we’re supposed to dispose of CFL bulbs.  I’m pretty sure they’re not supposed to go in the garbage, and I’ve got a pile of them now.

Failed voltage regulator

A loot at the picture below should tell you all you need to know about why this replacement John Deere style rectifier-regulator failed.  Typical of low end Chinese goods, an effort was made to make it look like the original, but there was apparently either no comprehension of the design, or they just didn’t care.  You have a large, thick aluminum body that is supposed to act as the ground and the heat sink.  So look at the orientation of the high power semiconductors on the board.  That heat sink isn’t really providing much benefit, is it?  There’s nothing in contact with it, other than a ground wire…  the parts were potted in a rubber compound that insulated them both electrically and thermally.  No wonder it fried after less than 10 hours of operation.

How difficult would it have been to mount those parts on the opposite surface and put them in contact with the aluminum case, perhaps with a dab of thermally conductive grease?  The cost may have increased by a few pennies, and you’d have a fairly reliable part.  So either the manufacturer intentionally produced a defective design, or they simply had no clue what the hell they were doing.  I’ve seen a lot of that coming from China.  I’m sure there are a lot of very sharp, conscientious engineers and business people in China…  whoever produced this piece of crap wasn’t one of them.

Into the dark side. Or whatever.

apple-logoMy Droid 3 has been giving me fits for a while.  The phone itself is fine…  there doesn’t seem to be a hardware problem.  A couple of months ago, though, it started nagging me daily to install a slew of app updates, including “Google Play Services”.  Half the apps I use regularly finally refused to run at all until I installed Google Play, which I resisted because it wanted access to everything on my phone.  All data, all history, location, email, everything.  I finally had no choice but to dump the phone or install the damn thing, so I installed it (and the subsequent dozen or so other app updates).  Since that time the phone has been plagued with odd behavior.  It will periodically freeze up, require reboots, not be able to place a call for several minutes after a restart, and I’ve had to pull the back off and remove the battery a couple of times when it froze up and started getting uncomfortably hot.

My employer offers me the option of having a corporate owned cell phone.  We’ve currently got a choice between Blackberry and iPhone.  I can understand their refusal to allow Android phones to connect to the corporate network — the ease with which an Android can be rooted and bent to the owner’s will is great for experimenters, developer and hackers (a term used in the proper, good sense here) – but it also removes any surety that an app can actually be trusted.  Anyway, the Blackberry phones are locked down tight and everything (web, email, etc) goes through the corporate proxies.  The iPhone situation is different; there’s a secure VPN app that handles all the corporate traffic, but outside of that app web browsing and email don’t pass through company servers.

I opted for the iPhone, so as of yesterday afternoon I have a shiny new iPhone 5S.  It is, I believe, the first Apple product I have ever owned, aside from a garage full of Lisas that passed through my hands back in the late 1990s. I have not used any Apple products for more than a few minutes since the Apple ][e.  No iPod, iPad, iPhone, Macs, iMacs, nuthin’ more than a passing familiarity.

So far I’m impressed.  The phone itself is a thing of beauty, which is to be expected of any new cell phone.  The Samsung Galaxy S III that Lisa carries (and the IV and V, I assume) are nice too.  So no big surprise there.  The thing is quite responsive, and almost everything is simple and intuitive.  I especially like being able to uninstall an app without having to wade through setup menus to do it, and the ability to effortlessly pull up the flashlight, timer, camera and calculator without even unlocking the phone — very nice.  It will even show me text messages and the first couple lines of new emails without unlocking the screen.

There are several areas in which iOS seems to really outshine Android OS.  The email client is a bit nicer than any I have used on the Droid.  iBooks has far and away the best PDF reader I have used on any platform.  The voicemail management is so well integrated with Verizon voicemail that I honestly didn’t realize it was there at first.  I see that there is a built-in flashlight app (lacking on the Droids) and timer/stopwatch.  The camera and its app is much better than anything I have seen on a phone before.  Overall, the UI seems a little smoother, a little quicker, a little more intuitive.  I can see why people rave about their iThingies.  And Siri works pretty well.  I even like the Lightning connector, though the cable they included could have stood to be about a foot longer — easily and cheaply remedied on Fleabay.  And while more of a hardware thing, the fingerprint scanning button is slick as all hell.

A few areas could use improvement.  For one, I do miss the “back” button.  I really do.  I get the whole single-button idea, but I’m constantly reaching for the back button.  A nightstand/dock mode like my Droid has would be awfully nice (maybe I just haven’t found it yet).  And for the love of all that’s good in the world, why can’t I just drag and drop files from my PC??  Using iTunes to copy PDFs to the phone is just plain stupid.

Anyway, the message here is really twofold.  First, kudos to Apple — the iPhone is really, really nice.  I don’t know that I would ever have bought one if I had to spend my own money on it, but it’s nice.  Second, shame on Google.  It took a lot to drive me away from Android, a platform I loved for what it was and what it represented.  They just couldn’t leave well enough alone.  They have managed to make it so intrusive and so inhospitable that even I had to walk away in disgust.

Now, about that Macbook Air…  hmmm.

 

Improving the Neato vacuum

If you have a Neato XV series robotic vacuum, and you don’t already have one, you need to switch to the curved/spiral brush.  This is the one Neato ships with the “pet” versions of the vacuum.  It’s far quieter than the one with the parallel straight rubber blades.  The sound of the vacuum is reduced from a dull roar to a far less intrusive sound.  I can barely hear it when the vacuum is running downstairs and I’m in my office.  I’ve also noticed that it also seems to pick up a lot more dust and debris.  Overall it’s a huge improvement.

I ordered mine from Crucial Vacuum, part number 945-0002.  Best 25 bucks you can spend on your little robot friend.

End of the Straight Talk experiment

I’m letting the Straight Talk Wireless lapse, and will sell or give away the phone.  Overall impression: The service is fine, just not the right direction for me right now.  The phone is not without its faults, but is good as a very basic smart phone.

The only real annoyance I’ve had is Straight Talk texting the phone a few times with upsells, and calling the house number to “remind” me that the service is expiring in a few days.  I suppose I can forgive the reminder calls (though I do wish they could be stopped without calling in to talk to a salesdroid).  The texts were a little annoying, though.

Straight Talk Wireless / Huawei Ascend Y

I’ve been carrying a cheap little Huawei Ascend Y on Straight Talk Wireless for a couple of weeks now.  The short story is, I’ve gone back to my Droid 3.

STW is OK as far as service goes.  Fine, in fact.  I do get an occasional text message from them trying to upsell, which is a little annoying, but not overly so.  Aside from that, it’s regular Verizon coverage, which is to say excellent.  So…  no complaints there.

The Huawei phone…  well…  what a POS, for one thing.  As an Android phone, it’s as close to the bottom of the barrel as you can get.  The web browser is next to useless — it frequently seems to just lose its mind, followed by a crash.  The phone has VERY little internal memory, and a lot of the apps can’t be moved to the SD card.  Some pretty basic features, like a flash for the camera, are missing, and some firmware features are inexplicably missing.  Like…  no quick way to silence the ringer.  The phone cost me less than $18, I think, and it’s about worth what it cost and no more.  So…  POS, but not a ripoff.  Want it?  I don’t need it.

So, will I drop Verizon for Straight Talk?  Not immediately.  With discounts, my phone costs us $43 and change per month.  Our overall bill is ridiculously high, but dropping my phone for STW would actually cost us a little more.  I’ll continue to look for a less expensive way to keep them on Verizon, but I’m not anticipating that will work.  We may just drop Verizon, pay the early termination fee, and move – or maybe we can find two separate plans under VW that will eb cheaper.  Time will tell.