Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review: Blue Jeans Cable BJC Series-1 HDMI Cables

As I've stated a few times previously, I have a bit of a hobby in Home Theater PCs. That said, I'm not a trained engineer in the performance of cables, so this is a non-technical review and should be considered as such before deciding to make a purchasing decision based on its content.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with HDMI, or more importantly, why HDMI sucks, you might want to visit those two links before you go buy your spanking new HDTV and Blu-Ray player (or cable/satellite set-top).

It's worth setting up a bit of history before I get into my very simplistic review. For those of you who want to just take my word for it, go to Blue Jeans Cable and buy one right now. While your at it, swear off buying AV cables from any retail establishment ever again.

HDMI sucks (did I say that already? Yes, I think I did). It's basically DVI-D with a Digital Audio Signal jammed into the same casing and crippled by HDCP (a form of Copy Protection). It's a nasty method for delivering digital video/audio, but it's the only choice at this point. As a result, companies like Monster cable make a cottage industry out of selling ridiculously priced HDMI cables that don't seem to offer any real performance benefit.

To make matters worse, the Best Buys and Circuit Cities of the world don't offer much of an alternative to those purchasing a new television.

"Save $100 on your next HDTV, and use the $100 to buy one lousy cable."

I didn't fall for it. I knew HDMI carried a digital signal, and the general rule is "the signal gets there or it doesn't". So I went to Wal*Mart and plopped down $30 dollars for a suitable HDMI cable that claimed to meet the rigorous specifications set by the HDMI folks themselves. Unfortunately, as those above links will tell you more than my summary would, there are no rigorous specifications.

None-the-less, the cable worked fine for a long time. Then I got Satellite and tried to get my satellite receiver to work at 1080p via HDMI -- No Dice. So I went component 1080i.

Then I happened upon this story through a few blogs I follow. The CEO, a former lawyer, stood up to a large corporate Monster. A small bit of research later and it turned out this company has some pretty unique products in what is otherwise the boring world of cables.

So onto the review


Despite being from a part of the world where "Buy American" is the same as saying "Save Your Neighbor's Job", I will not sacrifice quality in order to buy a product that's made domestically (I do, incidentally, own two American cars, but I digress...).

This company assembles their cables in the United States. That's nice. It's great to know that you can buy a high quality product that is at least mostly US made.

The first thing you notice when shopping for the BJC Series-1 is that despite the fact that it is Blue Jeans Cable's best cable, at 6' it doesn't cost $100. It costs $30. Lets consider this for a moment: A cable that is quality enough to take a lousy HDMI signal 100 feet costs as much at the 6' size as the lousy Wal*Mart cable I purchased after buying my first HDMI capable HDTV.

The first thing you notice when opening the box containing your newly purchased BJC Series-1 is that they're thick and rigid. You can feel the shielding surrounding the cable and it takes a bit of working it through to get it to not lift your very light DVD player right off the place it is sitting.

So how did it perform? Well, as I said early, the signal either gets there or it doesn't, right (I know, not precisely, but lets pretend)? Well, it got there. It worked flawlessly with my Satellite receiver at 1080p. It worked flawlessly with my new DVD player at every up-converted resolution it supported. But there was even one bigger surprise: I had an old LG LDA-511 DVD player that I positioned in such a way as to guarantee an overheat. As a result, it stopped working via HDMI (hence, the *new* DVD player). It worked flawlessly using the BJC Series-1 at all resolutions. I scratched my head, plugged in the Wal*Mart cable, and it failed.

Pros


Inexpensive.
High Quality. These guys have more than a few good reviews about their products (here's one for their component cables, also rather inexpensive considering the quality).
Up to 100-feet runs (read the site before plunking down the cash, though).
Assembled in the US.
Even if you decided not to buy the cable from them, their web site has an incredible wealth of information on HDMI. If you read it over, you'll be a better informed consumer.
Shipping was Priority Mail, reasonable and processed very quickly.

Cons


Paypal is the only accepted form of payment.
The web site could use a designer (though, look who's talking from his template blog).

Conclusion


You'll note that the two cons I listed had nothing to do with the cable, and that's the important part. If you want a great quality HDMI cable, buy from them. Ignore the site design, clearly these guys are good at one thing: Making a great product. Who cares if the site is a little raw?

You'll end up with the quality of cable that Monster -- at $100 -- would have you believe you've just purchased at a price that the limp Wal*Mart HDMI cable can't beat. What more would you like?

Just a note of clarification. I own a couple of Monster cables from several years ago (before they were so expensive). They work fine. I can't imagine someone making a case that they're worth as much as they cost at the retail outlets that they are sold. In addition, this post was not paid for or solicited by bluejeanscable.com. This blog is a hobby, and I don't do paid posts for anyone. I also have no relation to anybody who works for BJC. This review is my own opinion and as I stated in the opening, I am not an engineer in this field, just a hobbiest. Yell at me in the comments.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Amazon S3 7/20/2008: EPIC FAIL

I have a feeling this is one that will go down in history and will spark a few debates about the reliability of Services in the Cloud.

S3 - Great Idea, but was Amazon really the right provider?


This is the question that will probably be asked over and over again for the next several weeks.

When talking "shop talk" with co-workers, I have always come out on the side of Amazon. It's something I like to call Technology Recycling. They know how to keep their mammoth site up, and they have requirements that vastly eclipse most providers, so why not use their knowledge of hosting large amounts of data as a profit center?

The Fall Out of a Huge Outage


Working for a telecom, I'm very familiar with concepts surrounding disaster recovery and the incredible effort that goes into handling disasters. You can't avoid that hurricane that might blow through your office in Texas, or the earthquake in California, or (heaven forbid) an act of war that may interrupt services.

The cause is unimportant (until the problem is solved), the response is critical. Amazon's response has been pretty thorough communication, but through that communication, it's not exactly clear that they were ever prepared for this.

When this is over, Amazon will have learned something that enterprise telecommunications carriers know all too well: When you have an outage, you have no idea how much the impact of that outage will be. Enterprise carriers offer services to companies who turn around and use those services to sell services of their own. Sometimes the end-customer is several companies deep.

Case in point, this one hit me personally today. I sell products on eBay and use a provider called Auctiva. I'm not a power seller, I just don't like to throw things away that someone might be able to use, so I list old items on eBay or Craigslist, and if they don't sell, I put them on freecycle (or Craigslist "free" section). If nobody wants it, I put it to the curb.

I sell less than I give away (and throw away very little), but the amount that I sell is enough that I had to get a tax ID number here in Michigan.

One of the golden rules of small time sellers is closing your auctions on Sunday at 9:00 PM EST. It's probably half folk-lore about eager west coast buyers winding their Sundays down with a browsing of eBay, but I (and many others) stick to it.

Today is Sunday and I have an item that was getting great bidding right up until early this morning when all of my Auctiva hosted images vanished (lets face it, broken links to images don't exactly instill faith in the seller). Until now, I didn't know I was using Amazon's S3 service and at this point I'm strongly regretting using Auctiva's service. It's going to cost me about $30 (it's within $30 of my researched target price and nobody is bidding despite lots of activity last night).

It's not the end of the world for me, but I'm going to guess that it could spell some serious consequences for others. This is made especially more painful since the company who made the Fail Wail famous is among its victims.

Twitter and SmugMug have no excuses. They relied solely on the services of one individual company with no real back-up back plan.

Granted, Twitter and SmugMug aren't life and death services (well, most of the time).

The obvious loser here is S3. If they were hoping to attract the attention of companies who provide services that require five nine's reliability, they've already lost.

So, while I still think that S3 was a great idea from Amazon, it's beginning to feel like Sears Dental: While it's convenient to have oral surgery while the folks downstairs are replacing the tires on your truck, there are some things you want to leave to companies who "specialize", rather than diversify.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

How To: Fail at Usability

My job often surrounds writing usable and accessible systems. For the purpose of this post, I'm going to cover usability, and precisely how current web (and other) systems FAIL. My apologies for the rant-y writin-g.

FAIL #1: Make the User Conform - Credit Card Entry


The user won't conform and there's often no reason to make them. Case in point, if you're asking for a credit card number, what is so difficult about removing spaces, dashes or dots? Mastercard/Visa split their numbers into groupings of four out of convenience. Your web application makes them lump the entire number into a field without that grouping. This causes endlessly wasted bandwidth and frustration due to typo's. It's easier to re-read a number when it appears in the field the same way it appears in print.
Stop it: A simple regular expression can remove non-digit characters.
And while you're at it, if the user wants to type MM/YY instead of MMYY, or MMYYYY, or MM/YYYY, let them. This is also very easily fixed by careful parsing.

FAIL #2: Make the User Conform - Phone Number Entry


In the US, there are several phone standards. nnn-nnn-nnnn, 1-nnn-nnn-nnnn (nnn) nnn-nnnn. Again, this comes down to parsing. If you want the phone number in a certain format, format it on the backend. How much code is wasted trapping non-conforming phone numbers that would be better spent just reformatting what was given to you?

FAIL #3: Do Not Reply to This Message or You Will Be Ignored


Quite possibly the simplest thing to do is to hit the reply button to an e-mail. If you are sending an e-mail from an automated system, why do you insist on sending it from an address that is unmonitored?
Think about this in another communications medium. Imagine someone called your home and said "My name is Jenny and I'm calling to tell you that your order has arrived at our store. If you have any questions, please call me at 555-1234, because I'm calling you from a phone that does not have a speaker so I won't hear you screaming at me."

FAIL #4: Store Pickup, but Don't Forget To Bring These 9 Things


Firstly, I am not a fan of the "buy it online and pick it up in the store". If I want to pick it up, I'll go to the store and buy it, but there are a small number of situations where I have used this service:
1) It's cheaper online and I'd rather not hassle with the price adjustment in-store,
2) It's Wal*Mart, who does it "right". They allow you to buy many items online that the store normally doesn't carry, and do a "ship to store" (for free). This is great for large/heavy items in cases where an individual store may not carry that item and ordering it online will result in awful shipping costs.
3) You have a big store and I don't want to fish through seventeen aisles to find the item I'm looking to buy.
In all cases, though, why must I bring printed copies of the e-mail that was sent, my photo ID, the credit card I used to purchase the item and the clothing I was wearing at the time of purchase?
I work with databases, so I understand the power. If I bring in my photo ID ... and nothing else ... you should be able to look up my order and send me on my way with product in hand.
Sure, it's great to have that e-mail with a barcode on it that can be "scanned", but have a backup plan if I show up without the proper documentation.

FAIL #5: You're item will be ready to pick up sometime next year.


When your web site says something is in stock and available for order online and in-store pick-up, it should be ready right away.
Lets dig deeper. Obviously, the customer who is invoking this method of purchase is in a hurry and doesn't want to wait for shipping. A certain big-box home improvement store seems to think that if I place the order after 3:00 PM, I'll be happy with picking that order up the next day. Or if that item just happens to not actually *be* in stock, I'll be OK with waiting a couple of weeks while the store orders it and has it shipped in.

FAIL #6: Just use the coupon code HYTIDSOKFNSKDSA at check out to receive 10% off


Coupon codes are generally pointless. They don't stop smart people who don't subscribe to your mailing list from using them (see RetailMeNot, DealCatcher, Dealspl.us, and many other sites), and they're horribly inconvenient.
Use clickable links that embed the code. It's simple and doesn't involve having to retype some silly word combination that the marketing guys thought was cute.

FAIL #7: SKIP THIS INTRO


Think about why you needed that button on your homepage. If I went there, I probably "skipped your web site".

FAIL #8: Hi! I'm the Web Site! Are your ears bleeding yet?


Your product is very cool, but your web site should never, ever, just start singing. I like music. But if I didn't hit play and my browser unexpectedly starts making very loud noise emit from speakers I rarely use, I'm going to click the "x" before I've had a chance to see what you had to say about your very cool product.

FAIL #9: America Only: City, State and ZIP Code please


City and State can be derived from the ZIP code, and if you look the city and state up using various services, you'll get more accurate mailing labels. Don't make me type more than I have to. I recently sent a letter and completely omitted the city and state to see how the post office would handle such a mind boggling scenario. Surprise, the letter arrived at its destination. That five digit code is very versatile.
If you do resort to asking for all three, make sure you're using all three to your advantage. If your user puts in 90210 for the ZIP code, and Kansas City, Nebraska for the city and state, perhaps you should throw a friendly message up since that package is going to end up in a different universe if you ship it using that information.