Save Nearly 50% on the Most Revolutionary Product in Years

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I usually try to stay away from clickbait titles. They always seem disappointing. However, I don't know how you can be disappointed with this.

Yesterday, Amazon announced that it is releasing the 2nd Generation Echo Dot. The big news is that the price went from $90 to a penny shy of $50. And if you buy 5, you'll get one free. (Hat tip to sister site Alexa/Echo.

That explains the 50% off part... but what about the "revolutionary" part.

Let me start by explaining what the Amazon Echo is... and then I'll explain why the Echo Dot is better.

Amazon has a digital personal assistant like Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana. Amazon calls her Alexa. That's not very unique, but digital personal assistants are arguably revolutionary. Amazon Echo is a microphone/speaker that is sitting and waiting for you to activate it by simply saying, "Alexa." The difference is that you don't have to find a phone, navigate an app, press a button, or anything. I can continue typing this sentence while I ask Alexa to play music Jack Johnson. It works from across the room (unless there's a television on, or other significant outside noise).

The Echo is probably best at playing music, but it is also very good at home automation stuff. I can control my Nest thermostat upstairs while I'm downstairs, without a computer, tablet, or phone. You can order a pizza from Domino's with it. You can have Uber send you a car. You can play Choose Your Own Adventure games. I even use Amazon Echo to teach my kids spelling and math.

The Echo is so popular that it's become Amazon's next billion dollar business. And as I hinted at above, I even started contact me.)

I feel that's enough about Amazon Echo, but you want to know more you can read my original Amazon Echo review and my revisited Amazon Echo review.

Now, to tie all this together, I have to explain what an Echo Dot is and why that's even better than an Amazon Echo. An Echo Dot is a very small Amazon Echo... about the size of a hockey puck, but thicker. It has a very small speaker that isn't great, but it has Bluetooth and an audio out port. This makes it ideal for hooking up to a set of speakers or your stereo. This way you aren't tied to the Echo's speaker (though I think it's great, some audiophiles may disagree).

Perhaps the best part is the price. An Amazon Echo will set you back $180, and it very rarely goes on sale. The Echo Dot is less than $50. So you can pair with speakers you already have. I paid the original $90 price for the Echo Dot and paired them with a deal I found on these bookshelf speakers. However, I could have paired it with my Oontz Angle Bluetooth Speaker. If you bought those two, it would be less than $80... less than half price of the regular Echo.

So why did Amazon drop the price nearly in half just five months after releasing it? My guess is that it is afraid of Google Home, which Google's upcoming version of the Echo. Apple is rumored to be getting into the game as well. I think Amazon's plan is to get Alexa everywhere first.

Imagine if Amazon invented $50 tablets before anyone else had released a tablet. Would people pay $400 or $500 for an Samsung Galaxy Tab or an Apple iPad? Maybe, but it might also be difficult to market it at that price.

I think it's a great plan. I'm honestly considering getting the 6-pack, adding a couple more to the house, giving them as Christmas gifts, or using them as giveaways on the site. I'm tempted to go full-out Oprah: "You get an Echo Dot. You get an Echo Dot."

What do you think? I realize that I'm more enthusiastic than most people about Amazon's Alexa products (hence the other blog). Do "normal" people find this as amazing a deal as I do? Let me know in the comments.

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Posted on September 15, 2016.

The End of An Era and The Beginning of a New One

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This Saturday we lost electricity... and along with it my old Dell Zino. I first wrote about it when I looking to do my digital media overhaul in August 2011. It's a fun article to reflect upon. I had two $99 HP Touchpads coming to the house the next day. That's how long the Dell Zino was with us.

The Dell Zino was an Home Theater PC (HTPC) that we used to elminate our cable box rental fees along with this SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime and a very cheap cableCARD from your cable company.

The combination of an HTPC, Microsoft Windows Media Center, and the HDHomeRun Prime, gave us almost everything that we'd get from renting a DVR from the cable company. We didn't get OnDemand, but we also had a full computer for running, Netflix, Hulu, a Plex Server, and the incredible PlayOn TV.

The Dell Zino was $550 and the HDHomerun Prime was a couple of hundred on top of that. It wasn't exactly a cheap solution to avoid paying cable fees, but it felt good. Now that we are sending Zino the Wonder Television to the eternal entertainment center in the sky, I can finally calculate how much it might have saved us.

Yesterday I went to the Cox store to get a replacement box. The idea was to get a short-term solution while I wait for the successor. I could get a box for $1.99/mo. that essentially allowed me to watch TV. For $8.50, I could get a digital guide and OnDemand. For another $15 (on top of the $8.50), I could get DVR functionality. That's $23.50/mo. for what I had with the Zino (again, minus OnDemand). That's $282 or $1410 over the 5 years we had the Zino.

That set-up cut our DVR costs in half! If you count that the HDHomeRun Prime is still fine it wouldn't be too much of stretch to say it saved us nearly $1000.

I'm not sure if getting 5 years out of the Zino was good or bad. I rarely have a computer last that long, so that's good. On the other hand, it didn't have to do too much. It usually ran one application. I would expect it to last a long time.

The Replacement May Be a Problem

I knew that the Zino was on its last legs. I had been looking for a replacement, but I knew it wasn't going to be easy. Microsoft ended Windows Media Center in Windows 10. It simply isn't available in any form. It was the only software that works well for all the premium channels. With Windows 8 you had the option to get Windows Media Center, but you had to pay extra for it.

So ideally, I'd be looking for a computer with Windows 7. That's not easy to find as most new computers are sold with Windows 10. I noticed a deal on a rare Windows 7 computer Amazon Prime Day, but I didn't pull the trigger. I simply didn't want to spend another $600 that day.

What a difference a weeks makes.

It seems like my luck comes in two forms: extremely good and the bad. This is a case of extremely good luck. I happened to go on Slickdeals where I saw the deal originally. The original deal expired, but it happened to be back!

For those who aren't tech nerds, the processor in my old Zino scored 1782 on a Passmark benchmark test. The new processor scores a little over 10,000 on the same benchmark test. Roughly, the brains are 5.5 times faster... but there are a lot of other speed enhancements as well (faster memory, faster graphics, etc.). I wouldn't be surprised if it was 10 times faster in practice.

The price was ~$620 with taxes, so not too much more than the original Zino. It's a bigger computer, but not too big.

Here are the full specs for technology nerds:

  • Intel Core i7-6700 Quad Core 3.6GHz CPU
  • 16GB DDR3L Memory
  • 2TB HDD
  • AMD Radeon R9 360 2GB GDDR5
  • 2x USB 3.0
  • 4x USB 2.0
  • 1x HDMI
  • 1x VGA
  • DVD-RW
  • 802.11bgn WiFi + Bluetooth 4.0
  • Windows 7 Professional 64 Bit (Includes Windows 10 Pro License)

There's room for improvement like an SSD, more USB 3.0 ports, a Blu-Ray drive, and 802.11ac wifi. I may end up putting an SSD in it, but I'll give the traditional HDD a shot first. I had zero 3.0 ports, so having 2 is nice. I have an external portable Blu-Ray drive, so that's not a big deal. I typically use the Ethernet connection for the media center since it needs to be near the cable connection anyway. Thus the WiFi isn't a big deal.

I'm excited to have a processor that fast with that much memory. I have been using laptops that are designed with chips to save power for years. Even the Zino used chips designed for a laptop. I imagine it will be quite an increase in performance to go back to the power of a full desktop.

I'm hopeful that it will be relatively easy to get Windows Media Center set back up. I'll let you now how it goes.

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Posted on July 19, 2016.

Remix Mini: The Best Cheap/Value Desktop Computer?

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It's been a few years since I've done a technology makeover in the Lazy Man household. My 3 year old is starting to use computers at day care and my 2 year old is never far behind him. My wife and I have laptops. I have a spare $100 laptop if something should go wrong.

Recently I've missed not having a real desktop. I wonder if I'd be more productive if I had a big monitor and a real keyboard and mouse. At the same time, I've realized that it often easier to do some tasks on my Android phone than my Windows machine. The dedicated apps that I have seem to be more efficient in some ways. For example, I can reply back to a DogVacay notification almost instantly, much faster than signing into the website and navigating to the message center.

... or maybe I just saw a cool product and I am trying to justify the purchase. I'm not sure.

A group of ex-Google employees have hacked Android into a desktop operating system. Their company, Jide, is very new and the operating system, Remix OS, is rough around the edges, but the reviews on the first version of the OS were very positive. When I saw that they were launching a $40 computer on Kickstarter, I jumped in.

That computer was the Remix Mini and I've been using it on and off for a couple of weeks now.

Remix Mini - Cheap Desktop Computer

My computer set-up... the cheapest desktop computer?

As you can see, my photography skills are terrible. The Remix Mini computer is sitting on the monitor base behind my speaker. It is about the size of an elongated hockey puck... small enough to hide just about anywhere.

The Remix Mini is essentially the guts of a smartphone without the screen. It has built in Wi-Fi (alas only 802.11n) and Bluetooth. It has HDMI out (essentially for hooking up to many monitors and televisions), audio out, an Ethernet jack (not sure why as many laptops don't have them), two USB ports (alas 2.0), and a microSD slot.

I paired it with the 24" LG 1080P monitor you see in the picture. I didn't have strong feelings about the monitor other than it was IPS technology (good!), 24 inches, from a brand I trust (LG), and around $100. I saw a lot of Black Friday deals online that were as good or better for the money. If my timing had been different, I would have been tempted to pair it with a 30"-ish television that were everywhere on Black Friday.

You'll see that I also use a corded mouse that I had lying around. I'm hoping that Santa brings me this bluetooth optical cordless mouse for Christmas. The Bluetooth keyboard is from my old HP Touchpad... it works well with Android. Behind the monitor I have some cheap speakers that I picked up at some yard sale. In front on the monitor I have an OontZ Angle Bluetooth Portable Speaker. I don't need two speaker systems, but I'm waiting for Santa to bring me a power strip so that I can plug the speakers in the back in. In the meantime, the Oontz works well. Plus it's kind of fun to see how many wireless Bluetooth gadgets I can hook the Remix Mini up to.

Overall this desktop computer cost me $155. That's $100 for the monitor and $55 for the Remix Mini. (It was $40 in the Kickstarter campaign and shipping was a disproportionate $15).

The monitor serves a dual purpose. I asked Santa for an HDMI switch which would allow me to hook up my laptop to the monitor without switching cords in back. So even aside from the Remix Mini set-up, I have an area where I can use my Windows machine with a nice big monitor with multiple windows.

Finally, you may notice that I round out my desktop with a LED Desk Lamp similar to the one I mentioned in my 2015 Holiday Gift Guide. (My current version is discontinued.)

While on the topic of mobile desktops, I'm almost tempted to pick up this Kangaroo Mobile Desktop which for $99 appears to be a Windows 10 version of Remix Mini.

Final Thoughts

I've done a lot of rambling here and I've probably gone off course a bit. The point of this article was to show that for a very small investment, you can have a very capable computer. It can do email, Netflix, Excel spreadsheets, YouTube, web browsing, Amazon Instant Video, and run over a million Android apps.

To get all this value in such a small investment is nothing short of amazing. I want to encourage people to take advantage of it.

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Posted on December 3, 2015.

PlayOn Plus Will Change How You Watch Television

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I want to keep today's post a secret. It's just for you loyal readers. Don't be spreading it around, because it will ruin it for us.

In a previous article, I had written about software/service called PlayLater that allows you to record online video to watch later. It covers more or less a hundred video services including Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Go, and the local stuff (ABC, Fox, NBC, etc.). A few months ago, I commented to my wife that we are probably one of a small group of people who have watched House of Cards on an airplane. Even if you have an internet connection, streaming Netflix on it is typically useless.

With PlayLater, you get a video file just like any home movie you record. Move it onto an SD card and you are good to go.

PlayOn

The biggest problem with the service was that the interface was slow and getting shows was a very manual process of search, expand, record. I know, "Lazy Man problems", right?

The company that makes PlayLater, just changed the game with their PlayOn Plus product. They completely revamped the interface and added new functionality to make it some of the best money I've ever spent. Well it was some of the best I've spent even before they did that, but now it's even better money spent.

The interface has transformed from a 1996 web design to a 2004 era web design. (I know I shouldn't throw stones.) I want to set expectations properly. It's not great, but very, very much improved.

It's the functionality that makes PlayOn Plus a game changer. You can record shows in a season with a single click. To test this yesterday, I grabbed the whole season of Wet Hot American Summer on Netflix. Now I can bring them to the gym with me or anywhere else.

The other important piece of functionality is subscribing to shows, like you would with a DVR. I tested this by putting Fox's new show The Grinder as a subscription. As an aside, I have no idea if it is a good show, but my wife is interested in it. We missed the first episode, so this service is perfect for going back and grabbing things already aired.

There's some other functionality that I haven't used yet. There's commercial skipping built in. That sounds very basic to those with a DVR, but if you streaming a Fox show from their website, you are going to get commercials, and you can't skip them.

You can also cast video to device on your wifi network. So all my Android tablets become mini televisions in my house. Of course, they simply could just stream from Netflix and Amazon Prime in the first place, so this isn't very exciting to me. It does work to cast video to a Roku and other similar boxes, but it doesn't include the Amazon Fire TV Stick that I have in my bedroom.

Getting pricing on PlayOn Plus proved a little difficult. They advertise rates as low as $4.99 a month, but if you click on it, you need to sign in or create an account. As a long time lifetime customer, I already had an account and my upgrade was a one-time $10 purchase. So I can't see what other pricing is available to you. I've read that you can get it for $40 a year. I'm not sure if they still offer a lifetime subscription like what I have.

This issue of getting pricing is unfortunately typical of the PlayOn service. It has little quirks that suggest that it is a very small company. When I tried to use my Paypal account to upgrade, their link simply took me to Paypal's home page, not a payment option. It wasn't a big deal as I just used my credit card instead. What's important is that the core of what PlayOn does, record streaming media, is done very, very well.

As I mentioned at the outset, let's keep this a secret. It's quite possible that some of this is a legal issue. Recording shows/movies to watch later from a rental like Amazon Prime defeats the purpose of "renting." Also one could conceivably record a year's worth of programming from Netflix and HBO Go and then cancel the service... which isn't fair to their business models.

Still, it's nice to watch what you want even when there isn't an internet connection available. So give PlayOn Plus a try, I don't think you'll be sorry.

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Posted on October 6, 2015.

Buyer’s Remorse: Did I Buy The Wrong Computer?

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Last week, I wrote about how I was very successful in working on a $100 laptop. I admit it was a bit of a sensationalistic title. The laptop actually retails for $200... the Black Friday $100 pricing isn't readily available.

I was surprised to learn that even at the $200 retail price (or the $150 often discounted price), the Asus X205TA is a very useful engine computer. (Thomas the Tank Engine rubs off on you when you have a 1 and 2 year old.)

I had always assumed that a computer that cheap was just good for a half hour here or there if you didn't have a better option. However, if you have an efficient workflow and don't require too many processor sensitive applications (most people don't) you can get by.

I used this computer as my insurance policy while I ordered my next full-time computer. Without it, I would have had to buy whatever was available, which wouldn't have necessarily been a good deal nor would it have been what I'd necessary want.

It was time to look for a new computer. I quickly narrowed it to computers, the new Dell XPS 13. When it came out in January, I had to highlight it as a way to save money on your next premium windows laptop. Specifically, I wrote, "It took two years, but finally there's an increase in portability, battery life, and performance, at less money."

Can you tell I was excited for the computer? The only problem was that my current computer was working well. That's usually the case until it isn't.

The competing computer was the ASUS Zenbook UX305FA.

Before I get into the pros and cons of each, I have to give a shout out to the Microsoft Store. They have a $100 off with coupon code "PCGRAD15." I couldn't find anyone else discounting either of the machines, making it an exceptional deal right now. In addition, computers from the Microsoft Store come without all the annoying crapware apps that you never use which simply clogs up the system.

I was happy to buy from the Microsoft Store, except their physical store near me was a mall kiosk. It only had 3 or 4 computers available to purchase and neither of these two which should be the most popular options. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggaio Circuit City?

Fortunately, Microsoft's online store offers extremely cheap shipping options ranging from $16 for next day to free if you can wait 4-5 days. I felt like I could afford the $16 for a few days with extra productivity.

I'll leave it to the big technology sites to compare and contrast the Dell XPS 13 and the Asus Zenbook UX305FA, but the general consensus of review on both is that they should be on your short-list. The Dell XPS 13 is very customizable, but alas is limited to 4GB of memory at the Microsoft store (unless you want to pay hundreds more for options that you might not want). It comes with 128GB of hard drive space, which for many people is very little. (I off-load most of my data to external hard drives.) Its strengths is that is has an extremely powerful processor and is extremely small due to the design. With the promotion at the Microsoft store, you can get it for $800, plus tax and shipping.

Alternatively, The Zenbook has a slower processor, but 8GB of memory and 256GB of hard drive space. It's not exactly the same space-saving design, but it is still far above average and weighs about the same. With the same promotion, you can get it for only $600, plus tax and shipping.

I went with the Dell XPS 13.

This is where I flash back to what I wrote about last week about getting by on a cheap computer. Here I am saying how computers are fast enough and you should save money, but I went out and did the exact opposite. I passed on a computer that could have been a better fit with more memory while saving me money.

It's not a big deal. The Dell XPS 13 is awesome and I am more than happy with it. If I didn't run a website that focused on these kinds of buying decisions, I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought. It was only when I thought about writing about the purchase did it occur to me that I might have made the wrong decision.

Also, it was a good excuse to write about a great technology deal and how the quality of technology keeps coming up as the price is coming down.

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Posted on June 18, 2015.

Working on a $100 Computer

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A few weeks ago, I brought you 10 Hacks to Speed Up Your Browser. I explored how I hacked my version of Firefox to run very fast and consume much less memory (most of the tricks will work for Chrome as well). What I didn't know is that within a week, I'd be forced to put the hacks to the test.

My crazy computer purchase of February 2013 died on me. An ounce of drink hit the keyboard and though it worked for a few more hours, I had trouble getting it started after it went to sleep. It turns out that both the video card and the keyboard took major damage. I was able to rescue it long enough by plugging it in to television and using a spare keyboard. Getting that to work seemed nothing short of miraculous.

This put me in a position of needing a computer to work, but not having one. Circuit City is long gone. Best Buy moved out of my town years ago. I could get something cheap from Wal-Mart, but when you use a computer as much as I do, you don't want to make a 2+ year decision because of a day or two.

And this is when I cashed in on the best insurance I bought last year. During Black Friday I bought a ASUS X205TA Laptop at Staples for $100. My rationale was that it would be a great travel computer at 2.2 pounds with 12 hour battery life. The processor runs like it is powered by a hamster wheel. It has very little memory meaning you can only open up a couple of programs before it grinds to halt. The screen angle has to be just right. The 11.6-inch screen is a big difference from the 16-inches I used a few years ago.

However, I was able to get real work done. I could write articles, check emails, update spreadsheets and just about anything else I needed to do.

It made me think, "What if I could just pick up nearly any computer and get to work?" What if I could do the same things on a $100 computer that cost me $1100 two years ago? Computers are getting cheaper and cheaper, but my computing needs aren't necessarily expanding. The ability to retain my data and workflow are far more important to me than hardware itself.

I can't lie, my computing desires expand all the time. I look up all the latest laptops much more often than I should. There's sexy 4K screens and new processors that zip along using very little battery, all wrapped up in a package of around 2.5 pounds or less. As long as I can keep myself in check, being productive on a very cheap computer could save me hundreds of dollars.

Create a "Work Anywhere" Environment

Being able to work on any computer saved my bacon in this disaster. How did I do it? I simply looked at everything I do and tried to find a way to make it work on another computer. Specifically, these things came in particularly handy:

  • Firefox Sync - I was very nervous about syncing my browsing history with a third-party. It seems like a huge security risk. After reading about how the security was handled, I felt more secure. Being able to download Firefox (even on my Android phone and tablet) and have my browsing environment is about 80% of the battle.
  • LastPass - I use LastPass to store and secure all my passwords. If I can remember one password, I have them all. It seems like every site I use nowadays requires a login, so this is huge.
  • Google Documents - I have documents and spreadsheets that I want to have with me at all times. For example, I have notes on the articles that I am intending to write as well as a spreadsheet of earnings.

I'm sure I'm just touching the surface of what I could use. Feedly and Pocket are two apps that I'm looking to use more. I recently started to use NotePad++ which offers backing up data to the cloud via DropBox and similar services. I'm going to see if I can use this to sync files a little faster than dealing with Google Documents (it can be a bit of a resource hog to leave it open all the time).

I am testing my "work anywhere" environment by trying to work on my wife's computer with my own separate Windows login. (I offer the same to her on my computer of course.) So far it is working pretty nicely.

What I Learned From Using a $100 Computer

I learned two really valuable lessons from using a $100 computer:

  1. While the computer is functional, it is annoying enough to use that I found myself looking forward to doing errands rather than goofing off.
  2. Most people probably don't need nearly as much "computer" as they think they do.

There's definitely some kind of sweet spot of having a very functional computer at a relatively bargain price. In the past you might need to spend $500 to satisfy basic computing needs. I feel like that has shifted significantly and much of that money is more about wants.

That leads me to...

Should You Really Skimp on a Computer?

This is a difficult question and it really depends on the person. I use my computer so much, that I feel like any loss in productivity would be magnified. At the same time, my wife uses her non-work computer only about an hour a day, so it isn't magnified as much.

I'm going to cop out escape this question by simply saying that many people could save money if they wish to.

Next week, I'll review the new computer I bought. In writing this article, I've realized I might have made a several hundred dollar mistake.

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Last updated on June 10, 2015.

10 Hacks to Speed Up Your Browser

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My laptop is getting had it's 2 year birthday a couple of months ago. It wasn't the fastest processor on the block to start with, but with the time it has gotten much, much slower.

I've already written about How to Speed Up Your Computer, but after you take all those steps, what do you do?

For me the answer was look at the browser. I've been using Firefox for years and years. When I got the new computer, I imported my Firefox profile so I'd have all my browsing history. I make extensive use of autocomplete in URLs, so that history is very useful to me.

When your Firefox profile has 7-8 years of history, bookmarks, and other information it takes up a lot of memory. That slows everything way, way down.

Things were going so slow, I almost bought a new computer... almost.

A couple of days ago, I decided to attack the problem. In traditional, non-Lazy, fashion, I may have taken it to the extreme. Here are some of the things I did to reclaim my browser and my computer. A lot of these will work on the browser platform of your choice, but since I use Firefox, I'll be writing specifically to that.

  1. Say Goodbye to Firefox - Say hello to Firefox's brothers and sisters. Firefox has alternative versions such as Pale Moon and Light. I'm tempted to give Light a try, but no spell checker? Ouch.
  2. Create a New Firefox Profile - This was the most obvious fix. Firefox profiles allow you silo all your data from the application itself. I can still go back to my old profile if I need something in a bookmark or auto-complete, but this gives me a fresh start. Think of it like buying a new house, and keeping the old. You move only the things you need and suddenly you have a lot more space and efficiency. To do this, you are going to want to install the Firefox Profile Switcher add-on.
  3. Disable Flash - There was a time when many websites needed Adobe Flash. Since mobile browsers don't use Flash, many developers have found new ways to do what they need to do. The Firefox add-on, Disable Flash, gives you a button in the tool bar to easily turn Flash on and off. I'd say that 99.5% of the websites I visit work fine with Flash disabled. I found that doing this sped up my browsing immensely.
  4. Use One-Tab - I'm the kind of person who has 50 browser tabs open at any given time. One-Tab allows you to move all the tabs to... you guessed it... one tab. It's far more efficient to work with 4-5 tabs at a time and have the other tabs for later reading.
  5. Use Pocket or InstaPaper - These two services take any articles that you might be reading and save them for later reading. I don't need to keep a dozen browser tabs of articles that I want to read. I simply push them to my Instapaper account and read them on my phone when I have downtime.
  6. Use Ghostery - Ghostery is an add-on that is mostly for privacy. It stops websites from loading all kinds of scripts and cookies. The result isn't just privacy protection, it is a faster browsing experience. You have to be a little careful with this as it can block some scripts that websites need to function. For these you can "Whitelist Site." When I find that a website doesn't work it was usually because Ghostery blocked a necessary script.
  7. Use a Password Manager - I'm not really sure if this makes browsing faster, but I'm going to include it anyway. Instead of storing all my passwords in Firefox, I use LastPass. It's awesome for passwords protection. Not storing passwords makes my Firefox Profile leaner, but I may give up this speed advantage in storing them in the LastPass vault.
  8. Use this Simple Trick - A couple of weeks ago Lifehacker wrote about speeding up Firefox by enabling its new HTTP cache. You don't need to understand what it means, but the instructions are there. I didn't notice a huge speed increase when I did it, but I did it after doing all the above to make my browser fast.
  9. Lie to Websites - You can get the Firefox User Agent Switcher to make websites think you are using a smartphone. Websites, including this one, often have mobile-friendly pages that have fewer bells and whistles. I switch my user agent to mobile Safari by creating a User Agent with the following string:

    Mozilla/5.0 (iPad; CPU OS 6_0 like Mac OS X) AppleWebKit/536.26 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/6.0 Mobile/10A5355d Safari/8536.25)

    and the websites think I'm using an iPad. Many websites work fairly well like this as they don't want to lose the huge iPad audience. If you go this way, be sure to customize the toolbar, and add a button for it so that you can do it quick and easy to switch back.

  10. Tweak the Heck out of Firefox - There are a number of tweaks that you can do to speed up Firefox. I found a good number of them at I'm Programmer. With all the above hacks, my Firefox is going crazy fast, so I only implemented the pipelining solution as I saw it in three other articles.

Bonus tip: Listen to the Experts - I didn't want to include this, because I don't think it qualifies as a hack. Firefox has some troubleshooting information that may help you if you have problems. Of particular interest is the "Refresh Firefox" option, which may be the solution to my Firefox profile problem.

Give these a try in your browser and let me know how they worked for you.

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Posted on May 20, 2015.

Amazon Echo Review

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Late at night on Christmas Eve, Amazon Claus dropped off a mysterious gift at our house. It was raining and the box was a mess of wet cardboard. I opened it up and was pleased to find the box was simply black with no markings of any kind. It was perfect to slip under the tree as it was.

The wife didn't know what it was... for that I was thankful. She is not a fan of my electronic gadget purchases (remember “You bought a $60 Ball?!?!”). I could only imagine what she'd say about this.

"This", of course is the new Amazon Echo. This reviewer explains it best as a "Tower of Siri." It's not really Apple's Siri, since it is Amazon, but it is kind of like Siri. You ask it stuff and she answers it or performs the task.

Since this functionality comes for free with any major smartphone, I could only imagine how the conversation would go when I said that I paid $99 for it. I prepared myself with arguments based around how it would help our sons develop speech as he's just starting to really pick up a lot of words at 27 months.

However, a strange thing happened, something that never occurred to me. My wife LIKED the Amazon Echo. I needed no explanations or defenses.

In my opinion it is perhaps the most interesting technology since the tablet. Quite honestly, I find it more interesting than tablets were when they were introduced. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I have degrees in computer science and linguistics. Amazon Echo combines both of those disciplines with its speech recognition and its syntax and semantic parsing of instructions.

Unfortunately, right now the Echo is very limited in what it can do. It answers simple questions like "What's the weather?" You can ask it to define or spell words and get answers. However, the most useful thing thus far for me is the access to the Amazon Prime's Music library. I simply tell her to play Aerosmith and I get Aerosmith. I tell it to play The Doors and I get The Doors.

The downside is that the music is only as good as Prime's library. I tell it to play Weezer and it played one song before quitting. It would be great if I could hook in other music sources such as a library stored on my computer or even Pandora, but neither of them is available yet.

The technology isn't perfect either. I asked it to play Liz Phair and it proceeded to look for a music "list" called "fair." It couldn't find that. I worked around this by asking it to "Play music from the artist Liz Phair." That worked much better. When I don't have the television on, it picks up my voice from 20 feet away. When I have the television on, I can be 5 feet away from it, and it won't hear me. I'm hoping this gets improved over time.

The Echo has been reviewed by a few technology sites and most say that the speaker is nothing special. I don't have top of the line JamBoxes or Sonos systems in my house. I'm not an audiophile by any definition, but it sounds good to me. My wife didn't have any complaints about the sound either.

I'm hopeful that there will be an application that I can run on the computer that controls my television. It would be great to tell Alexa to play certain movies or switch channels. It would also be great if it could control the NEST thermostat in my house. I think this integration will come, but it will take a little time to iron out all the partnerships.

Final Thoughts

I've read a number of reviews of the Amazon Echo. They are all over the map. Some say that it is a solution looking for a problem. Others say that it is "a perfect 10" such as the ZDNet review I mentioned above. I think both arguments have merit. Currently, Echo is limited, but what it does, it does extraordinarily well.

As much as I hate to admit it, so much technology complicates our lives. The complexity has seemed to give it more points of failure. Every new gadget seems to require a learning curve. Amazon's Echo is fairly unique in that it strips away complications. Except in rare cases (such as the Liz Phair one), I don't have to think about how to get it to do what I want. I simply ask it to pause or resume music. I never looked up whether these commands would work... I just tried them and they worked.

I'm not sure if you should buy it or not. If you are an Amazon Prime member, I say it's certainly worth the $99. I think you'd nearly pay this for the quality of the speaker itself. If you are not, and it is $199, I'd say that it early adopters will probably like. The general public might want to wait until it can do a few more things.

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Last updated on December 31, 2014.

Budgeting for the Next Television Revolution

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When I started this blog in 2006, I was an early adopter of flat-screen televisions. Most personal finance bloggers seemed to be against such purchases. Even in 2007, when I mentioned that they can save space in your home I had to go "Suze Orman" on readers writing that they need to be sure if they can afford it.

Today, it's hard to find a television that is not a flat-screen. That's great progress in less than a decade.

You might think that the days of consumer running out to buy expensive televisions is over. I don't think so. In the next couple of years I think history is going to repeat itself.

Why? The 4K OLEDs are coming.

If you aren't technology nerd, that was probably a weird sentence. There are two technologies coming down the pike that will significant change the television game.

The first is 4K or what is called Ultra-High-Definition (UHD) by some. These televisions are already out there. I can even get one at my local BJ's Warehouse. However, as experts have written, 4K televisions don't make a lot of sense - today. The operative word there is "today."

There are two main reasons why 4K doesn't make sense. The first is that there isn't much 4K video out there to watch. However, more and more video is being added an in the next 2-3 years, that will likely change. The second is that 4K doesn't matter much when you are far enough away, unless the screen is significantly large. The expert I linked above didn't find much difference of 1080P video on 65-inch television screens. However, he noted that with 4K he could tell the difference. With the trend being larger televisions are smaller price points, it's probable that at a reasonable distance a 70-inch 4K television will look much better than a 70-inch 1080P television with 4K content.

The next revolution is OLED screens. I remember Sony showing off these screens in their Sony Style stores almost a decade ago. (Here's a smidgen of evidence of that for doubters.) Those tiny 11 and 27 inch models looked incredible... by far the best picture I've ever seen on a television. To this day it is still the best I've seen. It was almost impossible to describe it other than do say it looked like liquid color melting to make the images like the most vivid painting possible. A video of a flower looked as real as any flower I've seen in real life, just two dimensional.

With this in mind, CNET declared a new 55-inch OLED television the "Best. Picture. Ever." I particularly like the Amazon review that says, "Ok, those of you who are impatient may click the 'Buy Now' button." Yes it is $3000, but that's a "bargain" compared to the $15,000 it cost last year.

The only two flaws for me in this television are the lack of 4K and the price. The price is more of an issue with my income level than the comparative value of the picture. If you have a smaller size room where a 4K would be a waste and a high-income it might be worth buying that television now (Amazon seems to have the best price).

I'm holding out for the 4K version. It looks like that is coming this month and it will be 65 inches for $7,000.

It will probably 2-3 years before that television gets to the $2,500 price point. This is perfect. It gives the industry time to upgrade their video streams to 4K. Not only that, but it gives me time to put some money aside each month as the technology gets cheaper.

Perhaps just as importantly, when I bought my last television four years ago, I went cheap. I purposely avoided spending $2,000 on the 55" Samsung that I was look at to get a 55" Element at Wal-Mart for $699. If I had spent the $2,000 I would have felt locked into it for 10 years to get great value for my money - $200 per year. Instead, in three more years, I'll have paid around $100 per year and feel in a position to upgrade. Plus, one way to look at it is that I already have $1300 in "savings" from not buying the Samsung television.

Saving money on technology can be difficult. I look for features that are revolutionary. At the time of making the decision between the Samsung and the Element, the televisions were both 55" and while the Samsung had a much better picture, it wasn't anything like OLED. When I make the decision to buy again next time around, the television will be larger, have OLED, and have 4K... three features that will dramatically differentiate it from what I have today.

Can you tell that I'm excited?

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Last updated on October 21, 2015.

“You bought a $60 Ball?!?!”

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That's a quote from my wife a couple of weeks ago. My follow-up was, "Yes, but according to the reviews on Amazon people get bored with it very quickly."

In hindsight, this might not have been the best response. I was never the class clown, but if I can make myself laugh and throw people off their game, I'm all for it. I may not be spontaneous with dinner, but maybe being unpredictable in conversation makes up for it.

Indeed, I spent $60 for a ball, not much different in size than a tennis or a baseball. It seems very fragile, too, you wouldn't want to throw it. Put in the simple, straight-forward terms that my wife used, it seemed clear that it wasn't the wisest use of money.

Of course, it wasn't an ordinary ball. If it was an autographed David Ortiz ball, I probably would have received a free pass. It wasn't. This was an electronic gadget. My electronic gadget purchases, rightfully, get scrutinized. Over the years, I've spent a good deal of money on technology products, many of which didn't live up to expectations.

The ball in question is the Sphero Robotic Ball Version 1.0. It's a ball that you can control with your Android or Apple smartphone or tablet. You can do it through an on-screen joystick-like interface or buy tilting the device. This causes the ball to roll around and glow in any of around 16 million colors. It's like a very simplistic remote controlled car.

So why buy this thing? I've already admitted to loving technology gadgets. However, there are a ton of technology gadgets that I'd love to buy. I am able to avoid all those. As a frugal guy I always asked myself, "What makes this purchase different?"

This introspective journey lead me to to look into the steps I usually use to buy a technology gadget:

Is the Sphero a good "value?"

Value is obviously subjective, and the Sphero is no exception. My wife expected me to say that I paid $6 for it, not $60. I can't say that I blame her when I told her that it was a "ball."

That said, this ball cost $120 a year or two ago. That doesn't necessarily mean that the $60 is a good deal, but my expectation on pricing is raised. It helps me think that at half the price, it is indeed a value.

In fact, the price today on Amazon is $80. The deal that I got can be seen as a good price.

Can I Resell It on Ebay?

Part of the "value" judgment is the resale value. I explained to my wife that Sphero are selling for $60 on Ebay. That is a language she speaks. She sells on Ebay, as we things we flip things we find at yard sales and discount racks.

Being able to resell a product for what you buy it for is extremely enticing. I bought two $99 HP TouchPads that we used for more than a year. We sold them for more than we paid for them. In the meantime, we didn't buy two iPad 2s at a total cost of around $1000 and have to sell them for a lot less when they came out with the iPad 3 and 4.

If you can try it, get some enjoyment out of it, and resell it on Ebay for a good price, it is a win. Many of my technology purchases fit this formula. By the time, I'm done with it, maybe I'm out $10.

Why does the Sphero Cost so Much?

The Sphero has a lot of interesting technology packed into a small ball. The ability to display 16 million colors in one of them. You can buy LED light bulbs with similar functionality, but they generally cost $40 a piece and require their own hub. This isn't exactly the same, but it is similar.

In addition, there's the Bluetooth connectivity and the inductive charging. That adds to the price of each product. As a bonus it arrived with international plugs like I've never seen.

There's also the development of the mobile apps. While that is a one time costs, it is not trivial.

But Think of the Kids!

Maybe I was trying to talk myself into the gadget, but I had a vision that my 18-month old son would use the tilt feature to move it around the room. He's good at working with the touchscreen on some phone and tablet games. This seemed like the next step in bringing a video game into the real world. Also, being able to change the colors seems like it could be a learning tool. I could say, "Can you make the ball blue?" and see if he can do it. That's still too advanced for him, but it doesn't seem like it will be for too long.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of factors that can go into a purchase. It is easy to get caught up on the price, and ignore the value. Sometimes, there are other things to consider (such as resale value) that can help support paying what seems to be a premium price.

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Posted on May 2, 2014.

 
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