Home » Technology (Page 100)

Category Archives: Technology

The Most Versatile VoIP Provider: FREE PORTING

Ultimate Home Automation Server: The $500 Mac Mini, Part II

This is the second of our three-part series on building a Home Automation System using your Mac mini. You probably should read the first installment before continuing here. So where were we? Before you start buying home automation equipment, sit down and figure out what you want to automate and what you don’t. You also need to familiarize yourself with what’s available in the home automation marketplace and decide which components you want now and which ones you’ll defer until later. Lamps and overhead lights on a single switch are very easy to automate, and I’d recommend you start simple. $49 will get you a great starter set to control nine separate lights and appliances in your home. Add a $12.99 wireless transceiver with your order, and all of these devices also can be controlled from the included remote. Motion controlled outdoor floodlights are also easy to implement if you want to tackle something else initially. This week you can get two sets of dual, motion-controlled X10 floodlights for $50. Not bad if you’ve compared pricing at your favorite hardware store lately. As a last purchase in Round 1, I recommend you acquire a couple motion detectors which can be used outside for porch lights or inside to illuminate rooms with difficult to reach light switches. These are half price for the remainder of this week, but they go on sale often at X10.com as well. Once you get all of these components installed and working reliably, then you can place another order for more exotic components: three-way (or more) switches, thermostats, sprinkler systems, swimming pool lights, and virtually anything else that has a plug. A good rule of thumb is that the more sophisticated a control device becomes, the more expensive it is to automate. Remember, too, that after you install a couple of new X10 components, check for reliability using some of the tests we outlined in the first installment. It’s much easier to isolate problems when you do some checking after every few additions. If there are unreliable devices, order a signal booster and resolve the problem before adding more devices.

It’s also worth mentioning that X10 equipment is available from a variety of sources including SmartHome.com, X10.com, and a number of eBay stores. Use your favorite search engine to find matches for "X10 equipment." For some items such as socket rocket lamp modules (a device that screws into a regular lamp socket to control a light bulb or flood light), it pays to watch the X10.com web site for several weeks. Many items are offered at 3-for-1 pricing at least once or twice a month, and the savings are significant. If a couple of overhead lights in your kitchen are controlled by four wall switches, you have two choices. You can replace all the wall switches with an X10 four-way switch system (about $150), or you can install a socket rocket for each light in the ceiling at a cost of $10 per socket (when they’re on sale!). You can do the math. If you watch the X10.com web site sale page for a few weeks, you will get an idea about what goes on sale and how often. Moral: Don’t get in a big hurry to buy this stuff all at once, or you will pay about triple what you’ll pay by being patient. SmartHome.com has the broadest array of home automation equipment, and they also have the highest prices. Some things like repeaters and noise filters you will just have to buy at market price and probably from SmartHome.com. But, again, spend a little time on their web site and their auction site to get a feel for what things should cost and how often they go on sale. It will save you hundreds of dollars. A final word of caution is in order. X10.com is an aggressive marketer to put it charitably. These are the folks that introduced pop-under web page ads among other things. Once you get on their mailing list, your grandchildren will probably still be getting your X10 emails long after you have moved on. It’s probably worth opening a new Yahoo email account just to handle X10.com mailings.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap this series up and review some of the things you can do with your Indigo control software. And we’ll take a look at other great software applications that will further enhance your Home Automation System.

The Ultimate Home Automation Server: Your Shiny, New $500 Mac Mini

If you thought the Mac mini was only an entry-level PC Killer, think again. The Mac mini may just be the perfect server on which to build your dream Home Automation System. Having built one of these using an iMac G5, I’m more than a little jealous that it now can be done for $1,000 less using a Mac mini … or about $5,000 less than what you’d pay an "expert" to build it for you. So let’s get started. Just like baking a cake, we’re going to start with the ingredients, and then we’ll put them together and produce the finished product. When we’re finished, everything in your home or apartment can be controlled and managed from your home automation server, the Mac mini, using the keyboard, automatic timers, a web browser, an email message, or touchtone commands from any telephone in the world. A typical scenario might go something like this. You drive in your driveway after a long day at the office and, yep, the outside lights come on. But that’s not all. Your entire home magically comes alive. The living room, den, and dining room lights all dim to an appropriate level for just after dusk and your favorite after-work album for the 6 p.m. hour begins to play in the kitchen and exercise room. The aquarium lights go on, and, your Mac mini begins downloading all of your personal e-mail for later viewing. An hour later, the outdoor floods turn off. All of the interior lights turn off two hours after no motion has been detected in your home. This is the first of three articles on how to build just such a system.

Required Components. There are a number of components that can be used to build a home automation system. I’m going to break these components down into required, unnecessary, recommended, and optional. As far as required components, you obviously will need a bare bones Mac mini. It will serve as the hub for the Home Automation System. Does it need to be a unit dedicated just to home automation? Probably not, but I recommend it because the home automation system works better with an always-on server. If you’re going to do other things with your Mac mini, invest in some additional RAM. Otherwise, you’re fine with the $499 model as is.

We’re going to build this system using X10 technology so you need some software to control the timing of home automation tasks and to send X10 signals over the existing electrical wiring in your home. These signals control turning lights on and off as well as dimming them. And they can control appliances and thermostats. Combinations of tasks can be sent from the server to dim the lights, turn on your home entertainment system, choose a playlist from iTunes, and draw the drapes. It all depends upon how spiffy you want your ultimate system to be. Now that you have your Mac mini, the next required component is the X10 control software, an extremely powerful, well-supported product called Indigo. It costs $89.95 and is available with a 3o-day free trial directly from the author. Next, you’ll need a PowerLinc USB device, which is the device to which Indigo sends device instructions at scheduled times specifying when particular events should occur (e.g. driving in the driveway, sunset, or two hours after no motion is detected on motion sensors #1, #2, and #3). The PowerLinc device then sends the actual X10 signals down your power lines to individual X10 devices which control each light, or appliance, or outlet in your house .

When you buy Indigo, you get a special price on the PowerLinc device and one lamp module so here’s the link to get the deal. The cost is $35. You’re also going to need a USB hub to expand the number of USB ports on the Mac mini. A $10 4-port, bus-powered USB hub from CompUSA will suffice; however, make certain you plug the PowerLinc device into a dedicated USB port on the Mac mini, not into the hub! If you only want to control one light in your home, your required components are complete so get those pieces ordered first. However, we set out to build the ultimate Home Automation System so I’m assuming you probably don’t want to invest $635 and stop reading just yet. There are cheaper ways to dim one lamp, but you knew that.

Unnecessary Components. PowerLinc also makes a new device with memory called a PowerLinc Controller. This can be used to control X10 devices in your home without a computer even being on. Indigo can download the desired X10 commands, times, and triggers into the controller, and then you can shut down your computer. You lose some functionality with the controller, but not a lot. For example, the controller doesn’t know what time sunset is each day, but it does have an internal clock. So Indigo will handle the translation to an actual time and send the time of sunset today to the controller. This usually will suffice for a month or two at a time without another brain dump from Indigo. I’d recommend you skip this component for the time being and leave your computer on. You can always add it later when you decide to turn your Mac mini into a media center. Also in the unnecessary category is a UPS for your Mac mini. Unless your home is run by a generator when the power is off, a UPS doesn’t buy you much for reasons which should be obvious. A UPS also may cause interference which can scramble the X10 signals and produce undesired results. A power strip with surge protection should suffice for the Mac mini. Note that the PowerLinc USB device needs to be plugged directly into an AC outlet. For best results at lowest cost, the preferred location for the Mac mini and the PowerLink USB device is somewhere fairly close to the circuit breaker box in your home.

Intermission: Some X10 Theory. Let’s take a break from our buying spree long enough to talk about some of the problems you’ll encounter in an X10 Home Automation System. X10 systems suffer from two problems: line noise or interference and weak signal strength typically due to distance limitations. Large appliances, particularly older televisions, generate lots of "noise" on the power lines in your home. UPS systems and many no-name-special computers do the same thing. This causes X10 signals to get scrambled leading to undesirable or even no results. Weak signals are generally caused by one of two things: distance or too many X10 devices. Each X10 device absorbs part of the X10 signals on the line. You may not know it but there usually are two 120 volt runs of power in your home. To get a signal from an outlet on one run to an outlet on the other, that signal has to travel outside your house to the nearest transformer and back … unless you know the magic trick. Generally, you solve noise and interference problems with filters. And you solve diminished signal problems with signal boosters or the magic trick that we’ll get to in a minute.

The best way to install a problem-free X10 system is to build the server, load Indigo, and plug in your PowerLinc USB device and connect it to your computer. Get those three components working reliably first. Then turn off every other circuit breaker in your house. Now plug a lamp into your one lamp module, and then plug the module into an outlet near your computer. Enable the breaker that controls that outlet. Set the desired X10 address for this module by creating a new device in Indigo which matches the specs of your lamp module and then assign it a device address. Turn the lamp OFF at the lamp switch and then turn it back ON. Move immediately to Indigo and turn the device on three consecutive times in rapid succession. This will set the lamp module to whatever device address you configured in Indigo. There are 256 unique addresses so you don’t have to worry about running short. Turn the device off and on several times using Indigo to make sure it works reliably. If not, repeat the above steps.

Once the lamp can be reliably controlled from Indigo, unplug the lamp and lamp module and move them to five or six different areas of your home. Plug the lamp into the lamp module and the lamp module into a new outlet. Enable this outlet on the breaker box, and then turn the lamp on and off from Indigo. Repeat the test several times. If it works every time, move on to your next location. Here’s the magic trick. If it fails, turn on your electric clothes dryer (after enabling it on the breaker box), and repeat the test. If it still fails, you will need a repeater between the location of the computer and the location of the outlet. All you do is plug the repeater in to various outlets along the way, and repeat the test. If the lamp works after turning on the dryer and repeating the test, it doesn’t mean you have to run your dryer forever more just to turn your lights on. Instead, just buy an inexpensive phase coupler that matches the outlet on your dryer. If your house is larger than 3,000 square feet or is laid out in such a way that a heavy smoker would be out of breath when he or she got to the other end, I’d recommend you purchase a coupler-repeater instead of a phase coupler. This boosts the signal in addition to connecting the two 120 volt runs in your house. Turn off your clothes dryer now, move to the next location for testing, enable the breaker for the outlet, and repeat the testing procedure above. This sounds harder than it actually is. The good news is that, when you are finished, you will have isolated most of the signal strength problems in your house. As you add more devices, you may find that the signal diminishes below reliable levels again. At this juncture, you simply purchase another repeater and install it in various outlets between the source and destination until the problem goes away. A good rule of thumb is to buy one repeater for every thousand square feet in your house.

Now that the weak signal problemss have been addressed, you’re ready to tackle the line noise and interference issues. Make sure you’re back to square one in the breaker box with no breakers enabled except the one controlling the computer and PowerLinc device and one additional breaker controlling the outlet where you are going to plug in your lamp module and lamp to begin testing. Be sure you can turn the lamp on and off with Indigo several times. If not, go back to the tests outlined above. If all is well, turn on one additional breaker at a time and repeat the lamp testing. I’d start with the appliance breakers that typically cause the most problems: circuits with old TVs, circuits with a UPS device, and circuits with a computer. If you cannot turn on the lamp reliably using Indigo, then you need a noise filter on the circuit with the noisy appliance that is controlled by the breaker you have enabled. Turn off that breaker and proceed to the next breaker. Once you complete testing all the breakers, move the lamp and lamp module to another section of the house and repeat the tests outlined above again. It is quite possible to have a noise problem in one area of your house (which requires a filter) and not see the problem in other outlets so don’t get lazy and skip any testing steps, or you’ll be absolutely miserable down the road. In the event you run into problems or get frustrated, here’s a more detailed analysis of what I’ve covered in summary. You do not need to buy a signal meter to diagnose X10 problems. You just have to perform the above tests carefully and methodically. If you’re just curious later and want to verify whether a particular appliance is "noisy," use a battery-operated radio, tune it to a low AM frequency that is clear of noise, turn up the volume, and hold it close to each appliance and outlet you want to test. You’ll know instantly if there’s significant noise being generated by a particular appliance, and you just avoided making a $300 investment in testing equipment. If you want a more in-depth review of X10 home automation technology, SmartHome.com is a great place to start.

Stay Tuned. Your eyes are probably glazing over by now so we’ll save a discussion of the recommended and optional hardware for your Home Automation System for tomorrow. Then, in our third installment, we’ll connect all the dots and you’ll see what a truly incredible Home Automation System you’ve been able to build using a $500 Mac mini for your foundation. The moral of the story thus far is simple: start small and thoroughly test your outlets to find potential trouble spots. Don’t buy 50 home automation components and install them all thinking everything will work just fine. They won’t. If you’ve ever had a marine aquarium and tried to populate it with a dozen new fish in one fell swoop, then you already appreciate the virtue of patience. Otherwise, save yourself some grief, and just trust me on this.

ATTN: Bankers — Here’s An Idea

Ever known a banker with an original idea? Me neither. So, while my patent is pending, I encourage every banker to take this idea and run with it. You can use it for free until my patent is approved. And I promise not to gouge you thereafter. If you’re like my family, you probably spend almost half of your disposable income (whatever that is) on Internet purchases. Why? The products cost less. You don’t pay sales tax. And oftentimes, shipping is free. Never mind not having to deal with computer and automobile sales associates who by profession single-handedly account for the expression ate up with the DA. The problem with Internet shopping is you just don’t quite feel safe leaving your credit card or bank account number scattered all over the countryside. Not to mention you have to keep track of hundreds of passwords at various web sites. You do use different passwords, don’t you? News Flash: All it takes is one disgruntled nerd, and your account numbers and passwords are public information, at least to the highest, unscrupulous bidder.

The solution actually is quite simple. The world needs one-use credit card and bank card numbers. How it would work is equally simple. You visit the web site of your bank or credit card company, log in, and click on a button to request a one-use account number. The bank’s web site then spits back a number which is valid for a short period of time, an hour or perhaps two. Now you visit the web site where you wish to make a purchase, order your stuff, fill out their account application, and plug in your one-use account number in place of your normal credit card information. The expiration date and secret number on the card (which you’ve now provided to hundreds of vendors) remain the same as what’s shown on your credit card. The easiest implementation would be to add four more digits to existing credit card numbers; however, this would tip off the merchant that the number can’t be used again. I can think of some reasons you might not want to do that. With modern databases, it would be trivial to design a system which ties standard credit card numbers back to an existing account, and that probably would be my preference. But you know how banks are. They will want to tip off porn sites and other subscription services that you may not be back next month for fear of losing their 3% cut of the proceeds forever more. In any case, one-use numbers would solve virtually all credit card fraud problems for banks while also protecting customers’ account information from hackers, disgruntled nerds, and unscrupulous businesses. So why wouldn’t you do this? Aside from greed on repetitive monthly charges, I can’t think of a reason. Can you?

P.S. to my banker and sales friends: My apologies for the opening salvos, but I wanted to get your attention.

Editorial footnote: Actually, I’m about six months late on my patent application and someone beat me to it. So while I won’t be getting rich, hopefully all of us will see a more secure way of handling Internet commerce very soon. And while I’m apologizing for my lack of originality, whatever happened to the (quite similar) American Express experiment? And what about the Citigroup, MBNA, and Morgan Stanley experiments? Perhaps they all need a good database consultant. What do you think?

The Baby Bell Albatross: VOIP

When Judge Harold Green split Ma Bell into smaller monopolies over 20 years ago, little did he know he was creating a seven-headed monster in the place of one. Leave it to the march of technology and a boost from "number portability" to solve at least some of the dominance problems. One last hurdle remains, but we’ll get to that.

As things are shaping up, it appears that the Great Equalizer in the telecom world may be VOIP (Voice Over IP or Internet Telephony as it is variously known). VOIP is doing to long distance what cell phones did to pay phones. If that wasn’t enough, along came the double-whammy of Number Portability (keeping your phone number when you change telecom providers) coupled with the fact that almost every person in America with broadband service also owns a cell phone. Now the Baby Bells (aka RBOCs) are fighting to keep just their home phone business in major markets. If you didn’t know, number portability now permits you to transfer your home phone number to either a cell phone or a VOIP provider.

By way of example, in Atlanta, the home of BellSouth, a single residential phone line with all the bells and whistles (caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, etc.) now costs just under $50 a month after adding almost 30% to the basic rates for fees, surcharges, and taxes. To suggest that these fees are beyond the control of the RBOCs is disingenuous considering that most of the regulatory agencies have been firmly ensconced in the hip pocket of the Baby Bells for decades. Assuming you already pay for high speed Internet service, for half (or less) the cost of a BellSouth line, you now can subscribe to any of several VOIP services which provide equivalent "features" plus unlimited local and long distance calling throughout the United States and Canada.

For under $20 a month, BroadVoice now includes free long distance calling to anywhere in the U.S. plus 20 additional countries including most of Europe, Australia, China, and Taiwan. For $5 more, you get another 14 countries. One of the best, but not cheapest, VOIP providers is Vonage. Their residential offering gives you unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada for $24.99 a month, still about half what BellSouth charges. If you can live with 500 minutes a month, it’s $10 cheaper. But remember, every local call and incoming call counts against your minutes. Another good provider at the $19.95 level with unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada is Packet8. They were the first provider to offer 911 services for an additional $1.50 a month, something most VOIP providers do not yet have. Vonage now has 911 service as well. If you have a cell phone, 911 is probably not a concern. If not, it may be worth considering. Another advantage offered by many VOIP providers is the ability to request an additional phone number in virtually any area code. Additional numbers typically cost $5 a month. If most of your incoming calls come from one area code, this is a major plus with VOIP.

What’s involved in setting up VOIP service to replace existing local phone service? You’ll need broadband, but you knew that. Don’t cancel your local service until you have signed up with a new VOIP provider and your existing number has been transferred to your new VOIP account. Your VOIP provider will handle all of this and notify you when it’s safe to cancel your existing local phone service. Next, plan how you will use your VOIP service. If you want to use the service from multiple phones in your home, then you’ll want to sign up for a plan with a device called a terminal adapter, a little black box that plugs into your broadband router (for Internet access) and a phone jack somewhere in your home. Don’t try this on the existing phone wire in your home until you have disconnected your Ma Bell line, or you’ll burn up your terminal adapter! For the short term, you can plug a cordless phone into the terminal adapter and get by until you kiss Ma Bell goodbye. Once you safely connect the terminal adapter to a phone jack, other phones in your house will work as usual except you’ll dial 1, then an area code, and then a number to make every call. If you live in an area that already requires 10-digit dialing (like Atlanta), then adding an additional 1 prefix will not be a big deal. It should be noted that a few new firewall/routers now include the terminal adapter functionality in the router; however, it usually locks you in to a specific VOIP provider. With this approach you lose your flexibility to switch providers without ripping out your home (or office) network and starting over so I’d recommend sticking with a separate terminal adapter.

If you plan to use VOIP as a backup to your existing local phone line, some other options are available. Skype, which works in conjunction with your PC or Mac at this time, is a free VOIP service so long as you make calls to other Skype users. Calls to regular phone numbers cost about 2¢ a minute. This includes local calls. Regular phones cannot yet call Skype subscribers although other Skype users can call you as long as your computer is on. Unlike the major VOIP providers where quality is almost indistinguishable from a typical long distance call, Skype calls vary in quality depending upon the microphone and speakers or USB phone attached at both ends of the connection. A better option for a VOIP second line (particularly if you plan to use it mostly for low-cost long distance calling) is IPconnection, a service offered by PC Connection. With this service, you pay $24.95 a year for a phone number. You can call anyone else with an IPconnection phone for free during the year. Other calls are roughly 2.9¢ per minute to about 100 countries. Incoming calls through one of several access numbers in California (not toll free) are free for you although they may not be free for folks calling you from outside California … unless the caller has free long distance calling with their cell phone, of course. I wouldn’t recommend any of IPconnection’s USB phone offerings (which require a PC); however, the terminal adapter and the RJ45 phone work well with exceptional voice quality.

A final option for VOIP service is to acquire a VOIP WiFi phoneset (see inset). With this option, all of the VOIP "smarts" are built into the phone instrument. You can use the phone to make or receive calls from any Wi-Fi location assuming you have rights to use the wireless network. The hardware is currently available for use with IPconnection, BroadVoice, and perhaps soon in the United States with Peerio, a peer-to-peer telephony solution which may grow to rival Napster’s popularity. The remaining hurdle is integrating VOIP WiFi into existing cell phones. A slightly different approach with a cordless phone but still requiring a PC as a host is offered by Skype. And, for under $50, here’s a just-released black box called rapidBox that let’s you use regular phones or cordless phones with Skype.

Finally, here are a few possible drawbacks of VOIP service, and this list is by no means exhaustive. 911 availability already has been mentioned. Voice quality is something you will have to judge for yourself. With the reputable providers, there is almost always a 30-day money-back guarantee so you have nothing to lose by experimenting until you find a service that meets your needs. Faxes don’t work through Internet telephony although there are a number of very low-cost fax solutions that you can find using your favorite search engine. Distinctive ringing with multiple phone numbers has not yet been implemented as far as I know although this certainly may change in the coming year. As mentioned, you can obtain multiple phone numbers in various area codes at very little additional cost. Last but not least, when you kiss Ma Bell goodbye, your number will soon drop out of the local phone book. Shortly thereafter it will drop out of most of the web-based directories since these pull their data from local phone books. There needs to be a way for on-line directories to distinguish between someone who has disconnected a phone number and moved versus someone who has switched their number to a cell phone or VOIP solution. The RBOCs shouldn’t retain exclusive control of whose phone numbers are public and private. This obviously needs to be addressed perhaps by local governments, and there are some task forces working on this. Of course, for many of us, dropping out of the phone book may be a blessing rather than a curse.

PC Killer: The $500 Mac mini

While visiting some friends a few weeks back, I happened to notice a message from somebody@somewhere.ru which popped up on their XP notebook computer sitting beside the bar (where I was seated) in the kitchen. I asked whether they had anti-virus software and was told that it came with the machine … three years ago. Knowing that the computer was always on and connected to a DSL line, I volunteered to take the machine home and fix it, a sure sign that you’ve had too much to drink. What I found the next day, unbeknownst to my friends, was a full-blown web server hosting porno movies, feature-length films including The Matrix, a hacked, downloadable version of Windows XP with the registration ‘features’ disabled, and an incredible array of hacker tools. To make a long story short, just before the sun set, I had managed to shut down the Russian web server as well as a very good spam generator and restored the notebook to normal operation, at least as normal as XP can be. It also freed up about 35 gigs of disk space. Later I was telling this story to a colleague who works in the federal courts, and he mentioned that one of their secretaries had recently been paid a visit by the FBI. The rest of the scenario was pretty much the same. The poor woman had no idea her PC had become one of the busiest porno sites in the state of Virginia.

Today’s message is a simple one. If you have non-technical friends with PCs and high speed Internet connections, do them and your country a favor. Encourage them, beg them, or buy them a Mac so that we can begin to clean up Bill Gates’ mess. "Will all of my Microsoft Office documents work?" Yes. In fact, if you have a kid of school age, you can buy the student edition of Microsoft Office for about $129 and install it on three Macs, and only one person has to be a student! "Can I get my office email?" Yes. VPNs work better on a Mac than they do on a PC. "Can I still surf the Internet?" Yes. And you can do it without using one of the world’s worst security threats, Internet Explorer. "Can I use my existing monitor and USB keyboard and mouse?" Yes. "How much will it cost?" Finally, you can say, "The same as you would pay for a comparable PC." An in-depth hardware review is available here.

What Apple’s Mac mini has really done with its introduction last week is level the playing field by now providing a comparable Mac product for every price point in the PC product line. For any age student or a second family machine in the kitchen or den, the Mac mini is almost perfect: small footprint (stack up 5 CD cases and you’ll have an object the size of a Mac mini), uses existing peripherals, and costs about what you’d pay for an iPod photo. Yes, you’ll probably want to add some RAM (512MB is adequate) when you buy the machine. Even with the additional RAM and a copy of Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition, the cost still is under $750 for a networkable, rock-solid, dependable personal computer. The first Mac OS X virus was reported (but still not confirmed) a couple weeks ago so Apple’s track record has been pretty good considering that PC zombies, worms, and viruses now number in the hundreds of thousands. Be sure to caution your friends that initially they may miss not receiving their weekly message from Microsoft announcing yet another security patch, but they’ll get used to it. I have.

Web Hosting (Is Not) For Dummies

There’s nothing quite like discovering that you really can build your own Apache web server and host your own web site even running Windows XP Home Edition. Having done that, the next question you need to ask yourself is why anyone would want the everyday chore of wrestling with security patches, dependencies, libraries, compilers, and on and on unless you just happen to do this sort of thing for a living. Assuming you’re still with me, the next question becomes where to turn for web hosting services. Typing "web hosting" into Google returns just over 25 million hits so that’s probably not the best approach. Having used five fairly good web hosting companies over the past two years, I thought it might be more helpful to sketch out what to look for rather than just providing an outright endorsement of a particular vendor, but we’ll get to that. To begin, here’s a short list of the Top 5 Things to Look For in a Web Hosting Provider.

Reliability means so much more than 99.9% uptime. Is there a guarantee? What do you get if the system isn’t up 99.9% of the time? For many businesses, the guarantee isn’t nearly as important as finding a service that really, really is up 99.9% of the time. After all, you really don’t want your $20 back. You want customers to be able to order from or see your web site. So here’s what to look for in reliability. Does the provider use the latest and greatest web server hardware? Visit Dell and compare. Does the provider use multiple pipes to the Internet from different companies? Is the provider hosting from a network operations center that has backup power? Does the provider make system backups? Many don’t! Does the provider publish a phone number to call when the servers go down? Is the provider using the latest versions of Linux and/or Windows Server?

Performance also matters. The latest hardware and big pipes to the Internet help but, once you leave the mom-and-pop operations behind, most providers meet these two criteria. The true measure of performance has more to do with how many users share a server with your domain, what types of customer applications are running on that server, and how carefully the provider monitors activity on your shared server. How do you know? The short answer is you really don’t until you sign up. So look for a provider that gives you short-term rates (preferably month to month) and a 30-day money-back guarantee. Having said that, even with good providers, the addition of one disreputable customer who runs a hundred spam scripts an hour will cause immediate problems for you.

Response Time Solving Problems. There are two pieces to this puzzle: how quickly can you get word to the provider that your server has croaked and how quickly can they fix it. Good providers have multiple ways for customers to report problems: through the web, pagers, faxes, and phone calls. If your provider only offers a web form, there’s probably a reason. How quickly a provider fixes problems is quantifiable, but it will be unusual for you to know about most issues other than your own. The bottom line on response time is pretty simple. If you’re having frequent outages that are forcing you to worry about response time to fix problems, your provider has problems. Look elsewhere!

Scope of Services. The most important feature you can have with your domain hosting account is a quick way to move to another provider when things go south. If you use MySQL databases and cron scripts, backing up your own data (assuming you can get access to it) is painful to put it mildly. If a provider uses cPanel as the shell for your accounts, there are tools that will let your next provider grab virtually everything in your account and transparently move it to your new provider’s server. So, unless you have little more than static web pages which you back up regularly, look for a provider that runs the latest (commercial) version of RedHat Enterprise Linux with Web Host Manager (WHM) and cPanel for managing your account. The standard mix of applications should include POP and IMAP email accounts, web mail, MySQL and PostgreSQL data base management systems, PHP and PHPmyAdmin, and SpamAssassin. Virtually all the providers give you FTP access to upload and download materials for your web site. Some provide Secure Shell access (SSH) for an additional fee, but this exposes them to additional security risks so don’t count on it. If your needs are more for creative web tools such as e-commerce, project management, customer service and support, photo galleries, discussion forums, or blogs, then you also should look for a provider that includes Fantastico which makes complex script installations a breeze. For example, this WordPress blog was installed, configured, and ready for use in less than five minutes using Fantastico.

Cost. Luckily for us, it’s a buyers’ market for web hosting services. So long as you get 25 million hits on the words "web hosting" in Google, cost will be the least of your worries. To host one or a few domains should rarely cost more than $10 a month with plenty of bandwidth to support normal access. You do pay for bandwidth which is measured with virtually all reputable providers. If a provider advertises "unlimited bandwidth" and the price is too good to be true, it probably is. Either the provider will terminate your account when you begin using excessive bandwidth (by their definition, not yours) or the performance of your site will be so miserable that it won’t matter how much free bandwidth you have. Unless you’re hosting something illegal (such as music) or pornography, both of which most reputable providers frown upon, 20GB of monthly bandwidth will usually suffice for all but the most heavily traveled web sites. Another issue to explore, of course, is the cost of switching hosting plans or upgrading bandwidth as your requirements grow.

Bottom Line: WestNIC.net gets my vote for the best overall hosting company. And an honorable mention no longer goes to HostDime.com. Since leaving HostDime a year ago, many of my colleagues have followed so things appear to be headed in the wrong direction there. Your mileage may vary.

palmOne’s Treo 650 Smartphone

Since the advent of the cellphone, perhaps no device has been more anticipated or hyped than palmOne’s new Treo 650 Smartphone. Finally released by Sprint in December 2004, the Treo 650 has been a mixed bag of incredible technology coupled with some significant design gaffes. Because of the device’s new NVRAM memory architecture which eliminated the need to always have power to retain the contents of the phone, the decision to retain the 32MB internal memory capacity of its predecessor, the Treo 600, appears short-sighted. This is especially true given the 30-40% additional overhead of the new memory scheme. Surprisingly, most of the remaining serious technical flaws in the device (crippled Bluetooth functionality, lack of WiFi support, and voice quality problems) all were solved or at least minimized by a single, talented programmer who happened to like his Treo 650 and wanted to perfect it. A loyal following of Treo users who all but deified programmer Shadowmite on the premier Treo support forum, TreoCentral, have apparently insulated him from attacks by Sprint’s and palmOne’s legal departments for fear of alienating the very users who have turned the Treo 650 into what is unquestionably the finest smartphone available anywhere in the world … today. If you’re looking for a great cellphone with POP, IMAP, and Microsoft Exchange email support, a very capable web browser, availability of an add-on MP3 player with streaming audio support, a terrific add-on movie player, an incredible 640×480 digital camera, a speakerphone, voice dialing support, Bluetooth connectivity with wireless headsets and automobile speakerphones, and high-speed Bluetooth dial-up networking support to wirelessly link PCs and Macs to the Internet (even while riding down the highway at 70 MPH), then look no further than the Treo 650. While Sprint has been the exclusive supplier of phone service thus far, that is about to change with Verizon and Cingular scheduled to support the phone within the next few weeks. A couple of must-have add-on’s are at least a 1GB SD memory card and BackupMan backup software capable of cloning the phone’s applications and data to the memory card. And for guys that would never stop to ask for directions, there’s now a full-blown GPS unit for the Treo 650 which can improve your golf game and also provide door-to-door directions using the first-rate Mapopolis Navigator software. The GPS device is a great example of a product that sounds great on paper but is in use about as impractical as any item could be. Why? Because the designers didn’t bother to include RAM on the SD device, all of your maps and software must be loaded into the phone’s internal RAM. Translation: If you use this GPS unit for anything other than driving around the block, you might as well plan to dedicate most of your smartphone to nothing more than a GPS unit. Oh well! Last but not least, all your favorite Palm OS games work just fine when you’re stranded in your favorite airport.

Bottom Line: If you’ve ever wanted a PDA or if you’re in the market for a new cellphone that will do 90% of what you could do on your home or office PC, the Treo 650 just may be the ticket.