Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mountain Lion Fixes "Include Networked Devices" for Scanners in Preview

I upgraded my Mac Mini to Mountain Lion yesterday (release day), and today I was happily surprised to find that my only OSX pet peeve has been fixed. Previously, when using my Epson network scanner from Preview, I had to click through the menus twice:

  1. File, Import from Scanner, Include Networked Devices
  2. File, Import from Scanner, EPSON model xxx
Preview in Mountain Lion shows the scanner directly from the File menu:

Those extra clicks didn't take long, but they sure were annoying. Well done, Apple. This didn't make anyone's list of new features, but now I know what people mean when they say this OS is more "polished" than previous releases.

There was a script available to work around this issue, but the issue never bothered me quite enough to make me mess with it. Nevertheless, I am quite happy to see it fixed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Installing Mountain Lion and Pining for an SSD

I just finished installing OSX 10.8 Mountain Lion, and boy was it slow. This is my own fault. I bought my first Mac this year, and I went with the base Mac Mini. I did upgrade the RAM from 2GB to 8GB, but I stuck with the base 500GB 5,400 rpm drive over a faster drive or a solid state drive. I don't regret it, and I would make the same decision again. Nevertheless, the OSX upgrade really drove home the point that the bottleneck in my system is the hard drive.

A friend of mine started the upgrade after I did and finished 20 minutes before me. Mine took almost an hour, but he was done in under 30 minutes. He has a MacBook Air with a slower processor than mine but does have an SSD. Due to his faster drive, he lapped me. For business, I always recommend at least a 7,200 rpm drive if not SSD. 10,000 rpm drives are great, but these days I think it's better to pay more for solid state and smaller capacity rather than pay for larger traditional hard driver. Either way though, your performance investment will pay off.

Think of your billable time. My computer was out of commission for 30 minutes longer than it "needed" to be because of my hardware choices. It's not my only computer, so I had zero down time, but that is not the typical scenario. Most users have one computer at the desk, and if it's down for updates, that is lost productivity and therefore lost money. This is something many law offices fail to understand. Investing in your hardware is just as important as investing in your people.

Let me stress that in day-to-day usage, I am not waiting for my computer. Most of the things I do are not disc-intensive, and the Mac is downright snappy doing them. Even things like file copies and software installations go pretty quickly but are not blazingly fast. That is all fully in line with my expectations; something is always going to be the bottleneck, and in most systems, it's the hard drive. One other critical piece of the puzzle for me is that I do most of my work on a terminal server, so the specifications of my local PC are barely a factor there.

I actually went from a 7,200 rpm drive in my last Windows PC to the 5,400 drive on the Mac, and I did it with my eyes wide open. I wasn't willing to pay a 25% premium to get a 750GB 7,200 rpm drive over the stock 500GB 5,400 rpm drive. There was not even an option to put a smaller 7,200 rpm drive in, which would have been my preference. However, this is probably not the right choice for most people. I'm still happy with my decision, but today served as a huge reminder that the decision had tradeoffs.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Upgrading Legacy Credit Cards

Legacy cards can be annoying: you don't use them often because they're not as good as your primary card(s), bit you still have to use them some to keep the accounts open for the sake of average account age. Make the best of it and upgrade them to the best available cards from those banks. Just make sure you confirm that your actual account will remain unchanged, even if you get a new credit card number!

I've had my Capital One MasterCard since pretty much the beginning of time, and for that reason, I should never cancel it. Average account age plays a substantial role in your credit score, so closing your oldest accounts is generally not a good idea. However, you also should not just leave the card in a drawer, because if you go long enough without using it, then the bank will close the account on its own. I lost a Discover card account that I'd opened in 2000 to this phenomenon several years ago. I think I had a notion that the account would get closed if I didn't use it, but I didn't realize that 12 years later, I would really want another account that had been open the whole time for the beneficial effect on my credit score.

My Capital One card started life as a Plain Jane ("standard") MasterCard with a $1,000 credit limit some time late in high school. Over the years, it moved up the spectrum to a Platinum card with a larger limit (I requested the Platinum upgrade; the credit limit decisions were all the bank's and happened without me asking). I was smart enough to realize the Platinum card offered some benefits I didn't receive with the regular card, but it still took me a while to realize that I should be using a rewards card.

That led me first to the Discover Card, then later to the MBNA Platinum Plus VISA with WorldPoints (which then became a Bank of America card). Discover was not accepted at enough places to be my primary card, and in college I wasn't interested in juggling cards. I liked the Discover card, but it just didn't meet my needs at the time. I wanted one card that I could use everywhere and earn rewards.

The WorldPoints card earned one point per dollar spent, which is not bad. However, the redemptions were terrible: you have to redeem 25,000 points to get 1 cent per point of value in a $250 check. You can only redeem in 2,500 point increments. Worse, if you redeem a smaller amount of points like 2,500 points, you get just $12.50 or half a cent per point. My strategy was just to wait until I had accumulated 25,000 points and cash out for $250, but that took a long time, and the maximum of one cent per point is really the minimum anyone should be getting now for rewards or cash back value. Nevertheless, it was a good choice at the time, and I used it until two years ago as my primary card.

My fiancĂ©e had been touting American Express for years (she's been a fan since 2001), and in 2010, I got a Zync card. I've since moved up the AMEX food chain, but I'll cover that in another post. I mention it here because that was what caused me to put my Bank of America card in a drawer along with the Capital One card. I now had two legacy cards that I didn't actually want to use for spending because that would have given me poor value relative to my newer points-earning card. However, I couldn't leave  them entirely disused because then my two oldest accounts would get closed.

For the last two years, I used them enough to keep them open (my goal to use each card at least every other month) but not beyond that. It bothered me that I wasn't earning useful rewards on either card, but not enough to make me do anything about it. I was too busy with life and too excited about the other points-earning cards I had found to pay much attention to my legacy cards. However, in June, as I was upgrading to a new AMEX card, I realized I should look into upgrading my legacy cards. It was a smart move, but one I should have made much earlier.

I would have been happy moving to anything better than what I had, but the cards to which I was able to upgrade are actually pretty good, at least for some kinds of spending. It was also surprisingly easy to do. I spoke with competent, friendly reps at both Capital One and Bank of America. I was particularly surprised at how good the CSRs at Capital One were, as they have been terrible in my previous experiences with them. I have never experienced the deceptive practices for which they were just fined by the CFPB, but I know people who have been pressured alone those lines. Nevertheless, the reps from both companies were great with me for these upgrades.

Since neither Capital One nor Bank of America offers a card that would be part of my (admittedly evolving) long-term points earning strategy, I decided to go for cash rewards. Since these are never going to be cards that get a large chunk of my spending, flexible cash rewards made the most sense. I was able to upgrade my existing cards to a Capital One Cash Rewards World MasterCard and a BankAmericard WWF Cash Rewards Visa Signature.

The new MasterCard will give me 1% back on all purchases across the board, with a 50% bonus on all rewards earned that is paid out once a year on the card anniversary date. That makes the effective rewards rate 1.5%, with no annual fee or foreign transaction fee. That is good enough to be a contender for spending that would earn 1X on my primary cards, and it will be my go-to card for any foreign purchases that do not accept AMEX.

The new VISA earns 3% at gas stations, 2% on groceries, and 1% on everything else. That beats the 2% I get at gas stations with my BlueCash Everyday and Amazon Visa, and will earn my gas spending as soon as I meet the signup bonus minimum spend on the BlueCash. There are cards that earn more on gas, but none that I have right now. It also donates .25% of all purchases to World Wildlife Fund. It does not have an annual fee, but it does have a 3% foreign transaction fee so this is not a card I will use overseas.

There you have it - I was able to take two cards that were useful only for average account age and make them not only better, but sufficiently useful to contend for some of my regular spending.

I have no relationship with any credit card company beyond just being a card customer. The links above are all public links, and I receive no commission from them. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Appreciating the IRS

I think most of us spend more time complaining about the IRS than anything else, so I wanted to take the time to write about a recent good experience I had with them.

A few months ago, I found a refund check (remember refund checks?) at the bottom of a backpack. It was from 2004, so it was my refund for the 2003 tax year. Evidently I had gotten *this close* to depositing it at the bank, and then it was lost to the mysterious backpack black hole for almost eight years. The amount was a couple hundred dollars. Not life-changing, but definitely enough to be felt. That's a round-trip ticket to most domestic destinations, or all my utility bills for a month.

I had never really dealt with "found money" before. Sure, I've found a $20 bill in a jacket that I'd forgotten about, but nothing more substantial than that. My reaction was a mix of "yay!" and "oh damn, what if it's no good anymore?" Certainly it was too old to just cash at the bank. Enter the IRS.

I tried a few times to sort this out on the phone and then gave up. Hold times were long, and ultimately they told me I'd have to go in person to resolve this, which was not surprising. I made a copy of the check, confirmed that I had a few forms of ID on me, and then grabbed my Kindle and headed downtown.

The DC customer service center at 77 K Street NE was pretty much what I expected: a large, Dilbert-like world of cubicle offices and people waiting in chairs. However, everyone who worked there was unfailingly polite, from the security guards to the receptionist to the agent who ultimately helped me. The wait was long, and the atmosphere in the waiting room felt very much like the DMV. There were not a lot of people ahead of me, but time just seems to stand still in those places.

Finally they called my number! The agent I met was knowledgeable and courteous. He filled out the appropriate forms and told me they would reissue the check within ten days. I asked if I needed to do anything else, and he said no, they would just mail me the check. That was it; he sent me on my way. Barely a week later, I had a new check in hand.

I know not everyone has a good experience. Not every IRS employee will be as helpful as the ones I encountered, and sometimes even a good outcome means you are going to owe them a lot of money. Not fun. Still, it was obvious that they were dedicated public servants doing a thankless job with a good attitude and a sense of professionalism that I frankly did not expect. I can tell you that at least as far as the DC office goes, if you have a wait, it's because there just aren't enough of them. They are absolutely doing their best.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Two Years with the iPhone 4

We just passed the five-year anniversary of the iPhone, and there is some great coverage out there reflecting on that. I was reading the MacWorld article iPhone: Five years in our pockets, and it got me thinking about my own iPhone history and recent developments. Two years in, I'm still extremely satisfied with my iPhone 4. I remain impressed with the quality and smoothness of operation. For a device I touch multiple times per day, there are manifold opportunities to disappoint, but my iPhone doesn't. I'm not saying it's perfect, but it's exactly what it's supposed to be: a device that just works.

By mid-2010, I'd had a BlackBerry Pearl for almost 4 years. It was my first smartphone; before that I had been using a Motorola Razr. As I mentioned in my blog on the latest bad news from RIM, I went through three replacement batteries and two replacement rollerballs in the Pearl before I finally moved on to a new phone. My Pearl was a workhorse, and it had been a good phone for a while, but it was fading fast. Rebooting took over 5 minutes, and I had to do it often. It was time for a change.

Getting rid of my BlackBerry was thus an easy decision, but deciding what to replace it with was not. In the end, it came down to just two phones: the iPhone 4 and the EVO 4G. I chose the iPhone 4 primarily because of the Retina display. There were a number of other factors, and I did have some concerns about the tightly controlled Apple ecosystem, but the display was the killer feature that won me over. Enough has been written about it that I don't feel the need to rehash the details here. I will just say that it is as gorgeous as it was on day one, and it spoiled me to the point where I could not give serious consideration to an iPad 2.

I had no interest in jailbreaking my phone while it was under warranty (and contract). However, now that it's up, I have no desire to do so at all. iOS has expanded in the last two years to the point where there is not a single meaningful restriction that would compel me to jailbreak the phone. 

When the iPhone launched in 2007, I was not a believer. Of course, in those days it was $600 with no hope of a subsidy, but that changed quickly. I had two iPods at the time, and I liked them, but even when the price on the iPhone came down, I was a holdout. Silly things like copy-and-paste were not available in the OS. By the time the 3GS was out though, I wanted one. However, with the 4 in the pipeline, I decided to bide my time and stick with my slowly dying Pearl until its release.

A couple of things have happened in the last two years that have added tremendous value to the phone. Find my iPhone, the only feature that made me consider paying for MobileMe when I bought my iPhone, is now free. In fact, Apple has shuttered MobileMe entirely as of 6/30/2012 and is pushing iCloud (free unless you want expanded storage) instead. The basic, free 5GB quota lets me back up everything just fine, so I haven't had a need to look into the paid option. Those two changes gave me new, free functionality that make me sleep easier.

Mobile flash is now dead. I don't know that I can actually prove this adds value to the iPhone, but I believe it does. The fact that the iPhone doesn't do flash is no longer a reason to avoid it. Essentially, an opportunity cost of buying an iPhone has been removed. At the time I bought, you could buy an Android phone that could do flash, and thus your web browsing would be at least somewhat limited on an iPhone by comparison. This is technically still the case today, but since Adobe announced the end of mobile flash last November (and confirmed its end two days ago), we all know the platform is going nowhere. 

All future mobile-oriented content is going to be visible without flash. Furthermore, since mobile browsing is huge and growing, developers are not going to waste time developing flash-dependent content at all when there are no mobile operating systems that support browsers to view it. Most sites already have a non-flash version. As time goes on, more (well really all) of the web will be visible on an iPhone, and I think this adds value not only to future iPhones but to existing ones as well.

In addition to being able to view a greater percentage of the web, my iPhone 4 has gained other abilities since its launch. It can do everything it did two years ago plus more. Through iOS updates, it can now do now over-the-air (OTA) sync and backup, and even OTA updates. Another nice feature of the way Apple does things is that it can get those updates on release day. Carriers are notorious for stalling Android updates, often for months. Even worse, Microsoft just announced that there is no upgrade path at all From the current Windows Phone to Windows Phone 8 that will be released in a couple of months. 

When iOS6 was info first became available, I was not thrilled to hear that I will not be getting Siri or 3D mapping in iOS6, but I'm okay with it now after looking at the field. I am getting far more update value than any of the competition yields. Apple says those features require a newer phone with a faster chip, but whether or not that's true, I think it's reasonable to leave those features out in hopes they'll make me want to buy a new phone. I'll get the vast majority of the features in iOS6, and I'll get them the day the OS becomes available. 

Whether I will get a new iPhone in the Fall when the next model arrives is, for now, an open question. No doubt I'll be tempted by new features, but then I'll look at the trusty phone I've had for two years, the phone that has more features now than when I bought it, and I'll have to weigh my options carefully. I don't know which way I'm leaning now, but it will take quite a good offering to convince me to part with cash and my old phone for a new one.