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Android Media File Madness on the Nexus 4

February 10th, 2014 No comments
This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Nexus 4

Background

A few weeks after getting my Nexus 4, I noticed strange behavior with ringtones, notification sounds, and Google Music player. The symptoms of the problem were an odd combination of three basic issues:

  1. Ringtone and notification sound files started appearing in my Google Music player.
  2. The phone would lose custom ringtone and notification sounds after a reboot.
  3. The “Media Browser” wouldn’t see my custom ringtone or notification sound files when I tried to restore them.

The really annoying part of this problem was that it constantly changed and was impossible to recreate with any regularity. By this I mean that if I lost my phone sounds I could sometimes go and restore them via media browser. But other times the files wouldn’t appear in the list. Then if I moved the files from one directory to another they would start to work again, but get lost after a reboot. Then, at times, only some of my notification sounds appeared in lists and others didn’t, even though all the files were in the same directory!

I spent the better part of three hours searching forum posts all over the web and found many similar complaints going all the way back to the Gingerbread days. There were all kinds of conflicting suggestions. For example:

  • Some posts insisted that custom ringtones be put in a /Ringtones directory in the root of the internal SD card (typically /storage/emulated/0/Ringtones). Similarly, they suggested a /Notifications directory for notification sounds.
  • Other posts insisted that the files had to be in a /media/audio/ringtones (or notifications) directory on the SD card.
  • Other posts suggested that one needed a rooted phone and that the files should be dropped in the /system/media/audio/ringtones (or notifications) directory with the stock sound files.
  • As for preventing Google Music Player from indexing the sounds, there was some insistence that a .nomedia file needed to be placed in the ringtones and notifications directories.

What was really killing me is that all of this advice worked and yet none of it did. For example, my files were in the /system/media/audio directories to begin with, when they stopped working properly. I copied them to the /Ringtones and /Notifications directories and they suddenly appeared in my media browser list so I could set them as rings and sounds. But then they started appearing in my Google Music player. So i added a .nomedia file to the directories and most (but not all) of the files disappeared from Google Music (two remained visible) but all disappeared from my custom sound selections and could not be added back by normal means. Then I moved the files back to /media/audio/ringtones or notifications and suddenly they again appeared in the list of available notifications and ringtones, but they also appeared back in Google Music player. I was ready to chuck my phone out of the window.

As is so often the case, forums for Android issues (and for most other technology to be fair) are full of half-baked ideas, wild theories, speculation, and downright wrong advice. After all the conflicting advice I did finally fix my problem. Here’s how.

My Environment

Because all phones and versions of Android are different, your mileage may vary, but unlike most posts I will at least tell you how my phone is configured so you can judge for yourself if it’s similar enough for you to try.

Hardware: Nexus 4, 16GB

OS: Stock KitKat 4.4.2 (KOT49H)

Kernel: Franco 3.4.0 (5 January 2014)

Root: Yes. SuperSU.

The Problem

After all the investigation I concluded that the problem had something to do with the Android media scanner. It was clear that it was scanning after reboots since the files were appearing and disappearing, but something was causing it to no longer follow the rules. Like not indexing files in the ringtones directories for Google Music player. I tried several apps from the Play Store to trigger the scanner but none of the first four I tried worked in KitKat. Some did absolutely nothing. One was so slow it would have taken days to index my phone.

So I decided to start over. That meant wiping the existing data and re-indexing. Here’s how I did it.

The Solution

  1. Decide where you want your files. I don’t think it matters, but since my files were in the /system/media/audio path I left them there.
  2. Wipe out the existing media scanner information by going to: Settings/Apps/All/Media Storage. Click Clear Data.

    ClearMediaCache

    Clear Media Cache

  3. Trigger re-scan of the device. You could just do this by rebooting and waiting for it to finish, but I found an app that works: SD Scanner by Jeremy Erickson worked brilliantly. It’s simple, free, there are no ads, and he makes his source available. He’s my new best friend. Plus it has a progress bar so you know it’s working. Exactly what a simple and great app should be.

    SD Scanner Really Works

    SD Scanner Really Works

And what do you know? It seems to be working. No crap in my Google Music app and my ringtones and notification sounds persist after a reboot (actually several). What a royal pain in the ass, but in the end, not too hard to fix. Good luck. I hope this helps you.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

New Nexus 4 – Day 2

January 17th, 2014 No comments
This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Nexus 4

Yesterday I received my new phone, wiped it, updated the OS to Android 4.4.2 Kit Kat, rooted it, and installed a custom recovery (TWRP).

This morning I dropped by my local T-Mobile store on the way to work and completed the process of getting my phone working. The first step today was to get a SIM card that actually fit in the phone. I probably could have bought a cheap cutter on EBay and cut my own card down to size, but it’s actually hard to find a mini to micro SIM cutter. There are plenty of full-size to micro cutters, but few, if any, mini to micro cutters. I also figured that a trip to T-Mobile was in order so they could verify that my IMEI was truly clean, and that my old data plan actually supported LTE.

The young woman at T-Mobile was both totally competent and extremely efficient. I walked in, told her I wanted to activate a new phone and needed a SIM, and she had me walking out with a working phone in less than 10 minutes. Oh, and they didn’t charge me a thing. I’ve been a T-Mobile customer for close to 10 years and I have honestly never had a bad customer service experience.

I walked out of the store with 4 bars of “H” or HSPA+ service. My next task was to add a hybrid radio to enable LTE. Again, although one could flash hybrid rmodems the old fashioned way, someone has already built a toolkit to automate the process. It worked pretty well, but I did discover a very slight bug in the toolkit which prevented the flashing of the most recent hybrid modem version. The toolkit developer fixed that bug within hours thought and released a new version to the Play Store.

So after the flash, I saw the “4G” icon on my screen and I was able to do a speed test, which gave me 20 Mbps up and down. Not bad, but certainly nothing close to the advertised LTE speeds. But – there are several different modem revisions to try and one of them may perform better. Plus this test was done at 10:30 in the morning in downtown Boston where there were likely a lot of users sharing bandwidth. And finally, even though this phone has an LTE radio, people believe that because it wasn’t intended to be activated, the antenna wasn’t made in the most efficient fashion. So it might never perform as well as a phone designed with LTE in mind.

But nonetheless, I bought a used phone on EBay for $200. The phone was as clean as advertised and was able to be rooted without issue. I added a custom recovery and some hacks to enable a crippled LTE radio. And what I have is a very well built, high- quality Android phone with LTE speeds and the latest Kit Kat software for $203.50. That’s not bad at all.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

New Nexus 4 Experiment – Day 1

January 17th, 2014 No comments
This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Nexus 4

The package arrived today. So far, everything looks good. Buying a phone from EBay always seems like taking a chance, but so far, this seems like a bargain. This phone is in near perfect condition – there’s not a mark on it. I plugged it in and let it charge for about an hour which restored about 25% battery. It fired right up to the default Android JellyBean screen. It had clearly been factory reset, but I reset it just in case, taking the phone back to 4.2.2.

I added my Wi-Fi password and it connected without problems. Then within 5 minutes it alerted me that an OTA update was available, which I installed without an issue. A few minutes later I received another OTA update offering the 4.3 update which also installed perfectly. Finally, in another few minutes the OTA icon offered the 4.4 KitKat update which installed flawlessly. So, within 30 minutes out of the package I’m running the latest Android OS available. So far, so good.

One of the reasons I bought a Nexus 4 for cheap instead of a Nexus 5 was that I know LTE can be enabled on the Nexus 4 with a variety of hacks. But to do that you need root access, so rooting the phone was step #2.

I’ve had lots of fun rooting devices using Fastboot commands in the past. If you’ve never done it, I recommend rooting the old fashioned way (see http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2018179 for instructions) at least once, since you do get an idea of what actually needs to be done to accomplish it. But frankly I’ve had enough command line fun for one lifetime so when a decent toolkit exists to get the job done I’ll use it.

There appears to be two main toolkits competing for attention on XDA Developers at the moment: one created by a developer called “WugFresh” at http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2517778 and one created by “mskip” located at http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1995688. After reading the full threads I chose WugFresh’s toolkit. Why? Well at the time I write this, mskip’s toolkit only worked with KitKat 4.4.2 if it auto-updated to the latest version, and the only way to enable that was to pay a fee (a “donation”) and get a key from the dev. Only based on this post and this post, some users had waited more than 5 days and still hadn’t received their key and the developer was nowhere to be found in the thread. No way I was chancing that. So WugFresh wins the day.

I watched the instructional video at http://www.wugfresh.com/nrt/wiki/ and followed it as closely as possible (the screens for installing the drivers are different in the newer version of the toolkit, but easier to use so no big deal). Short version of the story – it worked absolutely flawlessly. Seriously, no issues whatsoever. A few button clicks and I have a phone with SuperSU root access, BusyBox installed, TWRP custom recovery, and still running 4.4.2 KitKat. What more could I want?

Next step – tomorrow I get a new LTE-enabled micro-sim card (I only have a mini sim in my current phone) and install a new radio to turn LTE on. We’ll see how it goes.

Categories: Technology Tags: , ,

A New Android Chapter

January 12th, 2014 No comments
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Nexus 4

I hate the iPhone. There, I said it. I really, really do. It’s not a particularly good smartphone, regardless of the generation. iOS is an incredible inflexible operating system (widgets? Hell no!) and the phone itself is loaded with proprietary connectors (can you say Thunderbolt) and processors the same as everyone else. Nope – I’m an Android person, plain and simple.

A couple of years ago I smashed my old T-Mobile G2 because the dying GPS finally got to me and replaced it with an HTC Amaze 4G. The battery life was terrible as I wrote here, but after a while the phone settled down (after I rooted it and installed a real ROM) and has been my daily driver for more or less two years. The short version is that the main problems had nothing to do with the hardware and little to do with Android. As usual, they were software problems introduced when a phone manufacturer wants to try and be Apple. Almost no one offers a true Android phone these days. Most manufacturers take stock Android and load it up with all kinds of extra junk. HTC has their “Sense UI.” Samsung has “TouchWiz.” Both of these and all similar “improvements” do nothing more in my opinion than take a perfectly good Android device, slow it down, reduce battery life, and generally make it hard to manage a device because they add so many proprietary settings and hide so many stock ones that I might as well buy an iPhone. I hate them all. I hate my wife’s Galaxy S3, I hate my friend’s HTC One, and I couldn’t stand the Sense UI crap on my Amaze so I finally rooted it and installed Cyanogenmod 10.1 as my daily driver ROM. I’ve never looked back. From now on it’s stock Android (or at least close to it) for me. Which leads me to my new adventure …

New Phone Needed

One main problem with the HTC Amaze is that it wasn’t popular. The Samsung Galaxy S and later S3 stole the thunder from the Amaze and this device signalled the beginning of HTC’s downfall. What a shame because I have always liked HTC devices. For as long as I’ve had smartphones I’ve used HTC devices. I’ve had:

  • an HTC Herald (T-Mobile Wing) Windows Mobile phone
  • an HTC Maple (T-Mobile Dash 3G) Windows Mobile phone
  • an HTC Desire Z (T-Mobile G2)
  • an HTC Ruby (T-Mobile Amaze 4G)

The problem with a phone that isn’t popular is that aftermarket developers don’t do a lot of work on it. Custom ROMs can be hard to find, as can quick and simple tools for rooting etc. I won’t make that mistake again, which means that I probably won’t be buying an HTC phone again any time soon. So what does that leave? Well, in the Android world, if you want something that gives the purest Android experience, you buy one of the Nexus devices that Google markets itself.These phones run stock Android. I like them a lot. But I don’t like the current $350 price for the 16GB Nexus 5. That’s a tad too much for me.

The good news is, Nexus devices are popular with the kinds of people who develop custom ROMs for phones, so there is always support for older generations of Nexus devices. Meaning that enterprising people already have Kit Kat running on the previous generation Nexus 4. So that is what I am going to do … but a used Nexus 4 and bring it to life as a full-featured daily-driver with all the bells and whistles. I’ve found what looks like a good one on EBay and I won the auction last night for $203.50 including shipping. The phone should be here this week.

In a nutshell, here were my criteria:

  1. Google Nexus device.
  2. Either carrier unlocked or already on the T-Mobile network.
  3. Clean IMEI.
  4. Close to new condition.

Having found all that I believe that with some work I can root and install Cyanogenmod (or another ROM) and patch the radio in the phone to work on the T-Mobile LTE network and end up with a phone that performs as well as any brand new off-the-shelf phone for under $250. Plus have a lot of rooting fun along the way.

So, look for some upcoming posts about my progress. And hopefully I will have a new phone by next Monday.

Categories: Technology Tags: , ,

New Harbor Freight 4000 Watt Predator Generator

January 4th, 2014 6 comments
This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Generator
HFT 4KW Generator

Image from Harborfreight.com

A couple of years ago I bought a cheap 800 watt HFT generator. The whole $79 generator experiment didn’t work out so well. After the first one seized right out of the box and the second one died and wouldn’t start after only a few months I was ready to give up. Unfortunately, I had promised to have my generator available for some volunteer work the morning after the POS died, so I really didn’t have much time to think things through if I wanted to meet my commitment. Like a sucker, ran right back to my local Harbor Freight store and talked myself into a 4 kW peak / 3.2 kW running generator. I’ve had it for a year now and I have to say I’m impressed. This line of Predator generators might just be a winner for Harbor Freight.

First Impressions

I brought the generator home, opened the box, poured in some gas, and then something happened that I never expected. The thing started on the first pull. Seriously. One pull. My wife said the look of shock on my face was priceless. The Predator generators, and indeed all the engines Harbor Freight sells, are widely described in Internet forums as copies of Honda designs. If they are, they did a good job copying them, because first-pull starting has always been a Honda hallmark.

Once the generator was running everything else worked fine. It was reasonably quiet and seemed to handle the limited loads I gave it on its first run with no problem. I let it run for about thirty minutes and shut it down. The next day I took it to work and it started and ran fine while powering electric sanders, saws, and other tools.

Ongoing Performance

Over the last year I’ve used this generator for a variety of projects, from powering a vacuum in the driveway while cleaning cars to running an electric shredder for leaves and small branches. The shredder pushed the generator towards its limit, but the unit handled the sudden load without trouble. Although I didn’t break out an oscilloscope to look at the power, the basic measurements with my multimeter showed that the generator was holding voltage and frequency even as the load varied. Can’t really ask for more than that.

Other Notes

This generator, like most, provides a variety of outlets, including 4 110 V sockets. But it’s important to understand that these outlets are actually each providing one half of the generator’s center-tapped 220V output. So each 110V outlet bank can actually support only ½ of the total wattage of the generator. Thus one can only power 1600 watts per 110 V outlet, not the full 3200 watt rating.

Otherwise, this generator has continued to provide reliable service, easily handling the odd jobs and loads that I’ve thrown at it. It still starts on the first pull every time, even after sitting for a month or more between uses. I did buy the optional wheel and handle kit and find them pretty valuable, though the handle could be longer – I’m 5′ 10″ tall and when I drag the generator behind me I am often bumping the back of my feet into it. But they are sturdy and useful for moving the generator around.

Final Words

I am not using this generator to power a house or to run appliances during a power failure – I have a 12 kW Kohler for that – so I haven’t tested the total runtime of this unit. But for the odd jobs I need, it works great. Interestingly, Consumer Reports rated generators recently and the Predator line did pretty well in their tests. You need to be a member to see the review, but the overall ratings of the Predator model they tested were near the top of the rankings even if the price was well below the competition. I was impressed. Notably, the generator got high marks for power quality.

So after a year I am much more impressed with this little unit than I was with the 800 watt generator. I recommend you check it out if you’re looking for portable power.

Categories: Technology, Tools Tags: ,

New Work Computer

February 23rd, 2013 1 comment
This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Macintosh

Several years ago I wrote about making a transition to the Mac world with a 13″ MacBook. That was my main computer for several years. Back in 2009 when I first got it I wrote about a whole host of things I hated about the Mac. Like the fact that there was no decent enterprise e-mail client. That the ‘DEL’ key on a Mac is really a ‘BACKSPACE’ key. That the ‘COMMAND’ key is ridiculous. Most of what I wrote is still true. Outlook 2010 for Mac is terrible, so e-mail is still painful on a Mac. It is a pale comparison to its Windows sibling. Visio is still better than OmniGraffle. The only thing that improved is that Office for Mac got VBA functionality so people can write their own functions.

So earlier this year I finally had the chance to replace my work laptop. I opted for a Windows Ultrabook – a Toshiba Portégé Z935 to be precise. And this thing so unbelievably rocks it isn’t even funny. I had the option to get a MacBook Air, but I am totally glad that I didn’t. Being back in the Windows world in my corporate life is so much easier. And I’ve been able to configure this machine to do some really cool stuff.

Like the way I am running an Ubuntu 12.04 virtual machine on an external Western Digital USB hard drive. That’s right – a complete Linux install that runs perfectly on an external (hardware encrypted) hard drive. Running in VMWare Fusion as a guest OS on my Windows 7 machine, this thing kicks butt. I use it primarily as a Python and web development environment, but having the ability to whip up a quick web server doesn’t hurt. I also love writing documents using Restructuredtext as well. It supports multiple monitors and I haven’t had a single hiccup with it’s install on an external drive.

I’ll probably write more about this configuration soon, but for now – it’s awesome.

My Home Office Phone System – Part 1

December 23rd, 2012 1 comment

I have been fortunate because for most of my career I have been able to work from home whenever necessary to make my life easier. But along with this benefit comes the need to maintain decent connectivity. This includes not only Internet, but also telephone. The Internet part is easy – my Verizon FiOS connection handles that well, along with my home network. But the phone part proved to be a problem. Here’s how I solved it.

The Options

For many people this isn’t a problem at all. Most people working at home do one of two things and then move on with their lives: they either use their cellphone (usually provided by work) or they use their own home phone.

Neither of these options was acceptable for me for reasons I discuss below. So I started looking around for other choices. Here are the criteria by which I evaluated my options.

  1. Must give high-quality voice. No dropped calls, garbled speech, or background noise.
  2. Must have a good quality speakerphone option.
  3. Should be able to handle domestic and international calls.
  4. Should be cheap … i.e. no incremental cost more than ~$10/month.
  5. Should easily accept inbound calls.
  6. Must not interfere with my normal home phone service.
  7. Must allow me to keep my work and personal lives separate.
  8. Should allow the use of a headset/hands-free device if possible.

I realize that these criteria are a mix of hardware and service parameters, but, in the world of phone services, the hardware and service are often tightly intertwined.

Using my list as a guide, I explored these options, more or less in the following order:

  1. Using my work cellphone (an iPhone 3GS)
  2. Using Google Voice on my personal cell phone.
  3. Using Skype
  4. Adding an additional line to my FiOS Digital Voice service.
  5. Other VOIP alternatives.

To cut to the chase, I ultimately settled on building a really robust system based on a 2-line business phone along with VOIP service from VIOP.ms. Here’s how I got there. In later parts I’ll go into detail about how I built what I built.

Early Successes & Failures

Work Cellphone

My work phone is an iPhone 3GS running on AT&T. Don’t tell me I should upgrade it. I despise the iPhone and everything about it and the new 5 isn’t any better in my mind. So I tolerate this thing and use it mostly as a phone. When I want a real smartphone I use my HTC Amaze 4G running Android. The problem with using my work cellphone isn’t the hardware – it’s the service. AT&T has a terrible signal at my house. It works acceptably well if I stay anywhere on the west side of my house or on most of the second floor. But if I try to move around it drops calls way too frequently, and even on a good day I only get 2 bars. So very quickly I ruled out using my cellphone as a reliable source of communication.

This option failed to deliver criterion #1, and so I deemed it unacceptable.

Google Voice on my Personal Cellphone

For a while this worked fine. I gave people my Google Voice number and they could call me on either my personal cell when I was mobile or I could have Google Voice ring through to my home phone when I was working from home. The problem of course is that this completely violated my criterion #7. Basically – I was getting work calls on a number that I also used for personal reasons, and that was unacceptable. So I ditched this method quickly.

Skype

Ahhh Skype. This was very close to a perfect solution. With the right combination of services, and the right hardware, this would have been perfect. I ended up using Skype as a solution for well over a year and it was 99% there.

A basic Skype account, with the addition of a Skype number and an unlimited US & Canada subscription was all I needed to get started. I put the Skype client on my computer, grabbed a headset, and things worked well. I could call people and they could call me. The phone number was separate from anything I used for personal use, so most of my needs were satisfied. The drawback was my work computer. I used a late 2008 vintage 13″ MacBook as a work laptop and even with 4GB of RAM in it, it just didn’t have the horsepower to handle Skype calls while running applications. There were times when calls would be choppy – and I could correlate them to computer use. Not necessarily Internet use, in case you are thinking this was a network issue – but use of the hard drive and other processor functions. It was clearly a computer issue. Just in case it was a network issue, I investigated QoS settings on my router for Skype and discovered that the Skype protocol is notorously difficult to deal with. So QoS by TCP/UDP port numbers is difficult. But – if I could offload the Skype duties to an appliance … then I might be able to fix the problem.

For reasons that I won’t get into, I chose to try a dedicated Skype phone – specifically, the Belkin  F1PP010EN-SK Desktop Phone for Skype. This thing worked great – for me anyway. I don’t think Belkin ever sold that many of them and there were a bunch of complaints online, but I found it really reliable and of good quality. It provided me with three key features:

  1. It used its own dedicated, wired, 10/100 port.
  2. It had a great speakerphone.
  3. It had its own MAC address so I could assign this device to the highest priority queue on my router for great QoS.
I used this phone for about 2 years and I really don’t have too many major complaints. About the only one of my criteria that it didn’t meet was #8 – the wireless/hands-free device, though as I said the speakerphone was good enough. For most people in my situation, this would be my recommendation. Get yourself a Skype appliance and a Skype number and you have a really cheap office phone. Unfortunately for me, I’m not most people.

Additional FiOS Line

One of the things that began to bother me after a while is that I had two phones on my desk. Our normal landline (don’t ask me why I don’t get rid of it – my wife insists we keep it) and a second Skype phone. I found that a pain. And that’s because I’m nuts. The landline was nothing more than a cordless handset that took up no room at all so this is mostly me being an idiot. So I wondered if I could simply add a second line to our normal FiOS service and get a two-line phone for my office and be done with it.

The short answer is yes, you can kind-of add a second number to a FiOS line. Verizon calls it a Virtual Telephone Number. The problem is that it is inbound only. When you call out, your original number (in my case my home number) appears. This is an issue. In today’s world, lots of people I call same my number to their cellphones or whatever and then just hit my name to call me back. In this case they’d be calling my regular home number; a violation of criteria #5 and #7. And it would also disrupt normal service because if I were talking on the phone it wouldn’t be available for others in the house. On many days when I work from home so does my wife, and she needs a working phone too, hence my need for a truly independent second line. So the virtual telephone number was a non-starter. Verizon offers a true second phone line for an additional $9.99 per month, but this requires a truck roll and is not self installable. This isn’t the biggest pain, but still, it seemed like a hassle. So I gave up on that option too.

The Best Solution: VOIP

Obi 100 & Obi 110

Obi100 (left) and Obi110 (right)

In the world of things I could install myself, dedicated VOIP service seemed like the best route. Adding VOIP to your computer via a soft phone seems to me to be much less processor intensive than Skype, because standard SIP-based VOIP services are less resource intensive and the software seems less processor intensive as well. But a softphone wasn’t really what I wanted – I wanted a decent piece of hardware. To make that happen, one typically needs an Analog Telephone Adapter or ATA. These are common enough in the business phone world, but not easy to obtain cheaply in the residential world. Until recently that is. Many people are familiar with Vonage as a VOIP provider and I tried their service years ago. They provided an ATA in the form of a Linksys PAP2 device. This was a great piece of hardware actually made by a company named Sipura which was bought by Cisco. The problem is, companies like Vonage don’t want normal people to know how easy it really is to provide VOIP service and how cheap it could be. You see Vonage is only cheap in comparison to the shakedown that traditional phone companies give you. But there are other VOIP providers out there that, as you will shortly see, are much cheaper still. So companies like Vonage want to lock you into their service and they therefore added firmware to the PAP2 device that prevents it from ever being used on a competitor’s service. I don’t really have a problem with this – if that’s how Vonage wants to do business. What I do have a serious problem with is when two companies, in this case Vonage and Cisco conspire to eliminate consumer choice by joining forces. You see, originally you could buy a locked PAP2 from Vonage or an unlocked one from Sipura/Linksys. And with an unlocked one you could use whatever VOIP provider you wanted. Buy then Cisco bought Sipura/Linksys and they quietly stopped providing unlocked devices to the market. And that really pissed me off, because they made VOIP unreachable for many people until companies like MagicJack finally came along with their own new hardware.

Apparently this also pissed off the original founders of Sipura who left Cisco (a second time actually – they sold two separate ATA manufacturers to Cisco over the years) and founded a company called Obihai Technologies. And Obihai makes a really great set of inexpensive VOIP ATA devices.

What Did I Build

So, what did I ultimately build for myself? Here’s my current system:

 VOIP Service

There are a number of VOIP providers. Common residential/small business ones include CallCentric, Voipo, and Voip.ms. I scoured the forums and ratings at DSLReports.com. After considering the options, I decided on Voip.ms for their combination of features and their “pay-for-what-you-use” billing. This latter point was the clincher for me. In the Voip.ms world, there is no monthly fee (unless you want to maintain a dedicated number, which costs me $0.99 a month). After that you pay for only the minutes you use. Current domestic rates? $0.0125/minute inbound & outbound. That’s a penny and a quarter a minute. How much cheaper is this than a $9.99 additional line? My call records show that for September – November of this year I made 180 calls totaling more than 27 hours of use (27:34:38 to be exact). My usage charges: $11.20. That’s right: $11.20 for three months of phone use. Add the $0.99 for my number and I’m at a whopping $14.20 for three months of home office phone service. And the system satisfies all my criteria. Another killer feature: VOIP works with multiple devices, including softphones on PCs and mobile devices. So now I can take or make business calls from my laptop or my smartphone. Cool.

Hardware

RCA Visys & Cordless Handset

A brief description of my hardware: the Obi100 plugs into a wired Ethernet jack on my desk. It’s analog output becomes “line 1″ of my two-line phone. My normal landline service is plugged into “line 2.” The cordless handset pairs without trouble to the base. The VOIP service provides free voicemail for my business line, along with a bunch of other features like programmable call routing rules and auto-attendant scripts. I can use a real over the ear headset with both the desktop phone and the cordless handset so I have freedom to move around. In fact I have roamed around my yard and walked for 90 minutes straight on nice days during conference calls, just strolling around my property.

One additional feature of the Obi devices – they connect to Google Voice. So if you are a Google Voice user you can access your account and make calls without having to dial your own number or originate them from the web. For me, I pick up line 1 on my phone, dial “**2″ and dial the number normally. Google voice places the call. And, if I have voicemail on my Google number, my phone blinks it’s message waiting indicator as well.

The Visys gives me great features that would be lacking in my home phone, if I tried to use that, including a good full-duplex speaker phone, a headphone jack with a button to activate it or switch back to the main handset, two lines with independent message indicators, plenty of speed-dial memories, do-not-disturb functions, and more.

Final Word

I’ve been using this setup for about 6 months now and I couldn’t be happier. It does everything I want for almost no cost. The phone sounds as good as anything I’ve ever had in an office, it is totally flexible and reliable, and I have a dedicated business number with working inbound and outbound caller ID. I can even set it up to forward to my office line so that if someone saved my home office number to their speed-dial, they will get me no matter where I am. For me, having one comprehensive device on my desk that does whatever I need is the key. No matter what phone rings, I can answer it, and if my wife and I are home at the same time, I can spend hours on the phone without disturbing her work at all.

For home workers who spend a lot of time on the phone, I recommend this setup.

In future articles I will delve into the details of setup, but for now, happy phoning.

Wow – I haven’t written anything for a while…

December 23rd, 2012 No comments

But I guess that’s what an intense graduate school schedule can do, along with way too many things happening in life.

I do have a couple of things in the works, including a series of articles on how I build a home-office phone system for when I work at home, as well as some of my experiences working with the Raspberry Pi computer that someone gave me for Christmas. Let’s just say the Pi reminds me why I pushed Linux off my plate some years ago. Managing dependencies for software packages is an absolute nightmare – at least when trying to implement things that people have hacked on their own. As I write this I am 11 hours into a seemingly never-ending marathon of installing missing components just to get one simple program to work. What a nightmare.

Stay tuned for more.

Categories: Rants, Technology Tags: , ,

Runkeeper Activity Merger

September 23rd, 2012 2 comments

If you are a Runkeeper user like I am you have no doubt experienced the frustration of having your mobile device fail during a run, interrupting your recording. Then, if you re-start the app, you end up with two partial records of one single event. Runkeeper (currently at least) has no facilities for merging these activities together in either the mobile or web apps. This sucks if you are actually trying to monitor your training, or are just really anal about your data like I am.

Luckily, other people with far better programming skills than I have created a simple (and free) web app to fix this. Called, simply enough, the “Runkeeper activity merger” (their capitalization scheme – not mine) it essentially allows you to take two exported Runkeeper files and merge them together so that you can upload them as a single event.

I had this problem during a 5-mile run this past weekend, and the app saved my data.

Go to http://zip-zero.com/runkeeper/index.php and follow the simple directions that you can find via the Help link in the top left corner of the page.

Good luck.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

New Weather Station

June 4th, 2012 No comments
Davis Vantage Pro 2

Davis Vantage Pro 2

After more than 10 years of wanting one, I finally replaced my old weather station with a new Davis Vantage Pro 2 system. For the last 6 years I had been running an Oregon Scientific WMR968 system, with some success, until the anemometer and barometer both decided to die in April. Rather than spend a couple hundred dollars for new parts I put together some money from a couple of sources and splurged on the ultimate weather geek gift.

I just got everything working a couple of evenings ago and am excited that everything is back up and running.

I’ve created a new page on this site which aggregates weather forecast information for my local community, and I’ve posted details about my station on it’s own page.

Check them out.

Categories: Technology Tags: