Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Worst Purchases of 2011

These days, when the cost of just about everything seems to increase faster than our annual raises are able to cover, it really stings when we invest time and ever-more-precious money into a product or service that falls short of expectations. These four things I bought in 2011 didn't just fall short; they did a full-on Chevy Chase faceplant into failure. I'm calling them out here to highlight the very specific mistakes these manufacturers and service providers made, and to also recommend some alternatives that worked out for us in the end.

HP Photosmart e-Station C510a
Our requirements for a replacement for our previous HP printer were pretty straightforward:
  • We wanted it to have wireless support, so we didn't have to leave a computer powered on 24/7 for other PCs in the house to print on it.
  • It needed to scan and make copies.
Of course, it should also print- but we just sort of took it for granted that a printer would do that. Who would ever make a printer that wouldn't print?

The thing is, the HP software required to send print jobs from the various PCs in the home to the printer sucks. Sometimes it crashes, sometimes it can't find the printer, and sometimes your print jobs just vanish into the aether. It's quite possible that the directions to a Cub Scout meeting that my wife repeatedly attempted to print landed on the output tray of some hapless HP owner in Namibia. We will never know.

Something that seemed neat at first but turned out to be awful is the printer's touch-screen control panel (irritatingly called the "Zeen"), which is actually a detachable Android tablet. It's a thick, sluggish, artificially crippled Android tablet, but at least you can (slowly) browse the web from the toilet with it. (As long as you don't need Flash.) Problem is, the tablet failed at its primary job of operating the printer. Half the time it didn't realize it was docked on the printer. The rest of the time it openly defied any of my wife's attempts to make it do anything related to printing, scanning, or copying. Oh, and every couple of weeks it randomly lost all of its settings, requiring me to run through the setup wizard in order to make the printer "work."

What we bought instead
The Canon Pixma MX882 Wireless Office All-in-One Inkjet Printer. This thing does everything the HP claims to, without requiring you to reboot your computer or re-run initial setup procedures every time you need to use it. The support software is a little clunky, but it works.

Safe Eyes
My son and daughter are blossoming nerds, and the Internet is a vital and regular part of their lives. Unfortunately the Internet is dangerous for kids anyone with eyes, so we needed a way to give our kids access to the sites and programs they needed while completely blocking out the rest of the web. Safe Eyes seemed to do the trick at first. We set up a whitelist (where you explicitly specify which sites the kids are allowed to access) and I used a network sniffer to determine which sites the kids' online games (Minecraft, Roblox, Toontown Online, and Lego Universe) needed to access.

Wait... why in the hell did I have to set up a network sniffer? How many parents even know what a network sniffer is? Well, funny thing- Safe Eyes only seems to understand traditional browser traffic. It doesn't quite know what to make of the proprietary protocols that games tend to use, so it just quietly blocks them. Problem is, it doesn't record which sites it's blocking when this happens like it would if you attempted to browse to a blocked website in Firefox. And there's no way to whitelist at the application level; in other words, you can't tell Safe Eyes "never block traffic from this program." (You might find a couple of technical articles explaining that this is possible, but those articles are wrong. You can only block applications in Safe Eyes, not allow them.)

Unfortunately, online games are dynamic; they can add new servers and change content providers and file hosts in the background any time you log in. Every couple of weeks one or more of the kids' games would break again, and I'd have to set up the sniffer and figure out which new sites we needed to add to the whitelist.

But there was another problem! Since Safe Eyes doesn't "get" online games, if a kid played a game for more than 15 minutes, Safe Eyes would mistakenly assume that no one was using the Internet and quietly log out, blocking ALL Internet access on that PC. This is not a documented feature, and there is no way to keep Safe Eyes from doing it. (Actually, I wrote a little program that randomly connects to various web sites in the background to trick Safe Eyes into thinking someone was using the Internet. Again, how many other parents would be able to do this, and why should they have to anyway?) It really screws up games, too; my son would just spontaneously lose his connection in the middle of a quest, and have to quit his game, sign back in to Safe Eyes, and log in to the game again, typically losing progress in the process.

Oh, their support sucks too. Email support never wrote back to me the two times I contacted them, their overseas phone rep had zero idea what he was talking about, and there is no forum for customers to help each other.

What we bought instead
NetNanny does everything Safe Eyes does, in addition to allowing you to explicitly whitelist applications. All of the kids' games simply work. It also doesn't time out in the middle of gameplay. I had a problem the first time I installed it on one of the computers (it accidentally blocked all Internet access!), but I cleaned up the system and managed to get it to work right on the second install. Their web site is pretty dodgy (even moreso now, after a recent redesign), but the product mostly works. I'm trying to figure out a problem that seems to prevent my son from running a Minecraft server accessible only on our local network, but that's a low-priority issue. There is (or at least was?) an official support forum, but I'm having trouble getting to it on their new site. I'm watching you, NetNanny. Don't let me down!

Sony MDR-NC 40 Noise Canceling Headphones
Here's an electronics marketing protip: If a major selling point of your product is part of the thing's name ("NC," "Noise Canceling"), the product should have that feature. Even if it does a crappy job of it, the product should at least try to do what it's named for, yeah? These headphones don't.

I needed a pair of noise cancelers for when I watch my iPod at the gym. All those treadmills make it mighty hard to hear Dexter Morgan mumbling his voiceovers. These headphones are comfortable and they sound all right for consumer-grade 'phones, but the only ambient noise they block is accidental, due to the fact that the pads cover your ears- not because of any fancy circuitry. There's a little module in the middle of the headphone cable (which is a real annoyance for something you're using at the gym) that houses a battery which seems to serve the sole purpose of illuminating a red LED.

Other complaints: The headphones feel flimsy; all of the joints have more wiggle than seems necessary. They are supposed to collapse small enough to fit into this cute leather pouch they come with, but my pair doesn't fold all the way in the center, so I have to forcibly jam the things into the pouch to zip it up.

What I bought instead
The Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones are pricey but they do exactly what you expect them to. When you flip the switch (which is on the right earpiece instead of a stupid dongle on the cable) the sounds of what's going on around you quickly fade into the background. They also feel great and so far have demonstrated pretty good battery life. Note that these headphones don't work at all without the battery, so you'll want to keep some AAAs on hand.
I also own a pair of Audio Technica ATH-ANC7B Active Noise-Cancelling Closed-Back Headphones, which I use at work (long story). They're half the price of the Bose, but honestly just as good-sounding- and they at least work a little bit when the battery runs out (but they sound much better when powered).

HTC Status

The Status is AT&T's version of the HTC Chacha. It appealed to us because we were total smart phone n00bs who'd finally outgrown our ancient flip-phones, but were apprehensive about these new-fangled touch screens. We wanted real physical buttons for texting and dialing, and the Status's Facebook integration was desirable.

Reviews I'd read before selecting the phone mentioned that the 150MB internal storage was pretty small, but I figured that wouldn't be an issue since I knew AT&T included a 2GB SD card with the phone. We could just move stuff off to the SD card as needed or uninstall unnecessary apps to free up space, right? Right???

Well of course, now we know better. AT&T locks the phone down so you can't move or uninstall any of the bundled apps. You basically only have about 40MB total for downloaded apps and personal data. After about 3 weeks of use my phone stopped downloading calendar updates, email, or Facebook statuses. Forcing sync never seemed to do anything. Also, my phone kept telling me I was out of room... but it wouldn't let me do anything about it! A couple weeks after our 30-day exchange window ran out with AT&T I spent a week learning how to root ("jailbreak," unlock) my phone so I could delete some of the things I knew I would never need. That worked at first, but rooting had unexpected consequences: If I turned off the phone and then plugged it in to charge, the phone wouldn't power up again unless I opened it up and removed the battery (which is a non-trivial task on this phone with its smooth, cornerless body). Also, it no longer displayed the battery charging screen when in standby, and the keyboard layout was permanently messed up- I had to use the Symbols screen to type @ signs or question marks. And then the phone started telling me I was out of space again.

Also, the Netflix support sucked; the audio was hopelessly out of sync with the video, even on a WiFi connection. Seriously, fuck this phone.

What we got instead
Since we were no longer eligible for subsidized phones from AT&T, I did serious homework when researching our next phones, because this time we were going to be paying full price. We ended up choosing the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G Android Phone. Aside from the power and volume controls, it doesn't have any physical buttons, but boy do I ever love this phone. It's fast, refined, and it just plain works. Actually dialing the phone is a bit easier on this than on the Status, because the virtual keys are nice and fingertip-sized, whereas the teeny buttons on the status were hard to use in situations where you had to type numbers for automated phone menus. Oh it also has literally 78 times more internal storage than the HTC Status. Our phones are specifically the SGH-I777- they actually look just like the newer Galaxy S II Skyrocket, but lack that phone's faster processor and LTE support.
Here's hoping 2012 treats us better.