Friday, February 23, 2007

Wolverine digital camera storage drive

Gadget review: I bought a Wolverine 80GB external digital camera drive the other day to replace my I/O Magic Digital Library drive. I was using the 20GB I/O Magic for the last year or so, but for some mysterious reason it wouldn't read my new 4GB Sony Memory Stick PRO Duo. I wrote to tech support at I/O Magic about this twice, but go response from them about this problem. This was a major drag because I was in India and needed to download my pix in order to clear off my card and keep shooting. I ended up doing it indirectly using PCs in Internet cafes and paying for the time. It took a lot of time because the I/O Magic is a USB 1.0 device, so transferring 4G could take a couple of hours. The Wolverine is a USB 2.0 device and transfer rate to/from the computer is far faster than the I/O Magic. (USB 1 transfer rate is max 12Mbps vs 480Mbps of USB 2).

The I/O Magic has no LCD display, so you have to trust the little blinking LED lights that your photos have been transferred. The Wolverine, by contrast, has a display that reports the number of files being transferred and successfully transferred. Both units can act as external hard drives when connected by their USB cables to the computer. By far the Wolverine Flashpac is the biggest bang for your buck if you are looking for a card reader/drive. With rebates right not, it's under $100 for an 80G portable battery-powered drive. There is also a 100G model for about $150.

If what you're looking for is a high-capacity multimedia player (slideshows, FM, video files, MP3), the Wolverine ESP is also high bang for the buck. It's $379 for an 80G unit, and they offer a 160G one as well. There's no digital rights management (DRM) built in, so some files that you download won't play on it, but no big deal in my world. I make videos I want to play for friends, and have stills I want to share without dragging my laptop around to show them. This box is similar to stuff like, say, the widescreen Zen or Archos but those are both more expensive, have smaller drives, and don't have a 7-in-one card reader built in. I haven't toyed with the ESP in 3D so I can't really comment on it. The Flaspac 7000 I do use, though, and can report that it works quite well.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Costco memory-foam mattress

Well I finally broke down and got a new mattress for my Cal King-sized bed, after over ten years on a Beautyrest pillow-top. That was a great mattress, but started getting a divit in it where I had slept all that time. I tried a bunch of mattresses during my shopping, including the Tempur-Pedic (in the stores, not the home trial), and then discovered that Costco has a knockoff by Sleep Innovations.

It's called Novaform and it is extremely comfortable, and less than 1/3 the price of the Tempur-Pedic, (about $675 vs. $3000). However, the bad news is that it smells. Even after 3 or 4 months of airing out, it still smells. I worry about whether it's off-gassing and not good for my health, as well as just being annoyed by the smell and waking up with a stuffy nose as though I am having an allergic reaction. I wrote to the Sleep Innovations company and they suggested washing the covers. There are two covers on the bed, one with zipper which covers the entire mattress, and one more like a thick, fluffy, fitted sheet. I did wash them both (a major production), and can still report that the mattress smells. The odor is difficult to describe, perhaps a cross between vanilla and petroleum by-products. I don't want to take it back, because it's so comfortable and it's so heavy and big. It was easier to transport into the house because it was compressed and had all the air sucked out of it. Once you cut open the plastic bag, the foam reinflates and grows to approximately double the size. I will report back as the story develops.

The story is still that the mattress smells, and a friend who slept on it reported that she, too, was congested in the morning. I am going to be looking into a latex mattress to replace this wonderful-feeling but poorly-smelling mattress. I did write to the manufacturer to report in about it again. Below is the exchange (read bottom to top):

Hello Bob,
There are no flame retardents added to the foam that would cause the smell. It is simply a 'new foam' odor to which you may be very sensitive. The only additive we use in the foam is an antimicrobial which protects the foam from dust mites, mold, and mildew. This would not cause the smell either. For more information about the antimicrobial (ultra-fresh) please visit the following link:
In the meantime, I will inquire as to the possibility of replacing your mattress with my supervisor. Thank you.

Best Regards,

Sarah Strahle
Sleep Innovations
187 Route 36 Suite 101
West Long Branch NJ 07764

-----Original Message-----
From: Bob Cowart []
Sent: Thursday, April 26, 2007 3:22 AM
To: Sarah Strahle
Subject: RE: Sleep Innovations Online Contact Form

Dear Sarah,

As you suggested, I did wash the covers (both of them) and line dried.
Then replaced. However, the mattress still smells like chemicals. I'm very disappointed, because I love the way it feels. My sinuses are just very sensitive to it, and I already have sleep apnea and this makes it worse because I get congested in reaction to the smell (or the chemicals causing the smell). Is there flame retardant in the foam? Perhaps that is the source of the smell? Many foams do have that added to the formula. Shall we do a replacement, as you suggest below? It has now been four months since the previous email, which should have been enough time for the product to air out.

Thanks for your attention to this matter.


Good Afternoon,
Some people have a higher sensitivity to the odor than others.
For the most part, the odor will dissipate within 7-10 days. Beyond that, we consider it a defect and I replace products for such reasons.Not all pillows from the same lot will have the same intensity of the new foam odor. An exchange could provide you with a less odorous pillow. The mattress cover can be washed. The safest way is to have it dry cleaned. If this is not possible, you may do so on the gentle cycle using cold water and then either hang it to dry, or use a no heat setting. This setting may take a long time for the cover to dry but is best because it ensures that the cover will not shrink. Let me know if you have additional questions. Thank you.

Best Regards,
Sarah Strahle

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sony DVDirect DVD recorder - Or how to copy all your old tapes to DVD without a computer

Gadget review: The Sony DVDirect VRD-VC20 is a DVD recorder that has direct inputs for DV camcorder (1394) , analog video (NTSC), S-Video, and stereo audio, and can act as an external USB 2.x DVD-+R/W drive, reading and writing a large number of formats (as most DVD drives in computers can these days). The neat thing is that like many stand-alone DVD recorders, it can work while not connected to a computer, to make 'dubs' of whatever you feed into its inputs, even live video. The typical use of this gadget is to record your old VHS tapes or your DV camcorder movies onto DVD without going through the tiresome process of sucking video into your computer, editing it, authoring a CD or DVD and then burning the disk. This keeps your computer free for other work and creates (theoretically) fewer 'coasters' because the DVD burner is only doing one thing (e.g. not checking your mail and bogging down the DVD burn which can in turn cause record errors due to the cache running low). In theory this is all great, and I have made lots of DVDs from my tapes. I like the Sony brand in general and have a VX2000 high-end 'prosumer' camcorder and other stuff (like a VAIO XP Media Center desktop computer which I love) and so I got the Sony DVDirect rather than another brand such as those available at Costco. It is quirky, however, and not fully ready for prime time. I am a picky consumer and expect engineers to do a better job than they did on this unit, if they want to earn their 230 or so bucks and expect positive blogs.

This is perhaps an early model (mine was manufactured in July, 2005), and it may be improved by now, so take this with a grain of salt. But I must report that it is prone to fouling up, creating coasters for various reasons, hanging during 'finalizing' disks, missing the beginning five seconds of a DV tape (due to startup time after you press the Record button). Here are a few observations and gripes:

One thing missing from this device is a way to tell it to record to the end of the DV regardless of what happens on the input side. If the signal is lost (momentarily there is no video signal), the DVD recording will halt. This can be triggered by a loss of time signal on a DV tape (between shots this can happen) or during a blank signal on an analog tape. For those of us used to dubbing audio and video tapes and just letting 'er rip, (start the playback and record machines and walk away for an hour), this is a major drag. I can return to find that the DVD has recorded 10 minutes of signal, yet the source has played an hour. It's really infuriating, and requires a lot of guesswork to see what has been recorded, since finalizing the DVD is required before easily playing it to see what went on it, and that prevents putting any further recording on the disk. SO I end up throwing out the DVD and starting again.

It is very picky about media. I have read the Maxell disks (not even Sony!) are what works best, though I do not know this to be true yet. I will try some and see. The Memorex 16x DVD-R blanks I am using do not work reliably at all!

I have tried a number of different disk brands and would say that overall my success rate is about 75%. I find myself saying my little silent techno-prayer each time I start again. You know what prayer I mean, if you have burned any significant number of CDs or DVDs.

There is a fan in the unit that is noisy, not terribly, but annoying enough that I can't wait to turn it off. I do like the vertical form factor of the drive, although the LCD backlight turns off after a while and you can't see what is going on unless you press the Stop button (which is OK if you are not recording!). It should stay on if the drive is powered up.

You can set this recorder to record 1 hour, 2 hours, or 6 hours on a single-layer DVD (or twice that for more-expensive double-layer). Forget anything but 1 hr (so-called HQ mode). Two-hour maybe, but the image gets pretty gnarly looking, due to compression artifacts on a single-layer DVD. Turn off the "synch" button and contro
l the thing yourself, even though you cannot get it to start recording if no 'signal' is detected (the LCD says 'no signal' even if the tape is playing, if there is no appreciable video). Still, at least you can feel a little more in control. Once the 'Sig' icon lights up, the Rec button will do something.

If you plug in a VCR as your source (i.e. a VHS machine), you'll have the problem of not being able to see what you are recording, because the output of the VCR will be going into the DVDirect! This makes cueing up your tape impsosible and truly annoying. The DVDirect has no video out jacks, you see, another major oversight. To solve this problem, boogie down to Radio Shack and pick up a video splitter (about $50) which will let you feed a signal to a TV as well as to the DVDirect without a loss of signal quality. I used to just use "Y" adapters,but this lowered the video signal quality (cut the gain in half) too much. The Radio Shack catalog # 15-1172 was just the trick I needed. See below. Then I got a switch box for multiple video inputs, stacked up my 8mm, VHS, and DV playback units , hooked them all up through the switchbox and splitter, and now I can dub any tape I have (VHS, 8mm, Hi-8, or DV) onto DVD. I'll post a picture of that stack later. Here's the splitter:

Gadgets and other stuff reviewed

I am a serious gadgeteer and will be posting numerous gadget reviews here as I discover and test new ones. These will include digital cameras, storage media, printers, scanners, DVD recorders, video projectors, musical instruments, computers, PDAs, phones, and other kinds of weird stuff.

My Vista book is out!

Shameless self-promotion department: For you Microsoft Vista users or the Vista curious, you may want to check out my new Vista book. My coauthor, Brian Knittel and I are really pleased with how this book came out. It's 1500 pages long, is published by Que (they have been my publisher for about a decade now), and is dubbed "Special Edition Using Windows Vista." It covers all versions of Vista and has over an hour of video tutorials on the included CD, too. Check it out on Amazon, where you can read the table of contents and a description. Here's the link.


My 2004 Prius

Gotta say I love my Prius, mostly. I even sold my Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo (300HP) just because I prefer to drive the Prius. It's like driving a smooth-running computer. Less than 1/3 the horsepower, and the handling sucks, relative to the Z, but the creature comforts (such as not feeling every crack in the road) make it well worth the tradeoff. The super smooth infinitely-variable-speed transmission is a dream. The best part is parking because the gas engine shuts off and you're driving by electric motor. I want to upgrade the battery system to run 40 miles around town on just electric, but this will void the warranty. Since I'm at about 37K miles, the bumper-to-bumper warranty is already over, but the power-train warranty is still in force. I must say that voice control for the nav system, audio system, climate control, and even looking for restaurants is pretty cool stuff. I call the nav system "Miss Information" (it has a female voice and sometimes gets me lost), but mostly I end up at the right destination even if not via the quickest route. The bluetooth link with the phone sucks, though. I do not use it, and Toyota should be taken to task for the software design. It does not import the phonebook from my BT phone worth a damn and the audio is distorted (my phone is an Audiovox PPC-6600 Sprint, running Pocket PC 2003). Don't expect to import your contacts list without major fiddling, and read up about phone compatibility before assuming it will all work. My Treo 650 had good audio with the in-car hands-free system, but the Audiovox did not.

EPA mileage claims 66MPG or some nonesense. I have been getting between 35 and 43 typically. I had a few tanks break the 50. I do live up a large hill, so I believe I am losing a lot on the way up, even though I recover as much as possible on the way down (using "B") mode on the shifter. If I turn off the climate control system, I seem to get about 5-7MPG more over the course of a tank.

Sometimes the onboard computer seems to lose its mind and the car will not start. This happens about twice a year. It's half turned on, meaning the accessories system is on but the hybrid system won't turn on. Nor will the car shut off so it can be 'rebooted.' It responds to no keypresses at all. It seems to have to just time out and eventually will allow me to restart it. This could take a couple of minutes. This has only happened in a parking place such as my garage, not in the middle of traffic somewhere, thank goodness. I have never had the 'dying in traffic' problem that some 2nd-Edition (2004+) models were reported have had.

One other complaint is how the shifter stick works. It's like a joystick on a kid's computer game controller. After selecting a gear (such as 'D') you release the stick and it always pops back to a resting place. The problem is, if you hold the shifter in a position such as Drive or Reverse for a few seconds, the engine go into Neutral. If you're used to keeping your hand on the shifter of your old car (whether automatic or manual) after shifting into a gear (and who isn't?) this can really foul you up. You're trying to accelerate or back up and suddenly no-go. The car just stops advancing. And unlike purely-gas cars, you don't have an engine revving in neutral when you step on the gas to give you a sense of what's up. In this car, nothing happens. It just suddenly loses power and is silent. Many people probably think it has just stalled. It just suddenly feels as though you have lost power. Select D or R again and the car moves, so long as you remember to take your hand off of the shifter stick and allow it to jump back to its normal resting place. I think Toyota should fix this ergonomic oddity.

I often load my Prius up with gear for playing in my rock band, and then have to back up my driveway into my garage to unload. I have noticed a distinct lack of backup power. Admittedly I have a full load and I'm backing up a steep driveway. Sometimes the car will not even move. No revving, no spinning wheels, and minimal sound from the engine. The electric motor seems to be the only engine working. If I press the accelerator completely to the floor and wait a few seconds, it will sometimes kick in the gas engine finally, and I can make it slowly up the hill. I believe the gas engine should come on sooner when the computer senses that the accelerator is floored and the wheels are not turning. I did have the front wheels lower than the rear (thus the drive wheels would not have been tempted to spin), so it was not the traction control that was kicking in. I'm not sure what the issue is, and it may have been fixed in post-2004 models.