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I’m not a particular fan of blogging about blogging.  It feels a little bit wrong somehow.  Like a self-referential journalist reporting about their acts of news-gathering, rather than reporting the news itself.  In the technical sphere, we might call this recursive.  So it’s my hope that today’s post is none of that.

Actually this is a response to a reader request.  Someone from the DC area asked if I could make the snnyc blog available via e-mail, and qualified the request by saying that RSS is not an option.  Maybe they’re using Google Reader, which will cease to exist after July 1st, 2013.  Adding e-mail alerts to the blog is something that I’ve wanted to do for awhile.  I’d been asked about it more than once when the blog first went live two years ago.  At the time, I wrote a post about using RSS instead.  That was then.  This is now.

If you’re familiar with WordPress from a technical perspective, then you’re well aware of the staggering number of plugins available to achieve just about every function imaginable.  It took me all of thirty seconds on Google to find an e-mail subscription plugin that looked promising.  It took me another minute to download and install it.

Subscribe2, by Matthew Robinson, is humbly billed as The best WordPress email subscription plugin.  At the time of this writing, 970,380 people have downloaded it.  Subscribe2 has received more 5 star ratings than not.  Once downloaded, I spent a few minutes tweaking it to provide only the functionality that I desired.  While Subscribe2 is free, I felt it appropriate to send a few dollars to the author via a PayPal donation link.

Now we’re all set.  If you wish to be notified when new posts are added to the snnyc blog, simply add your e-mail address in the subscribe window over at the upper right, and hit the button.  You’ll receive a confirmation e-mail.  Following that, you’ll receive a simple message containing a link when each new article is posted.  Should you later wish to unsubscribe, the process is just as easy.

As always, thanks for reading.  While I’ve yet to put in the time that I’d like to here, the blog has received no less than 50 visits per day this month.  On one recent day, 139 of you stopped by.  While two posts on Apple iOS and Microsoft Exchange have pulled in a few thousand visits in total, there’s still consistent interest in older topics.  Yesterday 11 people read a post on the AT&T 3G MicroCell from nearly two years ago.  Seeing that makes my little endeavor oh so worth it.  So here’s to you.  And to the occasional post.  Which you can now be alerted to via e-mail. Cheers.

Which UPS?

The following question hit my inbox today from an old friend in Chicago.  To paraphrase: “I am searching for a UPS or line conditioner for a $20,000 HP Designjet 815mfp.  Two brownouts hit our building recently and the repair technician blamed the necessary $3000 repair on not having the unit connected to a good UPS.  I’m trying to figure out which statistics are the important ones, especially if I don’t care about battery backup.  For example, how important is sine wave and which stats refer to the sine wave of a UPS?  We’re looking to spend between $500 and $1000 on a good UPS.  Any thoughts?

Wow, great question.  And thanks for being so specific about the problem, the value, make and model of the printer, and your budget for a solution.  When specifying a power solution of any kind, it’s always a good idea to start by knowing as much about the load as possible.

Reading The Manual
I began by browsing HP’s Designjet 815mfp User’s Reference Guide, Quick Reference Guide and Assembly and Maintenance Poster.  Here I learned that one should “connect the ‘Y’ power cable to a power outlet.”  OK.  Via Google, I was able to locate the Electrical Specifications section of the Product Specifications.  Here we learn that the Designjet 815mfp requires 100 to 240 V AC, 2 amps maximum and 150 Watts maximum.  Now that’s the information we’re looking for.

Options
With the load information in hand, I took a quick perusal of well-known UPS manufacturer APC’s UPS Selector.  I chose ‘Configure by Load,’ entered 150 Watts and chose the US standard 120 V.  Allowing for their default 30% room for expansion and 10 minutes of battery-backed runtime in a non-rack-mount, non-redundant setup, HP recommended three options.  The three vary in battery size but not in features, beginning with the APC Smart-UPS 750VA LCD 120V at $329.99, the APC Smart-UPS 1000VA LCD 120V at $469.00 and finally the APC Smart-UPS 1500VA LCD 120V at $579.00.  If you purchase your hardware from CDW as many corporations do, your price range would actually be $309.99 to $518.99, and that’s before you factor in any discount that your organization may successfully negotiate.  Incidentally, with your load, your actual battery-backed runtime is projected to be from 31 to 116 minutes, depending on your selection.  Speaking as one who had to walk down 19 flights of stairs following a power outage in downtown Chicago several years ago, it never hurts to have a few extra minutes of runtime on a UPS regardless of where you’re at.

Well, that was quick.  The prices are within budget, the proposed solution is from a well-known manufacturer and carried by a trusted distributor.  But how do we know that this is the right solution for this situation?  Maybe we could go even cheaper?  And what about those sine waves?

Smart?
Notice the term Smart in our earlier product description: APC Smart-UPS.  Like most UPS vendors, APC manufactures both regular battery backups and smart uninteruptable power supplies.  With a regular battery backup, the connected devices run off of line power until that disappears, at which point it cuts over to the battery very quickly.  These units are cheaper, and offer less protection to power fluctuations including brownouts.  With a smart UPS, on the other hand, your devices typically receive continuous, conditioned power via the battery, while the line voltage keeps the battery charged in the background.  The UPSes mentioned earlier feature a “pure sine wave output,” and are suitable for servers and similarly sensitive equipment including your Designjet 815mfp.

And sine waves?
I’m no electrical engineer, nor did I consult one despite having a semi-retired engineer (my dad) on speed dial.  Generally speaking, you want your AC waveform to look like the first pattern on the following graphic, and not like the second.  I’m unaware of any metric for selecting a UPS based on this feature, aside from hooking it up to an oscilloscope.  Rather than worry about it, I’d simply select a smart UPS with a good reputation.  Perhaps you’ve read more about this than I have.

[Image created by ‘Omegatron’ using gnuplot, and downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.]

Final Plug
APC UPSWere I looking to protect a $20,000 device and avoid another $3,000 repair bill, without needlessly overspending and getting a heavier solution than required, I’d probably split the difference and buy the APC Smart-UPS 1000VA LCD 120V from CDW for $452.99.  We combine knowledge and instinct to make these types of selections every day in IT, and are generally well satisfied with the outcome.

[Update 06/29: My friend who submitted the original question took his interest in sine waves a step further and dug up this gem from 2005.  A blogger shows the fairly squarish wave put out by two APC Back-UPS models as seen on an oscilloscope, followed by the sine wave put out by a Smart-UPS model similar to what I’d recommended.  Thanks.]

Which iPhone?

A friend sent me the following question a couple weeks ago: “We’re on the verge of jumping from dumb phones … to the iPhone.  I know there’s plenty of marketing hype and consumer comparison sites out there talking about the pros/cons of various phone platforms. … Should I wait for the iPhone 4 to come down in price? Should I go with the easy $50 opportunity to get a iPhone 3GS?”

As is the case in most areas where we have choices, the answer of course is, “It depends.”  This is especially true in the world of cell phones, where we have a lot of choices and they’re continually evolving.

Smart vs. Phone
While it’s easy to focus on the ‘smart’ portion of a smartphone – the applications – I tend to focus first on the original purpose: making phone calls.  Making reliable phone calls requires two things: decent cellular coverage and a well-functioning handset.  Of course cellular coverage varies widely based on your proximity to the nearest antenna, topography, and physical barriers such as dense walls.  It’s also been my experience that two different handsets in the same location on the same network can deliver noticeably different results.  So, we have to choose the network that’s best for our location and needs, as well as a reliable handset that uses the network effectively.

The Network(s)
Here in the United States, there is a long list of cellular carriers, however there are really only four that could be considered nation-wide networks: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile.  Most of the rest are mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) running on top of one of the aforementioned networks.  Depending on where you are or where you plan to travel, even some of the big four may be unavailable.

Where I grew up in Indiana, T-Mobile is non-existent.  I saw my brother-in-law make a call on Sprint’s network while outside once, though he’d never get a connection indoors.  AT&T can work OK indoors, but is somewhat handset-specific, with older 2G (EDGE) phones working better than newer 3G ones.  And Verizon Wireless can be crystal clear indoors and out, depending on the device.  Your locale may or may not similarly limit your choice of cellular networks to just one or two.

Can you hear me now?
You may have heard that as a blanket rule, Verizon Wireless has the superior network in the United States.  It’s used by General Motors for their OnStar services, for example.  However, Verizon isn’t always better, nor are they better with every handset.  I have an interior office at work in southwest Connecticut, where my company-issued Verizon BlackBerry is unreliable to the point that I’d rather never use it.  Conversely, I’ve used a Nokia N8 on AT&T for up to 20 minutes on a single call from my office without issue.  At the risk of thoroughly confusing the situation, I’ve also seen a person struggle to maintain calls from my office on an iPhone 3 on AT&T while my boss recently switched to an iPhone 4 on Verizon that worked fine in one test call that I made a couple of weeks ago.  It can start to feel like you have to discover a magic combination of network and cell phone that work together in your setting.  It always helps to solicit feedback from nearby peers as to what they’re currently using and whether or not they’re satisfied with it.

Abroad
There’s one other important distinction between cellular providers.  AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM technology similar to, though at slightly different frequencies, as most other countries throughout the world.  AT&T likes to say that you can “Stay connected while traveling to more than 220 countries and on more than 140 cruise ships, and access email and the Internet in more than 195 countries.”  Verizon Wireless and Sprint use CDMA technology, effectively limiting your use to the North America and a much smaller set of other countries.  While both Verizon and Sprint offer some dual-mode phones that will roam on GSM when outside of a CDMA country, the current iPhone 4 offered by Verizon is not one of them.  If European travel is in your future, an iPhone on AT&T will work on your trip while the phone from Verizon becomes a paperweight.  This may not be the case with future editions.

[Less than 24 hours after posting this, I’m reading a rumor that the iPhone 4S may support both CDMA and GSM networks in a single device.]

Enhancing Your Local Signal
If you’re interested in using a cellular network that generally has good coverage but happens to have poor coverage inside your home, three of the big four carriers now offer reasonably-priced femtocells.  Think of a femtocell as your own personal cellular repeater in your living room, that leverages your broadband Internet connection to backhaul phone calls to your carrier’s network.  These devices are marketed under various names such as the AT&T 3G MicroCell, the Verizon Wireless Network Extender and the Sprint AIRAVE.  I just deployed an AT&T 3G MicroCell at home over the Memorial Day weekend, and one of my IT peers is looking into the Verizon Wireless Network Extender for several of our offices.

Another Reception Technique
We all likely heard of ‘antennagate’ in the wake of Apple’s iPhone 4 release.  This referred to a phenomenon where the iPhone’s signal strength would fall off – sometimes dramatically – when the phone was held in the hand in a particular way.  Apple’s response was to reprogram the algorithm behind the signal strength display and to hand out free ‘bumpers’ to encase the phone’s metal antenna band in an insulating layer.  Steve Jobs also noted, correctly, that the iPhone isn’t the only phone that loses signal strength when held in the hand.

Plantronics Discovery 925 Bluetooth EarpieceI typically fire up a Plantronics Discovery 925 bluetooth earpiece when I’m making calls from a fringe reception area.  This allows me to leave my phone lying down, sometimes near a window, while walking around carrying on a conversation.  My phone’s limited reception in that particular area isn’t further degraded by my holding it.

iPhone 3GS vs 4
Transitioning into an iPhone discussion, the original question asked whether a $49 iPhone 3GS with 8 GB of flash memory was worth considering as an alternative to the $199 iPhone 4 with 16 GB.  We should note that the iPhone 3GS is offered only by AT&T, so that will have to be your network of choice if you are to make this selection.  Rather than limit our thinking to the initial cost of acquiring the phone, let’s consider the total 2-year cost between the two.  A hypothetical 2-year contract from AT&T featuring 450 rollover minutes, 2 GB of data per month and unlimited text messaging is going to cost $89.99 /month plus taxes and fees.  Adding together the cost of the initial phone, a one-time activation fee of $36.00, and two years of service, that iPhone 3GS will cost you $2,244.76  (plus tax) while the iPhone 4 will cost $2394.76.  That’s a distinction of 6.2 % over the life of the contract.  For my money, I’d pay the extra 6.2% for the latest phone with twice as much flash memory.

iPhone 4, AT&T, Verizon, White, Black
As noted previously, the iPhone 4 is of course available via AT&T or Verizon Wireless.  If you’ve already made a decision about which network is right for you, then you’ve still got a few remaining choices.  Do you want 16 GB of flash memory, or 32 GB for an extra $100.  (That’s only another 4% over the life of our earlier hypothetical 2-year contract.)  Do you want a black phone or the recently-release white version, which will put you in a relatively exclusive club for at least the next few weeks?

Android Alternative?
So far we’ve conveniently ignored the largest-selling smartphone platform of all – Google’s Android OS – which accounted for 36% of all smartphone sales in Q1 2011 according to Gartner.  By contrast, Apple’s iOS platform accounted for 16.8% of smartphone sales in Q1, behind 2nd-place Nokia.  As someone who regularly uses Linux at home, one might expect that I’d lean toward Android, which uses a Linux kernel.  On the contrary, I feel like Android is fairly fragmented at this time, with no consistent operating system updates or security patches from one handset and carrier to the next.  On the other hand, users who prefer the maximum flexibility may be well advised to look at Android.

One Opinion
White iPhone 4When I began answering my friends question, I stated, “It depends.”  It’s probably fitting to end with what I’d choose, were I making the choice today.  In relative civilization here in the East, I’d probably start by picking AT&T for the simple fact that all of their higher-end phones will roam globally.  While I’m far from affluent when compared to some in Connecticut, I’m also single.  A plane ticket for one from, say, New York to London, could conceivably be well within my means at some point during the life of the phone contract.  It doesn’t hurt to dream, nor to keep my passport current.

Next, I’d go with the iPhone 4 for it’s broad ecosystem of apps on a consistent, well supported platform.  I’d go with a white one, not because my vehicle and furniture are all white, but due to a particular idiosyncrasy within my personality.  When a large enough crowd runs in one direction, I sometimes want to run the other.  While strictly a cosmetic difference, going white is about the only way to be different with an iPhone at the moment.  [Photo courtesy of Apple.]

Finally, I’d go with the 16 GB model versus the 32, as I still want to use my phone as a phone and not run the battery down while watching feature-length movies.

[Update: On June 14th I put my money where my mouth is and purchased this exact phone.  So far, so good.]

Now It’s Your Turn
Given the many options and personal motivations behind selecting a phone, I’d expect each of us to reach a slightly different conclusion.  Thankfully we’ve got some compelling options to choose from.