Monday, November 26, 2012

It’s the time of the year (updated on 12/3)

Wife commanded to clean the leaves on the grass.

Go get something like this for $10 in Home Depot, made in USA, light and efficient - thanking to the 30" width and foam handle. Tines never get clogged; in case they did, a light shake cleans them all. Plastic and flexible tines are friendly to concrete sidewalk. Within few minutes, wife's command fulfilled, easily and beautifully, regardless how large your lawn is, and you still have lots of energy left for the happy night.

Never waste money on something like this:

I don't know what it is designed for, but certainly not for leaves. It is very narrow, about one foot only. To make it even worse, leaves can easily escape back and you have to repeat over and over to get any leaf at all. The metal tines get clogged almost after each and every stroke, and, once clogged, very hassle to clean. The metal tines also scratch sidewalk concrete. With such a wrong rake, you'll work a whole day and still cannot get any job done.

See how well the $10 rake works:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Which camera to buy (updated on 12/5)?

Get a smartphone if you haven't yet. Even the very cheap Stellar's 3MB camera will serve good enough photos, for example:

If you want better photos, then get an Olympus PEN for about $200 to $300. Don't waste your money on P&S or bridged cameras, including the Canon S100, because they do not produce significantly better images than a good smartphone such as iPhone 4 and the new Nokia 920.

Don't waste money on DSLR, they are too large and heavy, will end up eating dust in your garage. Furthermore, they all suffer from AF hunting when do video. Something like the Sony SLT-A35 is exceptional, because it is quite light and compact, with unique phase-detection AF for video. A35 can be found in Sears below $300 (the following photos are taken with the Stellar):

If you want to do both photos and video (who doesn't these days?), then get a Panasonic G, GF or GX. DSLR and other mirror-less cameras including Olympus PEN and Sony NEX, all suffer from auto-focus hunting problem. Furthermore, Panasonic G, GF, GX and GH are all hackable to produce broadcast grade video for very little money. This is an example from my hacked GF2:

Right now, the G3 is selling for only $299 at B&H, free shipping, brand new, 14-42mm kit lens included. If you are interested in good video in addition to DSLR grade photos, this is the golden opportunity.

PS: The Sony SLT-A35 is completely garbage compared to G3. So, G3 still stands as the only choice for the camera that does both 1st-grade photos and video, among all DSLR and mirro-less.

PPS: The Sony NEX-5R and NEX-6 feature phase-detection AF, but not available for video.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Shampoo, the bad ones and good ones

As simple as it seems to be, but buying a right shampoo is quite a challenge. You don't want to keep using the same one for years, like everything in life. When you try something new, you may end up with a large bottle you hate for months, such as this Head & Shoulders:

H&S dandruff 2in1 is usually very good, but this one sold in CostCo is specifically very bad. Almost no lather, hair do not feel soft nor clean but itchy after wash, due to the almond oil (I think). No wonder it is packed in large bottles, you certainly need to apply far more than usual to get any lather.

Another bad example, almost everything that has "Kroger" on it is garbage, this shampoo is no exception:

There are many good ones, but this Suave is only about $2 and it is as good, if not better, as a good H&S at doubled price. However, this one is very hard to find these days; a similar one without dandruff sucks.

This White Rain is sold for only $1, but still very good, just not so rich of lather. It is not marked as dandruff, but it works as so:

A tip: buy a transparent soap dispenser for $1, or use a used hand soap to hold your shampoo, much more convenient.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Time to upgrade to Panasonic G3

I've been very happy with my hacked GF2 for both photos and video, except one thing: I wish it had an articulate screen for project filming. With GF2's fixed screen, I cannot monitor what's being filmed while I'm working for a project.

GH2 has an articulate screen and does the best video, but it cost more than $600 and it is too larger and heavier than GF2. G3 is pretty much a GF2 with an articulate screen plus an EVF. It is still as small and light, almost. It is exactly what I wished the GH2 to be. How small? As you can see from above picture, it is still too small to match the 14-140 mm lens that matches GH2 well.

Recently, thanking to Panasonic's financial crisis, Amazon has been dumping G3 for as low as $240; so it is a no-brainer upgrade, plus the following benefits:

  • It is the DSLR version of GF2. It looks like typical bulky DSLR, but at a tiny size of GF2. I.e., it is not a DSLR like the GH2.
  • ETC is separated for photo and video. I.e., I can set G3 to take raw photos and meanwhile use ETC for video.
  • Capture photos while filming. This is also a function I always wanted on my GF2.
  • Use the same battery as GF2. Even better, 3rd party batteries bought on eBay for $10 are fully functional on G3, showing remaining meter. Finally Panasonic and Sony have learned something from the result of their arrogance in the last 10 years.
  • Much faster AF, even faster than DSLR, especially on video, hunting is virtually a thing of past.
  • New pinpoint focus mode for pixel-level precise focusing. Another feature I wanted badly for project photos.
  • Hackable like GF2 for broadcast grade video.
  • Much better JPEG engine. RAW is no longer necessary, even for high ISO and skin tone. Actually, JPEG's color tone is, for the 1st time in history, warmer than RAW's.
  • Much better low light performance than GF2 due to the new 16MB sensor. ISO 3200 is much cleaner than GF2 at 1600.
These two photos, cropped 100% from raw, are G3 at 3200 and GF2 at 1600, you can easily see how clean G3's is:

These two compare RAW to JPEG at ISO 3200, as you can see, they are virtually identical:

I'm selling my GF2, there is no point for me to keep it, it has had its glorious days. GX1 is the one to get if you don't need an articulate screen, it can often be found for less than $300 like this G3. My G3 is bought from Amazon for $240 (direct from Amazon warehouse). It is marked as "Used - Very good", but it is virtually brand new with all accessories untouched and shutter counter less than 40. Here is the photos taken by G3, to be posted on Craigslist and eBay:

BTW, the very first and last photo in this article is taken with my Stellar phone. The G3 with the 14-140mm lens without the bulky 3rd-party hood feels and looks perfectly compact. From now on, this will be my only photo/video tool plus the Stellar.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Improve Philips SHE3580 IEM earbuds

The Philips SHE3580 already sound fantastic out of box. If you want an even smoother sound, there is an old trick: add a resistor, about 22 to 75 ohm. Such a resistor can suppress resonance and damp peaks. Give it a try, if you can solder.

I'm using 75 ohm. I might try some other values later, but so far the sound is smooth like silk, very satisfied.

PS: I changed the resistors to lower values and I fully wrapped the adapter. Both the sound and look are now perfect. If you want to try such an adapter, I'll make one and mail it to you after you donate $20 or more: Donate with PayPal or Donate with card.

Friday, November 16, 2012

My happy ending with Insignia HD radio!

Finally I figured out how to fix the DOS (Dead of Silence) problem that happened to my two Insignia portable HD radio.

A little history:

  • the first one, NS-HD01, is perfect on every aspect - good reception and battery life, except one thing: it crashes frequently and need to push into the tiny reset hole often. So often that I had to enlarge the hole so I can inert the headphone plug into it.
  • the second one, the same version as the first, does exactly the same thing. Then I knew, it was a common design flaw, not just a defective unit that I happened to buy.
  • the third one, firmware 04.00.14, no longer crash. But, one day I heard a huge explosion from it while I was plugging it into USB charger, then it went to total silence. It still operates perfectly, just no audio. I tried everything, such as remove the battery, reset to factory, etc.
  • so I bought the newer model, NS-HD02. It is totally garbage. Unusable touchscreen, very poor reception and battery life.
  • once I saw the latest model, NS-HD01A, I bought it immediately, hoping Insignia have finally done everything right. It was perfect, for the first 3 weeks or so, then it went into DOS exactly like the third one.
Hopelessly, I opened the NS-HD01A to see if anything I can do, like the old Chinese saying: cure a dead horse as it is still alive - nothing to lose but probably a chance of gain. As soon as I saw the Cirrus CS43L21 D/A chip, I knew exactly what's wrong. I brought it back to life with a short wire. Then I added a component, to avoid the DOS problem forever.

I also did the same to the third one, the one with 04.00.14 firmware. Now these two have been working perfectly for several weeks now.

I also tried to fix the 1st and 2nd ones, in vain. They use an earlier version Cirrus D/A chip, CS42L51. This chip has a lot more functions than the newer version.

Now I'm happy, finally, after 3 years of struggling with 4 generations and 5 units.

The Fix

The newer cheap battery

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to open Viliv S7

I have not seen any internal photos of Viliv S7, so here we go:

Use something sharp to lift up all the 8 rubber feet and 1 plastic piece at the center to see all the 10 screws and unscrew all. Use a guitar pick to cut into the seam at rear (not the front). Once the rear bottom case is opened up, then go ahead and fully open it.

I was trying to see if it is possible to add into it a WWAN module, but seems impossible - must be soldered on board in factory. Access to the hard drive and replacing it are easy though.

For those who don't know but interested: Viliv S7 is a 7" convertible touchscreen laptop that runs Windows XP. I always say: 7" is the size for anything that's to be portable. Above 7", it is no longer portable but transportable. Below 7", too small to be productive or even usable at all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Philips SHE3580, audiophile sound for $5.99

I force myself to catch bus these days as a way of exercise; so I need a pair of earbuds that can isolate some noise and still produce audiophile sound. I happened to see Philips SHE3580 in T.J.Maxx for $5.99; so I gave them a try - nothing to lose.

Wow, I cannot believe my ears. What's going on? How can something made by Philips for less than 10 bucks sound more favorable than my $330 Etymotic ER4S?

So I did a Google search and, no surprise, I was not the only one felt that way.

No kidding. as good as it is, the ER4S simply does not have bass, even if I insert them so deep into my ears that almost break my ear drums! The bass from the SHE3580, however, easily shakes the roof or my butt. Don't get me wrong, the bass is still very well controlled without killing other parts of my music. I know, they must have a "V" shape frequency response curve, but these little guys simply sound good in the first place, the good sound is not a result of the "V".

If the "V" shape bothers you, you can use a "^" EQ to make it flat. For example, the music player in my Samsung Stellar has EQ (see above). However, I actually prefer the "V" as is. You know, when outside is noisy, the most damage is to bass and thus some boost to bass is very welcome. And, when it is quiet like in-bed listening, while sound level is low, "V" is a good thing too, like loudness control.

These Philips earbuds are very comfortable too, because the tips are shallow, they don't go much into my ears. Even better, the body and the whole thing is very tiny, fitting perfectly to my ears; I don't feel a thing when my ear is against the pillow.

Cannot be any more ideal. And did I say $5.99? I went back to the store and got home a bag of them.

There are red, blue and black colors. There is also a version (SHE3575) for cell phones with in-line MIC, for $15 or so.

BTW, all above photos are from the Samsung Stellar, not bad, ha? for a 3MB cam. Never be fooled by "MB"!

The left and right bodies are slightly differently curved. Knowing this, you can hardly put them in wrong sides.

PS: a simple and small adapter can improve the sound even further:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Add WWAN into Thinkpad x220 for just $10

Lenovo Thinkpad x220 and x230 are currently the most ideal notebook:

  • thin bezels around both screen and keyboard
  • small but still productive 12" width
  • 3.4 lb as light as Ultrabooks
  • 10 hour long battery life
  • powerful Intel i5 CPU with QuickSync for realtime HD 1080p encoding
  • IPS matte screen free of haze often seen on matte screens
  • Very quiet fan and runs cool
  • can often be found on Lenovo outlet for less than $500
  • built-in WWAN for 3g and 4g connection
Built-in WWAN is an expensive $180 option though. Fortunately, antennas are already there, all you need to do is buy a WWAN card on ebay for $10, open the case and insert it into the slot. It is a fairly easy job as showing in this video, thanking to the very thoughtful design of Thinkpads.

There is one little hassle though: there is a white list in BIOS. If your WWAN card is not on the list, then your Thinkpads won't even boot! The good news is you can find a modified BIOS to enable virtually any WWAN card. The one I use in my x220 is "Lenovo_x220_8duj17us_8DET61WW_1.31_NWL", modified by Serg008 ( So far no any problem at all.

I first tried a Sierra MC8781 card (GSM), x220 did not see it at first. Then I taped its pin 20 and it worked like a charm. Re-connecting is very fast after sleep or hibernate.

Then I tried a Novatel ES720 taken out from an USB720 modem (CDMA). No problem at all, no need to tape pin 20. As always, Novatel's Windows 7 NDIS driver sucks, it breaks sleep mode (no such problem with XP).

I want a WWAN card that does both CDMA and GSM, so I can use either Veriozn, Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile. The Gobi cards do that. Gobi2000 seems the best choice for now for only $10, because Gobi3000 is significantly more expensive and does not offer much more. Gobi4000 supports LTE, but not cheap neither and not so clear if x220 supports it or not.

The Gobi2000 I got on ebay is pulled from a Toshiba Satellite L645; so I downloaded the driver from Toshiba's website. Note: Toshiba got the dates wrong, be sure to get the V1.1.140; the V1.1.120 gave me DOBS.

To support all CDMA and GSM networks and carriers, Gobi2000 uses dynamic firmware which is loaded after every boot, sleep or hibernate. A list of firmware can be found here. For example, Verizon firmware is found in folder 1, AT&T in folder 2 and generic GSM in folder UMTS.

My Gobi2000 card is made for Verizon, therefore it always download firmware from folder 1. To let it download AT&T firmware, I move files from folder 1 to somewhere as a backup, then copy files from folder 2 and UMTS into 1. I then sleep x220, when it wakes up, it'll load AT&T firmware and connect to AT&T. When I need to go back to Verizon, I simply copy the original files back to folder 1.

As you realized, Gobi2000 takes much longer to re-connect from sleep, because the firmware must be reloaded each and every time. Quite a stupid design, there must be a better solution than this.

Speed is very good, seems the internal antennas do a better job than the one on USB modem's. Built-in WWAN is something once you have, you never want to live without, even though WiFi is widely available these days.

A note: once the driver is installed and Windows 7 has seen the card, you need to do a reboot for the NDIS (Mobile Broad Band) network adapter to be installed. It is always on like WiFi, you don't want to use DUN.

How to turn off WWAN

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Install Chrome Browser the Right Way

When you go to google to download Chrome, you don't get the full installer but a downloader of installer, a 700KB or so small file. It will then download the real installer, about 20-30MB. However, this way Google will install the google updater and other unwanted stuff.

The right way is to find the full install file that install Chrome only, no extra garbage. It'll put the installation into your personal folder and will not break things like AdBlock+ extension.

This is the link to the currently latest stable version of Chrome: Chrome 22.0.1229.96 Stable. It is google's cache server, i.e., safe.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Insignia HD Radio Dead Again

I was walking on the street yesterday and suddenly no more audio output. Everything else appears to work normally, just no audio. If you google, this is a common failure in the 1st generation of this Insignia.

Amazing, this 3rd version still has exactly the same fatal, disastrous failure.

Wish Steve Jobs still alive and to be the CEO of all companies on this planet.

Why the hell nobody else makes a portable HD radio? I know the Zune HD have a HD tuner, but its reception is way too poor and battery lasts only few hours, totally crap.

Yes, I've tried all methods I could think of: turn it off and on, press the reset button with a needle, factory reset, plug in USB charger and unplug... Many times.

I'm going to open the damn thing and unplug the battery. Stay tuned...

Opened it, unplugged the battery for several minutes, still deadly quiet.

Back to the 1st generation with the initial firmware (01.00.00), although they require frequent pushing the reset button, but at least I can get them back to work. Now I have two dead Insignia, 1st (04.00.14) and 3rd (04.00.16) generations.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Easy Voting

Say "no" to all and write "John Smith" for all candidates.

You can hardly go wrong, because almost all the measures are asking for money or non sense. They often come in the name of your children's benefit, don't be fooled by them. Schools do not need more money to go into loopholes, we already pay way too much for our kids.

Among two or more of evils, don't pick any is better than the less.

This way you spend no time on your ballot and can still block most of the stupid bills.

Galaxy Stellar, a Poor Man's Smartphone

It has all the major virtues of the flagship Galaxy S III, but cost much less. This is the cheapest unlocked smartphone for PagePlus etc., and currently the best choice. Listed at $345, but can be found on craigslist or ebay for as low as $85 brand new, because Verizon is giving this phone for free with a 2-year contract. The following photo compares it to the Fascinate (the former best choice).

What's missing?
  • Large OLED screen. The Stellar has a small 4" LCD screen instead. Too me this is actually good. The screen looks very good, even under direct sunlight. Very gentle to my eyes when I use it as bed time story.
  • 1080p camera w/ flash. The Stellar has a 3MB camera that can do 640x480x30p video only, no flash. Good enough for me for what I need a phone camera for. I have my GF-2 for serious photos and video.
  • 1500MHz CPU. The Stellar still has a dual-core CPU clocked at 1200MHz. Again, well good enough for me and actually a good thing (drain less battery).
What's still included?
  • Dual-core CPU, just slightly slower, 1200 vs. 1500 MHz.
  • The same 2100mAh large battery. Most smartphones comes with a 1500mAh.
  • The same Android OS 4.0.4. The software is very similar to G3's, e.g., tools for rooting and voice/data configuration are almost the same.
  • Multiple color notification LED. Glad to see Samsung is no longer copying the bad things from Apple. Notification works while plugged into wall, a feature missing in Moto and HTC phones.
  • Front camera for video calling or self portrait.
  • SIM slot (for LTE). But so far I have not been able to use it on T-Mobile and AT&T (some people have success with G3).
Above is not a full list, just what I think worthy of mentioning. Here is a full comparison between these two phones:

The following photo shows its large battery compared to the one in Fascinate. The Stellar is slightly heavier, 4.7 vs. 4.2, and thicker but shorter as you can see.

What's especially good?
  • The best VO3G phone so far! No echo, no delay, loud and clear! I don't have a G3, so I don't know how it compares to that one.
  • Can be activated on PagePlus. However, you have to manually configure the phone to make voice and 3g data to work. You don't have to have a Verizon LTE SIM card, but it is good to insert any SIM card you have, even a deactivated one, otherwise the 3g icon never appear even though it is connected and working fine. FoxFi works fine.
  • Several language input methods included, such as Chinese PinYin!
  • Text look bold and dark, very easy to my eyes.
The bottom line: cannot find a better phone at this price for PagePlus, not even close, especially if you want a brand new one.

Two photos taken by this phone (more in the Phlips SHE3580 article), love the colors - something Samsung had never done right: