Monday, January 26, 2009

How to Unlock the Samsung A437

As I posted earlier, I just bought a Samsung A437 as a backup phone. But what's the use of a quad-band phone if it's locked to an American network?

A short online search yielded the following unlock steps. I tried it, and now my Samsung speaks Hebrew (well, not really - but it uses my Cellcom SIM card without a hitch razz).

Caution: the following steps may cause actual damage to your phone. I do not recommend them, nor do I assume any responsibility in case you suffer any damage. Follow these steps only if you know what you're doing.

And thanks to Falcon1975, whoever you are, for originally posting these steps.
  1. Turn the phone off, take out AT&T SIM card and insert one from a different carrier. Turn the phone on.
  2. At the WRONG CARD screen type on the keypad:
    (wait 10-15 seconds - the phone will restart on its own)
  3. When phone completes reboot type:
    *7465625*638*00000000*00000000# (these are groups of 8 zeros)
  4. Next type:
    #7465625*638*00000000# (again, 8 zeros)
  5. Then type *#7465625# to check the locks.
    All locks should now be inactive:
    network lock - inactive
    subset lock - inactive
    sp lock - inactive
    cp lock - inactive
    sim lock - inactive
    activa lock - inactive
    phone lock - inactive
    auto network - inactive
    auto subset lock - inactive
    auto sp lock - inactive
    auto cp lock - inactive
  6. That's it! Your phone is now SIM, Voice and Data unlocked. Take it to a trip around the world. Phones deserve to have fun too razz.

IE 8 RC1 is Out

Microsoft just released the first Release Candidate of IE 8. Aside from some bug fixes, performance improvements and compatability enhancements, the new version offers a new service that allows you to subscribe to a list of sites that are known to not support IE 8 well. For those sites, IE 8 will automatically switch to comaptabilitymode (esentially using IE 7 rendering engine) without bothering you to switch manually.

You can download the version of IE 8 for your OS here, and read a review of the full list of changes on Paul Thurrott's blog.

One interesting note: for some reason, this version of IE 8 will not work in Windows 7 Beta. Microsoft acknowleged this situation, but did not explain it. If you're using 7 right now (meaning you're using beta 2 of IE 8 that came pre-installed), you'll have to wait for the final release (although I assume it will be pushed on you regardless of your wishes).

One final note: this post was writte on IE 8 RC1. It is much faster, but the text cursor misses the actual text - it's either one space behind or ahead the character I'm typing. I wonder if this is a bug, a feature, or incompatabilty with the Blogger site...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Gadget Review – Holiday Gadgets

This holiday season, like every year, I bought a couple of gadgets. As always, they fall into 3 categories: gadgets I needed, gadgets I thought I needed, and gadgets that looked nice on the screen smile.

You could probably get most of these gadgets for less in post-holidays sales, but I learned to look beyond seasonal prices.

Here, then, is my holidays shopping list, along with my recommendations:
  1. Laptop - By far the more expensive gadgets I bought were my new laptop and my new monitor, but those warranted separate posts.

  2. Remote controlled surge protector - covered in this post.

  3. Bluetooth headphone - I've been suffering from from a string of bad headphones. They either did not process sound well, ran out of battery too soon, or were plain uncomfortable. The Plantronics Discovery 925 answered all my requests: it fits nicely in my ear (it has 3 sizes of eartips, and does not use an over-the-ear holder - an annoyance when you wear glasses), it allows you to talk for 5 hours, it comes with a nice leather case - that actually serves as a charger. Another feature I like is the ability to pair it with 2 phones. And it just looks nice, compared to the other headphones out there that make wearers look like transformers.
    About the only bad thing I can say about the headphone, is the fact that all functions (on, off, pair, pair again) are controlled by one big button. The function is selected by the length of time you hold the button - quite confusing. Still, after pairing it once, all you need to do is turn it on and off. Get it on Amazon, in one of 3 colors.

  4. KVM - now that I have 2 laptops (my T400 and my job's D630), I need to control both of them. I needed a KVM (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) switch that supports DVI. Most cheap KVMs on the market support VGA only, leading to reduced resolution. I wanted to retain my full HD resolution, without shelling over $150. I finally found the IOGear 2-port DVI KVM at Newegg for $74. It shares a USB keyboard, mouse (I plugged in a wireless mouse - works like a charm), speakers, microphone and DVI-D monitor between 2 computers. Unlike the usual boxy KVMs, this one is just a set of cables, that can be hidden behind the monitor. A wired button controls the switching. This is how my desk looks like today (the silver button can be seen on the right by the D630):

  5. Coffee maker - I'm not a coffee connoisseur or addict, but I like a good cup every once in a while. After seeing one such machine in our NY office, I decided to get a Keurig coffee maker. It takes a capsule (called "K-cup") with either coffee or tea, and generates one cup in a minute. I almost got the B30 model at Amazon, but then found out that the company is running a promotion in supermarkets, selling a newer model, bundled with 12 K-cups of your choice, for $79. This model is called the "Classic" or B44 (cannot be purchased online, the closest you can find is the B40. You can read more about that promotion here).
    So far, I tried and enjoyed the Espresso blend by Green Mountain (that supports fair trade) and "Midnight Magic" by Timothy's. Amazon runs a promotion where you can get double the amounts of cups for the same price (48 cups for $21), bringing the price of a coffee cup to less than $0.50 per cup - not bad.

  6. Phone - I needed an extra phone for emergencies - my Blackberry failed to find a network several times in Australia and Europe. I looked for the cheapest phone I could find that would be able to operate everywhere in the world, and that wouldn't commit me to another contract with a provider. I settled on the AT&T Pay-as-you-Go plan, and selected a refurbished quad-band Samsung A437. It looks brand new, and has a camera, bluetooth and the rest of the required apps. It cost $50 and for $25 more I got 350 minutes. I also needed a USB cable, to charge it off my laptop, or USB plug. But rather than pay AT&T $29 for a cable, I picked it up at Amazon markets for $2.98.

  7. The consequences - why, oh why does every electronics vendor have to come up with his own USB plug (the answer - so they can charge $29 for a cable mad). Because of all my gadgets, I now have to carry so many USB cables with me on the road.
    A quick count: a regular mini-USB for the Blackberry, a Samsung USB for my P2 media player, another different Samsung cable for my phone and another cable for the Plantronics from item 3. Add a USB wall plug and a car plug, and you end up with this mess:There is absolutely no justification for this. I've half a mind to start a petition: any vendor that comes up with a unique USB cable, without a good technological explanation, should be fined. Anyone in?

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Cold East Coast Trip

I suddenly found myself with too many PTO days that I had to use or lose. I decided to use a week off and visit friends and family on the East Coast.

The entire trip was put together haphazardly last Friday evening. I came up with a route that will cover 3 cities: Washington DC, New York and Atlanta. I called the Continental Elite helpdesk, and was assisted (very professionally) in putting the route together.

I left last Sunday morning, at 6:30am, heading towards Minneapolis, MN. The temperature was 10F (-12C) and the whole airport was covered in snow. I managed to take a few pictures of some snow-covered Air National Guard C-130s, and was luckily on my way to DC within the hour.

It’s been years since I visited the nation’s capital. I was picked up by my good friend Gil and his wife, and we went out for a dinner in Shirlington, one of DC’s “hip” suburbs.

The next day we went to see the new arm of the National Air and Space museum. Hosted in a hangar close to Dulles airport, it hosts all the “big” airplanes from the collection. I was impressed with the X35 – the most recent addition – that served as a prototype to the F35, the most advanced jet fighter in the world (yes, I was an airplane geek before becoming a computer geek smile). I also liked seeing the Blackbird again.

I also got a chill in my spine when I saw a Kamikaze “airplane” (they were essentially man-guided missiles) and remembered that suicide bombing started long ago.

I recommend visiting the tower. It affords a 360o view of Dulles airport runways, with the air traffic control radio piped into the speakers. You can identify a landing airplane and hear all communications with it. Here's a link to some more photos from the Air and Space museum

The following day, despite freezing temperatures (30F or –1C) we went to the Mall (not to be confused with “a mall” smile). We started by visiting the Capitol, where preparations for Barack Obama’s inauguration were in full swing.

The entire city was full of cops, FBI agents and Secret Service agents armed with automatic sub-machine guns (I always wondered: isn’t wearing a jacket saying “Secret Service” in large font on the back kinda paradoxical? :)). As a bonus, I finally found out what car is God driving (click the image to enlarge, read the license plate and refer to a Hebrew-English dictionary for this joke smile):

We visited the National Archive, where we saw the 3 most important documents in American history: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the ill of Rights. There was also a copy of the Magna Carta on display – the second I saw in my life (the first I saw was in the Salisbury cathedral in England, en route to Stonehenge. The cathedral has 4 copies. Here's a link to photos from that trip). But what I found most interesting was a display of pre-independence documents, contributed by the Canadian government, describing the life in the colonies and the negotiations that led to the war and the cease fire achieved at its end. Here's a link to some more photos from the Mall.

At night, we dined on King street, in Alexandria (Virginia, not Egypt), which reminded me of Castro street in Mountain View – young people, hip restaurants, great bookstores. The day after I had to leave for NY. I didn’t plan that part in advance and had 4 options:

  1. Plane – costs $130-200, flight takes an hour. Takes another 2 hours to do the airport shuffle on the DC side, and another hour to take a taxi to Manhattan on the NY side.
  2. Train – costs $130 on rush hour, $72 after 10am. Takes 3-3:30 hours (depending on the number of stops) and deposits you in Penn station in Manhattan.
  3. Bus – costs $22 (or $15 if you take one of the Chinese companies – although you end up in the Chinatown part of NY). Takes 4-5 hours (depending on traffic). Not really comfortable.
    You end up at Port Authority, right by Times Square.
  4. Car rental – costs $45-100 (depending on the company). Takes 3-5 hours (traffic) and requires your full attention.

I had time to kill so I chose the bus. Traffic was light and the driver took only toll roads. I had 2 seats, and was actually able to do some work on my laptop (using a wireless card). We ended up in NY after 3:30 hours. I walked briskly to my hotel (it was 30F and getting worse).

In the evening I met a good friend for a Thai dinner (Bangkok Cuisine on 46th between 8th and 9th – great service, good enough food). He commented that I chose the worst week of the year to travel to NY. The day after, when it started snowing, I had to agree. I’m a tropical kind of guy. I seriously missed California while rushing through the snowy street.

I met my cousin and traveled to Brooklyn to meet my sister. I really like New York City. It’s the city I visit most in the US and I can see myself leaving there – for 8 months of a year. I can not be there during winter.

From New York, I continued to Atlanta, to visit my best friend Yaniv, who’s currently finishing his MBA (here’s a link to one of his blogs) and his lovely wife. And what do you know? Atlanta was frozen too (32F – 0C). Still, it did not stop us from having a wonderful weekend and some great Ziti.

Yesterday, I flew back to SJC and landed back in paradise (77F – 25C) - I love California! To quote a famous Hebrew song: It's great to roam, but greater to return. And I still have enough PTO days to start planning my next trip. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gadget Review – Asus 24” Monitor

I had the same 17” square Dell monitor for the last 5 years. Bought in 2003 for $600, it still works extremely well. But the screen real estate is limited, and you cannot display HD (1920x1080) quality movies on it.

Enter the Asus VW246H monitor. With a true HD maximum resolution; 2ms response time; 300 cd/m2; 1000:1 contrast (20,000:1 dynamic); HDMI, VGA and DVI connectors and built in speakers (which no one uses anyway).

Suddenly, I have too much screen real estate. I can open 2 Word documents side by side. Visual Studio looks great, with no need for horizontal scrolling to see all code. Movies look amazing. The 2ms allows for games to play at full 60 fps, without adverse effects.I even considered connecting my Xbox 360 to it (would you believe my 32” LCD television has smaller resolution than this monitor?).

This monitor definitely changes the way I manage my Windows on screen – less need to minimize, or alt+tab, more drag-n-drop. But it also dictates some distance (you can’t sit too close to such a big monitor, otherwise you find yourself looking from side to side to catch the content), which creates a problem since your keyboard remains in the same place, and your arms are not getting longer lol.

Some problems I have with the monitor are the viewing angle - making the color look dimmer from certain vertical and horizontal degrees, and the horrible on-screen menu, driven by 4 ill-marked buttons. Speaking of buttons, they are quite plastick-y and the on/off button tends to stick.

Bottom line
Overlooking those finishing touches, the visual quality (which is the main reason I bought the monitor) is superb. With 5 automatic viewing modes and plenty of manual options, you can set the image to fit your objective brightness, contrast and color saturation. I would have liked to see a feature that would allow me to save those settings, as I do find myself having to repeat setting them every once in a while (and as stated earlier, the OSD is not that great).

I bought the monitor for $279 at, only to find out a week later it was replaced by model VK246H – essentially the same monitor, only with a 1.3 MPixel web camera.

I give the monitor 3.5 stars. It’s a good 24” beginner screen, but next time I’ll put in an extra $100 and get a Samsung or a Dell.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Beware IE 8 Imminent Release

If you’ve read my blog over the last few months, you know I’m quite impressed with IE8. It’s faster, more robust, and offers cool features like web slices and privacy mode.

That said, I don’t like Microsoft pushing a new browser on me as part of their Windows Update mechanism. While I know that a new browser is not a critical update, and usually choose to defer the installation, 99% of Windows users just wake up one morning with a new browser installed, and with old/older web applications not functioning.

Microsoft just released a “Toolkit to Disable Automatic Delivery of Internet Explorer 8”, which suggests the release is imminent. If your work cycle does not depend on any JAVA/ActiveX based web applications, then update, by all means. If you still need access to your IE 7 or IE 6 (or, God forbid, IE 5), make sure you change your Windows Update configuration to "Download updates but let me choose whether to install them" and make a decision about installing it later.

PS: IE 8 includes a “compatibility mode” that you can turn on, if any site becomes unreadable. It effectively turns IE 8 to IE 7 (doesn’t go back to 6 though, so JAVA apps are still screwed up, due to MS stopping JAVA support).

PPS: just installed the latest beta of Windows 7. It seems to have a newer version of IE 8. I’ll report on the beta at a later post.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Search for the Laptop Ends

After a long search (parts I, II and III), I finally found my laptop. It’s the Lenovo ThinkPad T400. And so far, it’s amazing.

The configuration

  • CPU: Centrino 2 T9400, 2.53GHz, 6MB L2 cache
  • Memory: 4GB DDR3 1GHz
  • HD: 250GB internal (I later added 500GB in a bay)
  • Screen: 14.1" WXGA+ (1440x900) LED w/ camera
  • Video card: ATI Radeon HD 3400 256MB + Intel onboard 945 (yes, it has 2 video cards)
  • Multimedia 7-in-1 Card Reader
  • 3 USB, 1 FireWire, LAN, modem (who uses that anymore?)
  • VGA output (unlike the MacBook)
  • Network: Gigabit Ethernet, Intel 5300 Wireless-N, modem, Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, (I skipped the built in wireless WAN option, since I have a Verizon PCI card)
  • 9-cell battery
  • OS: Vista Business 64 bit + XP Pro Downgrade CD

The price
The laptop itself cost $1409. The HD bay cost $39. 9-cell battery added $99. 3 years depot warranty added $50 (the default is one year). The Windows XP Pro CD and license cost $0 (do you hear that, Dell?). The total price was $1570 and it reflects sales taxes and California recycling tax (thanks Arnold!).

The tricky part is getting the best price. Every time I entered the Lenovo site, I got a different price. Different coupons yield lower prices. You can also enter the site from a special MasterCard sub-site, which yields even lower prices. Here’s what I did, and I suggest you do, on the Lenovo, or any similar site: find the best price you can see, call the sales team (they always have their number, or chat link) and ask to turn your shopping cart into a quote. Once that’s done, your price is locked. On the day I actually ordered the laptop, the site showed a price that was $200 more.

I also needed a dock, but did not intend to pay the $172 price at the Lenovo site. Since the T400 is compatible with T61 accessories, I picked up a dock on eBay for $66. The dock allows me to use my own keyboard and mouse, and use my full HD 24” display over DVI (the laptop has just a VGA socket) for the full digital HD experience.

The good
The laptop performs extremely well. With a 64 bit OS, I finally have access to the full 4GB. The machine is extremely quiet – you can’t hear the fan, and you have to strain to hear the HD (and that’s before I even switched it to silent mode). And the heat is kept to a minimum level. Finally a laptop that you can keep in your lap (unlike the MacBook, that can fry your ba.. er, knees. Apple actually recommends you don’t keep it in your lap).

The speakers are great. But the crown jewel is the display: the LED display is so bright, that I have to keep it at 2-3 levels below top brightness, even when connected to the AC. It is the best display I have seen on a laptop so far.

The T400 has the same basic qualities as all T-series ThinkPads: a robust frame, a set of backup and recovery tools, that includes the ability to re-image your machine whenever something fails, a set of wireless and management tools (some of which are redundant and can be removed). It also enjoys worldwide support by IBM.

Power management functionality is beyond amazing. There are so many options that allow you to increase your battery usage time: you can turn down CPU, memory, HD performance; display brightness; you can switch from the ATI video card to the Intel internal (useful if you’re just working on documents – adds almost a full hour); or you can use a “battery stretch” wizard, that controls even more parameters. All in all, too many options (almost caused me to mention this feature in “the bad” column) but you can get over 9-10 hours out of a 9-cell battery, which is impressive. Switching between the video cards is painless and can be done at any time (unlike the MacBook Pro that requires a reboot for the switch to take effect).

The bad
This laptop is not going to win any beauty contests. Unlike the MacBook and the Dell XPS, it looks like a simple black box. It seemed like the ThinkPad designers quit a decade ago, and haven’t been replaced since.

The laptop is also not the lightest out there. Dell’s XPS and Sony’s VAIO break new weight record with every model. The ThinkPad is a slab of robust plastic. Add to that the 9-cell batter that protrudes from its back, and you have an ungainly computer. I’m actually considering getting a 4-cell battery for home.

The laptop comes with some crapware installed. I just re-installed the OS and used the incredibly simple Lenovo Update tool to download the latest drivers and utilities.

The keyboard causes me some consternation as well: The bottom-leftmost key is not CTRL, as you’d expect, but the Fn key. Since I’m an avid copy-cut-paste CTRL-key user, I keep cursing under my breath every time I hit Fn-C and end up with nothing in my clipboard.
The absence of hard multimedia buttons (play/stop etc.) is also felt (there are Fn combinations available).

I’m not sure if it’s the 64 bit Vista, or the remainder of Lenovo’s software, but my laptop consumes almost 2.2GB when the OS is up and running. I just can’t wait to Windows 7 – I’m sure the performance would blow my mind (waiting for the 64 bit beta to come out sometime next week).

The bottom line
Buying a ThinkPad is like going home for me. I schlepped a T42 around the world for 2.5 years (just look at the picture on the right, taken en-route from Budapest to Vienna in 2006). I’m very glad to see that the basic qualities of the ThinkPad were preserved, but that most current technologies were added.

Of all the machines I got to test (XPS and D630 from Dell, a MacBook from Apple), this one provided the best performance and the most features, for the best price. I highly recommend it as a professional machine for developers and road warriors.

I’m just thankful that all companies practice refund policies.
This post was written on my T400, using Live Writer.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Test Your Web Site

For web developers who need to test their site in different versions of IE, Microsoft now provides virtual machines that contain several versions of IE (IE 6, 7, 8b2 on XP SP3, IE 7 on Vista).

The VMs were built for Microsoft's Virtual PC (free download), but can also be used in VMWare Workstation (a conversion takes place when you first open the .vmc file). The OS license in the VM runs out in April '09. Until then, use the VMs to test your site, or to surf safely, from a self-contained environment.