Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Consumer Rants: Avis Fuel Charge - Take 2

Last year I wrote about Avis's fuel charge (reminder: you pay $10 even if you return the gas tank full, if you drove less than 100 miles). Well, I just talk - some people do.

Today's post is a guest post, written by Andrew Samtoy, an attorney from Cleavland, whose company decided to do something about it. Andrew read my story, and asked me to write a post in my blog about what his company is trying to achieve. So without further ado, here's my first guest post:
By Andrew Samtoy

I work in the class action department at Dworken and Bernstein, L.P.A., in Cleveland, Ohio. We monitor consumer fraud across the country and have seen more and more companies acting in manners we believe to be unlawful. Recently, we have become concerned with “fuel service” charges from rental car companies.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that you are expected to bring back your rental car with a full tank. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that rental car agencies would charge you for fuel for not bringing back a full tank. However, rental car agencies have been charging their customers when the customers return a car with a full tank. The practice usually is usually listed as a “fuel service” charge: if you don’t bring back a receipt with your car, you are charged around $10-20 for the “service” of fueling the car. If you show up having just fueled the car, even across the street, and it says “full,” they still charge you even if the gas gauge shows “full” when returned. If you complain, they say that it was in your contract and there is nothing they can do. They will mark the car as “full” in their database but still charge this “refueling” fee.

We are interested in speaking to people around the country about this practice, and especially people in Ohio, to determine if you should receive a refund of these charges. If this happened to you, please call Andrew Samtoy toll-free at (866) 964-1806 immediately.
Thank you Andrew. I encourage people to call or write Andrew. It's about time those people start paying for their cri... ahem (deleted by my attorney's orders), immoral behavior.

And if anyone in the audience is interested in writing a future guest post, please write to me. I'll gladly receive any material that deals with tech and travel (as long as it's not too self-promoting).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Windows 7 RC and New Virtualization Features

Microsoft today confirmed that the RC build of Windows 7 (aka build 7100) will be released to MSDN subscribers on April 29th and to the rest of the world on May 5th. So you could wait like the rest of us, or grab a torrent - someone already leaked it.

I've been using consecutive builds of the beta successfully on 2 machines now, and I truly believe 7 is going to be what Vista was supposed to. The slew of new features and GUI tweaks I started using make it a bit inconvenient when I return to my production OS.

Also today, Microsoft announced a new feature that will allow people (and developers) who are still attached to XP to migrate easily. It was formerly known as Virtual XP (VXP), but Microsoft renamed it XPM - XP Mode.

Essentially, this is a virtual window running Windows XP, inside Windows 7 - without the need to install VPC or VMWare. The virtualization functionality is part of the OS. The feature will be released as an add-on to the system, and will be free for the business, premium professional and ultimate versions of 7. Bear in mind, you'd still need an XP license to use it - just like with every other virtualization software. You can read more about the feature in Paul Thurrott's blog, and see some screenshots as well.

It remains to be seen if other operating systems could be installed in XPM. Oh, who am I kidding - 5 seconds after it's out, someone will hack it to run Mac OS X smile.

And while on the subject of virtualization: last week Microsoft officially released MED-V, their desktop virtualization solution (based on a product by Kidaro, an Israeli start-up they acquired). While I recommend reading more about it, essentially it allows running separate applications in a virtual environment (not a full machine). This allows for compatibility and manageability of applications in enterprise environment.

Example: if you're using IE8, but all your corporate software can only run on IE6 (and the two browsers cannot be installed side-by-side), you could install IE6 into a virtual MED-V environment (perhaps running an older OS) and have the 2 browsers up and running at the same time.

With all those virtualization features integrated into the current and next generations of the operating system, I have to wonder what does VMWare plan to do? Perhaps concentrate on Linux or Mac OS? Will virtualization become OEM technology like VNC and web remoting? Interesting times ahead...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wireless N

I recently upgraded my home wireless network to wireless N. Several reasons prompted the decision:
  1. I'm streaming video to my Xbox 360. Using my former wireless G yielded a bumpy, choppy playback. Wireless N provides almost 6 times the bandwidth and my streamed video looks just like a TV show now.
  2. My area is saturated with interruptions: plenty of wireless networks, bluetooth devices, cordless phones and other devices using the 2.4GHz band (even microwave ovens emit radiation on that wave length). This causes network degradation and sudden drops. N allows using the 5GHz band, which is less crowded.
  3. I'm in the process of deploying a NAS (Network Attached Storage) to my network, for backup purposes. Since large amounts of data will be transferred, I needed the most bandwidth I could get.
After some research, I decided to go with the D-Link DIR 825 Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit Router. My deciding reasons were:
  1. Backwards comparability to wireless B and G.
  2. Support for both 2.4 and the 5GHz bands. While this is offered by many competing products, the 825 offers them simultaneously (in other routers you have to choose one or the other). By using 2 radios, I can use the 5GHz band with my T400 and Dell Mini (after I upgraded its wireless card), while legacy devices like my D630 can use the 2.4GHz band.
  3. For NAS purposes, the router supports gigabit Ethernet.
  4. The router has a USB port that can be used to share a USB device (or more, if you use a hub) between all machines, through a utility called SharePort. i use it to share my printer between all my machines.
  5. The router supports dynamic DNS name like DynDNS (see Get yourself a static IP), providing remote access to my machines from the outside.
  6. If guests come calling, an ad-hoc guest network can be started, allowing access to the internet, but not the internal network.
I waited for the price of the 825 to drop for a while, but to my surprise, over the last few months, the price just went higher. Finally, I got it on eBay for $80. It works great and my streamed video is fluid. I highly recommend stepping up to wireless N.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mini 2

I missed the whole netbook revolution. I already owned a full-fledged laptop, and I couldn’t understand why would people pay $300 for an underpowered, space-limited, hardware-crippled machine, when they can get a full laptop for around $500.

But then I read a post about installing OS X Leopard on a Dell Mini 9 and I became intrigued. After reading some more, I found that many people treat their netbooks as platforms for experiments and expansion. I had some spare money, so I decided to get me a Dell Mini and hack at it.

The title of this post comes from the fact that I already own one Mini – a Mac Mini I got 2 years ago.


I read a bit (I recommend the MyDellMini forums – so much good information and so many helpful people) and decided to go with a white Dell Mini 9, with:

  • 8.9” screen at 1024 x 600 (wide but short)
  • Onboard Intel graphics card
  • Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz CPU
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 32GB Solid State Disk
  • 1.3M camera
  • Ubuntu 8.04 OS.

All in all, around $350, before sales tax and Arnold’s “green” tax ($8 on any screen bigger than 8” – damn, missed it by 0.9” smile). I skipped the 2GB and Bluetooth options, as a manual upgrade is quite easy and cheaper – more on that later. in hindsight, I could have given up the 1.3M cam and gone with the 0.3, and probably taken the 512MB memory option – that would have saved a couple of $$$. In the SSD department, it seems like Dell’s margin is smaller, as these disks are still not much cheaper to get on your own.

The machine is quite light (2.4 lbs == 1.1Kg), but sturdy. The form factor allows me to use it on airplanes, without fearing the person in front of me will lower his seat and crush my screen (as happened to my poor T42 sad). The keyboard is better than other netbooks’, but some of the keys are weirdly placed – not fun for touch typists.

It has an extremely bright LED screen, that lends itself well to viewing videos in full screen mode. It has 3 USB 2 ports, a VGA port and a multi-card reader - which makes it easier to extend storage. It offers wireless-G card and Ethernet (which, let’s admit, rarely gets used on a laptop) in the connectivity department.

The 4-cell battery lasts ~3 hours (less if you use full brightness, volume and disk usage). I can easily take this netbook with me anywhere. It’s great for casual browsing, emailing and a couple of small games.


My machine came with Ubuntu 8.04 installed. I formatted the HD, but I still retain a recovery disc and can download a newer version for free if I ever intend to return to it. From the few hours I spent playing with it: it’s usable, but not enough bells and whistles for my taste.

The first thing I did was test Ray Ozzie’s promise that Windows 7 runs well on a netbook. I slapped the latest build I could find of the 7 beta (it was 7057 at the time, I since upgraded to 7068). The installation was remarkably easy – much easier than all the online guides described (i.e. this or this).

Here’s the list of steps I took to install Windows 7 on my Dell Mini:

  1. Start by formatting a USB drive to FAT32. The key here is to do this on a Vista machine (which I have installed on my main laptop), or on another 7 installation. This promises that the USB drive will be bootable. Copy the contents of the ISO DVD to the formatted drive (easiest way I know is to open the ISO using WinRar and just drag the files out)
  2. Go into the BIOS settings (hold the ’0’ key while the machine is booting) and enable “USB BIOS legacy support” under the “Advanced” tab. This will allow you to boot from your USB drive. Don’t forget to come back here after the OS is installed and disable the option, or else you may suffer crashes on hibernation or sleep.
  3. Connect your USB to your machine. On the next reboot, hold the ‘2’ key and select to boot from the USB drive.
  4. Install the system. Be sure to remove the USB drive when the installer reboots the machine.
  5. [optional step] After 7 is up and running, install the drivers. While most standard Dell drivers would work, look at this list to get a better fit for some components. You can stick with Window’s recommendations, but may lose some functionality (like touchpad functions)
  6. [optional step] Run these tweaks to improve the SSD’s performance. As a rule, an SSD is amazingly fast on read operations, but much slower on write. And defragmenting it too often may damage it.

And there you go, a perfect Windows 7 installation (click any image to see a bigger version):

It runs quite smoothly and leaves about half a gig free to run after the OS is up – just like Ray promised. It takes 25-40 minutes to install/re-install the OS. Upgrading 7 to a newer version works just as smoothly, but surprisingly takes a bit longer. The added benefit is that you do not need to re-install drivers or applications, as the installer is smart enough to upgrade just the right files.

The OS itself runs quite well, with Aero and Glass on. It chokes from time to time due to SSD write operations. I may turn off the paging file and see if that solves that problem. Here’s an image of the computer’s performance, driven down by the lackluster onboard graphics, and slow CPU:

And so, despite purchasing the machine to be used specifically as the cheapest Mac available, I’m still running Windows 7. I can’t wait for that OS to come out – it’s amazing.


I bought the following accessories to make my life easier:

  1. Neoprene sleeve to protect the laptop from scratches: $4.50

  2. Bluetooth dongle to allow me to use my BT mouse: $2.52
  3. 16GB SDHC card – I got the A-Data card for $27 and I manage all my multimedia files from it.


I was surprised to hear Dell allows you to upgrade your machine and still keep your warranty (limited to memory and SSD). They actually published the service manual, explaining how to upgrade or change the bits and pieces.

I got a 2GB DDR2 SO-DIMM (200 pins) for $18 (you could probably get it for $10 today), followed the easy instructions and doubled my memory in 5 minutes.

For $15 I got an Intel 4965 AGN wi-fi card off eBay, and upgraded my Mini to wireless-N (expect a future post discussing upgrading my router to wireless-N).

I hope to add a GPS to the main body in the future – I’m currently reviewing several hacks.

Final thoughts

Overall, I highly recommend the Dell Mini. It’s versatile, extensible, and useful. I love the form factor and the set of features. I use it on flights and whenever I don’t feel like schlepping my T400. It might be slow for some applications and definitely doesn’t deal well with complex 3D graphics, but this is not its purpose. For light writing, browsing, emailing and development (I installed Visual C# express on it) – it’s great. And the price is right.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

How to Show Off your XBox 360 Avatar

Ok, here's a fun post. If you want to show you XBox 360 avatar, and/or game cred, on your web site, you can take one of four approaches:
  1. Gamer Card

    This is the traditional gamer card.

  2. Gamer Card NXE

    This is the new gamer card, with the New XBox Experience avatar.

    Xbox Live GamerCard

  3. Head

    This is empty for my profile, for some reason.

  4. Full

    And this is my self-designed avatar. It's slimmer than me (he must be hitting gym while I'm on the road smile) but I really like his glasses and general attitude:

To get any of them on your site, simply "view source" on this post, search for the words in the header (like "NXE") and copy the HTML of the method you like, replacing my gamer tag with yours.

OK, so now you know my gamer tag and the way I look (or wish I looked wink). Feel free to challenge me on XBox Live.

How to NOT Get Your Dynamic IP

Something funny I just saw and had to share:
A long while ago, I had a post about getting a static IP (read Get Yourself a Static IP). Apparently, one creative commenter on Gizmodo found a lazier way to get his IP:
I use DropBox [www.getdropbox.com] and set up a little script that calls whatismyip.org and writes the result to a text file. This is done once an hour. DropBox syncs to my work machine with that text file. That way a static ip isn't needed.

It's ghetto, but it works. :)

Now, I use DropBox myself and highly recommend it (although Microsoft's Mesh surpasses it in OS integration, it does install quite a lot, and requires certain service packs on Windows and Leopard on the Mac). So I thought I may give this method a try. I went to whatsmyip.org, and underneath my IP, I found the following:
PLEASE do not use automated software or scripts to load this site
This site is for Humans, smart Primates & Dolphins only (oh and aliens)
Fair enough, I thought, but still went ahead and selected "view source" to see if the IP is parse-able. And then I found this comment:

Seriously. Please don't program a bot to use
this site to get a user's IPs. It kills my server
and thats not nice.

Just get some cheap or free web hosting and
make your own IP only page to power your bot.

Then you won't even have to parse any html,
just load the IP directly - better for everyone!!

Gotcha man. You're absolutely right. There are better ways to get my dynamic IP, than mooching off of your bandwidth. I guess that Gizmodo commenter just ignored this big, green comment.