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Category — Personal

Obi, Codecs,WiMax, and the End of GV XMPP

It’s time for an Obi update.  As I’ve mentioned before, I really like my Obi 202; it’s a nice combination of reasonable simplicity and flexibility.  However, Google is dropping the XMPP interface to Google Voice on May 15, and Obihai isn’t going to try any work arounds, so I’ve had to re-configure my system.

What I’ve ended up with is this:

  • Currently keeping the Anveo DID (incoming phone number) which I’ve had for several years.
  • I’ve added Vestalink as my main service (incoming and outgoing).
  • I’ve also added Localphone, currently on a 800 minute/month subscription for outgoing ($1.60) and DID for incoming ($0.99/month; I’ll probably drop the DID).
  • Both Vestalink and Localphone are set up spoof our Google Voice number for outgoing calls.
  • I’ve set Google Voice to forward to Vestalink for incoming GV calls.

It’s working pretty well, especially by the most important standard: my wife hasn’t been complaining.

Consider I was paying >$20/month for basic metered local telephone service, I’m not worried about saving every penny.  I like having some redundancy, so if say Vestalink is having trouble, we can always use Localphone.

I did not use any install wizards; I prefer to enter the information in by hand, so I can tweak it if necessary, move things around, etc.

Codecs and Wireless

The only big tweak I’ve done is with codecs: I’ve setup both Vestalink and Anveo to only use the G.729 codec (GV and Anveo only support G.711).  The G.711 codec might have slightly better quality than G.729 (according to one study I found, 4.3 vs 4.0) on a fast wired connection, but it doesn’t recover well from lost packets, jitter, etc.

So I’ve been happier running VoIP on FreedomPop WiMax after I’ve switched off the direct Google Voice connection to my new G.729-based services.  I give the credit to the Obi forums; I’ve learned a lot from them recently.

I will also be experimenting with Android SIP clients.  In the past, my experience wasn’t too great, but I think using G.729 might help.  Vestalink provides their own client (a customized version of Cloud Softfone), and allows two simultaneous calls (so if I’m talking on Android, my wife will still be able to call at home).  For Localphone, I am evaluating CSipSimple and Zoiper.  I’m not planning on using SIP for incoming; SIP apps appear to significantly decrease battery life.

Vestalink

Vestalink has had its issues such as a few outages and issues with delays with calls forwarded from Google Voice, so YMMV (your mileage may vary), but I’ve been satisfied.

So far Google Voice forwarding to Vestalink has been great, with almost instant or very short delays.  Voice quality has been fine (considering I’m on WiMax).  It’s easy to set my outgoing Caller-ID.  I like the incoming CNAM (name lookup).  Vestalink does have a 30 day trial period.

Localphone

So far Localphone has been working fine, too.  I’ve tried some Google Voice to Localphone DID forwarding, and it’s been fine, even though the packets supposedly have to go Europe and back.

Other Options

I chose based on my priorities and current usage.  There are a number of other options worth considering, especially if you have different needs, including:

  • The Obi plans.  Current choices include three plans from Anveo and two plans from PhonePower.
    • The Anveo plans have fairly limited outgoing minutes.
    • You have to sign in to see the details.
    • These plans are setup over the internet, so it’s almost as easy to use as Ooma (but still more flexible).
    • I thought about the PhonePower plans, but passed  because I want to be able to tweak settings, including my Caller-ID spoofing (PhonePower doesn’t allow easy spoofing changes).
  • A free Callcentric DID for incoming + Localphone or CircleNet for outgoing.  Note: if provide a US or Canadian address, Callcentric charges $1.50/month for E911.  Localphone is typically about $0.005/minute, with US packages of 800 min/month for $1.60, and 5000 for $5.00.  CircleNet says most calls are under $0.005/minute.
  • Future-9, although you have to check the Obi forums or DSL Reports forums if you are interested in their interesting $5/month plan.
  • Callcentric.
  • voip.ms
  • Skype via a bridge.  I had thought about this, but decided it was too much hassle.
  • I’m sure there are others; I highly recommend participating in the appropriate Obi forum; for North America, it’s here — I have learned so much from there.

Additional Notes (Added Later)

  • Google Voice is currently still working with Obi ATAs, but there is no guarantee how long this will last.  I think it’s better to switch now; I have no regrets paying a bit and getting more (such as a better CODEC for my internet connection and  incoming caller name lookup).
  • With all services, results may vary.  For example, I’ve seen reports that LocalPhone has problems calling some Verizon land line numbers.

Even More Notes (October 2014)

  • After Obi changed the authentication method for Google Voice, it’s now officially supported again.  However, that could change yet again….from what I’ve heard, Google really was planning on shutting down XMPP, but changed their mind.
  • So if you want to save maximum money, Google Voice is probably the way to go.  However, you can get many extra features (such as Caller ID lookup (CNAM), E911, and such) with a SIP provider.  I’ve found I really like having CNAM.

Dec 2014 Notes

  • Looks like Future 9 is out of business.  Vestalink is still in business, and I hope they can find a sustainable business because VL has worked well for me.
  • My Anveo DID seems to be having substantial lag reporting the Caller ID number.  I’d also like CNAM on that number, so I’m considering porting it to another carrier when my pre-paid account gets down to $1 or so (possibly CircleNet.  Yes, they’re another small provider, but I think their business model is sustainable).
  • Newer Obi’s can also use Ring.to  service; it’s likely older Obi’s (like mine) will get it eventually.  I’ve played around with it a bit on my phone (since I’ve had GrooveIP for a long time), and so far it’s been a bit flaky (won’t authenticate over my LTE MiFi, but will over WiMAX).  Opinions on the Obi forums are mixed.

April 27, 2014   1 Comment

New Year 2014 Notes

I haven’t been able to write much lately, so it’s time for a quick update.

Normally, I don’t have time to post much around Christmas because I like to spend extra time with my family, plus the normal tasks of Christmas Cards, gifts, and such.

I will be continuing the Robot Primer series very shortly; I’ve been spending a lot of time laying the foundations to make the next few posts worthwhile.

I did back a couple Kickstarter projects recently:

  • Charmed Labs’ Pixy, because it features machine vision and an interesting MCU (NXP LPC4330) at an affordable price.
  • The Micro Python board, because I’m curious to see how it turns out.  I hope to find time to do some benchmarks with the BeagleBone (which is comparable in price), Raspberry Pi,  and a comparable eLua board.

I did buy some fun industrial stuff, too, but I’ll wait to describe it until I’ve had time to play with it some more.

I hope to write some more about .NET development; I’m starting to learn about the Reactive Extensions library in detail.  It looks really good (but mind-blowing to a PLC programmer).

Finally, sometime I need to do some more pen and pencil posts; for example, last year I bought two aluminum drafting pencils, the sweet Pentel GraphGear 1000 and my favorite, the awesome Uni Kuru Toga Roulette (which is so great a co-worker bought two after seeing mine).

January 10, 2014   No Comments

FreedomPop WiMax and VoIP

I’ve been on a quest to find the best match for my home internet needs.  At home, we don’t use the internet much, because I don’t have time (too busy doing non-geeky things), my wife only does e-mail, internet radio, browsing and the occasional Youtube video, and we try to keep our kids in the real world as much as possible (Legos! Drawing!  Parks!).  We only use about 5G/month, so I don’t want to pay for a lot of Gigabytes we won’t use.

As I’ve mentioned before, we were on the Clear WiMax basic plan ($35/month for unlimited 1.5M down / 500K up), which helped since I could dump my rip-off of a basic phone plan (~$23/month for metered local calls).  Note that Clear service is no longer available since they are now fully owned by Sprint.

A couple months ago, I finally found a better fit: FreedomPop’s Home plan, which uses Clear (now Sprint) WiMax.  I’m on the top plan, which is 10G of whatever speed you can get for $19/month.  Here are my comments so far:

  • FreedomPop’s website and sign up process really reminds of GoDaddy.  You need to read carefully and know what you want so you don’t pay for unneeded extras.
  • Speed is good; I have maximum signal strength, and can get 12-14Mbps down and 1.3-1.5Mbps up (based on running speed tests a couple times).
  • Latency can still be an issue for VoIP (see below for more).
  • I like the modem’s included 2-port switch.  Its built-in WiFi has good speed, but seems to have poor range.  My Obi 202 ATA is still on power line adapters instead of WiFi.
  • FreedomPop’s plans are niche: if you do much streaming, you’ll quickly pay a lot, good WiMax coverage is limited, and FreedomPop’s LTE plan is way too expensive for my usage (5G/month would be ~$65/month).
  • If I need to change, I’ll probably go to LMI.net’s Fusion service.  It’s a pricier (~$52/month with taxes), but has good customer service, high speed, no usage caps, and unlimited long distance calling.

VoIP Notes

Even with the extra speed, Google Voice on the Obi isn’t perfect.  Most of the time it’s good enough.  I note that Clear was promoting Ooma for VoIP over WiMax, although I think only the newer Ooma models have the wide-band codec that’s better for wireless.

I still really like my Obi; I like knowing I can configure it myself, I like having 2 lines, I like the USB options (Bluetooth, WiFI, analog phone line adapter (FXO/FXS)  and I like having up to 4 service providers.

Initial voice quality using the FreedomPop HomeBurst wasn’t so great.  I made two changes that helped: I changed to  Obi’s configuration so that the Ethernet port was always at 100Mbs, and I paid for the mysterious FreedomPop “SpeedBoost”, which can’t boost my speed, but does seem to increase packet priority (voice quality improved — and even with the added expense, it’s still a deal: the cost is about the same as I was paying for just local phone service).

Sometime I want to try using LTE for VoIP, because it supposedly has much better latency than WiMax.

New Problems

Now the news is out that Google is dropping XMPP support for Google Voice during May 2014, so the Obi will no longer work with Google Voice.  I’m going investigate one or two options (which is easy, since my Obi 202 still has a couple free service slots).

  • I will definitely try LocalPhone.
  • I might try using Skype using the SipToSis bridge (Obi notes here).  This will require having a computer on all the time, but I have an old laptop with a broken LCD that should work.

I will write a new post when I have results.

October 2014 Important Notes

  • Google decided not to drop GV XMPP support (at least, not yet – there is no guarantee how long it will be available), so it’s still available on the Obi (with a better authentication method).
  • I strongly do not recommend getting a FreedomPop WiMax service (Home Burst Hub or WiMax MiFi) now, since there are reliable indications Sprint will be shutting down all WiMax service in November 2015.  The FreedomPop LTE services will still work, but the pricing is higher (and you need different equipment).

November 17, 2013   1 Comment

Make SATA Drives Non-Ejectable In Windows

I recently had the problem that my internal SATA drives were showing up in the Windows 7 Safety Remove Hardware and Eject Media tray icon.  Since I don’t plan on ejecting my internal drives, I decided to solve the problem.

This How can I remove the option to eject SATA drives from the Windows 7 tray icon? Q&A gave the information I needed (I mainly used the first answer), but didn’t spell out how to find the correct driver.  So I will go over the procedure I used.  Note: if you’re not comfortable with hacking Windows, don’t do this!

  1. My configuration is an Asrock 960GMUS3S FX motherboard with a Samsung 840 Pro SSD on the first SATA 3 channel and a WD HDD on the second SATA 3 channel.  The first SATA 2 channel is used for eSATA; the last 3 channels are currently unused.
  2. First open up the Device Manager, find the controllers section, right click on the appropriate controller, and click on the Properties item.  In my case, both drives are on the Asmedia 106x SATA Controller under IDE ATA/ATAPI controllers.

    Device Manager

    Device Manager

  3. Click the Driver tab.

    Controller Properties

    Controller Properties

  4. Click on the Driver Details button.

    Driver Details

    Driver Details

  5. Note the name of the driver file; in my case, it’s asahci64.sys
  6. Now the procedure pretty much follows the Q&A.  Start by opening Regedit.
  7. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services, and then find the name that matches the drive file name in step 5 (asahci64 in my case).
  8. Add the keys as specified in the Q&A.  In my case, I added Controller0, and under Controller0 I added Channel0 (for the SSD) and Channel1 (for the HDD).  Under each channel, I added the DWORD value TreatAsInternalPort, and then set the value to 1.
    1. Here’s a screen capture of my updated registry:asahci_registry
    2. Here’s a REG file I created that does the job:
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services\asahci64\Controller0]

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services\asahci64\Controller0\Channel0]
"TreatAsInternalPort"=dword:00000001

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services\asahci64\Controller0\Channel1]
"TreatAsInternalPort"=dword:00000001
  • Reboot and verify everything works as expected (it took me a few tries to get everything right).

November 13, 2013   2 Comments

My NAS4Free System

I’ve been wanting to get a NAS (Networked Attached Storage) unit for the last few years.  Finally I made time to put one together using NAS4Free and some parts I’ve had for a while.

Why NAS4Free

I choose to go with NAS4Free over commercial and other open source projects for a few reasons:

  • NAS4Free was cheaper (since I already had the parts) and more flexible than a commercial NAS box.
  • I wanted my NAS to use ZFS for its robustness, which really limited my options.
  • NAS4Free’s installation and setup looked pretty easy, and there are many available resources.
  • NAS4Free supports UPnP which I want to use with my Grace Digital Audio system.
  • If I need to, I can install additional software (FreeBSD packages), although I should note that NAS4Free strongly recommends that the NAS stays just a NAS, and doesn’t become an all purpose server.
  • NAS4Free is fully Open Source, not the free version of a commercial product.

My Hardware

My major NAS hardware is:

  • Antec Sonata case  – a quiet mid tower case
  • Abit NF8V motherboard.  The good: Gigabit Ethernet.  The bad: old enough that I needed to add a SATA PCI board to handle the Terabyte hard drives.
  • AMD Sempron 2800 with 2G RAM.  I’ve had the case, motherboard, CPU, and RAM for ~8 years, and it’s nice to be able to re-use them.  The CPU is plenty fast enough, and the RAM is more than enough.
  • I left in the CD-ROM drive to use for initial installation and updates.
  • An old 256M Kingston CF card plus a CF to PATA adapter to store the OS.  NAS4Free strongly recommends running the OS on a separate drive, so I’m using the embedded installation method.
  • Dual Seagate ST1500DL003 1.5T drives for the main storage; with their 5900 RPM speed, these drives give me a nice balance between performance and power savings.  (“Green” drives are not recommended.)  I have the drives mirrored, since 1.5T is plenty of storage, and I’m more concerned with data integrity than storage capacity or speed.

My Experiences So Far

At the bottom, I’ve listed most useful resources I found; here are some additional notes:

  • Performance is fine; I’ve seen up to ~50MB/sec transferring files to my desktop.
  • Installation went pretty well, except for trying to get encryption working (more below).
  • The web GUI is nice, but could be a lot better.  You definitely need to read the documentation and some tutorials to get everything setup.
  • Remember, as the NAS4Free site says, a NAS is not backup!  You still need to backup the data (preferably in another location).  Right now I’m using some portable USB hard drives; in the future, I’m thinking about getting a high capacity (120G) Blu-Ray burner.

My main problems came trying to get encryption working with mirrored ZFS drives.  Here’s what I found:

  • In short, it’s not worth it for me.  Encryption is a like a lock: it can help, but it’s not a security cure-all, and does add hassles.  So I decided instead of whole disk encryption, I could use a container (such as TrueCrypt) for the files that need it.
  • If you really need encrypted ZFS drives, it’s probably worth checking out FreeNAS V8, which now includes its own ZFS encryption (not compatible with Oracle’s version).
  • NAS4Free’s underlying FreeBSD operating system includes the GELI encryption drivers, which can do whole disk encryption.  It’s probably a decent match with the UFS file system.
  • The problem is that every time you restart NAS4Free with GELI-encrypted ZFS drives, the drives are not attached until you enter the password in the encryption GUI.
  • So after reboot, your ZFS configuration is gone: you have to re-attach the encrypted drives (entering the appropriate passwords), then recreate their ZFS configuration, and synchronize: see the gory details here.  I decided that was too much work for the benefits.

In the future, I’d like to do a fancier NAS with hot swap drives and such.  My default OS will be NAS4Free, but I’d also take a look at FreeNAS and illumos-based solutions.  Although mini-ITX cases with hot-swap bays from Chenbro and CFI are very cute, I’m very tempted to use a bigger case because the mini-ITX cases are limited to 4 3.5″ hot-swap drives, while I have a case that can handle 10 hot-swap drives (using something like this), and ZFS starts to get really interesting at 5 drives and up.  Another possible approach is to use 2.5″ drives and something like this or this, and a cute mini-ITX or micro-ATX case.

Note 9/2014: CFI now has a mini-ITX case with 5 3.5″ hot swap trays (and a 300W power supply) which looks pretty interesting.

NAS4Free Links

Here are some links I found useful:

November 6, 2013   2 Comments

Server Migration Coming

This site will be migrated to another Webfaction server soon, so there may be some disruptions during the next week.  Please be patient.

Update 6/7/2013: this blog and the subversion server appear fine, but the trac site needs some work – it might be a couple days before I get it fixed.

Update 6/25/2013: it took way too long, but I’ve got the trac site back up and running to my satisfaction.  Overall, I still like trac (I did take a look at switching to redmine), but I’ve found it very hard to migrate a trac site (in this case, instead of trying to get an old version running on 64-bit Linux, I migrated to the latest version).

June 6, 2013   1 Comment

Obi vs Ooma VoIP Systems

Since it’s been over a year, it’s time for an update on my home phone system.  Although I could use an Android smart phone with WiFi, VoIP app, talking Caller ID app, and call screening app, I still prefer traditional telephone / answering machines at home for a number of reasons, including easy call screening and simplicity.

Last year, I was using an Ooma Hub with DSL and an AT&T land line.  The Ooma is simple to setup and use, worked well, and provides nice features such as CNAM (Caller ID name lookup).  I had two phone numbers, one for the Ooma and one for the analog phone.  I liked that: only our friends knew the Ooma number.

Then AT&T raised their phone line rates beyond reasonable, so I dumped them and moved to Clear WiMax.  That move caused two issues with Ooma:

  1. I got frustrated that there was very little I could tweak on the Ooma unit myself to try to get it to work better on Clear.
  2. I missed having two lines; you can get that on Ooma by paying for Premier, but I didn’t feel Premier is worth it for me.

So I bought an Obi 202, which is a 2-line ATA (analog telephone adapter) designed to work with Google Voice and other SIP services.  I’ve sent my Ooma to a non-technical friend.

I find the Obi to be a great fit: Google Voice is a snap to get setup, it’s pretty easy to setup other services, it’s been solid, I can easily tweak the parameters, and it gives me two lines with up to 4 services.  My current setup is Google Voice plus Anveo (mainly for incoming calls and E911).

Clear WiMax is working OK, once I stopped using my 2.4 GHz cordless phone.  Skype always seems to work well, but SIP services (Google Voice and Anveo) occasionally have noticeable problems such as breaking up.  Eventually, I plan on doing a SIP-to-Skype bridge, but the SIP services are working well enough that it’s not a high priority.

In summary, the Ooma is great for non-technical people, but the Obi is better if you need more flexibility or want to fiddle a bit.

 

January 8, 2013   No Comments

MVNO Cell Phone Plans

I’ve done way too much research on cell phone plans (which are almost as confusing as airline ticket pricing); here are my current thoughts on MVNOs.

What Are MVNOs?

MVNO is an abbreviation for Mobile Virtual Network Operator; in other words, it’s a cell phone company that doesn’t own its own physical network; instead, it pays for (or “rents”) minutes and megabytes on another company’s network; that company owns the real network.  Some MVNOs are quite large; for example, TracFone has over 15 million customers.

Most MVNO plans that I’ve seen are pre-paid; you have to buy the minutes before you can use them.  Pre-paid plans are also offered by the major carriers.

One big advantage of pre-paid plans is that there are no overage fees.  Of course, there are no overage fees on unlimited plans, pre-paid or post-paid.  But it’s a nice feature for normal plans: a typical post-paid plan has a set number of minutes, and if you go over those minutes, you are charged a ridiculous amount, such as $0.35/minute.  With pre-paid plans, you’re paying for service for a fixed amount of time and for a maximum amount of usage (minutes/texts/megabytes).  If you exceed that usage before the time expires, you can simply add another card, at the same price as before.

All the MVNO plans I’ve seen are no-contract plans.  That means if you become unhappy or just want a change, you can leave right away without paying any obnoxious penalty.  On the flip side, that means there are no big handset subsidies, so for example a new Samsung Galaxy SIII will be over $500.  However, if you like to keep your phones or buy used (which I do), the cheaper monthly bills make pre-paid a much better deal.

Finally, MVNO’s often provide plans that the major carriers simply refuse to offer, such as lower rates or more flexible plans.

Disadvantages can include worse coverage (since voice and data roaming is often not included) and limited handset selection (often you have to buy the phone from the MVNO, or certain models such as iPhones are blocked).

My Experience

I am currently on Ting, using a Ting-refurbished LG Marquee.  I used to be on Net10 (my wife is still on Net10).  In the more distant past, I was on T-Mobile and Sprint.

My Net10 experiences were good.  I had to call customer support when I started, and although it took a while, there were able get my phone working with one call — and they gave free service for the trouble.  Net10 is a TracFone brand, and I believe they use both AT&T and T-Mobile.  However, the Net10 website is confusing and not well designed.

My wife is still happy with Net10, and actually likes having a limited number of minutes (it gives her an excuse to get off the phone!).  However, I missed the Centro smart phones I had on T-Mobile and Sprint, so I recently made the switch to Ting.

I bought a Ting refurbished LG Marquee Android phone ($87) plus an extended battery ($13 on Amazon), and like the result.  The Marquee is fast enough, has a high resolution screen (800×480, essential for web browsing), and a SD card slot (great since it use it as a MP3 player), but isn’t too big.  With standard battery, the phone is slim, but I still love the extended battery, since it gives the Marquee great battery life.  Currently, WiFi tethering is disabled, but there is a hack to re-enable it (Ting allows tethering, but the phone was originally for Boost).

I had to call Ting since my phone didn’t want to activate at first, and found support to be top notch, better than any of my past experiences.

What I like about Ting is that I get all the features I want (smart phone, voice, data, tethering, no contract, no overages) at a price I like.  I’m using VoIP when I’m in WiFi range.  I’ve tried both Skype and GrooveIP; I’m using Skype because a lot of the time my WiFi signal is via wireless (e.g. Clear), and Skype seems to work much better over wireless (3G or 4G) than the SIP protocols used by Google Voice.

Since I love my Blackberry Playbook, sometime in the future I might consider getting a Blackberry BB10 phone and switching to SimpleMobile (since Ting does not plan on supporting Blackberry).

Notable MVNO Plans

Here are the current plans I think are the most interesting.  You should always do your own research (including non-MVNOs), and remember that plans frequently change; for example, T-Mobile is rumored to be launching a cheaper pre-paid option.  As always, don’t forget to check out the coverage and phone selection.

  • Want a bit of everything, but your usage is variable or low?  Try Ting, a Sprint MVNO.  Ting offers a wide range of Android phones, including very affordable refurbished models, plus Ting’s BYOD is in beta (BYOD means Bring Your Own Device; of course, there are some limitations).  Ting has a unique, flexible post-paid approach: you pay $6 monthly per device, plus your usage as it fits into their “buckets”, plus taxes.  For example, if one month you talk for 450 minutes, and the next month you talk for 750 minutes, you’ll pay $9 for voice the first month (101->500 minute bucket) and $18 the second (501->1000 minute bucket).  Tethering is included, since your paying per megabyte (and the smallest data bucket is $3 for 1->100MBytes).
  • Want to talk and text a lot on the cheap?  SimpleMobile, a TracFone brand currently using T-Mobile, is offering a $25/month BYOD (they provide a SIM card) unlimited talk and text plan.
  • Want an unlimited BlackBerry plan?  SimpleMobile offers a $50/month BYOD (they provide a SIM card; the BB needs to work on T-Mobile) plan with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and unlimited 4G data.
  • Don’t talk a lot, but like to text and surf the internet?  Virgin Mobile has a $35 plan with unlimited text and data, but limited talk time.  (T-Mobile has a similar pre-paid plan available on-line only).
  • Like Verizon’s network, but not their prices?  Check out PagePlus Cellular.
  • Want great pay as you go rates?  PTel recently switched carriers (from Sprint to T-Mobile), and dropped their pay as you go rates to $0.05/minute.
  • Like mobile broadband and you’re in Sprint’s WiMax coverage?  Virgin Mobile offers 2G of 3G data and unlimited 4G WiMax data for $35/month.

January 6, 2013   No Comments

A Taxonomy of Swag Pens

Since pens aren’t living (except maybe to the truly pen addicted), using taxonomy isn’t correct, but it sounds cooler than classification.  In any case, here is my classification of my swag pens, which were mostly picked up at trade shows:

Just Pens With Advertising

NXP Microcontrollers Pen

NXP Microcontrollers Pen

These are just regular pens with some added advertising, typically ballpoints with cheap refills.  The NXP Microcontrollers pen shown looks better than the classic hotel pen, but it’s nothing special and writes like a regular cheap office ballpoint.  I normally give these to other, less picky, family members.

Good Looker, But No Substance

These pens look really nice, often with metal bodies, but I’m always let down once I start to use them, because every single time they’ve come with a cheap ballpoint refill inside.  However, I’m looking at retrofitting a few of the top ones with a decent refill, e.g. a Schmidt, Schneider, or similar.

Second Runner Up: Screaming Circuits

Screaming Circuits Pen

Screaming Circuits Pen

Curvy metal body, bright color, and standard Parker refill equals a pen worth keeping – once it has a decent refill.  It’s a pretty typical example of a nice swag pen.

First Runner Up: ST Microcontroller Pen

ST MCU Pen

ST MCU Pen

Unique modern style + groovy plastic body + quality, weighty feel + standard Parker refill = a winner!

Winner: Synopsys

Synopsys Pen

Sleek, understated style in a metal body makes it the category winner.  It appears to take Parker refills, but only slimmer ones; for example, the fatter refill from the Screaming Circuits pen won’t fit.  It looks a bit like my Schmidt capless pen, but the quality isn’t the same — but it’s great for a free pen.

Cool Gadget But No Use

This category includes flashlight pens and other such pens that may look cool, but aren’t great at doing what a pen is meant to do, with limitations such as large bodies and small, cheesy refills.  They are, however, fun conversation pieces.

Second Runner Up: Sharp Bluestreak Microcontroller Pen

Sharp Bluestreak MCU Pen in the dark

Sharp Bluestreak MCU Pen in the dark

Sharp Bluestreak MCU Pen

Sharp Bluestreak MCU Pen

This is just a cool, classic flashlight pen that will never be made again, since Sharp sold their Bluestreak line to NXP.  Of course, the light is blue.

First Runner Up: Qioptiq Flashlight Pen

Qioptiq Flashlight Pen

Qioptiq Flashlight Pen

This pen isn’t as cool a pen as the Bluestreak, but it’s cooler as a flashlight: it’s got little bubbles that move around, and as the video shows, the colors change.

Winner: Blaze Network Products Rocket Pen

Blaze NP Rocket Pen

Blaze NP Rocket Pen

Blaze NP Rocket Pen

Blaze NP Rocket Pen

Blaze NP Rocket Pen in the dark

Blaze NP Rocket Pen in the dark

This pen is so totally useless as a pen, but it’s so totally cool to put on my desk.  It’s another pen that will never get made again (since Blaze went up in flames during the dot-bomb crash), but I somehow managed to snag three of them.

Pens That Are Actually Good Pens

This is the rarest category, swag pens from a company whose marketing folks actually love pens.  In fact, it’s so rare that I’ve only found examples from one company two companies.  So the winners are:

Runner Up: Green Hills Software 25th Anniversary Pen

Green Hills Software Pen - Capped

Green Hills Software Pen – Capped

Green Hills Software Pen - Posted

Green Hills Software Pen – Posted

Green Hills Software Pen - Guts

Green Hills Software Pen – Guts

I re-discovered this pen after I had originally posted this article. It’s an impressive pen, with a real Schmidt 888 rollerball refill (the only rollerball in my collection) and a solid metal body that snaps together with a precise, audible click.

Samtec Signo 207 Grand Prize Winner!!!

Samtec Uniball Signo 207

Samtec Uniball Signo 207

Yep, Samtec was actually handing out orange and blue Uniball Signo 207’s at a recent trade show.  I’ve never before seen a gel pen, let alone a good quality gel pen, as trade show swag.  After picking this pair up, I made sure to complement the salesmen — and checked if they made anything we could use at work (Samtec makes a variety of connectors).

Note: Added Green Hills pen 8/30/2012

August 9, 2012   2 Comments

VoIP On Clear WiMax Tip

The tip: make sure all your cordless phones are DECT 6.0 models.

I’ve dumped AT&T and switched to Clear’s WiMax service.  At first, I had a lot of problems when using VoIP telephony and my normal cordless phone: I could almost always hear the other person fine, but they often had a lot of noise and dropouts on their end.

After doing a lot of testing, I found if I used a corded phone or DECT cordless phone, the quality was good; I had the problems described only when using normal phone, an older 2.4 GHz cordless model.  My theory is that the 2.4 GHz phone’s signal was interfering enough with Clearwire’s 2.5GHz signal to impact the upstream speed and latency.

July 7, 2012   No Comments