Posts in Category "Technology"

Cool Tool Monday: GPS Navigation Systems

I missed Cool Tool Friday last week because I was on vacation, so I thought I’d sneak in a Cool Tool entry on a Monday. This week I’m excited about GPS navigation systems, and in particular, the Garmin iQue 3200. I’ve had the iQue for some time now — probably about four months — but taking it on vacation reinforces how cool it really is. I drove 4 hours to the beach, drove around a new area for a week, drove home, and drove some relatives to a distant airport I’ve never driven to before, and didn’t get lost once (except when I wasn’t using the GPS). But not getting lost is sort of a given with a GPS, I think, and isn’t really the biggest advantage since even if you had directions scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin, you probably wouldn’t get lost. The real advantages are:

  1. Never having to get directions. Just hop in your car and go, whether you know where you’re going or not.
  2. Automatic rerouting. If you miss a turn, the device will reroute in a matter of seconds, and fix your mistakes for you.
  3. Location-based services. Don’t know about other GPS devices, but the iQue has a very comprehensive database of locations which you search for by all kinds of criteria, which means you don’t even need to know where you want to go so much as what you want to do.
  4. Always having a map. Even if you aren’t using your GPS device’s ability to route, it’s nice looking at a map of where you’re going. You can see landmarks around you on the map that you can’t see through your windows, and quickly evaluate shortcuts to avoid traffic problems.

The iQue is a handheld GPS rather than one that actually installs or is integrated into your dashboard. Since I drive a Jeep with a soft top, everything that might be overly tempting has to be removable and small enough that it can be locked in a console or glove box, so the iQue is perfect for me. In-dash units have a lot of advantages (always available, larger screen, integrated antenna), but the iQue actually has several advantages over many in-dash units (fast processor, expandable memory, handwriting recognition, PDA functionality, portable). As always, in a perfect world, I would have one of each, but as it stands, I’m pretty happy with the iQue.

Any other satisfied GPS users out there?

I Need Some RSS Aggregator Feedback

As you probably know, Macromedia is pretty invested in RSS/weblogs/aggregators/etc. We’ve been blogging for well over two years, and we’re aggregating over 300 feeds with MXNA with about 35,000 Macromedia related posts archived. Developer Center content has been available as RSS for about year and a half, and now TechNotes, security bulletins and product update information is available through the Macromedia Product RSS Feeds.

But what I’m interested in today is aggregators, and other ways people access not just Macromedia news, but any kind of news. Aggregators have come a long over the last two years, and at this point, options abound. There are great online options, offline options, and even iPod options. What I want to know is:

  1. Do you use an aggregator? If so, which one? If not, why?
  2. What kinds of news and information do you aggregate?
  3. What do you like about your aggregator? What do you dislike? What could make it better?
  4. How many feeds are you aggregating?
  5. How often to you use your aggregator?
  6. Anything else interesting and aggregator-related you want to share?

Feel free to leave any type of comment you want, and/or take the survey on the right (you can reload the page to answer the poll multiple times). Thanks!

Where Is Our Taste for Technology?

Casio recently released a new line of watches intended to bring together several great features which were previously distributed across several different models. Naturally, I tried to order one only to discover that there are only four models available in the US, all of which are almost exactly alike, and sell for about $400!

I’m also in the market for a good GPS device, and noticed an interesting GSM phone on Garmin’s website with integrated GPS. It looked very promising until I read the fine print: “This product is not available in the U.S.” For some reason, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemberg, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and South Africa are all more viable markets than the US.

Sony has just stopped selling Clies in the US, and just about every phone, PDA and video game I read about is available in Europe or Asia before it makes its way here, if it makes its way here at all.

So where is our taste for technology? Why is the US such a poor market for new devices?

We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world with one of the highest standards of living, the Internet and GPS were invented here, and some of the most important and influential technology companies in the world are based in the US. Are we too busy spending money on SUVs to invest in technology? Do we have so much room that miniaturization does not sell well, and has our lack of public transportation and comparatively short commutes suppressed our appetite for mobile devices? What American doesn’t need a altimeter-barometer-thermometer-compass-GPS-atomic-solar timepiece strapped to his or her wrist?

Let’s all do our part and go out and buy a new toy today!

See Yourself in a Satellite Photograph!

A friend of mine sent this to me last night, and it completely amazed me. It’s simultaneously incredibly cool, and a little spooky. Microsoft has a service called TerraServer USA which is “one of the world’s largest online databases, providing free public access to a vast data store of maps and aerial photographs of the United States.” That description doesn’t do it justice, though. You really need to check it out.

You can drill down from a map of the world, right your your neighborhood (though only if you live in the US), or you can make things easy on yourself by entering your address and being taken directly to the spot. You can also browse famous places, and even incorporate TerraServer USA into your own applications via Microsoft’s web service.

Ok, so now for some cool locations. This is the neighborhood I used to live in. The white car closest to the bottom of the photograph is the Nissan Sentra I recently sold, and the black car above it is my wife’s old VW Passat. Spooky! Glad I wasn’t doing anything suspicious outside that day.

This is the neighborhood I live in now the year before I moved in. My house is the end-unit on the left (below center), in case you want to drop a bomb on it or something. I can actually see my deck, and three hallway windows! Fortunately, you can’t see how badly the deck needs to be refinished.

Here’s another house I lived in as I was growing up (left of center). As you can see, it’s much bigger than what I live in now. The economy has certainly changed around here!

Using Google to Search Your Own Machine

The New York Times has an article (registration required) about a piece of software Google is rumored to be about to release which will be capable of searching your local machine, either instead of, or in addition to, the Web. According to the article, it’s a defensive move to try to keep Microsoft from taking over the search industry by integrating search functionality into the OS like they did the browser back in the Netscape days. Of course, with the way Longhorn keeps getting postponed, it might 2010 before we see any such technology, but I certainly applaud Google’s proactive thinking.

Finally, An Easy Way to Upgrade Your Hardware

IBM has started offering a software package that I think is long overdue. It’s called System Migration Assistant, and the idea is to simplify the process of migrating to a new machine. From IBM’s website:

“IBM System Migration Assistant makes light work of migrating your old computer’s data and settings to a new computer or operating system. By duplicating the source system on a single file, this tool enables you to easily transfer end-user specific data and settings for applications, printers, network connections and personal preferences.”

I’ve always been surprised that software like this isn’t more pervasive. If I were Apple, for instance, I would have way to connect two machines with a firewire cable, hit a few keys, and transfer everything of importance from the old machine to the new in order to encourage (or at least not discourage) hardware upgrades.

Of course, this is easier said than done. First of all, the two machines presumably have different hardware configurations which might make porting preferences, settings and drivers difficult or impossible. There are also licensing and activation issues to worry about these days. And, or course, there is always the advantage of being able to start completely from scratch with a new machine, and take the opportunity to get yourself a little better organized. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t actually use a utility like this because I would be skeptical that it could do the job accurately and safely, and I actually like setting up new machines because it gives me the opportunity to try some new organizational techniques. But in general, I think this is a good concept that might work very well for a lot of people.

Laptop Advice

Few topics evoke such numerous and passionate responses as the question “Which laptop should I buy?” I have seen a couple of pretty good discussions recently on different lists, so I thought I would give people an opportunity to compile some thoughts here (available to those Googling for advice).

What’s my favorite laptop? Well, I’ve owned an IBM ThinkPad, Compaq something-or-other, Zenith, Toshiba Satellite, Sony Picturebook, Apple iBook and two Apple Powerbooks (both 15″ models). Which do I like best? No surprise, but the Powerbooks have been the best overall. They are very well constructed with great features and a very nice screen. If I were a PC user, though, I would use a ThinkPad, no questions asked. My IBM was very tough, and I’m sure it is still in use somewhere in the world (I sold it on eBay a couple of years ago). My Sony was probably the coolest in terms of wow-factor, but it was a little too proprietary for my taste (Sony writes a lot of their own drivers for their hardware). I probably wouldn’t buy a Sony now, although I continue to believe that they make some of the coolest laptops around, and I wouldn’t discourage the purchase of a Sony, as long as you don’t intend to try to run Linux on it. My Toshiba was great, but big, plastic and heavy, and my Compaq and Zenith were too old to be relevant to a modern discussion.

But don’t rush out any buy a new Powerbook just yet. Make sure the screen and warping problems have been fixed first. I have the very last model of the “old” Titanium Powerbooks, and it’s solid as a rock because the form factor has been tweaked and revised over probably three or four years. The new Powerbooks (though clearly superior in features, hardware, etc.) have some screen and warping issues that Apple needs to work out. Once I’m sure the issues have been fixed, however, I will probably start keeping my eye out for a new 15″ Powerbook.

So my questions to you are:

Which laptops do you like best? Why? What kind do you have? What do you think of it? What kind do you wish you had?

Oh, and don’t forget to take the new survey, too.

Technology and Car Buying

My wife and I bought a new car last weekend, and I seriously can’t imagine how it was ever done before the Internet and PDAs. We started out researching different models online, reviewing not only what the different manufacturers had to say, but also reading posts from owners of those particular models. Fortunately, all evidence pointed toward the car my wife already wanted, so we drove to a dealership just for a test drive with no intention of buying the car that day. After verifying that we liked the way the car drove, we went home and shifted our focus from browsing to buying. Thanks to edmunds.com (never buy another car without spending a significant amount of time on edmunds.com), we decided on exactly what options we wanted, found out exactly what dealerships’ costs were, and got up to speed on all the new pricing scams (is it really fair for dealerships to pass their advertising costs along to their customers? Hmmm.). We found great interest rates online, and thanks to the interest calculator at cars.com and Microsoft Excel, we were able to model all kinds of pricing scenarios. (I ended up replicating the interest calculator in Flash 5 for my Sony Clie so that I would not have to depend on the financing manager at the dealership to provide me with numbers during negotiations.) By this time, we knew exactly the car we wanted and exactly what we wanted to pay for it.

We spent another half day at a dealership trying to make a deal, but they would not come down far enough. It was an interesting experience since I knew every penny of their costs and all of their tricks to try to artificially inflate the price of the vehicle. The price I was willing to pay had a decent profit built in for them, however they kept claiming that they would be selling the car at a loss if they were to agree to my price. Finally, I took out my spreadsheet and went over it line by line with the manager at which point, he leveled with me and said he simply believed he could sell the car to someone else for more, and that was the bottom line. You can’t argue with that, so we left and executed plan B which was to drive up to Maryland to a dealership with a no-haggle policy which had the exact car we wanted for a very reasonable price. On the way up, we did some additional research on my Clie (connected via GPRS via my cell phone), and put together a game plan for approaching the sales team. It turns out this dealership had a very open policy and was very willing to show you all their costs associated with the car, and even the amount of profit they wanted to make. All their numbers checked out against mine, and we ended up getting the car with additional options for $100 less than what we were offering the first dealership. It turns out I had actually built in more profit in my price than they even wanted to make!

Anyway, I can’t imagine how I could done it without being able to do research via the internet, and without the calculator, browser and interest calculator on my Clie. How did Macromedia technology figure in? Many of the sites I used for research were powered by ColdFusion, all car manufacturers use Flash to give customers a better experience, and the interest calculator I wrote for my Clie was implemented in Flash 5. Now if only the car had a built-in Flash 7 player and an SDK.

Modular Computing — It’s About Time!

On November 7th, Antelope Technologies will launch the first truly modular computer (at least, as far as I know). What is a modular computer? It’s something I have been envisioning for about 5 years now, and something I can remember my father talking about for at least 20 years. It’s a separation between the computer and its form factor, so one computer becomes your hand-held, desktop and laptop. And in my opinion, it’s long overdue. If Antelope delivers on what they are promising, we can finally stop waiting on the mythical OQO ultra-personal hand-held PC.

I Fired My IM Clients

As nice as iChat is, I finally got tired of having to use both it and ICQ for OS X, so I’m testing out Fire. Fire is free, open-source messaging client for OS X which supports AIM, ICQ, IRC, Jabber, MSN and Yahoo! Messenger. So far, I’m pretty happy with it, though I only use it for AIM and ICQ, so I don’t know how well it works for other protocols. It downloaded my contact (buddy) lists just as expected, and aside from one or two annoyances (not quite bugs, but certainly not features, either), it seems to be working great. I have to get some new sounds for it, though, because it uses the default AIM sounds, which makes my computer sound like my wife’s. Maybe something from Star Wars will do the trick. Anybody have some good WAV files?

What instant messaging client(s) do you use? Once I get a feel for what’s out there, I’ll set up a poll so we can find out which are the most popular.