Category Archives: Tech

All plug-in clocks should have capacitor backups

I just bought the Honeywell RPLS740B Econoswitch, a clever dawn/dusk switch that knows when the sun will be down year-round based on the latitude entered during setup. I’m using it to switch on exterior lights at dusk, saving me the trouble of frequently adjusting the set-point of the mechanical switch it replaces.

One feature I particularly appreciate is its use of a super-capacitor to keep time during power interruptions.

Every plug-in device with a clock should have a supercapacitor time backup. Some use batteries as clock backups, but many more — including expensive appliances like my various ovens — have no backup at all. Unlike batteries, capacitors have an unlimited service life: See this whitepaper on “Supercapacitors for RTC and Memory Backup.”

CLEAR internet — Best small-office internet access alternative

I recently setup a new small office. Because it was a lease in a commercial building the usual ISPs — Comcast and Verizon — would only offer us over-priced, overburdened “business” internet services.

Fortunately I had just come across a new ISP: CLEAR, which provides unlimited broadband using 4G wireless. For $50/month we use their portable wireless access point to serve up to 8 devices at 4G speeds. No contracts, no usage limits, no hassles. It has been working without any hiccups for two months now.

For routine business use I would definitely recommend this over the wired alternatives. Comcast and Verizon Business: You’re on notice!

Shooting products I’m looking for in 2012

Thanks to AAC 2012 may be the Year of the Subsonic Rifle. Over two years ago I lamented the dearth of heavy .22LR ammunition and rifles designed to shoot it. Today, with increasing awareness of the benefits of both suppressors and high ballistic-coefficient bullets, I’m hopeful this niche will be filled. Either way I’ve resolved this year to buy if possible, build if necessary, a .22LR rifle with a 16″ 1:9-twist barrel and threaded muzzle. [Update: Had to build it!] And I’ll be shooting Aguila 60gr ammo by the case if no other manufacturer steps in with a heavy subsonic .22LR round.

Expanding subsonic rifle bullets: Right now there are no commercial .30-caliber rifle bullets that expand at subsonic velocities. AAC/Remington have promised they will introduce one this year. I hope they’re not the only one. After .22LR .30-caliber cartridges are the next stop for subsonic rifles — whether .300 BLK, 7.62 Thumper, or .308 Winchester. The problem is that rifle bullets have traditionally been designed for terminal effect at rifle velocities: Much below Mach 1.5 and they don’t expand at all. At 1000 fps they can virtually have the rifling marks polished out and be reused!

Gun powder for consistent subsonic rifle loads: Trailboss is the current go-to powder for subsonics, but it doesn’t produce consistent muzzle velocities and, at less than 5 grains per cc, is too bulky for some cartridges. The only other option in this range of burn-rates is IMR SR 4759, but its density jumps to 10gr/cc and consequently doesn’t produce very consistent muzzle velocities at reduced loadings. There is nothing on the market to bridge the gap between the two. Give us a powder with a burn rate roughly in line with SR4759 but a density around 7gr/cc.

High-speed consumer video cameras: When Casio came out with the F1 in 2008 I was hopeful that it would not be long before consumers would be able to buy sensitive video cameras capable of recording 480p at thousands of frames per second. The technology is certainly there to produce such a product in scale for under $1000. However Casio discontinued its nascent consumer HSV product line in 2009 and nobody has pursued this since. The market is now free for the taking!

Fixing a Broken Laptop Screen

My wife dropped her laptop, shattering the LCD. She assumed that was the end of her favorite computer and asked me to get a new one ASAP. But a broken screen doesn’t mean a broken computer.

I had her plug an external monitor into the machine’s VGA port to check it out. While backing up her files to our NAS she continued using the computer and everything else seemed to work. Now fairly confident that the damage was confined to the LCD panel I searched for a replacement.

For $75 had an exact replacement for her model’s display at our house in two days. I managed to unscrew and peel open the cover, install the new panel, and close it up using a single small Phillips-head screwdriver in just ten minutes.

The Smart Way to Get Cellular Service on an iPad

With the iPad 2, as with the original iPad, Apple is continuing to charge an absurd $130 premium for models equipped to access 3G cellular networks. Even worse: You have to pick between Verizon and AT&T when you buy your iPad, since their wireless data networks are incompatible. It’s pretty sad to spend over $600 for a tablet computer that is then locked into a single data provider on an aging 3G standard.

Smart consumers are foregoing the 3G option on iPads and instead investing in portable internet access points, which can then serve not only their iPad but also other Wi-Fi enabled phones and computers in the vicinity. This preserves freedom to upgrade to faster 4G networks in the future and to switch service providers without having to buy another iPad.

For example, you can buy a MiFi mobile hotspot for the same price as the iPad 3G option and then get unlimited data access from Virgin Mobile, without a contract, for $50/month — for up to 5 Wi-Fi devices.

Residential Power Factor Correction (Scam)

At a recent home trade show I was intrigued by a company (KVAR) pushing a $400 capacitor that, when wired into a residential electric service panel, promises to reduce energy consumption by 6-10%. They even had a neat demonstration consisting of a large fan motor and multimeter wired through their capacitor. Sure enough, when the capacitor was enabled the amperage shown on the multimeter declined.

I was a little suspicious because I happened to own an air handler that used the exact fan motor they were demonstrating, and I know that it is always installed with a large start capacitor of its own that was conspicuously absent in their circuit.

They claim their savings are due to their capacitor increasing the “power factor” of a home’s inductive electrical load. Well I didn’t know anything about power factor, but I thought it would be unusual in the age of Energy-Star appliances for manufacturers to be omitting capacitors that could increase their energy efficiency.

Having studied up on power factor correction it seems clear that a fixed-size capacitor is not going to consistently improve the power factor of a residence. And even if it could that wouldn’t result in any savings on the electric bill.

Energy Star confirms that the promises of KVAR’s residential product (and knock-offs) are a scam. Michael Bluejay gives a more detailed explanation. My favorite explanation was found here:

Residential customers are not billed for kVA, they are billed for kWh. These devices, when they are working properly, have almost their entire impact on reducing kVA, not kWh. Some commercial customers can save on their electric bills by improving their power factor, but residential customers can’t. In residential, the devices can in theory achieve a very small savings by reducing losses in the wiring, but that impact depends on the PFC device being properly applied to the specific load, not a generic whole house device.

If such devices worked as advertised, then energy efficiency research and advocacy groups would be promoting them throughout the country and many electric utilities would be giving rebates for their purchase.

Products I’m looking for in 2010

Consumer High Speed Video Cameras

It has been more than a year since Casio began shipping the EX-F1, and it is still the fastest consumer video camera on the market. However, at its top speed of 1200 frames per second it only captures a very coarse 336 x 96 resolution.

Memory bandwidth and data buffering have previously been the bottleneck of high-speed video. Pros pay tens of thousands of dollars for specialty camera systems capable of capturing high-resolution video up to 10,000fps. (Higher frame rates require lighting power that would be beyond the means of amateurs.) But now that high-capacity solid-state data drives with write speeds over 500MB/sec are shipping for just a few hundred dollars the technology exists to produce a sub-$1000 consumer video camera that can capture full-resolution video at thousands of frames per second. I can’t wait to get my hands on one.

Better Console Gaming Controllers

Ten years ago Microsoft introduced a radical new gaming controller under its Sidewinder line called the Dual Strike. Apparently nine years ago they took it out of production. I used it to play several PC versions of Grand Theft Auto and liked the controller so much that when I discovered it was discontinued I scooped up a few more boxes at clearance. The Dual Strike is the best first-person shooter (“FPS”) controller I have ever used: It combines the precision and speed of a mouse with the convenience of a single hand-held gamepad that doesn’t tie you to a flat surface.

I recently picked up a PS3 and was excited to check out the state-of-the-art in FPS games. What I can’t believe is how bad the standard console controllers are for this purpose. Apparently people who are serious about these games buy split controllers like the FragFX which basically put you back at a desk with a mouse. Not exactly the setup one is looking for when plugging a console into a home theater system and sitting back on a sofa.

Though stockpiles of Dual Strike controllers are still available they are not compatible with the current crop of gaming consoles. I hope it’s not long before the console gaming complex rolls out a FPS controller to meet this need.

Computerized Ballistic Optics

Given how cheap and compact computer power is I can’t understand why the $1500 Barrett BORS is the only integrated ballistic computer on the market. Of course a professional shooter can do ballistics in his head for any shot one could take with a man-portable firearm (i.e., up to .50BMG shooting up to 1.5 miles). And serious amateurs cobble together their own ballistic computers, typically using a combination of smart-phone ballistics applications, Kestrel weather meters, laser rangefinders, and perhaps some angle gauges. Hopefully this is the year that scope or laser rangefinder manufacturers begin to integrate atmosphere and angle sensors along with ballistic data to provide precise firing solutions, perhaps even automatically adjusting the scope’s reticle for a particular shot. Before long I also hope to see laser rangefinders that integrate laser doppler anemometers to determine average windspeed and direction over the ballistic trajectory, making first-shot hits as precise as the rifle and the shooter’s trigger finger.

Bullpup Single and Double Rifles

As a fan of bullpup firearms I was excited by Steinkamp’s SW1 double rifle. But since their pricing is over the top I’m hoping that this year some domestic manufacturers will pick up on the concept to produce single or double bullpup rifles and shotguns.

Subsonic .22LR Ammunition and Barrels

As I wrote late last year, there are significant benefits to be had with heavier subsonic .22LR ammunition. I hope ammunition manufacturers step up their offerings of .22LR over 40 grains, and that .22LR barrel manufacturers switch to the higher twist-rates needed to shoot the stuff well.

Recommended Speakers: Aperion Audio

After I bought a PS3, primarily to serve as a Bluray player, I decided it was time to put rear speakers on my home theater system. I last tried this at least five years ago with several pairs of speakers priced around $100 each. None of them could keep up with the old premium Fosgate Audionics speakers I have on my front three channels, so I gave up.

This time I asked a friend who’s an A/V fanatic what to get and without hesitation he sent me to Aperion Audio, where I ordered two 6-IW in-wall speakers for $150 each. My initial impression was that they are actually superior to my Fosgate speakers. Having put them through my Pioneer receiver’s autocalibration they are a seamless part of my surround sound system.

Old CPUs retain value!

I still have a Pentium 4 computer I built over five years ago.  It’s a little sluggish, but since I never pay the premium for top-of-the-line CPUs I figured maybe I could grab a cheap upgrade — after all, Socket 478 processors became obsolete at least four years ago.

Apparently that’s not how things work: High-end Socket 478 processors are still going for hundreds of dollars. These are processors that are slower, more power-hungry, and less capable than the cheapest Intel processors currently manufactured (which are selling for under $50).  For the price of one of these old processors one could buy an entire new, faster computer!

True Printer Costs

Some years ago consumer printer companies realized that people pay more attention to the up-front cost of a printer than to the cost of feeding it ink or toner.  Today you can essentially get a printer for free if you buy a set of ink cartridges.

Predictably, manufacturers have jacked up the price of consumables far beyond their cost of production, and done everything possible to exclude competition for replacement ink and toner.  This is fine if you print infrequently.  But if you use your printer regularly this back-loaded business model costs you handsomely.  Like commercial users, you would much rather pay up front for the machine and then minimize your ongoing cost of using it.

Enter Kodak, with a brilliant Print & Prosper campaign:  Their new ESP line of multi-function inkjet printers are reasonably priced, but the kicker is that their branded replacement ink runs about one-third the cost of their competitors’.  (It is difficult to find the true cost per page of other consumer printers, but Kodak ran extensive tests to produce these data.)  And this is for more durable pigment ink (as opposed to the fade-prone dye ink used by some competitors).

If you intend to use your printer regularly Kodaks will save you quite a bit of money.