Monday, November 27, 2006

VoIP: Cheaper phone calls

Gone are the days of Lili Tomlin and her sketch as Ernsetine, the AT&T operator who would say. "We don't care, we don't have to, we're the phone company.” Not only do we have a choice of phone companies today, but we can ditch the whole idea of having a phone line.

Technology called Voice over IP (VoIP) allows you to use your high speed internet connection to make and receive phone calls. Because VoIP uses your existing Internet connection, costs are significantly less expensive than traditional phone lines and cell phones.

The best known VoIP phone company is Vonage. Vonage allows you to use existing phones for VoIP. Setup is about as difficult as hooking up an answering machine and takes about five minutes. Your computer doesn’t have to be running to use VoIP from Vonage. Unfortunately Vonage doesn’t provide phone numbers in the 785 area code as of this writing. However, one neat feature about VoIP is you can get a phone number in any area code serviced by the phone company. This is great for businesses who want a presence in distant cities or parents who to call their children at school while avoiding long distance.

To set up VoIP, all you do is an one end of an adapter to your Internet line and the other end to your existing phone. Most VoIP companies let you transfer your existing landline or cell phone number if they have service in your area. The quality of the phone calls I tested with Vonage was outstanding and virtually indistinguishable from traditional phone lines. When doing heavy downloads, I did notice some reduction in voice quality, but it was still better than the average cell phone.

Unfortunately, VoIP hasn’t quite figured out all of the 911 features. When you call 911 in most areas, you are automatically directed to a dispatcher near you and they have the location from where you are calling. Because a VoIP phone is Internet based, full 911 service may not always be available. Also, if you have a power or internet outage, you loose phone service. It’s always good to have a cell phone or traditional phone line as backup if you use VoIP.

Software-based VoIP allows you to try the technology without replacing your existing phone line. Skype, owned by e-Bay, has a few different components that allow you to chat from your computer. First, Skype allows voice chat for free between Skype users anywhere in the world. Until the end of the year, SkypeOut allows you to call any phone in the US or Canada for free, and the rest of the world at heavily discounted rates. SkypeIn gives you an actual phone number that anyone can use to call you at your computer for $39 per year. I’ve personally used it to give myself an easy extra phone number without having to pay a monthly charge to the phone company. You can also buy attachments for your computer that lets you use Skype with a traditional phone handset such as the Logitech Internet Cordless Headset.

Even if you don’t sign up with Vonage or Skype, VoIP technology can still save you money. Jajah, www.jajah.com, allows free or discounted calls using VoIP technology without installing any additional hardware of software. Another service, NoPhoneTrees.com, uses VoIP technology to avoid phone trees when calling customer service at various companies. Just type in your phone number and NoPhoneTrees.com will call you when they’ve reached an operator. 

With the holidays upon us and lots of phone calls to friends and family with warm wishes for the holidays, now is a great time to explore the lower cost phone option of VoIP.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups

by Joe Kissell


Since I have used OS X from day, I was very anxious to analyze this book and see how it compares to my actual experience. While I don’t agree with everything the author wrote, the advice is solid, well explained, and very reliable. Every Mac should ship with this book.

Unlike other books written for the IT crowd, this “Real World” book omits the boring details about why you should do certain tasks, and gives readers specific instructions on what to do daily, weekly, and yearly basis. You can open up the book and immediately start keeping your Mac in tip top shape.

There were certain aspects of the advice I, and many other Mac professionals, would disagree with. The advice isn’t incorrect, just not Universal (pun intended!). There is not one solution that fits all situations. Kissell acknowledges other opinions on these subjects. He actually quotes a variety of experts who disagree with his advice. In this industry, it’s pretty rare for a expert to admit there are other perfectly valid, and polar opposite, opinions. I really appreciated Kissell’s lack of ego. Again, this is “Real World” and in the real world two doctors can both be excellent and, yet have very different opinions.

For example, some experts believe repairing permissions is absolutely critical while Kissell indicates this procedure has no redeeming value. His panel of experts gave different opinions allowing the reader to dras their own conclusion. (Personally, I recommend repairing permissions before any Apple update and any time you have problems), This book is his opinion and suggestions on proper maintenance. Unless you have a logical and justified reason not to follow his outstanding advice, treat his advice as gospel and follow it to the letter.

In spite of the great maintenance advice Kissel gives, his advice on backups is second to none and should be required reading for anyone who has anything of value on their Mac. Why can’t Apple explain it this easy (oh, that’s right, they want you to upgrade to Leopard with built-in rudimentary backups)? He is going to save readers thousands of dollars in emergency data recovery costs. I suspect Kissel will be getting cookies baked for him, invitations to weddings, and wedding proposals himself. With Kissel’s help, data loss can be eliminated in our generation! Seriously though, Kisssel realizes that people won’t do everything he suggests, and he acknowledges that fact and creates good/better/best type scenarios for backups. People get intimidated by backups, and just ignore it—the same reason people don’t go to the dentist. In the last chapter of the book, Kissel take the most popular backup program out there, Retrospect, and takes you step by step through proper backup and restoration. Even the least technical among us can easily follow his advice and not wake up in the middle of the night in fear of data loss.

This book is one of the best organized I have seen. This is not a technical reference to be used only when you have a question, but a practical how-to guide with all the information you need at your fingertips. Not only does Kissel refer to shareware programs with eact download to download them in context of the chapters, but Appendix B summarizes all the programs mentioned in the book, the program features, and where to get them. Wow—why don’t more books do that. The last page of the book summarizes everything you need to do to maintain your Mac. Most Mac users should rip out that page and keep it near their computer—taunting them to actually do the things they learned in the book.

This book is probably going to win some major awards and should be given as a gift to any Mac user who cares about their data. Every small business should follow his advice to the letter. Too often, people think because Macs are so realiable, they won’t fail. While they tend to have less problems than Windows computers, Macs need Maintenance and Backups too!

Pros; Hands down the BEST book on backups and specifically Retrospect. Great maintenance advice given in a straightforward easy to follow manner.

Cons: This book will put lots of technicians out of business. He’ll also kill the entire data recovery business, as well as a good share of therapists who counsel people after data loss. Good for consumers, bad for professionals like myself J. Just kidding….maybe.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Learning Unix for Mac OS X Tiger

by Dave Taylor

I had really high hopes for this book. I consider myself a pretty smart Mac tech, but Unix was the one thing that really scared me about OS X. To fix some esoteric problem, I’d have to follow some Unix recipe and it always annoyed me I didn’t understand what I was typing. O’Relly books are well known not just for the animals on the cover, but excellent explanations of very technical concepts.

After reading Taylor’s book, I felt better, but not by much. Most readers can easily understand the basic Unix file structure commands, but towards the middle of the book he inaccurately assumed that his readers could also quickly understand some of the advanced concepts. Towards the end of the book I was left scratching my head. We went from move a file here and there to commands that were taking up multiple lines. Arrrgh!

The critical flaw in the book was a lack of exercises and real world examples. When I want to learn something, I don’t just want to be told. Involve me and test my knowledge. Some of the more difficult concepts covered in the book would have been enhanced with numerous real world examples, each building on the other. Things moved way too fast and made it easy to get lost.

The book was an excellent overview of Unix for the Macintosh and perfect for someone to decide whether to pursue further learning. “Introduction to Unix” instead of “Learning Unix” would have been a better title. After reading the book, I was reminded of speed dating where you meet 20 people for five minutes each and decide whether you want to go out with them or not. After reading the book I have enough familiarity with Unix that I can understand basic commands and how they relate to each other. I clearly want to go out on another date but any type of wedding bells are way in the distance.

PROS: Excellent overview of Unix for the Macintosh
CONS: Doesn’t leave you with enough practical understanding