Monday, November 14, 2011

Inferior Service Pirates (ISP's)

Hey everyone, I have been a little lax of late in coming up with poignant things to talk about, but I really think I've outdone myself today in being much more broadly appealing than usual! Today I would like to share my thoughts revolving around a topic I'm sure we all consider very important, and hopefully the result of the conversation is that everyone can save a little money, as well as (on a much broader scale) shift big telecommunication corporations to do business in a way that isn't such a huge ripoff.

In a discussion I was having with my parents last month, the topic of internet service came up, as well as the always-pertinent issue of cell phones and the nightmare that is telecommunication giants such as (in Ontario at least) Bell, Telus and Rogers. In Ontario, as far as I'm aware the big players in the Internet game are Bell and Rogers, although there are other companies in other places in the country and world. Feel free, if you're reading this in one of those other places, to substitute in the names of large companies in your area. Most people, (probably at least 95% of you) take your Internet and phone service for granted. While most people know more about their cell phone contracts than they do about their internet service, there is still a surprising amount many people are missing out on, and the cost of this lack of information (or misinformation really) can cost you hundreds of dollars a year. A quick check on the Bell or Rogers sites tells you that the basic plans which cover some downloading at reasonable internet speeds for 1 or 2 people, and not a whole lot else. Our generation (20-somethings) tend to consume most of our media online (television, movies, music, books, news, magazines or at least content which would otherwise be found in a magazine were it not being read online) and so while this works for some people, it is not really a viable solution for anyone on a fairly tight budget.

Currently, Rogers is actually having a sale in which all of their internet bundles are priced at 50% off, which puts this "everyday" plan at $23.50, but with the caveat that you must sign a 1-year contract with them, and the sale price ends after 6 months, at which point you will be back at 47$ a month. Overall I will call this an average cost of 36$/month, which is actually not horribly unreasonable at 25% off over the year. This gets you an internet speed which (under good network conditions, AKA don't think you'll get this on a weeknight between 8 and 12 PM) will allow you to download a standard definition movie in under 10 minutes (and is more than fast enough to stream television or movies via Netflix or other methods of more questionable moral ground).


For those of you well-versed in these matters, our baseline download speed for comparison here is 12Mbps, which works out to approximately 1.5 MB/s, again under optimal conditions. One final thing to consider about internet speeds is that these download speeds depend much more strongly on the ability of a company to supply the bits to you (in other words, their upload speeds) than on your connection. To give you a real world example of this, if you try to download a video file your friend put up on a blog which they are hosting from a home server, it will take some time because it is your friends computer which is the one storing this video, and you can only download it as quickly as they can get it to you. On the other hand, if you would like an example of a very fast download, head over to the apple website on a day when there is no major software releases (today being a slightly bad example with iTunes 10.5.1 coming out, but it will still be quite fast) and download the latest version of iTunes. You'll notice that even though it's a huge file (this one is about 65 MB depending on your computer) it will almost certainly take less than one minute (or over 1 MB/s) and can take 15 seconds (more like 4 MB/s). This is because companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft (anyone who requires that you download large files) have humongous "farms" of servers who are just sitting waiting for you to download these large files, so they can do so with little to no delay. These farms are essentially multi-million dollar warehouses packed with racks of what are basically internet-connected computer storage. Amazon is another company which actually sells this space and connectivity to people who either don't have room to build their own, or just find it simpler to essentially rent the use of this internet. This blog is actually "hosted" by Google, which is why even though it's just me writing it, you can access it extremely quickly. The result of all of this is that you can get your files as quickly as is possible given the Internet speeds you've paid for, and there will be as little delay as possible in getting your Internet to you.


Now, to get back to our little comparison. The other major player in the Internet game is Bell, and they have basically the exact same plans as Rogers, though bundled differently and their logo is blue as opposed to Rogers' red. Bell's plan which is on par with Rogers costs $53.95 (though it is currently being offered for $10/month off), and offers the same basic services as Rogers does, with a few perks. These are the addition of fast uploading of files (7x faster than on the basic plan) for 5$ a month, as well as additional 40 GB chunks of downloading for $5/40 GB. All of these additional features seem to make it a very good deal, but for the time being there is an even better promotion going on at Bell. For $34.48/month (for 1 year only) you can get double this internet speed (25 Mbps) with the fast upload built into the plan. For those of you who are on any other internet plan (and not on a contract) I would highly recommend this plan. It comes with 125 GB of download, again with the option to add additional 40 GB chunks for $5 each.  After this first year, the plan jumps back up to what it otherwise would be ($73.95). This plan is actually a perfect segue for the entire point of this post, that being that ISPs have way too much power over the average consumer, in that they can look at the big picture and sell these plans for half of their worth for a year. This nefarious plot is actually a way to confuse and extract money from the average person, who will see this plan and decide that is is perfect for them. Bell has spent a lot of money on this new nationwide fiber optic network, but everybody finds it extremely expensive and so new signups must not be what they expected. Seeing this, they have clearly decided that if they offer this plan at half price (and make no mistake, this is a GREAT price for a big ISP), they will lose money for the first year, after which the people who pay attention to what they are doing will get out of the plan and move to something which has come up in the intervening year. But many, many people who are signing up for this service between now and when the offer ends at the end of December will forget that it is only a year, and come 2013 will be very surprised that suddenly their prices for service have doubled. Either that, or (as the ISPs hope) they will just pay the difference without even noticing, or they will be very much enjoying the luxury of incredibly fast internet and won't want to go back, so they will justify this huge price increase in that way. But, fortunately for our generation, it doesn't have to be this way.


What almost everyone doesn't know is that there are actually many, MANY small internet providers which buy space in wholesale from Rogers and Bell and sell it to basically anybody who will listen. As this tide is starting to turn a little, some of these smaller services are actually forced to turn people away because they can't sign up people fast enough. There are countless providers like this which can be found at canadianisp.com, but for the purposes of this discussion I will use the company I have found, Teksavvy, as an example of one of these ISPs. This company leases space from Rogers and offers plans which are very similar to their services, but at more wholesale prices. For example, the standard plan which we discussed earlier was available for $36/mo (over a years contract) on Rogers, and on Bell was offered at $43.95 (after a ten dollar discount which applies to the first year). On Teksavvy, a plan with the same speeds is available for $37 per month. On the face of it, this seems slightly worse than Rogers sale price, but remember that with them you are forced into a contract to get this deal, and you only save $1/mo with this setup. This also brings me to the final point to consider. So far, all the plans I have discussed come with caps on usage which limit you to 50-60 GB/mo (which 1-2 users with moderate usage will probably never come up against). If, however, you would like to move more of your life digital, or find yourself being charged overages by your ISP (usually $0.50/GB), this is kind of a huge problem.


In the case of Teksavvy however, and many other smaller ISPs, since they are buying bandwidth wholesale, they will give you much higher caps, like 300 GB/mo for Teksavvy. Also, keep in mind that these guys are extremely happy to have your business, since they depend mostly on word-of-mouth, and so even if you do go over this cap (which would take several people on multiple devices really trying hard to do) the odds that they will actually charge you any overages is essentially nothing. I have been using Teksavvy for about 6.5 months, and the service has been great (since it uses Rogers lines to provide internet) and dealing with customer service has been wonderful (since you deal with Teksavvy CSAs and not Rogers ones, who are notoriously nasty on occasion). With such a large cap, it also becomes possible to fit several people onto one plan (we currently have 5 people, and visitors can bring that number up to 6-7) and have only very occasional problems with speed issues. The math of this setup means that we are each paying about $8/mo for as much internet as we can possibly consume. I have also recently upgraded to a plan called Extreme from Teksavvy (which will take effect this week) which doubles our speeds for an extra 6$/mo (or $1.20/mo/person more). I will report the results of this switch once it happens, but I am positive it will be a great experience for everyone involved, and I VERY highly recommend you at least evaluate your options with respect to internet service provider. It could save you a LOT of money. I hope you found that very interesting, I know in my research I certainly did.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Recent and Random (bonus: Introspective)

Hello and welcome back everyone, it has been a slightly off week so far, as I came down with a little cold/cough/sicky thing, and so doing anything besides lying around like a log has been rather difficult. I have decided, however, that it is time to write a little more. Since I don't really have a specific topic in mind, I was hoping for more of a general update on what I've been up to since the last time I sat down to write. It's been a pretty exciting week in the world of tech, specifically for me but also for the population as a whole. After I reviewed life with an iPad/bluetooth keyboard case combination (henceforth known as my laptop as I really hate saying "my iPad" but saying "my tablet" just doesn't sound right either) I have used it a few times. Mostly the case comes in handy when I'll be doing more than a little bit of typing, but I also very much enjoy the variable reading angle the case affords as compared to the smart cover which allows for reading at about 10 and 80 degrees, or flat on a surface. The battery life has also been great, I charged the keyboard once although there was no indication its battery was low, it had just been about a week. All in all, the keyboard is very responsive and it feels extremely natural to touch the screen when the use requires is as opposed to reaching for the trackpad or mouse, which is exactly what I was hoping for. I don't feel at all awkward doing this, which is a small relief.

Secondly, I made another technology related purchase this week, and finally received it today after almost 50 hours of waiting (God Internet, why can't you do things faster? Just kidding I love you!) I finally got my hands on it. I ordered a Mophie juice pack air, which some of you iOS users may recognize from the apple store as one of those cases you see on the shelf which seems pretty well designed and looks fairly appealing but it's crazy expensive. Well, obviously with spending almost 700 dollars on my phone I'm going to want to give it a small amount of protection. On that note though, I had always told myself that if I was going to spend money on a case, it was going to be absolutely perfect or have some other thing which sets it apart. In the case, both of those demands were met, though one of them was only realized after the case arrived. The first, and more important point is that this case has a battery built in, one which provides an equal amount of power as the phone's does, and so in theory will double the effective life of the phone. While the battery life of the iPhone has never really been an issue for me, it is nice to not have to worry about recharging the phone when you're about to leave the house, knowing that with the flick of a switch you can extend your battery by at least one more day, or that if your battery is at between 40-50% after a full day of use, you don't have to worry about charging the phone the following day because you can just apply your battery pack and go. The second reason, this being the one which I only discovered after trying the pack for a few hours, is that the geometry of the case (wherein the battery and requisite electronics are packed into the base of the case) means that my thumbs don't have as far to reach to get to the keyboard, and so typing is much more comfortable than without the case. While this case was about 90$ with tax included, I really do think I will get enough use out of it to justify this cost, and I will continue to make purchases like this in order to experience life the way I want it to be.

Finally, on a more serious note, I would like to share a little about the thoughts which have been running through my head. I have been going through various life options in the last few months, as part of a more pressing issue which revolved around my realization that I have no idea what I really want to do for the rest of my life. I have put out applications and filled out forms at a few of the establishments which are most important to me, but somehow I still feel rather unsatisfied. Maybe this is because I haven't found my calling in life yet, even though I do have some ideas. Assuming a 100 year lifespan, which is quite generous even given modern medicine, I'm 1/4 of the way through my life. I think to myself that by I now I should have a general idea what my life should be about. I realize that in the current iteration of the world that many people are just like me who are wandering aimlessly through across the earth, but I know there's something huge I'm meant to do with myself. I have been made aware in various ways that I'm not just an average human being, but I can't quite bring myself to be extraordinary enough to turn any heads. In a world of 7 billion people, it is clearly very easy to get stuck in a situation where you are clear you don't belong but aren't given any obvious escape. While I know there are many things I could do above the average proficiency of individuals who make a living doing a given job, I am not going to just be noticed and given the right job for me. If I want something of this nature to take place, I will actually have to apply myself and make it happen. Maybe I should put in the extra effort to actually make this happen and things will change for me, but finding the motivation for such a monumental shift in the way my life has been for so long is going to take quite a bit of working-up-to. History tells me I will probably be okay, but nevertheless I'd really like something more substantial soon, another year like this would really have me questioning my potential. I can't say for sure that writing more this week won't turn very philosophical and introspective again, but I can't really know that for sure. However, here's hoping! If you do actually get through all of this to the end, thanks very much for reading! I'll give you a cookie when I see you, as I probably won't read this myself ever again, with the possible exception being sometime in the distant future when I'm an executive in a very successful business doing great things for myself and for the world!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Typing into the future

Hey everybody, this is a test blog post which is also sort of a product review. It has been a while since I last wrote, and so as to not give the indication that I've given up on blogging, I thought I'd write a little something here. I recently sold my laptop, which was instrumental in writing my thesis as it allowed me the freedom to move around and get comfortable to write, and allowed me the structure and formatting capabilities of Microsoft Word. However, in the time since I finished the major writing portion of that, I've found myself using that particular piece of equipment much less than I otherwise would. Since I already had an iPad, I found myself reaching for that almost every single time I wanted to do a particular task in computing. Also, since my iPad has a longer battery life and is extremely small and light, it just made sense that if I was keeping one thing, it should be that. There was one small caveat to this decision though, and it was evident while I was making it. If I decided to go without a laptop, if I wanted to type while being majorly mobile, I would have to make due with typing on the screen keyboard of the iPad. While I have never had as much of a problem with this as other people, typing out longer things presents a two-fold problem. Firstly, the screen is virtual and so you must be paying rapt attention to the position of your hands at all times. Secondly, since the keyboard is on the screen, you must necessarily lose some screen space in order to type with it. When typing shorter messages, or replying to emails, or performing searches this was perfectly fine and actually quite convenient. No extra space for a keyboard was required, and the addition of a split keyboard when typing with thumbs in iOS 5 was a further excellent step and is something I use quite often. However, I do still enjoy writing longer documents and in these cases having some kind of keyboard is quite useful. I do not see any reason, though, to broadly state that a permanent physical keyboard is an effective use of space or mechanical function. There is no reason in the age of low power bluetooth devices, for any two pieces of equipment to be connected, unless there is a shortage of electrical power. For the time being at least, I don't consider myself to be lacking electricity in any way, and so this is not important to me. What I do realize is the next huge shift in computing, however, is the incorporation of touch into all of our devices. The idea of using a laptop trackpad to navigate our screens is just as laughable as the idea of using our hands on a mouse, if not more so. There is so much more our hands are capable of than using such an implement to manipulate objects on a computer screen. Personally, with about an hours use of a keyboard with no trackpad on my iPad, I will very likely never buy a computer with a trackpad on it again. If I do, the screen with still be touch (Dell is selling these true laptops with high-resolution 15" touch screens right now for about $100 more than non-touch screens). This is most likely a move by Dell to test the waters of such devices to precede the launch of Windows 8, which is in development right now and can be tested out at Microsoft Developers' Website. I have also put this operating system to the test, and it is very touch based. With that in mind, the launch in 2012 of this new touch-centric operating system will probably be joined with several different makers releasing touch laptops and tablets of their own running Windows 8. Presumably Dell is simply testing the waters with this launch and nothing will come of it, but I honestly believe that touch is the future, and that using a mouse on the computer will be phased out in the next few years.

Now, on to the actual topic at hand, now that I have written about its virtues. The keyboard and case which I bought is made by Belkin, a well-known iDevice case and accessory maker, and is called the Folio Case with Keyboard for iPad 2. It retails for $99 on the Belkin website, and I found it for $95 on Amazon. I am so far very impressed with it, and if you are interested in purchasing an iPad instead of a laptop but still want a keyboard, this works quite nicely. The only slight downsides I have found with it, which may not be a problem for non-power users, is that making custom commands which are not available would be nice. For one, I would very much like to be able to use multitasking via shortcut rather than either using the home button it has built in, or using gestures on the screen. Other than that, most every typical iPad function is considered here, and the case itself is very compact and protects both the keyboard and pad from anything external, as well as keeping them separate so as not to scratch the screen. I can't comment of yet as to the battery life of the keyboard, which charges via USB, but keyboards tend to be very low power so I expect a full day or two of battery even during a day of typing. It should be noted that this whole assemblage takes up no more space than would a MacBook Air, and is quite a bit cheaper than that, with a longer battery. I hope this has helped those of you in this market, and that you will be enlightened to what I think is really the future of not just mobile computing, but computing in general! Thanks, and I hope to get back to you all very soon!