Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Merry-Freakin'-Christmas from Blockbuster. NOT.

Not too long ago I wrote about Blockbuster's sudden and substantial rate increase. People were upset, me included. I begrudgingly gave in, however, and started paying the $7.00 increase - from $17.99 to $24.99 - per month for unlimited in-store exchanges and three mail rentals at a time.

BlockBusterLetterDec27th A few minutes ago I got a very "friendly" email from Blockbuster, letting me know some of the great rentals they have available in the first paragraph, encouraging me to exchange movies in the store in the second paragraph, and then pretty much putting it to me without so much as kissing me first in the third paragraph. Here is exactly what it said (click the image on the right to see a screen shot of the actual email with the section highlighted):

"To continue to bring you the unmatched convenience of both online and in-store DVD rentals, your monthly subscription fee will change from $24.99 to $34.99. This adjustment† will go into effect on your next billing cycle on or after December 27, 2007. The benefits of your subscription plan will remain the same."

So, in the time span of about four to five short months, my monthly cost has gone from $17.99 to $34.99 per month (in other words, roughly doubled) and the services I get for the money are less (since I no longer get the two coupons a month for movie or game rentals that I got for a couple years before their August price and service change).

"Ok, but that's the last straw."

As soon as the month I have already paid for runs out mid-January, I'm dumping this mess. Goodbye Blockbuster. Hello Netflix. I feel like I have to encourage everyone to do the same. This is - in my opinion - not a consumer-friendly company. I know they need to make a profit, and I was willing to support that. But dragging your customers through this kind of mess is not the way to do it. Believe me when I say I'd likely have been willing to spend more for better service (or at least consistently good service in both the store and online, which I don't get today), had a reasonable rate increase been effectively sold to me.

If some kind of miracle happens between now and January 18th when my account runs out and Blockbuster changes their plans, I'll consider sticking around. But it won't happen. This appears to be just more of the same decisions. It's too bad.

If you received an email, feel free to make use of the comments here. What does yours say? What do you think? What - if anything - will you be doing about it? If you agree with me and want to share the sentiment, you can link to http://www.boycottblockbuster.com/, which points to this page.

Time to stand up and say something.

Added -- Some other comments made on other blogs:

And, via Gizmodo, a humorous visual that effectively captures the essence of the situation...

 

I also noted that new subscribers to Blockbuster (people who go there today to sign up for the first time) will be recruited under the "old" pricing plans, as they have not changed the information on the web site. That seems a little disingenuous, if not completely dishonest, doesn't it? Click the image below to see a fill-size screenshot of their pricing page on the site as of the morning of December 20th. I'd hope they'd at least get this problem fixed soon (unless they don't intend to increase the prices for new customers, of course).

blockbusterpricesdecember19list



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Wednesday, 19 December 2007 20:09:45 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Here we are again, right up against the holidays and I am not ready yet... as usual. On Friday afternoon I'll be jumping in the truck and starting the drive from Portland to Colorado, where my mom and step dad live - as well as my brother and niece, two stepbrothers, and related extended family. My mom had knee replacement surgery just yesterday (which she says went well according to the doc), and so there are a couple important and good reasons to be down there this Christmas.

My good friend Cory, who lives in Portland but whose family is in Minnesota, is going to make the road trip with me and we're going to spend a couple/few days on the slopes in the Keystone area after Christmas before we head back. We're pretty excited and looking forward to the trip. We were going to travel by air, but decided to drive instead for a number of reasons. Renting a four wheel drive in Colorado that week is obscenely expensive as it turns out, and we plan to be in places where it's likely necessary. By the time all is said and done, it's a little less costly and we get to spend more time in Colorado if we drive. Plus we have not done a road trip this year, and we have this tradition thing to keep up.

I recently obtained a HD video camera that I have not used yet beyond taking it out of the box, charging the battery and making sure it works, so I will be taking that with me. Maybe I will do some filming on the slopes and see how HD video does when making YouTube videos or something fun like that. I better do some quick research to see how to best deal with the video for web publication.



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Wednesday, 19 December 2007 18:00:44 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Nothing brightens and warms the heart during the holiday season quite like a summons demanding appearance at the United States Federal Courthouse for jury duty. I received my official letter of "congratulations" (yes, they actually use that terminology) in the mail today. I have to appear on the morning of January 8th.

I hope it's not one of those trials that never ends. Fingers crossed. :)

Actually, I believe in the importance of the jury system and take seriously the duty. It's just such a schedule crusher, is all. Luckily I have nothing specific planned that week (or the next), or at least nothing that can't be kept flexible.



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Wednesday, 19 December 2007 17:53:25 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, 11 December 2007

A couple weeks ago I rounded up three of my younger, somewhat crazier friends and (without telling them where we were going or what we were doing) jumped on a train to go from Portland to Seattle. This was our Secret Plan SecretPlan1 day, which sounds kind of stupid but really is a lot of fun. Especially for me, since I am the only one who knows the secrets, and the plan.

It works like this: I picked up my the guys - Broc, Cory and Dave - early in the morning on Thursday. All they knew was that they had to keep Thursday and Friday completely free. That's it - the rest is pretty much all trust and blind faith. But hey - what are friends for, after all? Broc and Dave I have known since I moved to Oregon (they were good friends of my son's years ago), and Cory I have known for a few years (he was in the Navy with Dave).

The whole time, each step of the way, they had no idea what was happening next, where we were going or what we were doing. After picking them up we went downtown and parked. We started walking and ended up at the Portland Union Station. I already had the train tickets in my cool Top Secret folder (heh), so we got on a train (which luckily was not announced out loud while we were in the building, so the guys didn't even know for sure which direction it was going), and pulled out of the station. It turned out we were heading for Seattle.

A few hours later we got off the train and wandered around a bit. We grabbed some burgers and then went to the Secret Plan Dane Cook 017 Pirate Store at Pier 57 on the waterfront, and finally ended up at the Seattle Underground tour for an hour or so, which is pretty fun and interesting. There's a fascinating and surprising history to the City of Seattle, and if you have not done the tour and find yourself in the area I recommend it. From there we checked out a kilt store next door (random, I know - and not part of the plan, heh) and then found our hotel over near Seattle Center.

By this time it was getting to be evening, and we headed out to find some food before the next secret plan stop. Of course, I was guiding us to the general area we needed to be in, but not telling why. We found a good pizza place near the Space Needle and went in. Then, once everyone was seated I told them I had to leave take care of some things and that I would be back. Oh, and that they should not get too drunk or anything since they'd have to walk from the pizza place.

I went out in the cold, found the will-call ticket window at Key Arena (which opened more than half an hour late - why is it that Key Arena staff never seem to be able to get information right, anyhow? Right-arm/left-arm issues are rampant, but I digress...). After freezing my butt off for a while, I had what I had come for (less a half-hour of much-needed time). So, I started running back to the pizza place with almost no time to spare.

I gathered they guys and told them we had to split (like right now), and we started walking toward Seattle Center. The frustrating thing about SPCrewWithDaneCook2Secret Plan Day is that at times it's nearly impossible to actually keep the secret - Eventually you want to say something because you're excited and don't want to keep it to yourself anymore, but you can't do that or you'd ruin the whole concept, ya know. Anyhow, I was pretty excited about the next part, so I waited (it was difficult) until we were standing just outside key arena before I took out the next part of the plan and showed it to them: Second row tickets for Dane Cook, who is one funny guy that these three friends of mine really like. The looks on each of their faces when they realized where we were going and what we were doing made it all worthwhile.

Then I pulled out the four back-stage passes and the looks got even better. Heh.

Since the title of this post makes it seem like it should be about Dane Cook, let me say that the back-stage meet and greet things they do with these special tickets (I won them in an auction) is really cool. We got to say hi real quick, shake hands and have our picture taken with him, which was cool. He autographed our tickets and stuff, too. And then we headed out onto the arena floor for some of the best seats in the house and really enjoyed the show. He did a lot of new material, which made it even more fun. It was a great performance. I was able to take a couple of pictures before my camera battery died... I really need to buy an extra battery.

Secret Plan Dane Cook 034a  Secret Plan Dane Cook 032a

It was a late night, and the next day we boarded another train and headed back home. It was a pretty cool couple of days. Hanging out with just your friends can be a really fun thing to do. Surprising them is even better.



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Tuesday, 11 December 2007 10:10:31 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Friday, 07 December 2007

Note: This article contains a cheesy workaround that worked for me. It is most certainly unofficial and not supported by HP or anyone else (including me). So, if you use it - just know your mileage may vary.

I have a HP Pavillion dv9620 laptop with Vista 64-bit Ultimate preinstalled. It's a big-ol' laptop and has a webcam built into the top of the display. But the camera has hardly ever worked. For months I am grumbled at it each time it has failed to work in MSN Messenger and in HP's own QuickPlay software. It worked for a while, then it worked only when I first started the computer, and eventually it would not even do that, so I pretty much gave up. HP drivers did not help, one bit. Heck, just finding them on the HP web site is a painful task.

Tonight Carl Franklin asked me to help his test his webcam. We fired up Live Messenger and I was able to see and hear him just fine, but of course mine was not working. Pretty lame.

Call that inspiration. Nothing worse for a technical person than to have a broken system, especially in front of other techies, heh. I decided to start searching the web again this evening for some sort of solution, and after finding a bunch of the same-old forum and newsgroup posts, I ran across what appears to be a real gem. And it seems to have solved my problem: No more failure to see and use the HP webcam, at least so far in Messenger and in QuickPlay.

chicony1

The camera is made by a company called Chicony, and it turns out Acer also uses their cameras (as do some other manufacturers). Note that not all HP notebooks have Chicony webcams - some have Ricoh models and possibly other brands. Check your Device Manager to see who the hardware manufacturer is listed as to help determine whether or not this is the right method for you (or just try it and deal with any glitches if it's not). But, according to this post in the forums at notebookreview.com, people are having great success using the Acer drivers on their Vista Pavillion machines with the built-in webcam.

I downloaded the drivers, checked them for safety, and updated my system by following the simple instructions. Voila! It works! It shows up in device manager as an Acer webcam, but I can live with that, for sure.

image

With a little luck it will keep working. Before posting this I rebooted and rechecked the camera, opened a few programs to try to screw it up, etc. So far, so good.

Here are the brief instructions (as slightly adapted from the post by Dylan Bennett at notebookreview.com):

  • First, download the drivers. I got mine from here, and yes -- these are the drivers I used on my 64-bit Vista install: Acer Extensa 5210 Chicony Webcam Driver 5.7
  • Next, unzip the installer executable file, then run the setup program and do the reboot thing.
  • After you log back in Windows should tell you it's setting up your devices and finding the drivers. Let it finish.
  • Open the Control Panel and then open the Device Manager.
  • Find the webcam under "Imaging Devices." On mine it was listed as a generic USB 2.0 device. Yours may be different.
  • Right-click on the webcam entry in Device manager and select "Update Driver Software..." from the menu.
  • Choose "Browse my computer for driver software."
  • Choose "Let me pick from a list of device drivers on my computer."
  • Uncheck the "Show compatible hardware" checkbox.
  • Scroll in the list to find Chicony in the dialog's manufacturer list.
  • Choose the "Acer Crystal Eye webcam."
  • You're most likely going to be warned that the driver cannot be confirmed to be compatible. You can tell it to install anyway.
  • Wait for the driver to be installed.
  • Check Device Manager under the Imaging devices section again and see what you have. Note that the webcam will likely now be listed as an Acer Crystal Eye webcam.

devicemanager4webcam

Now, go and use Messenger or whatever program has given you fits before and see what your results are. Be sure to reboot and try all your webcam-enabled programs. Give it a real brutal test before declaring success. For me it's been great, but your mileage most certainly may vary, and I am certain HP will not consider this a supportable configuration, heh.

Proof it works for those that need it, here you go. Gotta love the reflection-in-the-glasses thing, heh:

Good luck!



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Friday, 07 December 2007 21:31:37 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, 04 December 2007

UPDATE re CompUSA: I'm still not sure where the $150 price cut came from, but Reuters and everyone else is now reporting that CompUSA is being sold and, from the sounds of things, pretty much shut down. Stores will remain open over the holidays with some likely fire-sales, so might be the time to see what can be had over the next few weeks... This might explain why the company didn't try to sell me their obligatory extended service plan when I purchased the home server...

I bit the bullet this past weekend and went online over at CompUSA.com and found that a HP MediaSmart Server (the new Windows Home Server OEM device) was in stock at one of the Portland stores (Jantzen Beach, specifically). So, I reserved it online for in-store pickup and headed into the city to get it.

HomeServer2 Much to my (very pleasant) surprise, when I got to the store and they rung it up, the $599 price was automagically reduced by $150 as an instant savings at the register (nice!), so I ended up with the 500GB model (the EX-470) for $450 -- which was just fine by me! All that saved money can go toward another hard drive to add to the system's storage capacity.

When I picked up the new server, I was on my way to the Van Halen concert in Portland with a friend (more on that later and in another post), and then we spent the entire next day skiing at Mt. Hood Meadows on Sunday, so the Home Server didn't even get unpacked until late on Sunday night.

HP's packaging is top-notch, and the documentation was excellent. Seriously, the quick setup steps for the hardware are literally three simple steps - Connect the power cord, connect to your LAN router with the Ethernet cable that comes in the box, and push a button. After that, go to a computer on your LAN, pop in a CD, and follow the instructions on the screen.

Windows Home Server is a very cool system. It allows local LAN and remote access, including web-based access for visitors (friends, family, etc). It will back up your computers each night in case something goes wrong with them (Unless you're running an x64 version of Windows - more on that in a minute) and creates a centralized place on your network for media files (audio, video and pictures) as well as installable software. You can copy any type of file to the system (in backup mode or otherwise). The multimedia capabilities allow you to use your Xbox 360 to play the multimedia content stored on the server. The HP flavor also includes iTunes integration (one central library for all your computers) and some other nifty stuff. I pretty much hate iTunes these days (more 64-bit compatibility gripes plus its just so frustratingly bloated), so I am not sure I will actually use that capability, but it's nice to have.

I have one compliment and one gripe at this point in my story about setting up the Home Server out of the box. On the positive side, the setup software is run on a client PC attached to your LAN, and the setup wizard is very user friendly, simple and quick to execute. You don't have to be anything close to a computer expert to install and run this system, which is a huge victory for Microsoft - Great job! However, when I tried to do the setup the first time I did so from my main laptop, which I bought a few months back at a consumer store (also from CompUSA). It would not work. The problem is that my laptop has Vista Ultimate 64-bit installed on it by HP, and the Home Server Client software simply does not support 64-bit Windows. This strikes me as pretty ridiculous in this day and age, and I was more than just a little disappointed. I suppose I could (should) have done my Google homework before I purchased, but seriously... Bill Gates was stating Microsoft's commitment to 64-bit computing back in 2004 and 2005 (and since), and with 64-bit operating systems being installed on consumer computers and sold in retail stores, it seems to me it's time to be shipping 64-bit support in all software right up front. It's really not just about early adopters anymore. And Microsoft's not the only culprit here - there are a number of manufacturers of software that decide for whatever reason not to build in 64-bit support. But I think that's a mistake. That said, word is that 64-bit Home Server Connector bits will be available in early 2008. Okay, so I wish the situation was different but it's not. And yes, building software is expensive and complicated, etc. etc. etc... I know. End of rant.

Once I set up the server using a different client computer (one running 32-bit Vista this time), things went very well. It took very little time and was flawless. My DLink router has UPnP enabled, but for some reason Home Server was not able to automatically configure the Home Server's remote access settings on it, so I had to set that up manually (just three port-forwarding settings after establishing a fixed IP address for the home server on the router). Once the router was configured (the setup program provided all the information I needed in clear and plain language), everything checked out just fine.

From the 32-bit machine I can access the Home Server via a slick console application that lets me configure and access data. It's really a terrific interface, especially for a v1 product. It shows the value in building a clean, network-enabled Windows application over a browser-based web app, for sure. I especially like the remote application capability, which is basically a limited RDP connection for administrative purposes. In order to access the server from my 64-bit machine I can map a drive and/or access the file system via a UNC share name(\\servername\sharename), so I was able to upload a slew of pictures to a shared library that way. I can also RDP into the server from the 64-bit laptop with the standard Windows remote desktop client and launch the Home Server Console that way from the server's remote desktop (a stern warning page is displayed when you login via plain-old RDP, saying be careful and that the preferred method is to use the management console installed on a remote client machine). I'll be glad when the 64-bit client software is available so I don't have to do that anymore.

HomeServer1 The hardware is nice, looks good, is fairly quiet and has plenty of expansion room. I've started looking at 750GB and 1TB drives online to determine what I want to buy to build the system out. It has three internal drive bays free and three USB ports as well as an eSATA port on the back, so expansion is pretty flexible. In a podcast that my friend Scott did a while back where he interviewed Windows Home Server product unit manager Charlie Kindel (it's a great show, so you should go listen), Charlie said they had one test system where they added something like 26 drives - wow... The way the system works is cool. You add new drives to the system and it recognizes them and basically through the magic of the underlying software your storage pool grows larger. So, you don't have to worry about multiple drive letters or anything. Also, once you add drives beyond the first one you can set up duplication of folders between different drives for data redundancy. That way the content you mirror will survive the failure of any given drive. Not quite the RAID level of fault tolerance but a good and easy-to-use compromise that provides novice-level flexibility and usability you don't tend to find with RAID controllers. In all, the whole Windows Home Server disk/file subsystem is pretty darn cool.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of Windows Home Server, which I plan to check out over the next few days, is the fact that they opened the system up to allow developers to create add-on applications that expand and enhance the Home Server capabilities. There are already a number of really cool apps, which you can check out here.

So, that's my first impressions. Initial software frustrations aside (and with a future resolution on the horizon), the HP hardware and software and the Windows Home Server operating system check out with very high scores. I can recommend this system without hesitating, and even if you don't know much about computers or networking you'll be able to set this system up and start backing up and sharing information both on your home network and over the Internet with family and friends.



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Tuesday, 04 December 2007 14:56:27 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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