The New T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile USA made news on two fronts this week. For starters, the Un-carrier announced that they’re ditching mobile contracts altogether. No more 2-year lock-in with the purchase of a new phone. No early termination fee for leaving. There’s not even an overage fee if you run past your data plan. And the prices for similar services are cheaper than with rivals Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.

Sounds like a plan
T-Mobile’s smartphone plans start at $50 per month for unlimited talk, text and web, with 500 MB of high-speed data. Another $10 will bump you up to 2 GB of high-speed data. Exceed your high-speed data plan, and you’ll be slowed down for the remainder of the month, rather than charged extra. In other words, no surprises. That alone may come as a welcome relief for many of us without deep pockets. You’re unlikely to find a less expensive option than T-Mobile without going to a virtual network operator like Straight Talk.

Phones
Of course there’s still that little matter of buying a new phone on occasion. Here in the US, we’ve long been sucked into the buy now, pay later mentality. And not just with our phones. But the reality is that relatively few of us would pay up front for the latest smartphone at the unsubsidized price of, say, Apple’s $649 iPhone 5. Instead of lumping a phone subsidy into the plan and then charging the increase forever, T-Mobile offers two alternate paths.

You choose
When buying a new phone, you can choose to “pay in full today at checkout.” If that isn’t to your liking, you may pay a specified down-payment and a monthly payment for 24 months. While this may sound a lot like a traditional 2-year contract, there’s a key differentiator. You’ll stop paying for your phone the minute you’ve fulfilled your obligation. The other big carriers will continue to charge you a subsidy indefinitely, whether you buy a new phone every two years or not. Looking at T-Mobile’s site today, the pricing transparency of their current phones is both informative and reassuring.

Speaking of new phones
On Tuesday, T-Mobile CEO John Legere announced that they’ll begin officially carrying Apple’s iPhone starting April 12th. The flagship iPhone 5 will launch at $99.99, plus 24 monthly payments of $20 each. All told, T-Mobile’s iPhone 5 is about $69 cheaper than buying one unlocked at an Apple Store. It’s been reported that T-Mobile will serve up a modified version of the A1428 iPhone 5 currently produced for AT&T. T-Mobile’s variant should support Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) 1700 MHz spectrum in addition to previously-supported bands. For this reason, anyone buying an iPhone for use with T-Mobile going forward may want to buy theirs from T-Mobile rather than bringing their own. T-Mobile will also be the first US carrier to support the iPhone 5’s HD Voice feature. In short, T-Mobile’s iPhone launch brings every feature that their customers could hope for, save one. The iPhone won’t support T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling that is currently available on many of their other handsets.

But can you… hear me now?
It’s one thing to offer the latest phone hardware at a competitive price, and to offer service that people can afford. Both are important. But at the end of the day, all that is for naught if customers can’t use their phones reliably. The reach and quality of a cellular network is everything. Verizon Wireless has focused on their network for a long time, and as a result, they maintain the largest chunk of US subscribers today. There may still places in the western US where it’s Verizon or nothing. So how does T-Mobile stack up?

The Northeast
Awhile back, I wrote here about porting a number from Google Voice, and happened to choose T-Mobile as my destination. At the time, I was surprised to discover what appeared to be a stronger signal from T-Mobile, both at home and my office here in Connecticut, than I was getting from AT&T. That discovery was an eye-opener, and I wanted to investigate a little further.

I began carrying around a disposable-quality Android 2.3 Gingerbread phone on T-Mobile’s network. After pairing the phone with my truck via Bluetooth, I logged a few long drives (by Connecticut standards) while on the phone continuously. I experienced no dropped calls between Milford and Newington, from Trumbull to Wallingford, and similar trips. Speaking as someone who averages 23 hours of cell phone calling per month, the lack of dropped calls was encouraging.

Then I loaded up the Speedtest.net app for both iOS and Android. I began comparing my iPhone 4 on AT&T to the cheap Android phone on T-Mobile. Neither phone is LTE enabled, of course. (Incidentally, T-Mobile just launched their LTE service in seven cities this week.) My tests were less a comparison of either network’s top performance, and more a test of general network viability. From the slideshow that follows, it’s apparent that T-Mobile works well in the locations that I visited.

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Your Area
OpenSignalWe all know that cellular coverage is an extremely local phenomenon. What works in one town or region may be less viable elsewhere. When considering a wireless company that you don’t have previous experience with, it’s best to seek out as much information as possible. Talk with friends or colleagues in the immediate area about which networks work for them, and which ones don’t.

For those of us who are technically inclined, I recently fired up an Android-only app called OpenSignal. This app crowd-sources the signal strength mapping of the four major cellular networks. You can view coverage maps of any of the four in your area, complete with a NetworkRank seen here at the right. According to OpenTable, Verizon is number one at my home, followed by T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint in that order. Curiously, the OpenSignal web site seems to provide less data than the app, and leaves me with a conflicting impression. So use the app. Forget the web site.

Conclusion
T-Mobile is the nation’s 4th-place network in terms of subscribers. But I find myself rooting for the underdog from time to time. A successful iPhone launch coupled with an unconventional pricing arrangement is potentially a win for all of us. Hopefully the other networks will sit up and take notice. If T-Mobile offers decent coverage in your area, you could certainly do worse than to walk into a T-Mobile store on April 12th. Or any time that you’re in the market for a new phone.

New York Auto Show

I’m a fan of cars.  A car fanatic, if you will.  Not in the mechanic sense, forever tinkering under the hood.  Instead I’m more the Top Gear-watching, Motor Trend-subscribing kind of car fanatic.  Every year I go to the closest major auto show.  For my twenties and early thirties, that meant a yearly drive to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show.  But now I’m in southwest Connecticut.  And the closest major auto show is the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.  So that’s where I went on Saturday.

Getting There
Unlike some other auto shows, the New York International Auto Show is most easily accessible to those outside the city by train rather than by automobile.  My morning began as I climbed aboard the Metro North New Haven Line at 7:35 AM, bound for Grand Central Terminal.  This early on a Saturday, the train car will fill to no more than one quarter full during the length of the run.  I’ve got the seat to myself as I listen to Adele on the white earbuds from my iPhone 4.  And I look out the window.

Sites
Soon I’m rolling through Bridgeport, CT, where I see what appear to be several abandoned factories or warehouses, likely having sat idle for decades now as the US continues to deindustrialize.  And while I’m on my way to a rich city to see a convention center full of the latest shiny automobiles, I worry for a moment that those abandoned buildings in Bridgeport may serve as a metaphor for America.  It’s not all doom and gloom, of course.  The official jobless numbers have continued to come down throughout President Obama’s first term, leaving some of his critics to suggest that he hasn’t turned the economy around fast enough.

And soon I’m moving on, taking the time to dash off an e-mail from my iPhone as I’m reminded in Stamford of an old CIO that I used to work for.  She left Chicago to do a stint in Stamford before heading out west.  Having grown up in the generation before ever-present e-mail, I pause for a moment to reflect on the convenience.  This, despite the fact that I now receive several hundred messages a day that are generally the bane of my existence.  Soon that too is behind me.

Arrival
I arrive at the Javits Center just in time for the auto show to open.  I pass quickly through security and purchase my $15 ticket from an automated kiosk without waiting in line.  And then I walk on in.  About the first thing I see is a white Lamborghini, followed closely by a $1.7 million Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport in white with a black hood.  This is not to be confused, of course, with the $2.7 million Bugatti Veyron Super Sport.

Lamborghini and Bugatti

White Cars
My friends are well aware that I’m a fan of white cars and that my personal vehicle is white.  This aesthetic preference was born out of science, as I observed that darker paints fade faster in the sun and keep cars hotter inside during the summer.  Also – and I have no data to back this up – it’s been my experience that a well-maintained but non-ostentatious white vehicle seems to be largely invisible to the Highway Patrol.  This auto show proved to be a bonanza for people who share my preference.  Infiniti, in particular, had more than half of their cars on display in white, and frankly I could have gone around snapping photos of white cars all day.

Favorite Car
Every year I pick a personal favorite.  More often than not I pick something that I could conceivably afford as my next car, or imagine myself affording without first imagining a Powerball jackpot win.  This year I identified my favorite car fifteen minutes into the show.  No, it wasn’t the Veyron.  In fact, it was the 2013 Ford Fusion!  My iPhone photos definitely don’t do it justice, so I recommend visiting Ford.

2013 Ford Fusion

The previous Fusion (2006-12) was a largely forgettable car from a styling perspective, that frankly never measured up to the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry as far as I’m concerned.  There was nothing wrong with it, as, say, a weekend rental car, but I couldn’t imagine plunking down years of car payments for the privilege of owning one.  All that has changed with the 2013 Fusion.

The new Fusion is longer, wider and taller than the outgoing model, with styling that is a complete departure from its predecessor.  It feels like a large car standing next to it.  Larger than the original Taurus that I remember from the 80s.  And the styling is – to my eye – fantastic.  (Again, don’t judge it from my iPhone photos.)  I saw one Tweet that described it as a smooshed Maserati (in a good way).  Personally, I feel like it’s not hard to imagine it as a smaller sibling to the current Jaguar XJ.  At any rate, I could easily see myself buying the 2013 Fusion were I not so satisfied with my current 2010-model-year vehicle.

Last Year’s Favorite
This year I finally got to sit in my last year’s favorite, the Range Rover Evoque Coupe (in white).  With my 6′ 4”+ size, I wondered whether I’d fit under the Evoque’s sloping roof line.  The good news is that I fit just fine, especially with the extra headroom provided by the panoramic roof.  The bad news is that I’m unlikely to ever buy a vehicle that starts at $43,995 in today’s dollars and can go way up from there.  Range Rover also brought a concept Evoque Convertible out this year that looks pretty great with the roof down.

Range Rover Evoque

Quick Mentions
Always curious about fit, I find that I can sit in the driver’s seat of the diminutive Fiat 500 with no issues.  In fact, I don’t even need to move the seat quite all the way back.  The manual shifter feels smooth when cycling through the gears while parked.  Of course I’d want to go for the Abarth edition.

Believe it or not, the Kia Optima SXL in snow white pearl with white leather interior was my second-favorite car of the show.  The vehicle looked and felt good inside and out.  At $34,900 as configured, however, I’d have a hard time with the Kia nameplate and the pre-conceived notions that come with it.

The cute little Hyundai Veloster that everyone reports as stylish but woefully underpowered has a turbo variant coming out for 2013.  Good for them.  I hope that the paint job on the display model doesn’t make it to production.  It was a silver that seemed to have no clear coat on top, as if it were painted using spray-cans.  Curiously, I saw one other car on display that seemed to suffer from the same malady: a bluish BMW M3.  I hope that this isn’t some dastardly new trend in paint that I’m just seeing for the first time.

Jeep
Perhaps the coolest part of my day was the Camp Jeep ride-along out in front of the Javits Center.  I was a front-seat passenger in a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited as we traversed thirty-degree sideways inclines, drove over significant obstacles, and climbed and descended a hill that felt as steep as a standard staircase.  If the open-topped Wrangler Unlimited doesn’t sell itself on a sunny day like this, certainly it does after powering up a steep summit and then automatically managing the descent on the way down.  If I ever move to a warm climate, I’m seriously considering one of these.

Models
If you’ve never been to a car show, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn that sometimes attractive young women are used to promote cars to male buyers. Who’d have thought!? Anyway, I felt that it was only polite that I give these ladies introducing various cars my full attention. In light of the fact that most recent Dodge vehicles look like they’ve been bathed in testosterone, perhaps it’s no surprise that Dodge – and the Chrysler booth next door – had the most consistently attractive female spokesmodels at the show on Saturday. It was almost distracting. Seriously. Good job, Dodge.

Robert with the Dodge Model

Souvenir photo provided by Dodge.

Technology
As this is a tech blog, we’ve got to focus on technology at least briefly.  Not surprisingly, many of the static information signs next to individual cars have been replaced by computers or iPads this year.  The electronic displays were pervasive enough that Subaru – who just displayed their cars’ window stickers – felt by comparison as if they were a relic of a bygone era.  iPads and similar tablets were in the hands of many of the car representatives working the show as well.  And, for the first time ever, I actually saw a guy using an iPad to snap photos in place of a regular camera or camera-phone.  Yes, he looked awkward.  At the same time, he probably should have sold ad space on the back of that iPad.

Jaguar on iPad

Not Tired
Now in the past I’ve worn myself out when suddenly spending a day on my feet at one of these conventions, as my usual routine involves spending my days in front of the computer.  But having walked farther than Connecticut is long since mid-March, I found myself not tired at all this time around.  It never occurred to me that routine exercise would make a car show more enjoyable, but apparently it does.

Homeward Bound
I arrived back at Grand Central on foot just in time to catch a jam-packed 4:07 train back toward New Haven.  This time around, every seat was full and a few stragglers were left standing.  I cranked up some Lupe Fiasco on my white earbuds for the ride home, thinking about words I never said.  All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable day of seeing the latest that the auto industry has to offer.

The 2012 New York International Auto Show is open to the public through Sunday, April 15th.

The AT&T 3G MicroCell

Are you struggling with poor cellular phone reception inside your home or small office?  At the same time, do you have reliable broadband Internet service?  Then the answer to your cell phone problems may be as simple as installing a femtocell such as the AT&T 3G MicroCell, the Verizon Wireless Network Extender or the Sprint AIRAVE.  Think of a femtocell as your own personal cellular site based in your living room, that leverages your broadband Internet connection to route your phone calls back to the carrier’s network.  Instead of relying on a cell tower that may be blocks or miles away, you have one literally within arm’s reach.  Having had some extra time over Memorial Day weekend, I purchased and installed an AT&T 3G MicroCell for use in the living room in southwest Connecticut.

[Before we get started, we should note that that the term ‘microcell’ in telecommunications generally refers to a cell with a coverage area of between 200 meters and 2 kilometers.  AT&T’s “3G MicroCell,” on the other hand, has a range of around 40 feet from the device, or about 5000 square feet, typical of a femtocell.  AT&T’s use of the microcell nomenclature has been a source of contention in some on-line discussions.]

Acquiring the Device
AT&T 3G MicroCellAT&T doesn’t sell their 3G MicroCell via the web, so my adventure began by stopping in at a local AT&T Store to pick up the device.  I shelled out a one-time fee of $199.99 for the hardware, and was in and out of the store in about five minutes.  At least that’s how it should have gone.

Hiccup
In my particular case, this first 3G MicroCell turned out to have a defective Ethernet port, so I went through a round of troubleshooting at home that would be familiar to any technical professional but potentially frustrating for everyone else.  I then began this project anew back at the AT&T Store two hours later.  The second trip to the store took a little longer, as a sales professional exhibited what I interpreted as mild skepticism that the first device was truly defective.  It didn’t help that the pentaband 3G phone attached to my AT&T account at that time wasn’t one that AT&T has ever sold, so their computer warned them that it may not be a compatible 3G device.  Even so, this second visit didn’t last more than fifteen minutes.

At Home (The Second Time)
Once at home with a functional MicroCell in hand, setup was uncomplicated to anyone who has ever configured even the basic settings on a home router or wireless access point.

  1. We start by configuring the 3G MicroCell via the web before we ever physically connect or power on the device.  Begin by navigating to http://att.com/3GMicroCell and choose the Activate button.
  2. You’ll have to identify whether you’re adding the 3G MicroCell to a personal or business account, at which point you’ll be prompted for your credentials to authenticate to that account.
  3. Next, you’ll have to provide the physical address where the device will reside, so that emergency personnel can locate you in the event that you ever call 911.  There’s no conceivable reason lie about your address, as the 3G MicroCell uses GPS to confirm its location.  (More on that in the next section.)  It is perfectly acceptable to register and install a 3G MicroCell at an address other than your current AT&T billing address.  For example, the billing address on my AT&T account is a PO box in Manhattan while I live in southwest Connecticut.
  4. Finally, you’ll want to specify any additional phone numbers beyond your own that you want to allow to use this device, up to ten in total.  After adding all the members of your household, you may wish to add your most frequent iPhone-toting guests to the list.  As the name implies with ‘AT&T’ and ‘3G’ in the description, only 3G phones on the AT&T network can work with the MicroCell.

Connecting the 3G MicroCell to Your Home Network

  1. As mentioned in the prior section, the 3G MicroCell uses GPS to validate it’s location for E911 compliance.  AT&T recommends that you place the MicroCell within 3 feet of a window in order to receive a GPS signal.  I set mine next to the cable modem and WiFi router, which happened to be around 8 feet from a southern wall that is predominantly windows.  It works just fine.  For those who wish to place the 3G MicroCell further away from a window or out of site, you may be able to use a 3rd-party GPS antenna to move the device further into your home while maintaining a GPS signal.
  2. In a perfect world, connecting your 3G MicroCell to your home network may be no more complicated than plugging it in to an available Ethernet port on your home router or wireless access point.  While I haven’t identified where AT&T explicitly states it, their instructions lead one to believe that the MicroCell uses UPnP to automatically open the necessary TCP/IP ports through many consumer-class routers.  For those who prefer to configure their firewall manually, you must open the following TCP/IP ports to this device as listed in the manual: 23/UDP, 443/TCP, 500/UDP and 4500/UDP.  Or there’s a third option…
  3. …If you wish to prioritize your call traffic over any of your other Internet traffic, as I do, AT&T supports connecting the 3G MicroCell between your cable/DSL modem and your home router/firewall/wireless access point.  The MicroCell has an in and an out Ethernet jack specifically for this scenario.  When connected in this manner, your phone call traffic can’t be stepped on by any large downloads or Netflix streaming that you do from time to time.
  4. Once you’ve got your device physically placed and connected to your network, it’s time to plug in the power.  The 3G MicroCell is ready for use only after all 5 lights have lit up green.  AT&T asks you to allow up to 90 minutes the first time around.  It took about 60 for me.  When all five lights are green, you’re ready to make or receive calls.

Using the 3G MicroCell
iPhone 4 connected to AT&T 3G MicroCellAs stated earlier, you can add up to a total of ten AT&T cell phone numbers to your 3G MicroCell during activation, or later on as needed.  Any phone on this list should automatically switch over to your 3G MicroCell shortly after coming within range.  You’ll know that your phone is connected when its screen indicates “AT&T MicroCell” or “AT&T M-Cell.”

Calls that you initiate while connected to the 3G MicroCell are supposed to be handed off to AT&T’s regular network if you leave home mid-call, however the reverse is not the case.  If you come within range of the MicroCell while talking through AT&T’s network, your phone won’t connect to the MicroCell until you terminate the current call.  And I’m not so sure that the call hand-off as you leave the MicroCell’s range actually works either, as I’ll touch on a couple of sections from now.  You may find it necessary to conduct each call in its entirety via the MicroCell if that’s where it was initiated.

Initial Impression
Where calling from the living room was hardly worth it before, calls there have been completely reliable since installing the 3G MicroCell.  That alone may validate the one-time cost of purchase for those who find themselves in a similar scenario.  When in the living room, I no longer have any concern as to my phone working clearly and reliably.

[Update 07/13: In using the MicroCell for over a month, I’ve noticed that it takes longer than usual to connect my first outbound call each time I come within range of the device.  Other than that and the ‘AT&T M-Cell’ denoted on my phone, I wouldn’t know the difference between this and good reception from AT&T’s traditional network.]

Signal Too Strong!?
Now I’m not actually the ideal candidate for the 3G MicroCell, and this is an important matter to consider before buying one.  AT&T recommends not using the MicroCell if you already have “3 bars” or more cellular coverage from their network.  The living room on the south end of my apartment had completely unreliable AT&T coverage, making it perfect for the MicroCell.  My bedroom on the north side of the building has a large window facing the street and a commuter rail line.  Not surprisingly, AT&T’s signal strength was nearly adequate on this edge of the apartment before the MicroCell.  Now I find that my phone is jumping back and forth between AT&T’s regular network and the MicroCell when in my bedroom, resulting in some dropped calls that aren’t really supposed to happen but do.  I’d be better off if AT&T’s terrestrial network coverage was abysmal throughout the apartment, letting the MicroCell’s performance really shine.

Is This for You?

  • You’re a current AT&T postpaid customer?
  • Your home or small office has lousy AT&T coverage inside such that your phone is not really usable?
  • You have reliable broadband Internet connectivity?
  • You can place your MicroCell within a few feet of a window or are willing to buy a 3rd-party GPS antenna?
  • Your family or team has less than 10 AT&T 3G cell phones that you need to cover, and plan to carry on no more than 4 simultaneous conversations?
  • You’re willing to make a 1-time investment of $199.99 to help enhance the AT&T cellular service that many consumers feel they’re already paying for?
  • (For those families who plan to use the MicroCell for heavy call volume, you may consider adding an optional $19.99 / monthly service fee for ‘AT&T Unlimited MicroCell Calling’ to your individual or family plan.)

Signing Off
A one-time investment of $199.99 for the AT&T 3G MicroCell has delivered reliable AT&T cellular coverage throughout the areas of my apartment where AT&T phones previously worked very poorly.  As experiments go, this one is a success.  If you’re struggling with poor indoor performance with your cell phone, perhaps this device or similar offerings from Verizon Wireless and Sprint are worth a look.

Back Home Again

To borrow from an old jazz standard dating to 1917, I was recently Back home again in Indiana as I  began writing this.  While this post is perhaps seemingly self-indulgent, it’s also for Denise, our good-humored IT Project Manager, and the rest of my peers at the office.

Travel
Just after noon a week ago Thursday, I arrived at the Indianapolis International Airport, having changed planes an hour earlier in Detroit.  I quickly picked up my checked bag, which, incidentally, I’d checked for free thanks to my American Express Delta SkyMiles card.  Up one escalator and down another, I was at National Car Rental, where I picked up a silver Chevy Malibu with only 185 miles on the odometer.  Within twenty minutes of deplaning, I was on the road.  I’m going to have to fly on Thursdays more often.

I drove east from the airport through Indianapolis and beyond via I70, which bisects the state horizontally.  Seventy miles after leaving the airport, I arrived at what remains of the family farm.  For the next 72 hours, I was back home.

Old Farmhouse

The core of the original farmhouse at the left above was built around the time of America’s Civil War.  There’s a framed photo on the wall of my great-great-grandparents with a date on the back, though I don’t recall the exact year from memory now.  This is the first time that I recall seeing only one grain silo instead of the usual three at the right, though I feel like one was added during my childhood.  The last remaining silo will be taken down before I’m likely to return again.

Newer House

Situated diagonally across the road from the old farmhouse is the newer house where my sister and I grew up.  It was here that I stayed while visiting.  I noticed several times throughout the stay that the only sound I could hear was birds chirping.  The grass was just beginning to grow for the Spring, and my mom mowed it for the second time while I was there.

Out back

Both houses are surrounded by farmland as is typical of the area.  While this setting might look unusual to those who have spent their life in urban congestion, it’s important to remember that an acre of land out here typically sells for less than you’d rent an apartment for just one month in Manhattan.  This is a world away from the East Coast.

Getting Down to Business
Now this is a tech blog of course, and the purpose of my trip was actually technical in nature.  My dad uses two computers in his combined business / hobby of ham radio.  The first is a Lenovo ThinkCentre PC running Ubuntu Linux, which he uses for e-mail, web surfing, and most other activities related to his business.  This system is about as stable and impervious to viruses and other support issues as he’s likely to find.  Dad’s second PC is a diminutive Mini-ITX sized, Intel Atom-based PC that he and I put together from components and which runs Windows XP.  He uses this system to perform the computing aspects of software-defined ham radio.  And as is often the case with Windows machines after awhile, this one needed help.

The little Mini-ITX PC had issues both hardware and software related.  The CPU fan had died, and the system was going into a thermal shutdown mode with extended use.  Dad had resorted to firing it up when he needed it, and shutting it down immediately afterward.  The system also had a Windows virus that I was unable to clean reliably in the limited time available on my last visit, but which dad was willing to live with for awhile.  So I’d come prepared to deal with both issues.

Hardware
Dad and I began by swapping out both the CPU and case fans in a matter of minutes using new Scythe 40x40x10mm fans that were a direct replacement for the originals.  In the days that followed, this proved to completely resolve the thermal shutdown problems and the hardware has been solid since while running around the clock.  After replacing the fans, I got started on the slightly more complicated software side of things.

Software Work Begins With Backup
Knowing that dad relies on this Windows machine extensively to test and validate new ham radio kits that he’s assembled for customers, I wanted to guarantee that I could get back to a working configuration regardless of what I encountered in the next two days.  I’d make two different types of backups before doing anything else.

I began by creating an image of the PC’s internal hard drive as-is by booting from a Clonezilla CD and writing an image copy to a portable USB external hard drive.  If need be, I could always return to exactly where I started by restoring this image.  This is a technique that I use frequently at work, though less so recently with virtualization.

Next, I wanted a copy of the individual files so that I could later scan for viruses and selectively restore data independent of any executables.  For this, I simply booted the PC from a Linux live CD, connected my USB hard drive again, and copied the entire contents of the internal hard drive to a directory on the external one.  Now I was ready to begin cleaning up the machine.

Software Reloaded
Before I re-installed Windows XP from scratch, I wanted to be certain that there was no boot sector virus in place that would survive a regular re-format.  Typically I use DBAN to wipe a disk clean before re-installing an operating system.  Dad’s machine wouldn’t play well with DBAN, so I resorted to clearing the existing partitions and partition table using the Linux utility GParted from the same Linux live CD that I’d used to copy files earlier.

Installing Windows XP was a breeze, as I’d done it roughly 100 times previously.  Immediately following the basic installation, I took these additional steps:

  • Copied the i386 directory from the source CD to the hard drive and adjusted the SourcePath variables in the registry as appropriate.
  • Downloaded and installed the various system drivers from Intel’s web site.
  • Installed all available Windows Critical Updates.
  • Installed antivirus software, in this case Microsoft’s free Security Essentials.
  • Turned on the Windows Firewall.
  • Unbound File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks from the network adapter.
  • Removed well-known, default Windows accounts such as Administrator and Guest.
  • Scanned the backed-up data files for viruses, and then copied them back to the system.
  • Re-installed dad’s software, which in this case included circuit board layout software, ham radio software and related drivers.

While it sounds simple enough, I spent a portion of Thursday afternoon, the majority of Friday, and a portion of Saturday ensuring that everything was configured properly and working to dad’s satisfaction.  As I post this summary a week later, he hasn’t reported any problems with the PC, nor any missing applications or files.  I count that a success.

Back to Reality
I returned to my apartment in southwestern Connecticut on Sunday night at 10:15 PM, just in time to turn on the TV and discover that President Obama would be making an announcement shortly regarding an operation in the Middle East.  I’d soon learn with the rest of the world that Osama bin Laden was no longer with us.

Why and How?

I value knowledge more than just about any other commodity.  That’s not to suggest that I posses any great knowledge or insight, only that I’m inclined to pursue knowledge when I’m at my best, and that I’m at my best when pursuing it.  I’m the guy at work who, when he discovers a new bit of technical information that should become common knowledge among the team, feels compelled to write it up and share it.  Perhaps, then, it’s inevitable that I would start this blog.  But enough about me.  For those readers who might feel compelled to follow a similar path, let’s walk through one way among many to get it done.

Unlimited Options
When starting a blog, the range of options, considerations and costs are nearly as boundless as human creativity itself.  You can do it entirely by yourself at no financial cost other than the value of your own time.  At the other extreme, you can outsource the entire effort to a professional who will, if successful, transform the vision in your head into reality.  Some professionals may well exceed your initial vision and introduce you to ideas that you had no idea that you wanted until you saw them.  When putting together snnyc.com, I ran it as a lot of technology projects are run these days.  I brought together the right mix of professionals, products and service providers from diverse locales via the Internet.  With so many options available, where do we begin?

Your Topic
If you’re going to go to the effort of starting a blog, you’re undoubtedly motivated by something.  Are you motivated by your work?  By a hobby?  Is it your family or friends?  Music?  Fashion?  Pop culture?  Writing on a regular basis can be difficult, even to those who naturally enjoy it.  Choose a topic that you can’t help but think about a high percentage of the time anyway.  Writing about it will feel the most like fun and the least like work.  In my case, there was little question that my primary topic would be Information Technology.

Selecting a Name
While selecting a topic for your blog may be as simple as listening to your heart, selecting a name becomes dramatically more complicated as we have to consider the technical realities of publishing on the Internet.  At this point, the non technically savvy reader may need to seek the assistance of an Internet consultant while the technical professional may be bored by much of this section.

Your blog’s Internet domain name must be unique from every site currently in use on the Internet.  While there are some free hosting services that add your blog’s name as a prefix on an established domain name, taking a format such as  http://myblog.wordpress.com, we’re going to focus on finding a unique Internet domain name belonging only to you as I have with http://snnyc.com.

At the time that I began writing this post, there were over 93.7 million active domains registered with the most common extension of .com.  In the prior 24 hours, over 74,000 new .com domains were created and over 61,000 were deleted.  With 93.7 million .com domains registered, you’re not likely to find that your first idea is still available with that extension.  The situation improves if you’re willing to go with a .net domain, but even so, there are 13.8 million .net domains active at this time.  So how does one find a unique name?

If you’re looking for a unique Internet domain name, you could just go straight to a domain registrar such as Scottsdale, AZ, based GoDaddy.com and start punching in your ideas.  They will tell you if the domain name is still available with any particular extension, and may also show you close alternatives to your original idea.  This should be easy enough.  If you find an available domain name that you wish to purchase, I’d urge you do so the moment you discover that it’s available.  Unless you’re on a very tight budget, don’t take a few minutes to think about it.  Definitely don’t sleep on it overnight.  You don’t want to let your idea become one of the 74,000 new .com domain registrations that someone else does today.  A 2-year .com domain registration with GoDaddy.com including private registration recently cost me $38.32.  Once registered, no one but you can use that domain name for the duration of your registration period.  Each time that your domain name comes up for renewal, you’ll have an opportunity to renew the registration and retain control of your name indefinitely.

I took a slightly different route to come up with snnyc.com.  As a matter of personal preference, I wanted a .com domain that was as short as was still available.  Given my current proximity to and personal affinity for New York City, I wanted to try to work the letters ‘nyc’ into the domain name if possible.  Finally, with my primary focus on Information Technology, I needed it to sound “techie.”  So, I  did a Google search for ‘domain name generator,’ where I found NameStation.com, a free service created by New York-based Acceli.  Once there, I entered my parameters and quickly found that snnyc.com was available.  I felt instinctively that I had a winner and I registered it on the spot with GoDaddy.

Technology people seem to see all the letters from the word ‘sync’ in snnyc.com and interpret it as an adaptation on that concept, despite the letters falling out of order.  Though few seem to notice, it subtly pays homage to NYC.  Finally, if you pronounce it phonically as my 4-year-old nephew does, it sounds like ‘cynic,’ which I choose to interpret as ‘cutting through the hype.’  The subsequently designed logo serves to cover both the ideas of ‘sync’ and ‘cutting through the hype,’ while conveniently forming a stylized S at the same time.

[While I was the first to register snnyc.com as a domain name for use in this technical blog, others have used the same combination of letters ‘snnyc’ for other purposes.  Neither the snnyc YouTube channel nor the OkCupid profile are mine.]

Pick a blogging technology
Choosing a blogging technology is akin to choosing a word processor prior to the Internet era.  Just as you might write a traditional letter using Microsoft Word, you need specialized software to create, post to and manage your blog.  I went with WordPress software almost by default, as I wanted to become more familiar with this most well-known platform as part of the exercise.  At the time of this writing, there are over 25 million blogs based on WordPress.  Examples include several New York Times blogs, TechCrunch and Think Progress.  There are over 1,300 themes and 13,000 plugins available to help customize the look of your WordPress blog.  Best of all, WordPress software is free and open source, so there’s no charge to acquire or use it.  Other blogging platforms include Google’s Blogger, TypePad, Movable Type and even Apple’s iWeb.

Pick a hosting provider
After determining which blogging technology you plan to use, you’ll have to determine where your blog will be hosted.  In other words, you’re selecting the Internet servers that your blog content will reside on.  If you don’t know enough about this to care one way or another, it may make sense to get started with one of the free hosting options such as WordPress.com, the hosting arm of the WordPress.org software.

I went with LA-based hosting and virtualization provider Media Temple at a cost of $200 for 1 year of their Grid Service.  While feedback on Media Temple has been somewhat love-it-or-hate-it, a potential concern, they bill themselves as an organization designed to host sites such that they can sustain a sudden rush of traffic.  While I’d prefer to never buy something based on a sales pitch, Media Temple is also one of four hosting providers mentioned on the WordPress.org site, which I took as a tacit endorsement.  The process of signing up for Media Temple and performed a ‘1-click install’ of WordPress 3.1 into my account was a relatively painless, as it should be.  My site has loaded quickly every time that I’ve looked at it since.  So far, so good.

[Update: Media Temple suffered their first service outage affecting the snnyc blog four weeks after this original post.  Details are here.  I noticed no other issues affecting the site through the remainder of 2011.  If anything, the performance has improved.  Nearing the one-year point, I couldn’t be happier with Media Temple.]

Do you need an SSL certificate?
If you’ve ever done online banking or made a purchase from a web store like eBay or Amazon.com, then you’ve used Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption.  This technology protects your web traffic by encrypting it such that anyone who observes your traffic in transit across the Internet can’t read it.  The technology behind SSL includes the use of a certificate at the server that is typically issued by a well-known, trusted certificate authority.

If you plan to post to or administer your blog from public settings such as coffee shops and airports, you may want to protect your login credentials by encrypting them in transit using SSL.  Frankly it’s a smart precaution regardless of where you’ll post from in the future.  For snnyc.com, I purchased a one-year SSL certificate from GoDaddy.com for $49.99.  I then installed that certificate in my hosting account at Media Temple, which was once again an easy process.

Do you need professional artistic services?
Those who have known me for years have seen me illustrate some fairly convincing logos and take some decent photos using professional equipment.  That was awhile ago.  As I got started on this project, I was under a fair amount of unrelated mental stress and wasn’t feeling particularly creative.  I felt from the start that creative services might be a good investment.  You’ll need to make an assessment of your own skills and time available in transforming your creative vision into reality.

The snnyc.com logo is the result of Melbourne & San Francisco-based 99designs and freelance designer ‘seerdon‘ (Charlie Symour M. Caballero) of the Philippines.  I launched a $295 contest at 99designs.com to create the new logo.  Seerdon’s winning entry was one of 86 design variations submitted over 7 days.  At the conclusion of the contest, I paid the fee and received the image in the formats requested along with a document transferring ownership of the work.  Needless to say, I was very satisfied with the outcome.

Next, I wanted a photo of myself for the header image.  Finding a photographer in New York City is as easy as posting an add to the Creative Gigs section of Craigslist.  Be prepared to take your add back down within twenty-four hours, as you may well get a hundred responses in that period of time.  Joe Giraud was the first to respond to me.  It was obvious from Joe’s web site that he has the necessary photography tools, experience and vision to do great work.  I didn’t have to wonder whether he could capture the image that I had asked for.  His quote of $200 for a photo  session and unrestricted use of one edited photo, while not the lowest, was a solid value.

Working with Joe was easy.  He and his Assistant Cat met with me the first time down at the southern tip of Manhattan.  After taking the photos, Joe sent me two edited views later the same day.  Ultimately Joe and I got together for a second session in Midtown to pursue a new slant to the original concept, an idea suggested by a friend who I’ll introduce in the next section.  Our second session yielded the header image that you see today.  Joe was as pleasant, professional and accommodating the second time around.  I paid another $200 for the second session, the outcome of which was clearly worth it.

Do you need web design or WordPress customization services?
Snnyc.com is based on the Twenty Ten theme, the default theme shown when you install WordPress 3.0 or 3.1.  You’d easily find tens of thousands of sites based on this theme alone if you were to look very hard.  Having said that, I may not have arrived at what we see here today without the valued assistance of WordPress Guy, all-around creative genius and respected friend, Brian Watts of Olmstead Township, OH.  In addition to injecting an idea into the photographic process from 500 miles away, Brian patiently translated my various requests into technical reality.  Over a period of two weeks, Brian fielded a series of requests ranging from modifying the style sheets several times to researching and deploying certain gadgets to repeatedly moving around, resizing and adjusting the shading of the logo relative to the header photo.  Brian made good use of his 10.75 hours and charged me a modest $537.50 for his work to this point.  Again, this was money well spent in turning the vision in my head into technical reality or better.

Begin Writing
If you’d been running a calculator while reading this, you’d note that I spent $1520.81 launching this blog to the point that I was ready to write this first post.  Like so many IT projects these days, this effort pulled in contributors and service providers from as diverse a geography as the Philippines, Melbourne, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, Olmsted Township, OH, New York City and Connecticut.  Launching in this manner way was a logical extension of who I am and my place in time.  And Thomas Friedman is right.

In future posts, I hope to bring the minimum narrative necessary and more technical how-to information.  If you have questions or ideas for upcoming posts, leave a reply below.  Thank you for reading today.