Category Archives: Reviews

Cutting the cord

dl_tv_Pablo GarciaSaldaña

I cut the cord this week and said goodbye to Comcast television and phone.

I am going to tell you how I did it and the services I am using to replace what I eliminated. But first I am going to tell you why…

People like to scream about how terrible Comcast is as a company and from a customer service perspective, but I can honestly say whenever I had a problem in the 8 years they have been in the house, they fixed it pretty quickly.

So if the service wasn’t bad, why did I cancel a bunch of stuff? I was paying $222.21 per month.  

I do not live in an area where I can get another internet provider. I would be stuck with DSL, which is just unacceptable speed. I can get dish TV or something like that, but Verizon Fios isn’t an option in my area.

I had TV/internet/phone with 3 cable boxes, a cable modem ($40 in equipment rental fees), and I subscribed to the DVR service after a promotion that “saved me money”.  I started with a triple play package at $99 per month and over the years it inflated to well over $200.

I called Comcast two weeks ago to negotiate and reduce my bill. They took $20 off (which was not a victory in my book), but later in the day, I found out they cut service to one of the televisions in the house. When I got it fixed, the bill went back to the starting price.

I don’t really watch much television.  I would rather be reading, writing, and making stuff. My son is an avid user of Netflix and Hulu.  My wife was the biggest issue as she is a content grazer and channel flipper. I walked her through my plan and she eventually got on board.

The biggest selling point: I went from $222.21 to $87(ish) per month (not including the streaming services).

Products I am using:

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I decided that one clear method to save is to stop renting equipment from Comcast, including the modem.  For my home and the setup that I prefer, I needed a modem, a router, and a streaming device for every television. I was thinking about buying a Ooma for phone, but my friend tipped me off to another device that I will get to later.

This this is what I purchased:

  1. Modem: Arris Surfboard SB6183 ($97) – Part of my $87 dollars with Comcast is a faster internet, I wanted to make sure I had a modem that supported faster speeds, so I opted for the SB6183 over the SB6141.
  2. Router: ASUS RT-AC66U ($132) – I already have one of these routers in my home, I installed a 2nd router a while ago to ensure I have great coverage throughout the house.  I thought about getting Google’s On Hub, but it was more expensive and I would have to get a small switch to network all of my back office devices together. Important to note that both the router and modem support gigabit networking.
  3. Streaming Device: Roku 4 ($133) – If you have a preference go with it. I selected the Roku 4 because it supports 4K streaming and is provider agnostic (works with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Google). I also like that it has an optical out to support older audio equipment that might only have HDMI pass-through.
  4. Streaming Device: Amazon Fire TV ($85) – I could have purchased 3 Roku 4s, but I wanted to try out this device and it was on sale.
  5. Phone Service: ObiHai 200 ($48) – My buddy Gorcka suggested this device after I expressed an interest in an Ooma. The cool thing with the ObiHai is that is connects to Google Voice/Hangouts. So instead of having to give out a new number, my house phones will ring with my Goolge number.  There is a drawback to this service, you cannot dial emergency numbers. But it nice alternative to nothing and I am not even paying the $4-5 per month in taxes that you would with Ooma.

Additional Services:

As you can see in my chart above, I was already paying for Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.  Since it is April and Game of Thrones is coming back, I didn’t want to be without HBO, so I signed up for their HBO Now service for an additional $15 per month.

A service that surprised me was Sling TV. I thought it was a part of Sling Box, which lets you stream your existing TV service via equipment… Sling TV is not the same product. This is a service from Direct TV that gives you live streaming cable channels like CNN, AMC (Walking Dead) Food TV, HGTV, and Cartoon Network (20 in all).

I always joked that I would miss HGTV the most if I canceled and now I don’t have to. The service isn’t perfect, you can only watch on 1 television at a time and there is no recording service. I haven’t completely made up my mind about keeping Sling TV or HBO Now but it is nice to know I have the option.

Closing Thoughts:

The thing I want people to understand is that it costs money to get off of cable. It is a huge savings for me because I subscribed to many of the streaming services BEFORE I cancelled. That made it easier for me to make the decision (because I knew how much we were watching on normal vs. streaming).

I laid out $628 in equipment for me to feel comfortable getting off of Comcast. It is going to take 6 months for me to break even. With that said, I feel very good about my decision and it was fun setting everything up.

So far so good… I will write an update in 6 months.

Photo: Pablo GarciaSaldaña

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Podcast: Test 05: Motorola S10 Headphone review

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Here is another podcast test to enjoy while I line up interviews for The Source podcast. This is a test of audio mixing from different sources while attempting to do an actual episode.

On a related note (and for my own personal reference), Engadget just did a review of in-ear headphones under $40 bucks.

Engadget: Best in-ear headphones under $40

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How-to: $1000 Gaming PC Build

I am seriously thinking about using this as a base for my next computer build…

Intel Core i5-4460: http://amzn.to/1vG09KX

EVGA GTX 970: http://amzn.to/11PxXbh

MSI H97 Guard Pro: http://amzn.to/1xtIhyG

8GB Corsair Vengeance RAM: http://amzn.to/1r2HQ1m

256GB Crucial MX100 SSD: http://amzn.to/1C5S9Xf

1TB Western Digital Blue Hard Drive: http://amzn.to/1zlbaPI

600W Corsair CX600 Power Supply: http://amzn.to/1pfN34Z

NZXT S340 Case: http://amzn.to/1HDn7Gj

Comparison: Spoon’s build.

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Podcast: The Memory Palace: Every Night Ever

dl_alienparty
While I did my morning walk on the 4th of July, I was listening podcasts. I recently added The Memory Palace to my subscriptions due to the endless prompting of Roman Mars of 99% Invisible. The Memory Palace recently joined Mars’ podcasting collective known as Radiotopia.

Every Night Ever was my first experience with the podcast.

A story about a few good ol’ boys who decided to change up their grind of a routine just once and what happened as a result.

It was excellent, and inspired, and I want to share it with you.  I highly recommend subscribing to The Memory Palace.

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Why I switched to T-Mobile

( @tmobile @googlenexus )

I had this conversation with so many people in the last year that I decided to capture it and publish it on my blog.

Around this time last year, my 2-year contract with Verizon was up and I was looking to renew and get new phones. Then I received a letter stating that they were switching us to a family-share plan once we selected new phones. We would be moving from unlimited data to a 4GB shared plan. Also, my plan was going to go up about $10 per month.

I was furious.

My wife and I didn’t come close to using 4GB (we usually averaged 400 MB), but I didn’t like that the unlimited data plan was going away and that I was being charged more for what I considered to be less (plus the smart phone I had at the time sucked and I assumed a new phone would eat more data). For the first time in 6 years I started shopping around.

Also around this time, Google announced they were selling a completely unlocked phone called the Nexus 4 for $300 (no contracts). An unlocked smart phone with a perfect android experience that gets updates immediately directly from Google? That sounded perfect. But the phone was not compatible with Verizon. Yet another reason to start looking around.

I started calling companies that the Nexus 4 would work with. AT&T ended up being just as much as Verizon. My wife suggest calling T-Mobile but I hesitated. Even though Verizon has the best coverage nationally, I did not have a great signal in my house. I assumed that if Verizon gave me problems, T-Mobile would have absolutely no signal in my area. I looked up their coverage map and my house was in a dark green area (excellent coverage). Then I checked work…dark green again. Then I started looking at places we go to frequently…all dark green.

Not to belabor the point, we decided to give T-Mobile a shot and cancel if we had a bad experience. I am going to be honest, we almost did. Getting the right sim cards (mini) and an issue with the first payment time almost derailed the whole thing. Several days/hours on the phone with their customer support was like shoving nails in my eyes, but I powered through it. In the end, we settled on an unlimited everything plan (data, voice, text) and I am saving $90 per month.

The coverage has exceeded my best expectations. I always have a great signal in the places I am the most. I have also been traveling quite a bit for work and haven’t had any issues (unless I am in a basement or heavy concrete building). Also, instead of having a phone where I am always saying “I wish my phone did that”, the Nexus 4 is constantly surprising me with some useful thing it does in the background (like Google Now’s ability to automatically check flight status, traffic, and even hotel reservations).

I rarely experience situations where making switches like this ends up being dramatically better (there is almost always a compromise). By switching to T-Mobile and buying a Nexus phone I saved money, actually got better mobile performance, and was able to shove it to a company that I didn’t feel was treating me well. I have been using the service for 10 months and had no issues. Last week T-Mobile announced it was ending roaming charges internationally. Another move that tells me this company wants to be competitive and understands what is driving customers away from other mobile providers. I thought it was a good time to share my experience and offer my suggestion.

So that is my (completely not paid for or sponsored by) opinion, I hope it helps.

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Computer Joey: GTD: Calendars

Getting things done, also referred to as GTD is a popular term on the internet. Most people want to be more organized and save time doing simple tasks. There is a massive amount of material and information available on the internet to help you become more efficient, and today I am going to show you my favorite GTD tool:

Google Calendar

Many of my readers (and friends) are probably already using this service, but for those of you that are not, let me walk you through some of the basics and why I like it so much.

Google Calendar (gCal) comes free with a standard gmail account (also free). Under the hood there are several little tools that come in handy when you are trying to manage a busy social calendar (or three people’s social calendar).

  1. Sharing: You can share your calendar with friends and family so they can see when you are available and what you are up to. This is awesome when you are trying to plan an evening out with busy people. It also helps when you are trying to figure out where the kids need to be a 6 PM tonight.
  2. Invitations: Don’t want to share? That’s fine, you can just invite your spouse, kids, or friends to an event on your calendar and all of the information will appear on their own personal calendar.
  3. Text Reminders: Don’t have a fancy smart phone? NO PROBLEM! You can easily set gCal to send you simple text reminders. I personally have all of my friend’s birthdays set to send a reminder a few days before their birthday so I don’t forget.

Everything in gCal is fairly simple to use and configure, but I took a few screen shots in order to show you how to share your calendar with a loved one:

STEP ONE: Go to calendar.google.com and sign in or sign up for a new account

This is the first screen you will see and you can put your mobile phone information in here so you can get your updates on the go (if you don’t have a smart phone). Add your information and follow the screens. When you are done, it will take you to the main calendar page.

STEP TWO: Go into Calendar Settings

Click on the GEAR icon and select the settings option.
When the next window opens, click on the calendar tab:

STEP THREE: Click on share this Calendar

STEP FOUR: Type the Google email of the person you want to share your calendar with (has to be another google account).

Follow the screens out and you are all set to share calendar invites with another person.

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Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

( #thedogstars )

Post apocalyptic fiction is very trendy these days. The success of zombie fiction and movies, and all of those “after humanity” TV shows with the skyscrapers falling apart have really amped up people’s appetite for the end of days.

Author Peter Heller threw his hat into the “last of humanity” ring and crafted a very compelling story. In “The Dog Stars” humanity is hit with a very nasty plague/fever that wiped out civilization. There are a few survivors left, some infected with a variation of the virus that doesn’t kill them but leaves them very weak, defenseless, and permanently quarantined.

Heller’s story centers around Hig, a nice guy pretty much going through the motions and waiting for his own end. Hig has a neighbor/semi-friend named Bangley. Bangley is a hardass gun nut who protects their little compound from other survivors attempting to loot or take their land (which has access to clean water). Hig constantly questions Bangley’s loyalty and surmises he is only kept around because he can fly planes (and keep them operational). Hig also has a pet dog that he cares very deeply for and wonders if Bangley will kill if he gets out of line.

Even though there are dangers from looters, Hig is becoming bored with his relatively safe life. He continues to take risks by leaving the compound and flying further away from the base on scouting missions. He eventually comes up with a plan to fly to a far away airport where he once received a weak signal, but he won’t have enough gas to return (if he can’t refuel at the other airport). Most of the book is spent with Hig convincing himself to leave and the issues and people he encounters when he does.

Heller thankfully avoids the typical tropes of post apocalyptic fiction (“humanity got what it deserves”, “we learned nothing from our mistakes” bla bla bla). The story is very stripped down: “are you prepared to do the things you need to do to survive (no judgement)?” Hig struggles with having to shoot other survivors (even as they try to kill him) and he also has to argue with Bangley when he helps a colony of the surviving infected (who are helpless and unable to get supplies).

The simplicity of the book is accented by Hig’s fragmented thoughts. Heller hints that Hig was not untouched by the virus and has trouble thinking (his thoughts in writing are in little bursts), although it could be from being alone and the trauma of losing his loved ones. There is some drag in the middle of the story, but it picks up again. Ultimately, the book boils down to this question: when you survive an extinction level event, is there anything worth living for? Heller does a pretty good job exploring that idea and coming up with an answer.

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Book Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

( #warmbodies )

Hollywood is full of clever bastards. The Walking Dead is an extremely popular television show and comic book. It is also Feburary and a few weeks away from Valentines Day. What is a crafty movie executive to do? A romantic zombie movie or a romzom of course. I have been bombarded by ads for “Warm Bodies” for a few months and then I happened to read that it was based on a book…

… and said book was said to be considerably darker and deeper than the romzom version. So I downloaded it.

Warm Bodies is a short and enjoyable novel. It took me a few hours to read it and I liked it. The book is an obvious riff on “Romeo and Juliet”. The zombie’s name is “R” and the lead female is “Julie”. Her dad is in charge of the human survivors and clearly would not approve of his daughter’s necrophilia. Both characters have to buck their social norms to be together.

I suppose my only issue with the book is that the zombies have a society. If you see the commercial for the movie, you get the impression that “R” eating Julie’s boyfriend makes him start thinking and living again. The book also pushes this idea, but the zombies are clearly organized before “R’s” encounter with Julie. The zombies can sort of talk and there is a hierarchy to their society. They have strategy to eat humans. So they are not the typical zombies from the movies even before the main plot thread starts to happen.

The book tries to make “R” the zombie messiah and a romantic lead and those two thread compete for room in the book, but since this isn’t “War and Peace” you get over that problem pretty quickly. One thing I really appreciated about Marion’s writing is that he did not use the same terrible cliched words that every zombie writer uses – gore, guts, meat, disemboweled, and of course braaaaaiiins.

Bottom line: Fun and quick read – I recommend it.

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Book Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

( #thetwelve @jccronin )

The Twelve” is a sequel to Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” which I read a few years ago. I liked Cronin’s take on a vampire apocalypse. Cronin opted out of the typical gore-fest that seems to be a natural reaction to the “Twilight Vampires” (aka kind of wimpy) by telling a cause and effect story. The book is told in two timelines: how society falls and then 100 years into the future as society attempts to rebuild.

The Twelve continues the storyline in the future and but also revisits the initial outbreak to introduces a few new characters. Overall, I liked the book. But my enjoyment relied heavily on my enjoyment of the first book. The first section (revisiting the outbreak) is like a prequel with different characters (their viewpoint of what went down). While I liked how the outbreak was fleshed out, those chapters were not critical plot points. I am going to bring up some spoilers about the plot in this review, so this may be a good time to stop reading if you don’t want to know too much about the story.

**SPOILERS**

The prequel characters establish the bloodlines of the future characters which added depth, but like I said, not critical. The prequel chapters also establish the concept of a “familiar”. Every vampire can make a helper that has some powers and needs to drink blood, but they don’t change into monsters.

The main story is that one of the helpers, who is a fairly sympathetic character, is used to create a city/society of immortals that capture and enslave the remaining humans and of course feed them to the vampire overlords. This totally makes sense except for one thing…

There are twelve vampire leaders (hence the twelve) and the millions of vampires running around are basically mindless zombies controlled by one of the twelve. If you kill one of the twelve, all of the vampires in their bloodline die. A major part of the book is the twelve are moving to this vampire city to feed in comfort. But the city has been in progress FOR DECADES. Slaves are being fed to the zombie vampires for no real reason. At one point, The Twelve kill off most of their zombies because there are too many vampires hunting the remaining humans. Why feed the slaves to the mindless zombie vampires?

The “familiars” go through all this trouble to capture and enslave humans only to happily feed them to the mindless zombies. This would make sense if this was occurring with the twelve, but they don’t show up until much later in the book.

Also, most of the twelve head vampires are not fleshed out. Cronin spend most of the first book on a vampire named “Babcock” and singles out two vampires called “Martinez” and “Carter” in the second, but the others are just in the background. Why not just make 6 lead vampires?

**END SPOILERS**

Even with those illogical plot points, The Twelve is an entertaining and well written novel. Cronin is very good at giving the book a sense of history and handles the time shifts well. The book does suffer from middle child syndrome, but Cronin does a nice job setting up the third book. It is clear that the trilogy has a “big bad” and he was saved for the third book which should deliver a satisfying conclusion.

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DME: Bulldog Gin

( @drinkingmadeasy @zanelamprey )

Drinking Made Easy just published my latest article for their site. This time I review Bulldog Gin. If you have visited La Casa de Lombardi over the last month, you have probably been the test subject of one of my many experiments with this gin.

Give it a read:
DME: Bulldog Gin Review

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