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Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fix the Xbox Ring of Death for $2.99

What is the Xbox Ring of Death?

There are several meanings of "ring of death" for Xbox 360.  One definition of ring of death is when the Xbox lights up all three red error lights on the console to indicate a general failure.  This forms a red circle which is known as the Xbox ring of death. Ouch.

The definition to be discussed in this article is the ring of death that occurs when the Xbox scratches a game disc and forms a ring of damage.  This will often render a game disc useless.  The picture below shows an Xbox game disc with a ring of death.  This game still played, but would crash due to the damage to the disc.

Xbox game disc with ring of damage caused by Xbox
Xbox Ring of Death
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

How to Fix the Xbox Ring of Death

The surface of the disc is scratched, which blocks the laser light inside the disc reader from properly reflecting off of the back surface of the disc where its data is encoded.  The disc is made of plastic, and the scratched part of the plastic turns white and opaque.  This layer of the plastic can be polished to make it transparent again.

In the past I have taken a damaged disc to a nearby Family Video store for repair.  This cost about $3, but it took a couple days to get the disc back since it was sent out for repair.  This time, I wanted to find a shop that could repair the disc while I waited.  I went to Video Games ETC!  They had a machine that looked like a JFJ Easy Pro Disc Repair Machine or similar system.  These machines can be purchased on for about $120.  They resurfaced the disc in about 30 seconds and it looked like new.  The bill was $2.99.  See picture of the repaired disc below.

Game disc restored to new condition, ring of death removed
Xbox Ring of Death Repaired
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

There are suggestions on the Internet to use toothpaste, banana peels, and household polishing compounds to repair scratches in discs.  This sounds feasible if it will remove the scratched plastic on the surface of the disc.  There may be some chance of making things worse if you use the wrong abrasive material to polish the disc and end up making more scratches and damaging the surface further.

There are also do-it-yourself scratch repair kits for sale starting at under $5.  Fortunately the Xbox ring of death has only happened twice in 2 years at our house, so paying $3 to have a professional repair makes sense for me.  Another option: get a cheap disc repair kit on eBay

How to Prevent the Xbox Ring of Death

The high rotation speed of the disc makes it very sensitive to any movement of the console while the disc is spinning, which is basically all the time while playing a game.  The damage in the picture above occurred while sliding the Xbox console very gently to plug in a headset with headphones and a microphone.  The best way to avoid getting the Xbox ring of death is:
  • Don't touch your Xbox at all while it is running!  Any movement can cause ring of death...
  • Turn off your Xbox or remove the game disc when your Xbox is not in use

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ReadyBoost Windows 7 and Windows Vista

ReadyBoost Windows 7 and Windows Vista

Give your computer a performance boost with ReadyBoost.  ReadyBoost is a built-in feature of Windows 7 and Windows Vista that allows your computer to use a flash drive as a memory cash.  Flash drives have faster random access read and write times than a hard disk, so this can speed up your computer.  ReadyBoost also works with Windows 8.

You'll need a USB flash drive, also known as a flash memory stick to take advantage of ReadyBoost.  The San Disk Cruzer Fit worked well in this upgrade of a Windows 7 laptop for $12.99.  The flash memory must be fast enough or else ReadyBoost will not be enabled using that device.  Unfortunately there is no easy way to determine in advance if a flash memory will be fast enough or not.  The good news is that most newer devices seem to work, and the prices have come down to the point where it is not a big risk to try one and see if it works.

How to Start ReadyBoost: Windows 7 / Windows Vista

Simply insert a flash drive into a USB port on your Windows 7 or Windows Vista computer.  Navigate to the drive using Windows Explorer and right-click on the flash drive letter, then select properties.  On the properties window for the flash drive, click on the ReadyBoost tab.  Select 'Use this device' and click OK.

ReadyBoost properties has Use this device option set
Drive Properties Window allows you to Enable ReadyBoost
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Now your computer is running faster by using ReadyBoost.  There is nothing else you need to do.  ReadyBoost for Windows 7 and Windows Vista automatically checks the flash drive speed to ensure that your computer will run faster before it will use ReadyBoost.  So if you were able to enable ReadyBoost, your computer is running faster.

Troubleshooting ReadyBoost

There are 2 issues that can go wrong with starting ReadyBoost:
  1. ReadyBoost will not use your flash device because it is too slow or too small
  2. There is no tab for ReadyBoost on your drive properties window

ReadyBoost will not use your flash device

If you insert your flash drive, click on the ReadyBoost tab, and get a message that your flash device is not compatible with ReadyBoost, the most likely cause is that it failed the memory access speed test.  Sometimes a device will be right on the line between passing and failing due to it's speed and will sometimes be used for ReadyBoost and other times not used.  The easiest way to solve this issue is to try a different (and hopefully faster) flash device.

You can check the access time of a flash device that fails the ReadyBoost speed test using the Windows Event Viewer.  In the Start Menu, search for Event Viewer (or eventvwr.msc ).  Launch this program and navigate to: 

Applications and Services Logs

Windows event viewer shows log of ReadyBoost events including speed tests
ReadyBoost Log in Windows Event Viewer
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

You will find event logs for the ReadyBoost flash drive speed tests.  In order to be used for ReadyBoost, the drive must have access time of 1 ms or less and sustain 2.5 MB/s read speeds and 1.75 MB/s write speeds.

If you are having problems getting ReadyBoost to work, make sure your flash memory is big enough, you'll need at least 256MB.

There is no tab for ReadyBoost on your drive properties window

I encountered this situation on my older Windows Vista laptop.  I inserted flash drives that I was confident would meet the access time requirements, but I did not get a ReadyBoost tab on my drive properties.  I checked the ReadyBoost Log in the Windows Event Viewer- and noticed that the last speed test was performed about 4 years ago!  This was a big clue to solve the problem...

I probably tried to optimize Windows Vista performance by removing unneeded Windows Services.  Since I wasn't using ReadyBoost at the time, ReadyBoost was an unneeded service.  If the ReadyBoost tab is missing, make sure the ReadyBoost service is enabled on your computer.

At the Start Menu, search for services.  The name of the application to launch is services.msc, or it may be called services with an icon that looks like a gear.  Launch this application and scroll down to find ReadyBoost and click once on it to select it.  If it is not running click start.  You can also right-click and set it to start automatically.

Shows ReadyBoost in list of windows services that can be started
Start the Windows ReadyBoost Service if it is not running
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

After starting the Windows ReadyBoost service, now try to insert your flash drive again- you should see a ReadyBoost tab.

How Much Boost will you get from ReadyBoost?

How much ReadyBoost will speed up your computer depends largely on how much memory your computer has and how fast the hard drive runs.  If you have a laptop that does not have a lot of memory and has a slower hard drive, you could see it run much faster with ReadyBoost enabled.  On a desktop with lots of memory and a fast hard drive, you will likely see little benefit from ReadyBoost.  If your PC has a solid state drive, you will get no performance benefit from ReadyBoost and in fact ReadyBoost will not enable on that computer.

Can you use a SD card for ReadyBoost?

SD card next to penny
SanDisk Extreme III SD Card for ReadyBoost ($8 on eBay)
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

I decided to use a SD card for ReadyBoost on my old Windows Vista laptop.  I wanted to keep the USB ports free and the SD reader on my laptop is never used.  Since my SD card reader is about 5 years old, it is not compatible with the newer SDHC or SDXC cards.  I had to find an old SD card.  The speed class of the SD card reflects its access time.  I chose a speed class 6 SD card with 6 MB/s read-write performance. I found a used 2GB SD card for sale on eBay for $10 or best offer with free shipping.  I offered $6.50.  Counter offer: $8.  The card seems to work well for ReadyBoost.  Speeding up my old laptop is certainly worth $8.

Shows SD card slot on laptop
Unused SD Card slot on laptop- ideal for ReadyBoost
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Penny Pinching Tips:

  • ReadyBoost is worth a try if your computer is running slowly
  • Try USB flash drives/memory sticks that your already have around- these may work
  • Expect the biggest speed-up from ReadyBoost Windows 7 / Windows Vista on computers with little RAM or slow hard drives

Recommended reading:

Penny Pincher Journal
Copyright © 2013 Dr. Penny Pincher.  All Rights Reserved.  Privacy Policy

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Best Android Web Browser: Which Android Browser Wins the Browser War?

What is the Best Android Web Browser?

What is the best Android browser available now?  Which Android browser will ultimately win the Android browser war?  We’ll compare Chrome, Opera Mobile, Firefox, Maxthon, and the stock “Android Browser” that comes pre-installed with Android OS.

PC Browser War

You may recall the PC browser war in the 1990’s.  The Internet as we know it was just getting underway.  The browser market share was dominated by Netscape Navigator.  Netscape Navigator captured nearly 100% market share.  Then Internet Explorer was released by Microsoft, and it was included with Windows on every PC.  Eventually IE won the browser war and dominated for more than a decade.

Currently,  Chrome from Google and Firefox are competing with Internet Explorer for the top spot.  PC browsers still represents about 85% of internet traffic, with mobile browsers coming in at about 15%.  But the mobile market share of internet traffic is growing rapidly, and mobile browsers may overtake PC browsers in the near future.

Android Browser Comparison

The major Android browser contenders for top market share are Android Browser, Opera, and Chrome.   In addition to these, we’ll check out Firefox and Maxthon.  Our test platform is a 7 inch Android tablet running Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich.   All of these browsers are available free.  Android Browser comes with Android, and the others can be downloaded free from Google Play.

The table below shows memory utilization of Android Browser, Maxthon, Opera Mobile, Firefox, and Chrome while running.  Chrome uses the most memory at over 45Mb, Android Browser uses the least at under 2Mb.  Modern Android devices have much more than 45 MB of memory and would be able to run any of these browsers.  The memory utilization does provide insight into the complexity of the browser and the relative amount of resources that it consumes.  This could be an indication of how fast it will run, especially if your Android device does not have a lot of extra computing and memory resources.

Table shows how much memory android browsers use
Table of Android Browsers, Version Number, and Memory Utilization
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

The following section shows two screen captures from each Android browser.  The first screen capture shows an example web page in the browser.  You can see how .html is displayed and see the interface features of each browser.  The next screen capture shows the tabs interface for each browser.  This is the interface used to open multiple web pages and select which page to view.  The tabs interface is the most noticable difference between Android browsers.

Android Browser

Android Browser screen capture shows example screen
Android Browser GUI
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Android Browser screen capture shows example how to access multiple browser pages
Android Browser- Tabs Interface
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Maxthon Android Browser

Maxthon Android browser screen capture shows example web page
Maxthon Android Browser GUI
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Maxthon Android browser screen capture of interface to select multiple browser windows
Maxthon Android Browser- Tabs Interface
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Opera Mobile Android Browser

Opera Mobile Android browser screen capture shows example web site
Opera Mobile Android Browser GUI
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Opera Mobile Android browser screen capture shows interface to select multiple web pages in browser
Opera Mobile Android Browser- Tabs Interface
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Firefox Android Browser

Foxfire Android browser screen capture shows example web page
Firefox Android Browser GUI
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Foxfire Android browser screen capture shows selection between multiple web pages
Firefox Android Browser- Tabs Interface
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Chrome Android Browser

Chrome Android browser screen capture shows example web page appearance
Chrome Android Browser GUI
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Chrome Android browser screen capture shows tabs interface to select multiple web pages
Chrome Android Browser- Tabs Interface
Image Source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Best Android Browser Features

Firefox, Chrome, Opera Mobile  and Maxthon all have features to sync bookmarks between your desktop PC and Android devices.  Synching bookmarks with your PC is useful- no more e-mailing links from your mobile device to your PC…

Opera Mobile:  I like the page reload button on main page.  Nice GUI overall.

Chrome: I like the GUI to discard pages in the tabs interface- you can flick them away like cards.  This works well on a touch screen.  Also, it would be nice to have maximum continuity between PC and mobile browsers.  Chrome has a lot of potential to exploit this.

Maxthon: The interface works nicely on a touchscreen- you can slide a control knob to select a pie wedge that you want.  There is a PC version of Maxthon available which I have downloaded for a test drive.

The Verdict... Best Android Browser

The “Android Browser” that comes with Android is by far the most popular browser at this time.  This is not a bad browser and has a small memory footprint.  Most Android users will be happy with this pre-installed browser and will not bother to upgrade.  Maxthon is interesting and worth a try if you are interested in trying something different.

Who will win the Android Browser War?

Like Internet Explorer coming to dominate on the Windows platform, I expect the default, pre-installed browser on Android to come to dominance.  On iPad, Safari dominates- in fact it is not possible to switch to a different default browser on iOS.

The default pre-installed browser on Android OS has already come to dominate market share:  “Android Browser”  is the current leader.  If Google switches to have Chrome as the standard default browser, I would expect Chrome to dominate.  Browsers are enough of a commodity that I think it will be difficult for any browser to become distinctive and maintain technology separation.  Any good browser innovations will simply be picked up by the established market leaders.  And a key factor- most people will simply use the pre-installed browser.

I would expect Google to install Chrome in the Android OS as the default browser in the near future and win the Android browser war shortly thereafter.

Recommended reading:

Copyright © 2013 Dr. Penny Pincher.  All Rights Reserved.  Privacy Policy

Friday, February 1, 2013

Use a Cheap USB Flash Memory Stick to Speed up Windows 7

How To Speed Up Windows 7 Using A Cheap Memory Stick

The other day, my son asked me to help speed up his Windows 7 laptop.  Actually, he asked for a new Windows 7 laptop because his old one is too slow.  Since his old laptop is only about a year and a half old, I decided to help him speed it up.

I came across this article at Tech Republic outlining ways to speed up Windows 7 by disabling unneeded services, defragmenting the hard drive, etc.  You can also use commercial software to speed up your computer automatically.    Good tips.  I worked my way down the list.  At the end it suggests upgrading the hard disc to a solid state drive to improve performance. That would be nice.

But then it mentions you can plug in a flash drive memory stick and use that as a cashe to enhance the hard disc performance.  You can get the benefit of fast random access of the flash memory to augment the hard disc performance.  Disc drives are good at sustained sequential access, but not random access.  Flash drives are better at random access than hard discs.

This feature of Windows is called ReadyBoost, and I had never heard of it.  Could you really just plug in a USB flash memory stick and boost your windows performance?

Shows USB flash drive in package
 16 GB Mini USB flash memory stick for $12.99.  Is it fast enough for ReadyBoost?
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Of course there is a catch.  In order to improve performance, the flash memory has to meet throughput requirements for random reads and writes.  Windows tests the flash memory and will not use it for ReadyBoost if it is not fast enough.

I went to Best Buy to see if any of the USB memory sticks were labeled "ReadyBoost compatible" or anything like that.  None were.  I looked at all of them to see if the throughput performance was mentioned on the package.  It was not.  I decided that for $12.99 I would give the 16 GB SanDisk Cruzer Fit USB Flash Drive it a shot.  I could try to return the memory stick if it wasn't fast enough for ReadyBoost, or just use it for backup file storage.

Shows tiny flash memory drive next to a penny
This tiny USB memory stick is just right for a laptop.  It will not stick out and break off.
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher

I installed the USB flash memory in the laptop.  Not much of an installation- I just plugged it in.  I used Windows Explorer to navigate to the new drive, now labeled E.  I right clicked and went to the ReadyBoost tab and told Windows to take the whole flash drive for ReadyBoost.

Shows flash drive installed in USB port of laptop computer
The SanDisk Cruzer Fit installed in Windows 7 laptop
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher

So does it work?  Yes!  Windows decided to use 4 GB of the space on the USB memory stick for ReadyBoost.  Windows will not use the flash drive for ReadyBoost if it is not fast enough to improve performance, so it must have passed the speed test.  I verified this by running Resource Monitor to check the disc cashe performance- Windows 7 was indeed using the flash memory as a high speed cashe.

Graph on screen shows that Windows is using flash memory
ReadyBoost works- even with a cheap USB flash drive
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Success: I was able to speed up Windows 7. My son reports that his computer is now blazing fast.  Not bad for $12.99.  I may try ReadyBoost on my Windows Vista laptop.  If I do, I'll go with a 4 GB flash drive rather than 16 GB and save about $8.  I am surprised that this feature of Windows is not better publicized- it seems like lots of people would benefit from this.  It is certainly much less expensive than getting a new laptop...

Update: ReadyBoost is also available in Windows 8.

Copyright © 2013 Dr. Penny Pincher.  All Rights Reserved.  Privacy Policy

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What the BlackBerry Digital Pen Could Be: All-Knowing Digital Pen Dream Wish List

New Blackberry: A Sneak Preview...

"The pen basically sees everything that you see using its forward-facing HD video camera, and hears everything that you hear using its integrated microphone.  It records and analyzes the video and audio so that you can search for anything you have ever seen or heard."

Blackberry cell phone with keyboard buttons and screen
Blackberry Cell Phone
Image courtesy of Zuzu CC-BY-SA via WikimediaCommons

It is the eve of the release of the BlackBerry Digital Pen.   I don’t know what the BlackBerry Digital Pen will turn out to be, but I immediately thought of about 20 cool functions for a digital pen that will change the world.  Today, I will write about what the BlackBerry Digital Pen could be.  Tomorrow, we’ll find out what the BlackBerry Pen actually turns out to be…

Security Features

Since it’s a BlackBerry, business users will expect serious security features.  The first is biometric access control.  The pen knows its owner’s fingerprint and has in integrated sensor.   Only the owner or those authorized by the owner can access data on the pen at all.  The data on the pen in encrypted as well to ensure privacy for both business and personal information that may end up on the phone.  You’ll see later why security features are so important.

The owner can send commands to the pen from a web page (via a computer or cell phone).   If the BlackBerry pen does get lost, the owner can send a command to clear the data on the pen remotely.  Naturally, the owner can also command an upload of all data from the pen to secure storage in the cloud before clearing it.
Gold Ink Pen
Ink Pen
Image courtesy of kangshutters at


The surface of the pen is a touch-screen LCD wrapped around the pen.  It can display a few lines of text or some graphics to support a user interface.   You can send and receive text messages.  Text-to-speech voice recognition is the main input method for entering your outgoing text message.  The phone can also display relevant information such as time, temperature, and stock quotes on its display.  There would be an interface for at least entering digits- to dial the phone.  Perhaps some sort of keyboard scheme could be accomplished by showing part of the keyboard at one time and scrolling to access the rest of the keys.  There just isn't much real estate to work with on the surface of a pen.


The pen supports Wi-Fi to upload its data to secure storage in the cloud.  For convenience, the pen also has an integrated cell phone transceiver.  Yes, you can also make cell phone voice calls and send/receive text messages with the BlackBerry pen.  Bluetooth is also integrated to allow the pen to share its files conveniently with computers.  For example you can use the pen like a memory stick to haul around large files like PowerPoint presentations or videos and then share selected files with a computer to share with others.  The pen can also send a video stream to TVs via Bluetooth, or you can stream live video to the Internet via Wi-Fi or cellular link.

The pen also has built-in infrared (IR) to allow it to function as a universal TV remote control.  Of course it also has GPS so that it knows its location (and thus your location) at all times.   This is also handy if it gets lost, it can let you know its location.

Pen Features

That’s right, it’s also a pen.  It can write on normal paper.  A good feature for a pen!  It has integrated sensors so that it can 1) reproduce anything you write in a graphical format file and 2) use its on-board OCR to generate a text file of all text that you write.  The sensor is likely a combination of digital video to obtain images of the written page, and motion sensors such as accelerometers built into the pen to determine its writing motion.  Not only does it record what you write- it records what you write on as well.  For example, if you fill out a form, the pen stores both the form and all of the information that you write on the form.  It will also record the date, time, and location where you filled out the form.  You can also retrieve the audio recording from the time when you were filling out the form.

The  pen also has a digital voice recorder with integrated text-to-speech.  Also included are many of the features from Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s) of the past, such as storing business contact information and keeping your schedule.  The pen’s high resolution camera can be used to scan business cards and business documents.  The pen uses its connectivity to automatically synch with the rest of your life and move its data to secure storage on the cloud as needed.


The pen has a forward facing high definition (HD) video camera.  When you place the pen in your shirt pocket, its HD video camera faces forward.  This means you can use the pen as a sort of dashboard video recorder for your life.  The pen can record a video of any meeting you are in.  It can record the scene while you are driving or snowboarding, etc.  Why would you want to record all of the events in your life?  So you can search it later.  The pen uses MIT’s new state-of-the-art FFT algorithm to compress the video files to the point where it can all be stored in the cloud.  Face recognition algorithms and voice-to-speech algorithms automatically create a transcript of events that can be searched.  Who was at the party?  Where was I driving when I saw that cool recumbent bike for sale along the road?

Not only that, but the camera records documents that you view.  When you are looking at your computer screen , the pen is looking at your computer screen.  It uses OCR so that any document you view can be found later.  This works for paper documents as well if you have your pen on so that it can record them.  The pen basically sees everything that you see in HD, and hears everything that you hear.  It records and analyzes the video and audio so that you can search for anything you have ever seen or heard.

If you wish, the pen can automatically Tweet or update your facebook status:   the pen "knows" where you are (GPS) and who you are with (calendar & face recognition).

You can see now why I listed Security Features first…

Copyright © 2013 Dr. Penny Pincher.  All Rights Reserved.  Privacy Policy

Saturday, January 26, 2013

DirecTV vs Dish Network vs Cable: What is the best value?

Outdoor cable TV utility enclosure
Cable TV Distribution Box
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher

TV Service Options

The main options for receiving television programming are satellite TV and cable TV.  The main players in satellite TV are Dish Network and DirecTV.  Local cable companies provide programming in most areas, providing a third option.  Which of these provides the best value?

Confusion Factors

DirecTV satellite dish installed on wood deck
DirecTV satellite dish
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher
There are so many different packages and discounts that it is difficult to compare offerings between Dish Network, DirecTV, and cable companies.  For example, cable companies offer bundling of services- if you subscribe to phone service, your TV bill is discounted.  If you subscribe to both Internet and phone service, your TV bill is discounted even more.  The satellite companies offer introductory rates for 1 year or some other limited amount of time.  After the introductory rate, the prices go up and the “ every day “rate applies.

Dish Network satellite dish installed on wood deck
Dish Network HD satellite dish
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher
In order to compare prices that you would pay in the long run, I tried to identify the “every day” price.  This is the price that you would expect to pay after the introductory rate.  This is the price with no bundling, the price you can get with only TV service.

Another issue that makes comparison difficult is that the channels included vary.  The value of a channel package depends on how much you value the channels in the package.  A 140 channel package may be more worthwhile to you than a 290 channel package- it depends on which channels are included and which ones you would watch.

How to compare?

I decided to set a budget and number of receivers, then compare what Dish Network, DirecTV, and the local cable company could offer to meet the budget.  The price points I picked out were :

  • $50 per month for one TV set, standard definition
  • $75 per month for 2 HD TV sets
  • $100 per month for 3 HD TV sets

So how much TV can you get for $50, $75, and $100 per month?

Price Comparison without Bundling or Introductory Rates

Cable has best option under $50, satellite for $75, and all have programming options for $100 per month
Table of TV programming packages available for $50, $75, and $100  per month
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Note that this comparison chart represents my best attempt to sort through the many offers and packages to find the “every day” price with the charges for the receivers included.

These prices get higher if you want to upgrade your receiver to a DVR so that you can record shows.  This may cost an additional $10 for an “advanced receiver service” or similar fee per month FOR EACH DVR.  Also, you may need to pay for the DVR equipment, which costs about $200 per receiver.  This may be an upfront fee, or may be rolled into your monthly bill at some point.   Also note TV service typically requires a 18 to 24 month service contract- if you want to leave early you'll have to pay a cancellation fee which can be substantial.

I was disappointed that $50 per month doesn't get you much.  All I was looking for in this price range was service for 1 standard definition TV set.  Only the cable company delivers in this price range.

At the $75 price point, DirecTV and Dish Network provide options that meets the budget and provides 2 HD receivers.  The local cable company did not have any offerings with 2 HD receivers in this price range.  Moving up to the $100 budget for 3 HD receivers, DirecTV, Dish Network, and the local cable company all have options.

Which to choose?

It is a good thing that there are several choices available.  If you are looking for the lowest cost option, cable TV is the way to go.  The satellite companies do not offer packages in the under $50 price range.  If you have $75 per month to spend and want multiple HD receivers, the satellite companies have the only offerings.

If you have around $100 per month to spend, DirecTV, Dish Network, and cable all have packages with lots of channels for multiple TV sets.  Since the price is similar, I think the decision comes down to which packages have the channels you want the most.  You can find the list of channels on the provider's website.  I would suggest printing out the channel listing, passing it around to your family and having everyone circle the channels you think you would actually watch.  This exercise will help you see which is the best value in terms of channels that you would actually watch.

TV Augmentation Options

If you don’t have $100 per month to spend on TV, or even $50, there are some ways to get some movies and television at a low cost.

Table of video services and cost
Low Cost TV Augmentation Options
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher

Penny Pinching Tips:

  • When selecting TV service, find out the cost after the introductory period.  This is the price you will likely pay for years and provides the best basis for comparison
  • Look beyond the number of channels, check for channels in the programming package that you would actually watch
  • Watch out for additional equipment and service fees if you add a receiver with DVR
  • Cable has the best option for simple, low-cost service
  • Cable and Satellite have lots of options, especially at $100 per month and up
  • Consider low-cost TV augmentation options, you may be able to cut back on TV service if you use these options

If you don't really want all of the channels that cable or satellite TV offers, you can get free HD TV over the air using an indoor HD TV antenna that costs $50.

Recommended Reading:
Cell Phone Plans for Existing Cell Phones

Copyright © 2013 Dr. Penny Pincher.  All Rights Reserved.  Privacy Policy

Saturday, January 19, 2013

SATA USB Docking Station vs External Hard Drive

What is the Best Backup Storage Solution?

It was time to get a better storage system for backing up files on the computers at the Pincher household.  The old backup plan for the 4 laptops in our house:
External hard drive next to package
Seagate 2 TB Expansion Drive, under $120
Image source: Dr. Penny Pincher

  1. Laptop 1: Burn DVD's using Windows Vista's built-in 'Back Up Files'.  Takes forever, but I had blank DVDs available.  Do this a couple times a year.
  2. Laptop 2: Copy critical files to a 16 GB USB memory stick, usually around the 1st of each year
  3. Laptop 3: Kid's laptop, no backup at all
  4. Laptop 4: Other kid's laptop, no backup at all

Not good.

I wanted to do real backups on all of our computers.  We have pictures, videos, school papers, and many other files that could not easily be replaced.  Cloud backup may be an option, but I want something more tangible and without a monthly bill...

SATA USB Docking Station
I was inspired to check out the latest storage devices again when I saw a SATA USB docking station in action.  It works like this- you take a standard computer hard drive (SATA), plug it into the USB docking station hooked up to a computer, and write files to it.  You can remove the hard drive from the dock and plug another one into the dock.  Essentially unlimited backup capacity- just get another SATA drive and keep going.  The dock costs about $40 dollars, and a 1 TB drive costs about $75.  There are also USB cable adapters that are a similar concept that cost even less, I have seen these for about $15.

Shows hard drive without case
"Bare" SATA Hard Drive.
Image courtesy of Sorapop at

External Hard Drive
I was ready to buy a USB SATA dock and a 1 TB SATA hard disk.  Maybe two of the 1 TB hard disks.  But I decided to check out portable hard drives.  The nice thing about a portable hard drive is that it has an enclosure around the hard disk.  Using SATA drives, the bare hard drives would be unprotected and would need to be handled carefully to protect them from static electricity, impact, etc.  Also, would I really need more than one hard drive?  The main benefit of using a SATA USB dock is that you can remove the drive and switch to another one as you need  more storage capacity.  I might only need one drive to back everything up.

I checked out external hard drives with enclosures.  They are not much more expensive than the bare SATA drives and include the built-in power supply and enclosure.  I found 1 TB external hard drives for about $100, and 2 TB for $129.99.

I found a Seagate Expansion 2 TB drive with USB 3.0 at Target for $119.99 this morning.  That should handle all of my backup needs for awhile, and I don't need to worry about handling and storing bare hard drives.  Let the backups commence!

Update:  The next day this exact model of 2 TB external drive was reduced in price to $107.99.  I brought my receipt and a drive from the shelf to the customer service department at Target- they gave me a "price adjustment" for $12.72.

Mac and PC Backup on One Drive
I had backed up a couple PC laptops: one Windows Vista and one Windows 7.  Up next was a Mac OS X laptop.  I planned to use the built-in Time Machine to create the Mac backup.  When I connected the external drive and launched Time Machine, it offered to erase and reformat the drive for me.  It would not use the NTFS formatted drive that worked so well for the PCs.  I wanted a simple and harmonious backup storage solution. This was turning out to be complex and disharmonious.  Time for a cup of coffee...

OK.  Here's the plan.  We'll use some of the empty space on the external drive to make a new disk partition using built-in Windows 7 disk tools.  There's plenty of empty space.  We'll format it in the PC NTFS format, and then let Time Machine do what it wants with the new partition.  I set aside 325 GB for the new Mac partition following these directions from CNET.  Worked great.

Penny Pinching Tips:
  • Back up your computer files- you'll waste time and money trying to recover data if you loose files
  • Hard drives are getting cheaper all the time- about $100 gets you 1 TB (that's 1000 GB, or 1,000,000 MB)
  • External drives include power supply and drive enclosure built-in, and likely have enough capacity for all of your files.  Check out External hard drive deals on eBay.
  • If you have extreme amounts of data, you'll save money using a SATA USB dock with replaceable SATA drives.  Check out SATA USB docking station deals on eBay.

Recommended reading:
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Use a Cheap USB Flash Memory Stick to Make Your PC Blazing Fast for $12.99
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