A New Addition to the Family

Why, hello, beautiful. :-)
Why, hello, beautiful. :-)

If you go back to the post I made about our previous car, a 2006 Kia Sportage, I wrote:

We’d been discussing a 2010 Subaru Forester for awhile, largely because they hold their value substantially longer than other vehicles, they’re reliable, and they have all-wheel drive standard.  However, considering the value of our trade-in (which wasn’t much…), it just wasn’t going to be feasible anytime soon…

“Anytime soon” was accurate.  Since getting that car, Brooke in particular hasn’t been all that happy with it.  It had a few issues, for sure, and the interior didn’t really instill you with the feeling that it was a “nice” vehicle.  Still, it worked.  It drove.  It rode pretty well for long distances.  In retrospect, however, we put at least $3000 in maintenance and repairs into a car that we were still making payments on, so we never really felt secure in its reliability.

That, and it didn’t have a moonroof.  My 1993 Nissan Altima that I drove in college had a moonroof.  And I loved it.  And I missed it.

A few weeks ago, we started looking into whether it was getting time to upgrade.  Not necessarily whether it would happen now, but more questioning of when it could happen.  After making a few calls, going on a test drive, and looking into things, we ended up taking the plunge: we’re the proud owners of a 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i.  And I couldn’t be happier. :-)

It’s fun to drive, it’s got all-wheel drive, it has Bluetooth integration, it has a rear-backup camera, it has heated seats (and side mirrors!!), it has a timing chain, it has CVT, it actually moves when you press the accelerator…and most of all…it has a spectacular moonroof.  It’s pretty tech-laden, so I’m having to read through the instruction manual on this one to get everything figured out.  It’s a nice problem to have, at least for someone like me.  Meg likes the moonroof too, but probably likes the cup holder next to her seat better.

And the plan is, she’ll get to drive it some day.  When we bought Brooke’s 2006 Scion xA new, the plan was (and is) to “drive it into the ground,” or at least as close as we can.  We’ve got about 97,000 mi on it now and had almost zero issues with it.  The one issue we did have was with the blower motor resistor, and I was able to fix that myself.  We’ll probably end up replacing it eventually, put likely not until we’re done making payments on the Subaru.  And the Subaru, we’ll keep as long as we can.  Now, for the first time, we’ve got two cars we bought off the lot, getting exactly what we wanted with the intent of keeping them for a long time.

Regardless, we’re excited!  It’s fun to drive and now we want to go on a long trip to Colorado or Yellowstone.  :-)

Another New Toy!

After more than 7 years of coveting a stand mixer and an anxiety attack in the kitchen store, I finally broke down and was willing to spend the money for a Kitchenaid mixer. I thought I wanted the standard classic in a lime green finish, but after some more research decided that the higher powered one would suit my needs for longer. So far, it’s made several batches of cookies, whipped cream, mashed potatoes, multiple loaves of bread, hamburger buns, and some beeswax lotion. Hooray!!!

A Lesson in Customer Service

Brooke signed us up for Amazon Prime last year, a $79/yr service that grants you various benefits at Amazon.com.  The most well-known service is free 2-day shipping on anything you purchase.  As we now live, for all intents an purposes, in the middle-of-nowhere, we figured it would be a useful service to take advantage of.  Typically, we can wait 2 days for an item, and now that we both have Android smartphones, we can shop for stuff in town, scan the barcode of the item with our phone, and see if we can get it cheaper from Amazon.com.

As I was shopping for components for my new web server box (which this site is now running on!), I was looking at Newegg.com, the computer company I typically buy components from.  I have no problem with Newegg, of course, and they tend to provide a wealth of details on each component, something Amazon doesn’t do very well, yet I still checked with Amazon to see if I could get the same thing(s) from them instead.  Turned out I could, and because we already had Amazon Prime, that meant I could get the same things for almost the same price, but not have to pay $13 in shipping.  And the $13 in shipping would have been regular Ground shipping.  In order to get the same, 2-day shipping through UPS, the same items would have cost $38.  Through FedEx, for some reason, it would have been $59.

So yeah, almost in a single purchase, Amazon Prime justified itself.

I started assembling the system last Thursday night, inbetween various baby duties.  Unfortunately, the thing wouldn’t turn on.  I had the components installed in the box, tried a few things, re-seated various wires and jumpers, and couldn’t get the monitor to turn on.  This, obviously, did not please me.  It could have been a few different things, but I eventually tracked it down: the power supply was, likely, not working properly (as another power supply I had booted the new motherboard just fine), and the RAM seemed like it had problems (as the BIOS screen would only work with one stick in, and it was a specific stick).

I did a bit more research on Friday on the interwebs and brought my multi-meter home from work, in order to try checking the output of the power supply.  Some folks online that had written in about the case I bought, which came with the power supply, had said that their power supply was “dead on arrival,” so they had to get replacements.  There was one poster, however, that said they had to “turn it on and off a few times, and eventually it worked.”  Therefore, I didn’t want to write off the power supply until I’d let it sit overnight.  The multi-meter would tell me definitively whether it was generating any power or not for the system.

Long-story-short, I tried it again on Saturday morning.  The multi-meter said that the power supply was providing power to the motherboard.  I plugged it back in to the full system and the thing booted.  I dunno.

The RAM, on the other hand, is still presenting problems, which brings us to the “Customer Service” part of this story.  I bought two sticks of RAM for $40 from Amazon, but only one of them worked.  In order to return/exchange them, both sticks have to go back.  Annoying, ’cause I’d like to continue using one of them until the replacements arrive.  So I log in to Amazon, go to my “Orders,” and select “Return” to go through the process of exchanging the RAM.  In then end, Amazon had me print off a UPS slip that lets me return the RAM at no shipping charge to me, and I have 30 days to do it.  And along with that, they’re automatically shipping me an identical replacement.  The kicker to this story, though, is that they’re shipping me the identical replacement Next Day, so I’ll have it tomorrow.

So, in the end, I can wait until the replacement arrives before sending back the defective product, and they’re sending the replacement as quickly as they can at no additional charge to me, even though I used Two Day shipping the first time around.

That, I tell you, is customer service.

Good on you, Amazon.com.

Upgrade Paths, Part 1

Thanks to our relatively hefty tax return, we have a bit of extra cash on hand for me to run an upgrade or two on the computers, upgrades that have been sorely needed for a bit now (though Brooke would probably dispute that…).  For the last few years, I’ve been using laptops as my primary Windows gaming machines, and then a dedicated Linux desktop to act as the server hosting this website.  This has worked out pretty well, however I’m getting to the point (and the age…) where a gaming-capable laptop is less and less necessary, while a gaming-capable desktop is more attractive.  A desktop can be upgraded, while a laptop really can’t to any reasonable degree.  Therefore, I can run reasonable upgrades more often if I have a gaming desktop, rather than a laptop.

My current server uses a dual-core Athlon 64 X2 3800+ with 2 GB of RAM.  The system has worked just fine for the past 5 years since I built it, and has been running almost non-stop since that point.  It’s honestly pretty impressive how well it has held up, considering how long it sits there running without any huge problems.

However, I’m going to use that box and put a different motherboard and processor in it, and will start to use it for gaming.  My laptop (a Core 2 Duo system with a 256 MB GeForce 8600 video card) is well out of warranty and is only barely able to play anything modern, so it’s about time I did something else.  That, however, will be “Part 2″ of this particular upgrade.

Since I will use my current desktop computer case, I decided to go with a completely separate system for the new server.  Something smaller and low-wattage was ideal, as the computer doesn’t need to be that powerful to run a web site (as this site doesn’t generate 1000s of hits per day or anything…), and since it runs almost non-stop, something that doesn’t take much power is also a big plus.  The Intel Atom D525 processor fits the bill, as this is the processor found in many netbooks, amongst other devides.  It’s a dual-core 1.8 GHz system, so it will more than do the job, and this particular processor and chipset can utilize DDR3 memory (the current standard).  The box itself, pictured above, is somewhat tiny, only maybe 5″ tall, and will fit snugly wherever I want to stash it.  I’m also going to go ahead and max out its memory with 4 GB of RAM, mostly because they’re having a good sale ($40) on it right now.

In total, this upgrade is under $170.  I’m going to use one of my existing hard drives, and I’m not putting a disc drive in this particular system, so I’m saving some money there.  I am grabbing a new keyboard, however, because Brooke spilled soda in my 10-year-old wireless keyboard…so we may finally get rid of it…  But yeah, $170 for a new system ain’t bad, in my opinion, especially for a system that should be more than capable of running a website for the next 5+ years.

I’ll take care of Part 2 in the coming months.  This upgrade had to happen first, however, to move the website off of the existing computer so I can do other things to it (like…you know…turn it off…).

So hopefully the upgrade will be relatively painless.  If, however, this website is down for a few days, you can turn your ear toward Iowa and probably hear some faint grumbling…

Choices

Last year, my phone was due for an upgrade, but since Brooke was doing quite a bit more traveling around Cedar Rapids at the time, we opted to give her my upgrade so she could get a smartphone, the HTC Aria (AT&T).  Thus far, she’s been quite happy with this little Android device, a phone that browses the internet, includes a GPS, and accesses WiFi in a variety of venues, obviating the need for a ridiculously expensive data plan (the stock 200 MB/mo plan is $15 extra per month).  Also, this phone was a shade smaller than the iPhone and was much more comfortable for her to deal with.

March 17th, however, Brooke’s phone number will be eligible for an upgrade, meaning that it’s my turn to get a new phone.  Thus, as I’m known for doing (like my father, before me…), I’ve been researching the various possibilities that AT&T has to offer with regards to phones.  For a few years now, the plan has been to go with an iPhone, as the iOS platform has the programs I want and the games I want to play.  For these past few years, Android just hasn’t been able to compete on the software front with the lead that Apple had built with their iPhone system.

This has begun to change.  Quickly.

Now, more and more programs and games are going Android at the same time they go iOS, and many of the original programs that ran on iOS have been or are being ported over to Android.  Thus, recently, I began to reconsider my plan to go with iPhone.

The other nail in the iPhone’s proverbial coffin for me is the fact that the iPhone 3GS is $50 (cool!) and the iPhone 4 is $200 (less cool?).  The iPhone 5 isn’t out, and technically hasn’t been announced, but surely won’t be available until this summer at the soonest.  So, do I get the iPhone 4 this March for $200?  Or do I wait until the iPhone 5 comes out and get it for $200?  Or once the iPhone 5 comes out, get the reduced-price iPhone 4 for $100?  Decisions, decisions, decisions!

The decision, I think, has been made for me, and it’s called the HTC Inspire 4G.

The HTC Inspire 4G just came out for AT&T early this month for $99 with a contract renewal.  It’s essentially a rebranding of Sprint’s Evo 4G, but doesn’t have a front-facing camera or a stand on the back of the phone (for holding it up while you watch videos).  It’s bigger than Brooke’s Aria, although it’s the same brand and is set up very similarly with the user interface and overall construction.  As the name implies, it’s also the first Android-based AT&T phone to get onto their quasi-“4G” network, technical HSPA+, at least wherever the network is available.  It will be capable of taking on the true-“4G” network when it launches later this year, so this phone is pretty well future-proofed for $99.  Not bad.

Brooke and I went by the AT&T Store today in Cedar Rapids to check one out.  I was quite pleased with it, talked with the sales dude about my options with regards to this phone as well as other, comparable phones, and I decided to go ahead and get it.  I was less than 30 days from the upgrade date, so they waived it and let me upgrade early.

I’ve been playing with the phone for most of the day, as I typically do with new toys.  I’ve been pretty happy with it thus far, but will learn more about what the Android platform is capable in the coming days.  I still need to grab some kind of protective case for it, but those aren’t too hard to find.  Otherwise, I think I’ve got the user interface set up the way I want it, but am now trying different apps to see which ones I like for doing the things I want.

Of course, one of the benefits of going Android is the fact that it syncs up quite well with your Google account, so it pulls down my mail, calendar, RSS feeds, etc. from the interwebs with the click of a button.  Very efficient and very helpful for my purposes.  One of the other neat features about this particular phone is the HTC Sense connectivity with HTC’s website, allowing you to not only turn your phone from “silent” to “loud” from the website (in the event that you lose your phone), but also it can remotely wipe your phone of it’s memory (in the event your phone is stolen).  Neat!

Needless to say, I’m having a good time.  :-)

Belated/Be-earlied Birthday

Presents

We went up to Troy, MO yesterday to have dinner with Brooke’s parents, Mark and Diana. We had a lovely dinner, of course (I’ve had a craving for Chinese food for a few weeks now, and it was satisfied last night, believe you me!), but part of the reason they came down from Hannibal was to give us our respective birthday presents. Brooke’s B-day is May 27th and mine is June 20th, so we kinda split the middle and they came down. Anyway, the gifts are pictured above. I’m not sure if the foot cream stuff is supposed to be mine or not, but I think I’ll get more use out of the new camera lens… 😉

Our camera came with an 18 – 55 mm vibration reduction (VR) lens, which is just fine for most wide-angle shots, but we knew we’d need to pick up a zoom lens eventually, especially if we were to go on vacation. Well, thankfully, Mark and Diana got us a 55 – 200 mm VR zoom lens to compliment our wide-angle lens, so I think we’re all set, so far as camera stuff goes! I’d still like to get an external flash at some point, but the one on the camera works just fine for most purposes.

Thanks for the present, Mom and Dad! :-)

Happy Birthday To Me…

Car Window......BustedSo…..I woke up Saturday morning to my driver’s side windows both being smashed out.  Our cars are always parked on the street, so it’s really not all that surprising, but not how I expected to spend my Saturday morning.  So, I made the police report, settled everything with the insurance company, and have new windows, but this morning I had to drive to Chesterfield to have an estimate made of the damages to the inside from the glass and rain.  As far as I know, the punks (or “knuckleheads” according to the officer who took my report) have been apprehended and are being charged with breaking the windows out of multiple cars.

As far as this blog goes, my plan is to try to update more frequently since I feel like I consume an awful lot of internet information without putting anything back out there, so I’m trying to even out my kharma a little. And I needed another good reason to purchase our Nikon D60 and this seemed like a good enough one!  Comment often and enjoy!

More new toys…

So, you may remember awhile back when we picked up an Acer Aspire One netbook to replace Brooke’s current laptop. Well, that thing didn’t work very well…it couldn’t play an MP3 without skipping, couldn’t stream audio or video from websites, and just seemed overly slow overall. We returned it to Wal-Mart a few days after giving it a try, vowing to look into other options. Well, we later tried a few other netbooks that other people had, or at other stores, and decided that the one we had purchased earlier was just a lemon and it was worth getting something else.

Well, this time, we got a Dell Inspiron Mini 10. This one has nearly all the same features as the Aspire, but it has a 10″ screen (and a better keyboard, I think). This one is way better and does nearly everything it should. I’m not sure it streams video at full-screen mode perfectly yet, but it certainly does it better than the Aspire we tried earlier. Brooke took a picture of it with our new camera for your enjoyment.

netbook_small

Speaking of “new camera,” we picked up one of those, too. :-)

We bought a new point-and-shoot last year to replace Brooke’s old one, but we still haven’t been happy with it for certain applications. My Dad is something of a photography aficionado, and Brooke took a photography class back in high school, so we’ve both been exposed to the wonders of SLR photography. It’s something we’ve both wanted for awhile, but they haven’t been that reasonably priced until recently.

camera_small

This little bad boy is a Nikon D60 dSLR (we already had the cat…not anything new there…). We bought it as a bundle from Sam’s Club, so it came with a pretty decent lens that had VR (or “vibration reduction”) built-in (as Nikon, like Canon, builds that into the lens, not into the camera body). It’s a 10 MP camera and has all kinds of bells and whistles that I can’t begin to understand…but it seems to take decent pictures…

Brooke’s planning on re-doing her blog more along the lines of what The Pioneer Woman does (her most recent idol…), doing something involving photos taken on a daily basis, and sometimes taking pictures of her various food-based creations. We’ll see if it happens or not. :-)

New Toy(s)

So, Brooke and I both got new toys today. My cell phone died (again), so thankfully, I was due for a replacement via AT&T and I grabbed an LG Vu from Wal-Mart, as their deal on the phone was significantly better than AT&T.com and the AT&T stores. It’s a touch phone, so it’s quite a bit different than I’m used to…and, I’m going to need to get some kind of case for the thing, as I guarantee I’m going to drop this phone (and, subsequently, it will die).

The other fun new toy is actually Brooke’s. Her Compaq Presario laptop (a Celeron-based system with 256 MB of RAM) has been slowly dying, mostly in the form of a slowed start-up (even after reformatting) and a battery that won’t hold its charge. She decided to give a netbook a try, an Acer Aspire One. These are a relatively new class of ultra-portable laptops that typically use an Intel Atom processor, has a 10″ or smaller screen (hers is an 8.9″ glossy LCD), and no DVD drive. The latter will take some getting used to, but the smaller screen is something she thinks she can handle. You can see the size comparison with my 15″ Dell XPS M1530 above (and below in another view). This thing is also 2.2 lbs, which is less than half of what my laptop weighs!

Obviously, the keyboard is a bit smaller, as well. The other thing that we realized is that it is near impossible to install Office 2003 without a disc drive, so she downloaded and installed OpenOffice 3.0, and that seems to work alright. Overall, the laptop is quite responsive, but we’re mostly curious about how battery life will be on such a small machine.

Anyway, after Brooke has gotten to use the thing a bit more, maybe I’ll write more about it. So far, she seems pretty pleased with it, but to be fair, she only got to use it for a few hours before bed, and that entailed installing software…especially Firefox… It’s great that she complained about having to use IE at all, even when she was using it to go straight to the Firefox download page:-)