Saturday, December 20, 2014

Cell Phone Bargain

Moto G
Great phone. Great service. Great value.

No contract cell phone service is much less expensive than contract service, but you have to buy your own cell phone (instead of having the cost bundled into contract phone service), and an up front cost of several hundred dollars can be a significant drawback.

The Moto G, a breakthrough Android smartphone with solid specifications and an amazing price of only $180 that made no contract cell phone service much more attractive, is now even better: Net10 Wireless has a special Moto G (1st generation) price of only $120 (as of this writing) that makes it a steal! Although it's not LTE (see below), its 4G speed is still quite respectable.

Net10 Wireless is one of the best values in cell phone service, with unlimited domestic phone, text, and data (as of this writing) for only:
  • $40 per month with a small amount of high speed data (500 MB)
  • $45 per month (on auto-refill) with a substantial amount of high speed data (3 GB)
  1. With Net10 Wireless, you can choose either the AT&T or the T-Mobile network. AT&T tends to have better network coverage. T-Mobile tends to have higher data speed.
  2. The LTE version of the Moto G (with faster data speeds) is available on Amazon for $190 (as of this writing).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wi-Fi on the Water

Alfa Marine USB Wi-Fi
If you're on a boat, and there's Wi-Fi available ashore, but your computer can't get enough signal for a usable connection, the outdoor waterproof Alfa Marine USB Wi-Fi Adapter can be a good solution.

The pictured module has an integrated 12 dBi long-range antenna. Although the antenna is directional, the pattern is wide enough that pointing is not critical, and a fair amount of boat movement is tolerated. With clear line-of-sight and a good antenna at the other end, range can be a mile or more.

The module mounts to something like a stanchion or mast on deck by means of stainless hose clamps or plastic zip ties, with a USB cable running to a computer below deck. Although the cable is limited to 15 ft (5 m) by the USB standard, a USB extension cable may be used for an additional 15 ft.

Available on Amazon for only $35 (link) as of this writing. Drivers provided for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.

(Beware of cheaper off-brand units with exaggerated claims of antenna gain or range. Most are junk.)

Tip: Only one computer is supported, but if the computer has Wi-Fi, software can turn that Wi-Fi into a hotspot for wireless devices. Sharing over Ethernet (cable) is also possible.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Extend Wi-Fi Coverage

NETGEAR PLW1010 Essentials
Wi-Fi radio signals all too often fail to adequately cover the desired area, not only because radio signal strength decreases with distance, but also because radio signals are attenuated (blocked) by walls and floors.

The first thing to try is to locate the Wi-Fi base station (also known as gateway, wireless router, or wireless access point) as near to the center of the desired coverage area as possible in order to minimize distance, but that may be difficult or impossible, or simply not enough.

If that fails to solve the problem, many people then try so-called wireless range extenders (actually wireless repeaters), but these devices tend to work poorly:
  • Additional radio traffic cuts wireless network speed by more than half.
  • Interference with other wireless networks may increase, often a problem.
  • May be difficult to locate midway between Wi-Fi base station and weak coverage area.
A better solution usually (but not always) is powerline networking, using existing electrical power wiring (instead of radio) to carry network signals between modules, a base module (left unit in accompanying picture) located next to the Wi-Fi base station, connected by cable to a LAN port, and remote module(s) (right unit) in weak coverage area(s), broadcasting secondary Wi-Fi signal(s).

For best results it's important to select name brand products conforming to the AV2 (AV600 or better) standard, such as the TP-LINK TL-PA6010KIT, which includes both a base module and a remote module.
It's important to plug these units directly into wall outlets because many power strips and so-called surge protectors interfere with network signals.

Testing powerline networking is easy: plug the modules into outlets at the desired locations, and green "sync" lights will turn on if they work. (In some cases they won't work due to electrical wiring issues, so be sure to get a return privilege.) Then it's just a straightforward matter of setting up the secondary Wi-Fi signal.

  • Best Buy stores often stock Netgear Powerline (link). 
  • B&H is a great low-cost source of such products (link).

Monday, September 1, 2014

Extremely Good Travel Mug

Contigo Extreme
The great majority of travel mugs on the market are mediocre at best. Poor insulation fails to keep beverages hot or cold. Lids leak. Fragile plastic breaks.

Fortunately, there is a superior travel mug: Contigo Extreme.
  • Vacuum insulation keeps beverages hot or cold for hours
  • Rugged and durable stainless steel construction
  • Leakproof lid that's actually leakproof (and dishwasher safe)
  • Comfortable carabiner clip handle attaches securely
  • Tapered to fit in standard cup holders
  • Generous 16 oz capacity
  • Lifetime guarantee
  • Sold by Target at discount
Some longtime fans of this mug complain that it has been cheapened over the years, but even if true, it's still arguably the best travel mug available, and the lifetime warranty covers any issues that might arise.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pandora One Bargain

Pandora One Gift Card

Pandora is one of the best streaming music services, offering both a an ad-supported "free" service and a paid ad-free service (a so-called "freemium" business model). A principal Pandora differentiation (as compared to competing services like Google Music All Access, iTunes Radio, Rhapsody, and Spotify) is Music Genome Project technology, which does a good job of selecting music that is similar to music you already know and like.

In the beginning the free Pandora service was attractive given ads that were relatively few and unobtrusive, but over time ads have become both more frequent and more obtrusive, to the point where they are now downright annoying, which of course pushes subscribers toward the paid service.

That wasn't so bad when the paid service was $36/year or $4/month, but Pandora ended the annual subscription option and raised the price of new subscriptions to $5/month (⅔ more expensive than the original annual subscription on a monthly basis).

Fortunately, there is still a way (as of this writing) to get the original $36/year subscription price: Pandora One Gift Card at (not in Target stores). Where you receive your gift card(s) in the mail, you can add them to your Pandora account by activating them here.

This probably won't last forever, so you might want to stock up with more than one card.

Update (4/2016): Pandora One Gift Card at is no longer available.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Safer Online Dating

1. Open a new free Google Gmail account just for online dating (nothing else). You can forward it to your regular email for convenience, but always answer from the dating Gmail account. That way your email can't be used to find you, and you can always close that account if you encounter a real creep.

2. Buy a cheap prepaid cell phone just for online dating (Net10Page Plus, etc), and pay by cash (not credit card). You can forward it to your regular cell for convenience, but always call from the dating cell phone. That way your phone number can't be used to track you down, and you can always drop it in a dumpster (or donate it to charity) if you encounter a real creep. (Bad guys call this a "burner phone".) Or use the Burner app.

3. Always do a first meeting in a very public place, make it something cheap (like coffee or tea), and buy your own. That way you'll be safe, and able to walk away whenever you want with no feeling of obligation.

4. Always drive your own car or use public transport. Never ever give out your home address until you know someone really really well.

5. Post new photos, not photos you've used anyplace else (Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, etc). Otherwise people can use image search to find and associate these other places.

6. Use a nickname for online dating, not your real name, to make it harder for someone to look you up online.

7. Do not use your real city of residence in your dating profile -- use a nearby city instead to make it harder for someone to look up your home address.

8. Never even start with anyone that doesn't have at least one good photo posted. Having no photos or only bad photos is a big red flag.

9. When someone gives you a phone number, Google it -- you'll often learn worthwhile things. ;)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vehicle Mount for Cell Phone

Mountek nGroove Grip Universal
Smartphones can be excellent while driving, especially in vehicles lacking comparable electronics, providing such hands-free services as:
  • Phone calls
  • GPS location and turn-by-turn navigation with voice prompts
  • Playing music and podcasts
  • Streaming Internet radio
This works best with a mount that holds the smartphone where it can be easily seen and used. Common mounts attach to windshield or dash with suction cups that can loosen over time and which often obstruct the view. Mounts that attach to air vents partially block the vents and can make them hard to adjust.

If your vehicle has a CD player, a better mounting solution may be the Mountek nGroove Grip Universal, pictured mounted in a Volvo S60 holding a Google (LG) Nexus 5 (recommended) with a Diztronic protective case (recommended). This mount is attractive, solid and secure, tilts and rotates, attaches and removes easily, with no need to remove or modify protective cases. (If you never play CD discs, you can leave the mount attached.)
  • Cable is power from a PowerGen Car Charger (recommended)
  • Connection to car audio is by Bluetooth in the picture, but cable could be used instead
  • App displayed is CarHome Ultra, made especially for driving (recommended)

Monday, April 21, 2014


Heartbleed (CVE-2014-0160) is nothing short of an Internet disaster. Here's why:

1. In a noble effort to clean up OpenSSL, the OpenBSD team is reportedly making hundreds of changes per week. Unfortunately, that means new bugs are being introduced no matter how careful the review. You cannot test in quality — it has to be designed in from the beginning. What we should be doing is starting over from scratch with a robust programming languageC and its progeny aren't suitable for mission-critical programming. (Ada would be a good alternative.)

2. History teaches that a substantial percentage of compromised machines won't ever get patched and will continue to be exploited. Until we all start taking security seriously and come up with a way to rapidly push out a mandatory fix to all affected machines (which ain't gonna happen anytime soon), we're going to have to live with fundamental lack of security. The lesson here is that transmitting sensitive information over the Internet is folly without careful offline strong encryption.

3. Heartbleed is at least partly a consequence of the cruel hoax of free software, where talented individuals are tricked into working without monetary compensation to the great benefit of commercial enterprises. There needs to be some way to fund essential projects for the public good, especially because we can't afford to continue to rely and depend on wishful thinking.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Google Sneakware

Updated 24 July 2014 to reflect the latest Google sneakware.

Watch out for Google "sneakware" on Microsoft Windows!

If you use Picasa, Google is installing Google+ Auto Backup even if you don't use or want Google+.

And Google is enabling Chrome to always run in the background for Notifications and Hangouts with just brief popup notices.

All are privacy and security issues and a drain on system resources.
  1. To get rid of Google+ Auto Backup, uninstall it in Control Panel.
  2. To stop Chrome running in the background, open Chrome > Settings, Search settings for "background", and uncheck "Continue running background apps when Google Chrome is closed".
  3. To stop Hangouts, open Chrome > Tools > Extensions, go to Hangouts, and uncheck Enabled (or click Delete).

Sunday, March 30, 2014

3D Solid Modeling Recommendations

Corsair 550D


  • BestSolid Edge
    Many designers prefer Solid Edge over SolidWorks.
  • Market Leader: SolidWorks
    Largest user community and third party support.
  • Also Good: Inventor (Autodesk)
    Cloud integration.
  • ValueSpaceClaim
    Easy and fast, fresh architecture.
  • Honorable MentionGeomagic Design
    Formerly Alibre Design, low cost options.


Objectives: Performance, Stability, and Affordability
  • Maximized clock speed for single-thread performance
  • Maximized cores/threads for multi-thread performance 
The key to this hardware recommendation is the Intel Core i7-4930K, essentially a bargain 6-core version of the very expensive top-of-the-line 8-core Xeon that retains the advantages of the Xeon architecture like 4-channel memory, with ample air and water cooling to allow stable overclocking.
Total cost of just over $2,000. Good source for assembled custom systems: Central Computers

The conservative "Fast" setting in ASUS Auto Tune yields a clock speed of 4.25 GHz, 25% faster than standard clock speed. (Higher clock speed is possible with more aggressive settings.) The performance of this system must be experienced to be appreciated.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

eBay Save Search

One of the more frustrating and annoying aspects of the horrid eBay change from Saved Searches to Searches You Follow (see eBay goats and sheep) is that searches can no longer be (re)named, so non-trivial searches get long, painful names.

Here's a work-around that temporarily turns off Javascript, thereby exposing the old Save (and name) Search functionality: When you have a search on eBay that you want to save, click on the URL at the top of your browser, append "&_jsoff=1" (without the quotes) to the end of the URL, and press [Enter]. That should reload your search with the old Save (and name) Search functionality.

Update: Another way to still name Searches has been to use the official eBay app for Android, but the ability to name searches was removed in version, so to retain this capability, don't upgrade beyond version (which still works fine as of this writing).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Free VPN

Secure Wi-Fi with VPN is updated with a very good free VPN service:
  • VPNBook
    Free PPTP and OpenVPN. No registration required. No bandwidth limits. Privacy protection. Easy to set up. Free Web Proxy. Commercial service available at $8 per month. Headquarters in Switzerland. Servers in USA, UK, and Romania.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Anti-Malware for Windows

Malware (adware, spyware, trojan, virus, worm) protection is now so essential for computers running Microsoft Windows that free trials of commercial anti-malware software (anti-virus, Internet security, etc) are commonly included in new computers. The catch, of course, is that they aren't free forever, and that they won't provide proper protection without regular ongoing updates. But not to worry, because excellent free protection is readily available, so uninstall those commercial products and use these free tools instead:

Microsoft Security

Microsoft now provides both good firewall (Windows Firewall) and good anti-malware (free Security Essentials for Windows Vista and 7, Windows Defender included in Windows 8). Notes:


Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) is free Microsoft software that significantly enhances Windows security. Recommended for advanced users.

Since no anti-malware tool is 100% reliable, it's a good idea to supplement Microsoft security by periodically downloading and running a scan with one or preferably more (as no one tool is perfect) of the following:
  1. HitmanPro
  2. AdwCleaner
  3. Spybot
  4. Malwarebytes
  5. Microsoft Safety Scanner

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Earphones with Mic for Android

Klipsch Image S4A (original)
Update: There's a new king!

Your Android smartphone (or tablet) may have come with earphones/headphones, but the sound quality is probably mediocre at best. You could spend literally hundreds of dollars for the best possible sound, but roughly $100 is the point of diminishing returns, in part because "a chain is only as strong as the weakest link", and the cheap audio components in most smartphones will limit the sound quality if you spend more than that. So this list focuses on products under $100 (street price) with these characteristics:
  • Designed for Android, with single button remote
  • Mic for phone calls with good sound quality
  • Cords designed to minimize rubbing and bumping noises
  • Comfortable fit
  • Good construction
  • Good value, sounding better than the price

GOOD: Sony MDR-EX110AP ($21-25)

Cords could be better (thicker and more rubbery), but they aren't terrible, and the design is otherwise good, with sound quality comparable to products at double the retail price point, comfortable fit, light weight, and small size that keeps them inside the ear, minimizing wind noise outdoors. Available in a variety of colors. A bargain.

GREAT: Klipsch Image S4A ($45)

Excellent sound, good build quality, but the app is problematic, and fit with the oval tips can be a problem. The newer S4A (II) version features tangle resistant flat cables and other minor tweaks, but many prefer the original version, which can still be found and is usually less expensive. Tips:
  • Replace the oval ear tips with Shure memory foam "olives" (EABKF1), which install perfectly, fit comfortably, seal out noise, and improve sound by enhancing bass and taming treble just a bit. The latest version has an ear wax screen.
  • Forget the app.
  • Discontinued, replaced by replaced by Klipsch R6m.


  • Don't limit sound quality with low bit-rate audio:
    • Many streaming apps (Google Music included) default to a lower bit-rate that limits quality, and there may be a Setting for higher quality (at the expense of more mobile data).
    • The bit-rate of your own audio audio files (MP3, AAC, etc) should be 175-245 Kbps. (With good encoding, higher than that won't sound better.) LAME V3 profile is a good way to get the best possible sound with the lowest possible bit-rate. 
  • Take high end audio claims with a grain of salt. Many do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mini Wireless Multifunction Routers

Apple pioneered this category of capable mini devices with the AirPort Express, and now there are less expensive alternatives. Multifunction capability is what makes them special, the ability to be configured as:
  • Router (base station)
  • Access Point (supplement existing router)
  • Client Bridge (wireless connection of wired devices)
  • Repeater (extend wireless coverage)
Apple AirPort Express (latest version)
  • Pro: Easy setup with AirPort Utility, simultaneous dual band wireless, printer server, AirPlay client for wireless audio
  • Con: Expensive, N150 speed, separate power adapter
Satechi Wireless Multifunction Mini Router
  • Pro: N300 speed, QoS
  • Con: Single band wireless
TP-LINK Mini Pocket Router TL-WR700N
  • Pro: Inexpensive, small (like original AirPort Express)
  • Con: N150 speed, single band wireless

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Best USB Car Charger

PowerGen Car Charger
You purchased a "fast" car charger for your mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc), but you find that the actual charging rate is slow, possibly not even able to keep up if you use the mobile device at the same time. What's up with that? Is the charger defective? Not really a "fast" charger?

It's the fault of the USB standard, not necessarily the charger. USB was conceived as a connection standard, not a charger standard, and to keep costs down the original standard provides only a modest amount of power, a maximum of 500 mA. But as USB gained traction as a connection standard, it also gained traction in chargers.

500 mA (½ A) is fine for a low power device like a mouse, but insufficient for fast charging of a current smartphone (~1000 mA), much less a tablet (~2000 mA). The USB standard is evolving to deliver greater amounts of power, but adoption takes time, and current USB products could be damaged by high power drain, so device manufacturers have resorted to non-standard tricks for fast charging with USB connectors:
  1. Shorted data connection: This is frequently used by Android devices (e.g., Nexus 5), which won't try to fast charge if the data connection isn't shorted, displaying (USB) rather than (AC) on the Battery screen.
  2. Non-standard data voltage: This method is used by Apple devices, with different voltages signaling different maximum charging rates. They similarly won't try to fast charge when those voltages aren't present.
Since no standard USB port should do these things, a device can assume it's on a charger rather than a USB host. But since there is no single method, and since both methods can't be used at the same time, a charger that's fast for Apple devices may not be fast for Android devices, and vice versa. So either make sure to choose the right type of charger (which can be tricky), or choose a charger that has both methods, like the excellent PowerGen 4.2A/20W Dual USB Car Charger:
  • High power for fast charging even tablets
  • Dual ports for charging 2 devices at once, one Android port and one Apple port*
  • Good physical design for secure fit and durability
  • Compact size
  • Great value: $10 at
PowerGen Wall Charger

Best USB Wall Charger

All of the same considerations apply, and PowerGen comes to the rescue here as well, with the PowerGen 2.4-Amp (12 Watt) Dual USB Wall Charger. Another great value: $13 at

UPDATE: There is now a more powerful version: PowerGen 3.4-Amp (17 Watt) Dual USB Wall Charger. Even better value: $10 at

* If a device is connected to the other type of port, it will still charge, but the rate may be slow.