REVIEW: Sonic Boom! Alarm Clock

What: The alarm that no one can sleep through.
Where: Available online; I used
How Much: $34.99 (though I got mine on sale for $32.99)

I have a problem waking up in the mornings. Not only have I always been a heavy sleeper, I’ve also had a lifelong habit of staying up far too late into the wee small hours of the morning to allow for early rising. Because of this one-two whammy, I’ve never found an alarm clock that could wake me up properly. Oh sure, I’ve tried all sorts of tricks – randomly switching the alarm between CD or radio or buzz. I’ve tried moving the alarm clock to different places in the room. I’ve tried one of those clocks that gradually increases the volume of the alarm. You name it, I’ve tried it.

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REVIEW: Archos AV400 Portable Media Player

What: Possibly the best all around portable media player
Where: Stores everywhere; Archos’ homepage is here.
How Much: Around $449

There are dozens of devices out there that can play digital video these days: laptops, PDAs, Smartphones, portable DVD players and personal media players. Each of these devices have their strengths and weaknesses. Laptops have huge color screens and large hard drives, but they’re rather bulky (and expensive and quite heavy at the lower price points). PDAs and Smartphones are as portable as can be, but almost all of them use some form of Flash memory, which means hours of re-encoding videos, not to mention the hassle of keeping track of 4 or 5 SD or CF cards. Portable DVD players are pretty neat, but are typically plagued by short battery life and the lack of codec support (MP3? Maybe. FLAC or Ogg? No. DivX? Maybe. Xvid? No.) Plus, DVD players also require you to carry around a CD case full of discs, which makes them less portable that you might initially think, especially on airplanes or inter-city trains.

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REVIEW: Motorola IMFree Wireless IM

What: A wireless IM device for AOL Instant Messenger
Where: Many vendors (see below)
How Much: $10-$129 (see below)

IMFreeThe tech world is littered with products that may (or may not) have been good ideas. One of the most famous (infamous?) was DIVX – not the popular MPEG4 video format, but the “DVD rental replacement” player. The premise behind DIVX players was that you could go to Circuit City and buy a DIVX movie disc for around $6. Once you put the disc into a special DVD\DIVX hybrid player, a chip inside the player would record the discs’ title and only allow you to play the disc for 48 hours. After that time, you could play the disc again by paying a “continuation fee” of around $3.25 or you could even upgrade the disc to “Silver status” allowing for unlimited playing. This was all done via a modem built-in to the DIVX player that would connect to a central server and charge your credit card accordingly. Although it seems silly now, there was great fear at the time that certain movies would come out in DIVX format only and thus turn the entire home movie market into one huge pay-per-view moneygrab by the movie studios. (For what it’s worth, the DivX MPEG4 video format was named after the failed DVD substitute as a last “Ha-ha” to the content industry.)

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REVIEW: VoiceEclipse VoIP Service

What: Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone service
How Much: $19.95/month

When I moved from Atlanta to Charlotte, I wanted to be able to keep in touch with family and friends as much as possible. To that end, Lisa and I signed up for MCI’s “The Neighborhood” plan, which gave us unlimited local and long distance calling for around $49.99 a month. This worked well for us for a couple of years, but two problems cropped up which made the plan less attractive: for starters, I simply lost touch with many of my Atlanta friends, which made the plan seems less necessary. Also, MCI raised the monthly fee, so that with taxes one month of “The Neighborhood” ended up costing around $76.

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REVIEW: Uniden CLX475 Phone System

What: A multiple handset phone system from Uniden
Where: Many vendors (We bought it from Sam’s Club)
How Much: around $169 (see below for more information)

Uniden phonesLisa and I recently switched from a traditional phone service to voice over IP (VoIP) provider VoiceEclipse (see my review of the service here). One significant change with switching over to VoIP is that (for the most part), you’re stuck with a single phone jack – which is located on the back of the device the VoIP company sends you that connects to your router or cable modem. While it’s certainly possible to rewire your house for VoIP service, it’s simply a task that most folks don’t have the expertise or confidence to do. So the easy answer for this is a multi-headset phone. Although I was eager to volunteer my services, I don’t think that Lisa really wanted me monkeying around with the telephone cabling.

Now, multi-headset phones have (of course) been around for a while. But it’s only within the past year or so that they’ve actually become affordable in my opinion. But regardless of the model you choose, the phones all offer the same benefit: you can use multiple handsets from a single “base”, which means that you only need a single phone jack to use them anywhere throughout the house – which is prefect for VoIP.

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REVIEW: Illegal Tender

What: An awesome book by author David Tripp
Where: Bookstores everywhere
How Much: $16.38 from Amazon (as little as $2.70 used)

Would you believe me if I told you that one of history’s greatest mysteries was about… a handful of coins? Author David Tripp makes the case with his book Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, a tale of intrigue at the highest levels of government, back-room deals between shady coin dealers, a madness of pursuit worthy of the search for the Holy Grail… and one corpulent and corrupt king.

Here’s the basics of the story in a nutshell:

Theodore Roosevelt had long been critical of the beauty – or lack thereof – of American coinage. In fact, one of the things he was bound and determined to do while in the White House was to remedy this, and to that end he sent a brutally short and to-the-point memo to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortimer Shaw on December 27, 1904: “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” This memo set off a chain of events that eventually resulted in the hiring of famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign American coins. Although Saint-Gaudens was in ill health – as it turns out, he would barely live long enough to see his designs to completion – he took to the task with gusto, creating new designs for just about every American coin. Sadly though, most of Saint-Gaudens’ designs were simply too complex for the Mint to implement. Striking a coin four times was perfectly acceptable for medallions, but it just wasn’t cost-effective to do the same for pennies. Of all of Saint-Gaudens’ designs, the only one to be implemented without major alterations would be $20 gold piece, which was nicknamed the “double eagle”. The coin would go down in history as perhaps the most beautiful coin the United States ever minted, and it would enjoy robust circulation for around 25 years.

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