Saturday, April 21, 2007

Slingbox Issue Resolved

I was able to resolve my Slingbox connectivity issue last week. I rebooted the Slingbox and I was able to access it afterwards.

I don't believe this exonerates Time Warner. I still believe they purposely degrade their quality of service for their customers who use the most internet traffic. I think Time Warner reads my blog and they were worried about the can of whoop ass I was going to release on them. Time Warner -- you're in my radar. Don't mess with me again.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Slingbox Conspiracy by Time Warner?

I am an avid supporter of Sling Media and their flagship product, the Slingbox. I am living overseas so my Slingbox in Palm Springs is my window to the world of US television. I have been using it for the past 8 months to watch my favorite US shows while living in Ireland.

The Slingbox allows you to stream content from any video source over the internet. While away from your TV, you can view it using their media player, which is available for the PC, Mac and even Windows Mobile enabled phones. You can read this post to see how to set it up and get it up and running.

I have had a fair amount of success with my Slingbox installation. I have it set up at my mother's house, where she has a broadband connection through Time Warner (formerly through Road Runner). The only problems I have had so far have been ISP related.

The first problem that we experienced was that my mother's internet connection simply stopped working. She couldn't connect to the internet at all. Obviously, this would impair my ability to stream content from her home. After a phone call from my mom, a Time Warner technician came over to "fix" the problem.

He resolved the issue by completely disconnecting the router I set up and connecting her network card directly to her cable modem. My mother isn't highly technical, so she assumed everything was OK and let the technician go on his merry way. I really can't blame her. Her cable TV worked, she got her email, she could "search the Google," so everything worked fine in her mind. She had no way of verifying whether my Slingbox was working or not at that point.

The Time Warner technician was either an idiot or only concerned with closing the ticket. Putting a computer directly on the internet with no firewall is extremely dangerous. Removing a router from a home network will prevent other computers in the house from connecting to the internet. I believe he took advantage of my mother's lack of technical expertise.

After a 2 hour call, I was able to get my mother to re-install the router. Luckily, it still had all the network settings I originally set for it. After this, the Slingbox hummed along for another few months.

Now, I am experiencing a different problem. The TiVo is on and working, my mother's internet connectivity is working as well, but I can't connect to the Slingbox. There can only be one of two things going on. My Slingbox is either broken, or her ISP is blocking the port that I opened for the stream. I have tried to connect from work and home and even from my mobile phone, so I am sure it is not a connectivity issue on my side.

I believe Time Warner is blocking ports that they don't recognize if there is a lot of outbound traffic. They may also be using tactics like purposely degrading service for high-consuming customers in order to get them to jump to another ISP. Unfortunately, I won't be able to confirm or disprove this theory until I go back to the States in May. If this is true and if other ISPs follow suit, it will have severely detrimental effects on the success of the Slingbox.

Slingbox, hold tight! I'm a comin'! Don't you a-fret! I'll never quit you!

Vonage UT Starcom Review

I have been using the UT Starcom F1000 handset by Vonage for about 7 months now. Overall, it has been doing the job well, but there is lots of room for improvement. It is a good thing that Vonage does not have a lot of competition in terms of hardware.

I am currently living overseas, so using a phone adapter is out of the question. I've already written a post about the details, but let's just say that you have to use a plethora of adapters to get everything working. My best bet is to use a standalone WiFi Vonage phone. Right now (over a year after this model came out), the F1000 is the only option.

The UT Starcom F1000 is a WiFi phone that uses your existing 802.11b network and broadband connection to connect to the Vonage network and provide a Voice over IP (VoIP) access.

Pros:
  • This is the only WiFi handset that Vonage offers - period.
  • If you have a good broadband connection, the quality of the call is satisfactory. I have only had a few people complain about the quality of the audio.
  • The phone is fairly reliable. It rings when people call it. When you dial, it will ring on the other end.
  • Setting up the connection to your WiFi network is relatively easy. If you know how to set up your WiFi access point, you can connect to it in a jiffy.
  • The AC adapter will support 100v to 240v connections so you can use it overseas with just a plug adapter.
Cons:
  • Just like every broadband VoIP solution I have used, there is lag between the person talking and you hearing the audio. This often results in tons of hilarity as you and your friends talk over one another.
  • When you pick up the handset, you immediately realize how little Vonage cares about style. The platic they used is cheap. The buttons feel cheap when you press them. The design of the phone won't be copied by Apple.
  • You have to hold the phone perfectly up to your ear or you won't be able to hear the person on the other end.
  • There is no way to mod any part of the phone. The 6 built in ring tones are all annoying and there are only two volumes: low and high.
  • There are no volume control buttons on the phone. If the phone is ringing and you want to lower the volume on the fly, you can't (although you can send the phone directly to voicemail).
  • The UI is not intuitive. You would think that the big red button on the phone could be used to hang up the phone. You would be wrong.
  • Even if you have a good broadband connection, you are at the mercy of your WiFi connection. It seems that you can't wander too far from your access point without affecting the sound quality of your call.
  • The battery life is not great. The unit can go approximately 2 days without charging with no use. This isn't a big deal since you will mostly use the phone around the house. This can be annoying if you forget to charge the phone and you have to stay tethered to the power cord for a long call.
  • There is no hands-free speaker phone mode.
This isn't a critique of the Vonage service. Overall, I think the Vonage service is a great solution for lots of people. This is mostly a review of the UT Starcom handset itself. If you need a Vonage handset, you should get the UT Starcom F1000. When Vonage comes out with a better phone, you should buy it and chuck your F1000 out the window.

Moving the Taskbar

Whenever I log into a new computer, I go through an extensive script of customizing and tweaking the default settings to get everything just the way I like it. Since I have to do this quite often (because of getting new computers or reinstalling Windows), I try to keep this script short. I don't like to customize my environment too much because it becomes disorienting and frustrating when you use someone else's computer and your settings are not in place (and when someone uses your computer). This is the same reason many left-handed people don't switch their mouse buttons to make the right-click work like the left-click.

I know a handful of co-workers who dock their Start Menu to the left-hand side of their desktop. Whenever I would get "behind the wheel" at their workstation, it always takes a few seconds to figure out what the hell is wrong with their machine. Pressing the Windows key usually answers the question that I am asking in my head: Where is the friggin' Start Menu?

After cursing these co-workers for months, I decided to try it out for myself.

When you start using this layout, it can be a bit disorienting. When you look for the clock, it's not where you want it to be. When you go to click the Start Menu, your mouse will drift to the wrong corner. Of course, this is all to be expected and it only takes a few days to get used to.

The benefits become very obvious after just a few hours:
  • You are making better use of the desktop. When you are editing documents, you typically have a lot of wasted space on the left or right side of the desktop. This is especially true if you have a wide aspect-ratio display (e.g. 1920 x 1200 resolution).
  • You can fit a lot more applications in the Quick Launch section.
  • You can see more running applications in the Taskbar. This makes it easier to switch tasks.
  • You can turn off the annoying "Hide inactive icons" because you will have enough room to show all items in the Notification area (formerly known as the "Systray"). Seriously, how many times have you went to click on something in the Notification area only to have Windows hide it from you one nanosecond before clicking?
  • The clock will display the date and day of the week. It sounds like such a small benefit, but it really helps out a lot.

With every non-standard customization, there are always drawbacks.
  • Some applications assume that you are using the Start Menu at the bottom of your desktop. This will cause some windows to appear with the left side under the start bar.
  • When you click the Start Button, the popup menu will cover a large part of the Taskbar.
  • For some reason, the Taskbar resizes itself each time I restart my machine (this only happens on one of my machines).
  • Every time someone uses your computer, they will ask the annoying question, "Where is the friggin' Start Menu?"

I am now fully converted to the left-docked Taskbar camp. The biggest overall benefit is that you will end up using your desktop more efficiently. You'll be like the Native Americans who use every single part of the buffalo. Now go open a casino.