August 24, 2009

REVIEW: Asus Eee 1000HA

In 2007 we bought a Compaq Presario 714NR for our first laptop. In May, the power converter on the motherboard was fried when the power cord shorted out.

Although the laptop was useful, it left a few things to be desired. For starters, Vista Premium on a low end processor is not for those who are in a hurry. Even after shutting down all the fancy graphics and extraneous programs to speed it up, the machine was still just tolerable. To make matters worse, the battery barely lasted an hour, making portability very questionable.

As a result, I started looking at netbooks as a potential replacement. To me, the 9" machines didn't make much sense, just too small and too many compromises in the keyboards and readability of the screen. I also wanted to ensure there was plenty of battery life, if it was intended to be portable, then darn it I want to be able to use it away from a wall plug. Asus seems to be the only manufacturer taking battery life seriously (at least with out having to buy an extended battery), so I quickly decided they were the way to go.

After checking several websites I found the 1000HA at ZipZoomFly for $313.99 with a $30 mail in rebate & free shipping. The free shipping was rather slow, but it got here and what do you expect for free?

Setup was a breeze and the WinXP install has very little bloatware slowing it down or filling the hard drive. I'll say I have probably average sized hands and the keyboard is no problem for all but the very seldomly used keys. Enter & backspace fall just in the right locations which really make a big difference for my typing.

The touch pad is adequate, I do wish it was a little larger, but it's not a huge deal. Sensitivity seems fine, more comfortable than our previous laptop. The multi-touch feature works pretty well. Zoom is a bit frustrating to control, but scrolling works pretty well. I recommend using a thumb and pointer finger held together to operate the scroll feature. Using the pointer and middle finger results in lots of unintended zooming.

Battery life has been good. It's not the 7 hours claimed, but maybe 5 with wireless on continuously and not adjusting screen brightness or messing with the other power saving settings too much. I'm sure you could tweak out more if you needed to. The screen is small, but usable. Remember to use F11 to shrink firefox (or IE if you are still a slave to the man) to a streamlined header. It is definitely needed for some web pages to avoid a lot of up/down scrolling.

My only disappointment physically thus far is the quality of the power button. It just doesn't seem as solid as the rest of the machine. Software-wise, I was a bit disappointed that hibernate wasn't activated by default. For a machine focused on power savings, this seemed odd. Maybe the idea is that the quick boot time makes up for it? After using it for awhile hibernate is useful for short term shut down, but over night turning the machine off makes more sense. Windows just doesn't handle memory management well enough.

Performance has been decent, we use it almost entirely on battery so we are in power saver mode all the time. It runs about as good as our old laptop, so if we plugged it in and used performance mode, it would likely be impressive. An upgrade to 2Gig of memory would certainly help as well, and I will probably undertake the effort in due time. Keep in mind though that this is based almost exclusively on surfing the web. If you think you are going to edit pictures or play the latest video games, you will be very disappointed.

All in all, for a checking e-mail/surfing the web/light work sort of machine, I highly recommend the Eee 1000HA. If you plan to use it for more than that, I would recommend looking at a full laptop.

April 27, 2009

REVIEW: Convert AA Batteries to C or D

'D' Size Adapter for Two 'AA' Batteries These days it seems every kids toy available (and plenty of big kid toys) takes batteries of one sort or another. Rechargeable AA's make a great alternative to disposable alkaline batteries, but what do you do about C and D size batteries?

There are NiMH batteries built to the C and D sizes (as well as 9 volt), however they tend to be expensive and require a specialized charger. You need to be careful as well with capacity, the rechargeable C and D sizes are often times the same capacity as a AA battery. Surprisingly, the Energizer system of falls into this unglamorous category.

Instead, I recommend using adapters that allow your AA batteries to fit in the battery compartment of your C or D powered device.
How is this possible?

All three battery sizes produce 1.5 volts in their disposable form (rechargeable batteries come rated at 1.2 volts). The 'AA' size is smaller in both length and diameter, so an adapter just has to fill in the extra space to fit the electrical terminals.

AA's in 'D' Size Adapter
These Soshine C-size and D-size battery adapters from perform exactly that function, and for a good price.

The D size adapters allows the use of 2 AA batteries at a time. This doubles the available capacity allowing less frequent battery changes.
The negative terminal end is a hinged door with a snap tight latch.
The latch takes a good amount of effort to open. In fact, those with weak fingernails probably need to use a screwdriver to avoid winding up with a broken nail.
The hinge too seems to be quite strong. Sometimes with hinged plastic I fret continually that it will break, not so with these. Overall I've been very happy with the quality of these adapters.

I have been similarly happy with the C size adapters, although I have not used them nearly as much as the D's.
Instead of being hinged at the end like the D's, the C's are hinged along the length of the adapter. This hinge is of similar high quality as the D adapter. The latch is much easier to open, but still does a good job locking the case around the battery.
'C' Size Adapter for one 'AA' Battery
I heartily recommend either battery adapter as a great companion gadget for your rechargeable AA batteries. There are other brands out there and I've tried a few of them, but the combination of features, especially on the D size adapter is unmatched.

April 22, 2009

TIP: Save Some Cash, Save the Earth

Do you have stuff lying around you don't need anymore? Have you kept it around because it wasn't "worth" anything, yet it is too good to throw out? Then you are a perfect candidate to join Freecycle!

Freecycle is

. . . a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving
(& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It's all about reuse and
keeping good stuff out of landfills.

Freecycle uses e-mail groups to notify members in their local area of items available from other members. Those that are interested reply to the poster. Generally, the first person to respond to the post is given first priority to pick up the item. Nothing is bartered or bought, every exchange is completely free with no strings attached.

My wife has been a 'Freecycler' for a couple years now and has not only picked up a number of items for the house and kids, but has also used it to give away a number of items we no longer needed. Among the acquisitions, a printer/copier/scanner that needed ink, a kids art easel, kids clothes and many other items. We have given away a vacuum cleaner, infant formula coupons, and dried flowers among others.

The exchange is generally made with the giver leaving the item on their doorstep for a specific range of time. The receipient is given the address in a private e-mail (and directions if necessary but most people look it up on mapquest or google maps). Unfortunately, there does seem to be a higher than desired no-show rate, so if you decide to get involved, please be considerate and pick up the items you request.

Each freecycle network has it's own flavor. Some are very active, such as those in Connecticut, others are less so. Either way, it is worth checking out

April 10, 2009

INFO: Harbor Freight On-Line Coupon Tracking

Harbor Freight has continual sale and coupon deals going on. Unfortunately, it is hard to know what a 'good' price is on an item. This database tracks the weekly online coupons. Using the search function, a desired product ID code can be checked verses the database to see what the best price is.

April 1, 2009

REPAIR: Kids Electric Toothbrush

They just don't make things like they used to, do they? My daughter received an electric toothbrush for her birthday. In a matter of days, the screw holding the battery cover on had ripped through the thin plastic, leaving the battery unable to maintain contact with the terminals.

I considered pouring an epoxy replacement and re-drilling the hole. But the time involved and low likelihood of success left me wanting an easier solution.

I again made use of plastic package material in the repair. I first cut a small piece of packaging material to fit the bottom of the brush. Drilling a small hole to allow the screw to engage the threads in the toothbrush creates a very simple washer. It is a crude, but effective fix.

The toothbrush doesn't stand flat anymore, and it doesn't look the best, but it works and that's all that matters.

March 22, 2009

TIP: Re-Use Tie Wraps From Kids Toys

Manufacturer's seem to love creating waste when packaging kids toys. I suppose it is all done in the name of marketing, but have you seen the amount of effort put into making the toys visible in the packaging?

Among the methods used to make removing toys from their boxes completely impossible are plastic coated tie wraps. Some of these can be fairly long and are of a pretty decent quality (at least compared to garbage or bread twist ties.

The most obvious use for these twist ties is in holding things together like extra cable and rope. A less obvious use is to use them as a wire jumper on a prototyping breadboard. Not all of these twist ties are of the right gauge wire. The ones that are, however, can be cut to the necessary length and stripped of a quarter inch of plastic at each end to create free jumpers.

I am sure there are plenty of other uses out there waiting to be found. Anywhere you need a flexible, fairly strong wire these can fill the bill.

March 14, 2009

REPAIR: Canon Digital Camera CCD Flaw/Free Service

In October, our digital camera (Canon A80) stopped working. The pictures all had red strips through them and were completely unusable.

I didn't figure there was much hope for fixing it myself, so we went ahead and bought a new Canon A590IS. Before getting rid of the broken camera, I figured it was worth a shot trying to find a repair.

After a few minutes of Googling, I came across this site: Do It Yourself Digital Camera Repair. Which references the exact problem I was having and takes you to Canon's repair site. Gotta love the power of Google search!

According to Canon the problem is:
It has been confirmed that the connecting parts of the internal wiring of the CCD used in affected products may become disconnected, especially if the affected products are stored or used in high-temperature and high-humidity environments. If this occurs, the signal is not output from the CCD normally in Shooting Mode, which may cause a distorted image or the absence of an image. This malfunction can be confirmed on the LCD monitor screen during shooting. The same malfunction also appears on the recorded image.

I called the customer service number and set up the repair. The gentleman I talked to was very helpful, more so than most any customer service line I have called. He actually wanted to help instead of being annoyed that I was bothering him with my call. Definitely a refreshing call.

After a few days I received an e-mail with a pre-paid UPS mailer to print out. I sent it on it's way and within a couple weeks had a snail mail letter saying the repair would be done for free and to expect the camera back in a week or two.

Unfortunately three weeks passed and nothing came. I looked up the reference number on the letter and come to find out it had been mailed out a couple weeks prior, but to the wrong address. I looked up the UPS tracking records and they had sent it back to Canon. So I called the actual repair location expecting them to say we have no idea where it would be. Again I was pleasantly surprised by another customer service representative who was able to help me quickly and efficiently.

I do have to note however that even after correcting the address, UPS still had to call me to verify the correct destination. A bit annoying, but I'll let it slide.

The camera works as good as new! I am quite happy to have it back since I have the dedicated underwater case which I had no idea what to do with. My father in law had the same issue at the same time with his camera (Also an A80). I forwarded the information about the repair and am happy to report he also was able to get his camera fixed. His came back in about 2 to 3 weeks time.

Models Canon will fix as part of this 're-call': A60, A70, A75, A300, A310, S230, SD100, SD110, A40(*), A80(*), A85(*), A95(*), S1 IS(*), S60(*), S200(*), S330(*), S400(*), S410(*), S500(*)

March 8, 2009

TIP: Use "Dead" AA Batteries in Wall Clocks

When your AA powered gadget runs out of power, do you toss the batteries without thinking?

Many times those batteries still have plenty of power, just not for the device they were removed from. Wall clocks that use a single AA battery can run off a "dead" battery for 6 months or more.

The time will depend on how much voltage the battery can still provide. Which in turn is dependent upon how sensitive the original device was to voltage. The lower the voltage the device accepts, the more run down the batteries will be, and the shorter the time they will power the clock.

Even though I use mostly rechargeable batteries, there are still several applications where good old alkalines make the most sense. As a result, I have a stockpile of half used AA's in an old peanut butter jar just waiting to be used up in a clock.

So give those AA's a second life. It'll mean a few more battery changes, but you'll get the full life out of your AA's.

March 4, 2009

TIP: No excuse not to use rechargeable batteries

Alkaline batteries, specifically the AA size, enable all sorts of electronic gadgets. Many modern gadgets, however, go through AA's so quickly that it quickly becomes costly to keep the devices powered up.

The original rechargeable batteries were NiCAD or nickel-cadmium chemistry. They worked, and still have their uses in battery packs for cordless telephones and portable power tools, but as AA's, they are a little limited in today's gadgets. The capacity of these older chemistry batteries just can't keep up with modern demands. in addition, they suffer from a detrimental memory effect which can lead to a permanent reduction in the battery's capacity.

NiMH batteries took care of the memory issues and represented a significant improvement in capacity as measured by the milliampere-hour (mAh) rating. Instead of the sub 1000 mAh ratings for Ni-Cad AA's, ratings in the mid-2000's are common place and go as high as 2900 mAh (please be careful of manufacturer's ratings, some have a tendency to let's just say, round up, this is especially true of cheap no-name batteries).

The NiMH chemistry is not perfect, however. The batteries suffer from significant self-discharge and while they are often claimed to have long lives, they do seem to fall short of the claims if used 'hard' (ie high current draw applications).

Today, there is a second generation of NiMH batteries referred to as "low discharge". As one might presume, this newer chemistry addresses the self-discharge issue that plagues the standard NiMH. Nothing is free in life, however, and at least for now these batteries are of lower capacity than the high end standard NiMH. Most of these newer batteries fall in the 2000-2100 mAh capacity range.

Unfortunately, the industry has not come up with a good marketing term to discriminate between regular and low discharge NiMH batteries. The most common method of separation is the use of the term "pre-charged" somewhere on the low discharge battery package. Because of the low discharge properties, manufacturers are able to ship the batteries already charged and ready to insert into your electronics.

So if you haven't already, give rechargeables a try, there's something for everyone! I recommend high capacity standard NiMH for high current draw applications to maximize battery life. For low current draw applications, the low discharge version is the best choice.

February 21, 2009

FAIL: Cordless Drill Battery Modification

Not every DIY project succeeds. Sometimes, there are failures. Sometimes the failures are pretty spectacular. It is ok to fail, however, so long as you learn something. This is why I am sharing these not so successful projects.

A few years ago the battery pack in my Ryobi 9.6 volt cordless drill died, I decided a replacement battery was just too expensive for the value of the drill. I had nothing to lose with the battery at that point, so after disassembling it, I determined that a bunch of NiMH AA cells could replace the existing Ni-Cad 'sub C' cells for the same voltage, but with 30-50% increased capacity (mAh).

Thomas Distributing carries tabbed NiMH cells. The tabs make it easier to solder cells together to form a battery pack. So I ordered up the right amount of cells and set to work.

Not having performed a lot of electrical tinkering at that point in my life, I foolishly used 22 gauge wire to connect the battery tabs together. It's what I had on hand, but sometimes you just have to buy the right material for the job. The battery pack went together pretty easily and it wasn't long before I had it charged up and ready to go.

Unfortunately, this is where the story goes down hill...For a project I was working on, I needed to drive four 6" screws into solid oak blocks. I got through about one and a half before the smoke started pouring out of the battery compartment. I quickly tore it apart and separated the batteries, my heart racing the entire time.

The high torque required to drive the screws into the hard oak (it nearly stalled the drill) drew so much current from the battery pack that the wires heated up to the point of melting the insulation and causing the pack to short out. Several of the batteries got so hot that they vented acid inside the enclosure.

Undaunted, I ordered more batteries and rebuilt the battery pack using heavier gauge wire.

Since I still needed to drive the remaining screws, I again used them as my test subjects. I got through the remaining screws just as the smoke started pouring out of the battery pack, again.

This time, before I could get it torn apart to stop the short, one of the cells exploded with a rather impressive bang!

That marked the end of my attempt at cordless drill battery pack re-building. I never figured out exactly what caused the second meltdown. Obviously something shorted out, but it didn't appear to be the same problem as before.

Under normal use the re-built battery pack would have worked just fine, but the extreme test conditions I put it through were too much. I would rather have an early failure, however, than to be lulled into a false sense of security. Especially considering the potential to have caused a fire.

So my recommendation is, don't try this at home. And by the way, I ended up spending more on the batteries than if I had just bought a new OEM battery pack.

February 19, 2009

TIP: Disposable Epoxy Mixing Trays

Epoxy, that universal fix for everything that duct tape can't handle (wait, duct tape can't fix everything?). Unfortunately, anything you mix it on needs to be disposable. But paper can soak through, and cardboard soaks up the epoxy and gets droopy or can contaminate the epoxy with fibers. So what is one to do?

Save the flat areas of the clear plastic packaging that is used on everything from kids toys to memory cards (I believe it is sometimes referred to as clam shell packaging). Then use it to create custom sized trays to mix the resin and hardener on. I have found this type of plastic to be just the right thickness to make a good tray. Small pieces are stiff enough to not droop, yet it is easy to cut.

In addition to the tray, you can also cut out a small 'spatula' to do the mixing and applying with. Or, whittle down a popsicle stick if you need something a little firmer.

When you are done with your repair, let the remaining epoxy dry and throw it away, no mess, no fuss.

February 18, 2009

REPAIR: Cordless Phone Battery Modification

My wife picked up a pair of cordless phones on Freecycle to replace our old phone that was dying a slow and staticy death. Unfortunately, one of the handsets didn't work when we plugged it in.

I suspected it was just a battery issue, and after swapping batteries between the two handsets was able to confirm my suspicion.

Since I had recently replaced the battery in the old phone, I figured no problem, just swap batteries. Or not, as it turns out the connectors between the two brands of phones are different.

There's nothing special about cordless phone batteries, in the end they are just 3 Ni-Cad AA's linked in series to give 3.6V at whatever capacity you want. The more milliamperes (mAh), the longer the talk time. In fact, you could easily buy your own batteries and wire them up to create your own battery pack. But, in this case I just wanted to swap connectors for a quick and dirty fix.

The swap is easy. Snip the wires on both batteries to remove the connectors. Strip a quarter inch or so of insulation from both the desired connector and new battery. The wires for both parts should be color coded red for positive and black for negative. Cross the stripped end of the red wires from the connector and battery and twist to create a connection.

If you feel motivated, the wires can be soldered together to guarantee the connection will not pull apart. I did not do this for two reasons. One, I was in a hurry to make sure the phone worked, and two, the soldered joint will be less flexible for installation in the phone. Another consideration is that the wires are not loaded once installed in the phone, so there is little to no risk of the splices being separated.

Now repeat for the black wires. When finished, wrap the wires individually in electrical tape to hold the splices together and prevent shorting. Re-install into the phone and you are done!

My phone has been operating on the modified battery for about a year now with no ill effects. In fact, we can't tell the difference between the two handsets unless the back cover is removed.

This method could easily be used to maximize the talk time for your cordless handset by utilizing a higher mAh battery pack than normal. You could also save a few bucks by picking the cheapest replacement battery available, regardless of brand and then adapting it to your phone.

February 15, 2009

Welcome to my little corner of the world!

Here are the chronicles of my tinkering. What is a tinkerer? According to Merriam-Webster: work in the manner of a tinker ; especially : to repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner

While in my professional career I'm paid to do the opposite of tinker, at home it's all I do. College may have prepared me for life as a design engineer, but no one teaches you how to repair home electronics or build gadgets. It seems in fact, that in this age of mass produced junk electronics, that the art of tinkering is being lost, or more appropriately, being driven into extinction.

I grew up with my family the proprietors of a repair shop, doing metal fabrication, vehicle repair, small engine repair and whatever else could be done to make a few bucks. Time and cheap Chinese imports passed the business by years ago, but it left an indelible mark on how I approach life.

I hope that by sharing some of my exploits I can help someone save a buck or two, and find satisfaction in doing it themselves.