Thursday, May 31, 2012

First impressions of the Mastech MS8226 DMM

Received two of these today.  I haven't used them yet, so take this for what it's worth.

The 8226 comes in the "T" and "non-T" version.  The "T" version is true RMS, which I did not get because I don't care about that for these meters.

The meters are built to the same quality and style as the Mastech MS8218.  In other words, perfectly well, as far as I can tell.  It doesn't look or feel cheaply built.  The boot/case is integral to the unit.  The unit has a separate on/off button, which personally I find rather welcome.

The build commonality extends to the battery cover, which uses simple turn fasteners.  Plus: they're nice to use.  Minus: they're not captive, and I often drop them when changing the batteries.

The versions I got were purchased from GoodLuckBuy, and came in as 9V versions.  Apparently some people have laid their hands on an AA version of this meter - nobody quite seems to know why.

I'm also not sure how.  My 9V versions cannot be converted to AA, as there is simply not enough room in the back of the meter for AA cells.  (AAA cells, maybe, but they're a half-step down from 9V batteries in my book.)  Thus, making an AA version is not just a question of swapping out a different battery carrier into the meter body at the factory.  You would need a completely different body, which seems highly unlikely to me.

I did not bother checking to see if the meter will run on 3V instead of 9V.  Some meters do, but since the AAs cannot be made to fit it's a moot point.

Normally, I would be rooting for getting the AA version - I hate 9V batteries almost as much as I hate AAA batteries.  Something to note, though, is that the 9V version are very easy to power from AC.  Seeing as these are logging meters, and may need to stay on for long periods, inexhaustible power is much more of a requirement.

For these, all you need is a 9V adapter with the right snap connector, which is easy to find.  AA or AAA meters need you to either make fake batteries or to jam wires directly in to the battery tabs - workable, but more hackish, and harder to set up.  So I'll happily take the 9V versions for the ease of mains adaptability.

The 8226s I got have some slight imperfections in the front casing, right next to the "MS8226 DMM" name.  They are hard to spot, but look like mold inserts for optional type-K thermocouples, plainly for a similar but different meter.

Note that this is not a defect so much as a consequence of sharing the same mold between different models of meter.  Still, there is no need to have these features quite so obvious on the meters that do not incorporate the extra slots.  In this sense the build quality is perhaps not up to perfection, but this is a pretty niggling point.

I have not looked inside the meter yet to see if there are any connectors on the board that would match up with these slots.  If the contacts were there, it might be possible to convert the meter to accept type-K thermocouples directly. 

The meter does come with one type-K, but it is custom to this meter and has a non-replaceable probe.  Allowing the meter to accept generic K-type probes directly would be a bonus.  I doubt the contacts are there, though, and there is also the possibility that even if they were, they wouldn't work.

The meter has a dedicated, yellow "RS232" logging button on the front.  Since the logging is, to my mind, one of the better features of this unit, the inclusion of an explicit button for this feature is a nice touch.

On the downside, the logging cable provided is an old-fashioned DB-9 serial connector.  The 8218 DMM came with a USB cable, not a DB-9.  To use the 8226 cables, you will need either a very old PC or RS-232 to USB adapters of some kind. 

This is an annoyance that could have been easily avoided by supplying the 8218-style cable with the 8226.  I will have to test my 8128 cable with the 8226 to see if it works or not.  If so, I'll want some more 8218 cables, which may be hard to get, or I'll need 232-to-USB adapters, which are hit-and-miss in operation. 

The unit does come with full retail packaging (mostly in Chinese) and a complete paper Chinese/English manual.  Nice looking/feeling leads, a single type-K thermocouple and a 9V battery are also included.

Also supplied is a CD-R (not a CD) with "DRIVER" that presumably has the datalogging software. No indications if the software will support multiple meters or multiple instances running on different ports.  I hope so, since having 2-4 meters running on 1 laptop would be much better than a 1:1 laptop-to-DMM ratio.

I did notice that there seems to be a discrepancy between the box (600V Cat III / 1000V Cat II) and the meter (1000V Cat III), if that matters to anyone.

The LCD is big and easy to read.  Hopefully I can get them logging - I'm sure I have some 232-to-USB converters around here somewhere....

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Muster/meeting/parking location for Hidden Trail Adventures, Canmore, AB

If there is one thing I hate, it is going somewhere and not knowing where to go.  Or, specifically, where to park.

In this case, the destination was "Hidden Trail Adventures", an ATV tour company operating out of the Ghost Waiparous area of Alberta.  A google of the name yields their website, along with a crappy map.  Not much help if you have never been there before. 

Google Maps has nada on their actual operating location.  Satellite is no help - there is no detail to the imagery in the Ghost area.  You can make out a few parking areas but not which is which.

Street View works, but the data was collected either before Hidden Trail set up shop or sometime when they were not on-site - probably the former, as none of the relevant signage is shown in Street View.

They do give good directions but that is not much help if you want to use a satnav to assist you.  It's one of those 'you have to know it to know it' sort of things.

Anyway, to assist anyone who is fortunate enough to go on a tour, here is a map of their exact actual location where you park your car and get on your quad:

http://www.google.ca/maps/ms?msid=204342292771663643711.0004c070ac8be84a79b8f&msa=0

I should also say that once you get to Hwy 40 N, there is only one road, so you can't miss.  Also, there is good signage to tell you when you have arrived, so the last 100m is taken care of.  So getting to 40 N is really the only hard part.

Be sure to gas up in Cochrane if you need it, though, as it's a 90 km round trip. 

Also, the last few km are gravel roads that are likely to be difficult, so don't think about taking your sportbike up there.  In poor weather conditions I'd hesitate to go without an AWD or 4WD vehicle, but my RWD sports car did manage to get up there without any difficulty in early summer.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

LCD monitors stuck on "Generic Plug & Play" and wrong resolution with W7 x64 and FirePro v8800

Microsoft has an annoying habit of rebooting my machine.  Yes, I know why they do this.  It is still annoying.

I still use a VGA/PS2 KVM.  Old school, sure, but it has two great advantages - it lets me control all my PCs and it works.

When MS decides to push out a reboot, and my KVM is set to a PC other than my main workstation, the main workstation display settings get confused.  The KVM-ed monitor will sometimes get stuck as "Generic Plug & Play Monitor" at the wrong resolution.

Worse, the 'correct' resolution is not listed in the standard Windows 7 display settings.  There is no option to force that resolution.

Resetting the KVM and rebooting the workstation should fix it, but sometimes does not.  Pressing "Detect" in the W7 display settings also does not fix anything, although it really should.

In this situation, I have found that simply opening up the ATI Catalyst Control Center will automatically fix the problem.  This means going to the system tray, right-clicking on the ATI icon, and selecting "Catalyst Control Center".

When you do this, the ATI code will run through your displays and automatically re-detect the correct model and settings.  The ATI control panel will appear, but you don't even need it, as the problem is already fixed.  You can just close it any be on your way.

[Edit]:  OK, this has started to become more wonky over time.  It's possible my old PS/2/VGA KVM is getting in the way, although I do not know why it would be an issue now and not before.  Hitting "detect" on the Catalyst CC is now sometimes no longer adequate to get the display back from "Generic" to the right settings.  Still, messing with it enough seems to eventually get it to work.

I did find some info on the net about forcing resolutions, but my version of Catalyst doesn't seem to have that option.

[Edit]:  Worked maybe 2 times, now it doesn't work any more.  Damn.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Impressions of the LG HBS-700 stereo headset

I have been taking a lot of calls at work lately.

I was using Sony's wired headphones. At $13 on eBay, they're hard to beat.  But the wires were a pain.  I keep my phone on my desk, so the headset effectively tied me there.

After reading on Lifehacker about a nice wireless stereo headset from LG, I bit.  Buying them on eBay from the aptly-named "LG Mobile Accessory" store, they showed up a little while later.

No way to know if the LG Mobile Accessory seller is for real or not.  But if these headphones are counterfeit, they are damn good counterfeits. Which actually counts for a lot, seeing as it takes attention and effort to counterfeit something like this effectively and accurately.  I'd guess they are totally legit.

And they work.  And when I say they work, I mean it ALL works.  All the music playback controls - forward, backward, play/pause, and volume - work flawlessly on my Xperia X10i using Poweramp.  The call controls similarly work flawlessly.  Oh, it's nice.

This is Froyo, so Gingerbread and ICS should also work.  Don't know about other players, phones, or platforms, though.  Support for Android seems to be the worst, so I'm betting Blackberry and iPhone will work fine as well.  Buyer beware.

It's not a stretch to say these are the nicest wireless headphones I've ever had.  My old Helium pair seemed cool enough for running, but their sound quality sucks.  The wired Sony headset works great, and is cheap, but is wired and doesn't "seem" to sound so good.  Could be just me on the Sony, but the Heliums are definitely not up to par.

The LG HBS-700 may look weird, but they're very comfortable, and they sound good.  Probably not audiophile-quality good, but pretty damn good anyway.  Great, to my ear, with only minor tweaks to Poweramps tone controls.

One problem was they only came with "medium" and "large" ear socks.  Previous and painful experience with the Sony set taught me the "medium" size is too large for me.  I stole the earsocks (or whatever they're called) off of a set of Sony wired earbuds to use on the LG.

In fact, if you look at the Sony Xperia wired earbuds and the LG HBS-700 wireless earbuds, they're identical.  No way to know if the drivers in them are the same, but it seems likely.  The earsocks fit fine on either set.

Setting the earbuds firmly in your ears is certainly key.  Without that, the bass will disappear.  They work by getting a good seal.  Some people's ears will not be able to take that for long periods of time without getting sore, but it might just be a matter of experimenting with different size earsocks.

Having your headphones around your neck all the time seems like a weird concept, but it works damn well.  There are always naysayers on these kinds of things, and big kudos to LG for not listening.

It's actually really nice to have all your controls always within convenient reach, and you never even notice the weight of the battery.  You get used to it really fast.

The earbuds are small and light, and so they become practically unnoticeable when wearing.  All the heavy stuff is on your neck and chest, and not dragging on wires or on your ears.

I'm glad I ponied up the $72 for these.  Finally, I can listen to tunes and take calls anytime, no wires.  Finally, I have a mobile phone headset that works.

[Edit]:  Or, at least, works as long as my wireless landline phones don't get any calls.  When the landline rings, my HBS-700s lose communication with my X10i.  Nuts.

Still, doesn't happen too often.  Didn't seem to be a problem before - maybe a low battery on the 700s was to blame?  Not sure yet.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Impressions of Nextivity Cel-Fi femtocell

(OK, so the Cel-Fi maybe isn't technically quite a femtocell.  Shoot me.  Actually, please shoot me, I just came back from a rotten business trip and am jet-lagged to hell.)

Every review I've read on the Cel-Fi sounds the same:
  • Bought it
  • Unpacked it
  • Installed it
  • Used it

Result:  It Works.

Yay.  Great review, guys!

It did work for me too.  Not a big surprise.

And, to be fair, there is little to review on the thing, as it has no controls or adjustments.  It's totally plug and play, which should be an advantage!  Somehow that gets lost in the quest for information.

So.  How WELL it works?  Hm.

Well, installing the "Window Unit" was just a matter of puttering about with my phone set to show the actual signal levels.  You can also use a signal strength widget or something, it doesn't matter.  I was most interested in what the handset was 'seeing'.

I was getting around -81 dB in my bedroom window.  That was only 5 dB better than anywhere else upstairs, but it was a convenient place to put it.

Your experience will likely be similar.  If you have half-assed coverage, precise placement probably isn't essential, so shelve any plans about reaching that big-yet-inaccessible window.  Apartment dwellers or suburbs on the outlying coverage areas who are stuck in the < -100 dB region at best may have more problems, I don't know.

Incidentally, the Window Unit is taller than you think from the pictures.  I had an idea to put it on the window sill, behind the blinds.  Would have been a tight fit.

You can wall mount it if you don't care about aesthetics - it isn't THAT pretty that you want to display it.  It does resemble a large Wifi router, but isn't art.  The Asus RT-N56U is just about art, but the Cel-Fi isn't.

The "Coverage Unit" is equally simple and fast.  It does take time to move around and test it.  If you aren't curious, you will probably find it reads 6 or 7 at the first location you try it, which ain't bad.  It's also pretty large but will blend in to any hi-tech interior theme no worries.  It doesn't look half bad in my living room, where it ended up.  Nobody will see it there anyway, the room is really not used.

I'm not at all sure what the "coverage number" on the unit is meant to indicate.  Obviously, the closer you move the coverage unit to the planned point of use, the stronger the signal at that point of use.  But the "coverage number" doesn't take proximity into any specific location into account.  So I'm not sure.  Maybe it's measuring the overlap between the Window and Coverage Units, but it's not proportional to distance.

I could have placed mine in the basement, but I mainly use the phone in my main floor office.  So I put it on the main floor, but not in my office, to try and get better coverage through the rest of the house.

I did get about the same numbers everywhere - 6 or 7, generally.  This includes going from the upper floor to the basement.  In the current position, the indicator occasionally changes between 7 and 8, so I'll take it.

The coverage unit is about 40' from my office, on the same floor.  There are two hollow plasterboard/drywall walls in between, as well as one wall that is mostly window.

In my office, on my desk, my handset picked up about 30 dBm of signal, as measured on the handset itself at a fixed position.  That's easily enough to push it up to "five bars" of coverage.  Similar results throughout the floor that houses the Coverage Unit.

The 'ASU' number also increased, as might be expected.  It went from around 3 or 8 to about 16 asu.  (This being Android, the ASU isn't the same as the GSM RSSI or anything, but it does provide an indication of signal strength.)

"Five bars" on my handset appears to be anything over about -85 dBm, and the unit seems workable down to around -100 dBm, so 30 dBm of improvement is significant no matter how you measure it.

In the washroom next to my office, I rarely if ever got any workable signal.  With the Cel-Fi, it's now at "four bars", which is easily workable.

Right next to the Coverage Unit, I get about -65 dBm of signal.  That's up from -91m to -103m dB of signal that I got 'native' from the towers.  So I could always increase my reception further just by moving the unit closer to my point of use, but I don't need to.

The 'H' on my handset also seems to be more consistent - H means HSPA, as opposed to 3G coverage.  So the Cel-Fi appears to work fine with HSPA.  My unit is for Wind Mobile, so YMMV on this point. I have not done rigorous testing to verify this point either.

There was a note on the packaging to read the disclaimer regarding 911 service.  I could not find any such note right away, but I presume the Cel-Fi can goof 911 location services based on cell tower triangulation or the like.

Adding a new, unknown 'tower' into the mix will obviously screw up any location algorithm, although it presumably only goofs it to the extent that the phone is distant from the Window Unit.  That isn't typically very far.  Still, something to know before you buy.

The coupon that is running around - "5BARS", I think - is still valid for $100 off, so use it.  I paid about $32 in tax and fees when it crossed into Canada.  I just missed co-ordinating the delivery with a business trip, but the box is relatively large (if flat) and carrying it back might have been a pill.  If you have a large carry-on it would fit, but take up half the case.  If you have a larger checked bag, it would fit OK.

Obviously not everyone is going to want this thing.  At about $500 at current $CAD exchange rates with coupon, it is an investment in the future.

I would not have bothered except my wife is now also on Wind, making it a better investment.  You can think of it as re-investment of Wind savings into better infrastructure, or a bit of a gyp in that you are paying to shore up Wind's inferior network.  Take your pick.

For my case, it not only works, it works well.  Plus it is plug and play and takes no effort to set up to speak of.  It has no competitors to speak of - JDTeck doesn't count, they all use external antennas and make you run cables.  Cel-Fi does not.

That leaves only two criteria - price, and the fact it only works with one network at a go.  Although some carriers share frequencies, Cel-Fi apparently does not - it is 'locked' to a particular carrier and will not share over to a similar one.  I imagine reprogramming is possible, but I have not heard of anyone successfully convincing Nextivity to reflash their Cel-Fi for an alternative carrier.

For businesses this thing could be a godsend.  It allows you to retain your existing investment and carrier arrangements while not having to live with crap coverage.  In fact, for the price, most medium-sized businesses who are experiencing problems would be nuts not to get it.  For the cost of a single handset, you can eliminate a nagging constant daily problem that may be impacting your business activities more than you care to admit.

Individuals are a harder sell.  I resisted getting one until my wife also switched to Wind, at which point I didn't want her to complain that her new phone was worse than her old Bell.  The Wind plan saves her about $10/mo, which is not stellar, but will still subsidize the Cel-Fi.  For my part, Wind has saved me a considerable amount and has probably paid for the Cel-Fi twice over already, but I was willing to put up with slightly inferior service.  I doubt my wife wants to make the same compromises.

Bottom line:  If you want it, get it.  It works.