Beating the commute with EVDO

My blogging output has been miserable as of late and it’s been bugging me because I really like sitting down to write and there are lots of big blogarific thoughts rolling around in my head these days. That being said, getting down to Yahoo! a few times a week (when I’m not working in the Berkeley lab near my house) means a my 43.7 mile commute that has me in the car for several hours every week. Driving is an antidote to writing — not to mention that this calculator told me that my commute costs me $13,731 a year (!!), and this environmental calculator estimates that my car is dumping just under 900 pounds (!!) of pollution into the world every year. Not good. All of this has made me seriously re-evaluate my commute situation and how to make it better.

First, a little more background on the specifics of my commute situation: a lot of people don’t realize this, but the best way to get from Berkeley to Silicon Valley on mass transit is via the Amtrak Capitol Corridor. I’ve taken the train a few times now and it’s a nice ride — but while this particular route that winds down through Silicon Valley seems to be a natural for solid wi-fi service, the wi-fi offering sucks. Check out the message above the byzantine wi-fi “schedule” on the Amtrak site to see why:

Currently, our Wi-Fi enabled cars rotate among different trains, giving all passengers a chance to test the service. Please be aware that trains are rotated out of service for regular maintenance and that there may be times when Wi-Fi service is unavailable. Check the schedule below to find out when Wi-Fi will be on your train!

Yeah, like I really want to add “figure out which trains have wi-fi today” to my morning to-do list.

I don’t know why it took me so long to think of this, but I finally thought: EVDO is the answer to my problems. Within minutes of this realization, I had signed up for the Broadband Access service from Verizon Wireless which promises “typical download speeds of 400 – 700 kbps, capable of reaching speeds up to 2.0 Mbps”. I ordered the Kyocera KPC650 card and it’s on its way. Now, not only will I be able to get high-speed access on the train instead of worrying with their wonky wi-fi, I will be able to get online while I’m waiting for the train. The service is expensive, but easily paid for many times over by eliminating (or at least greatly limiting) the car commute. This is looking like a win-win.

Of course, I had this same level of excitement in late 2001 when I was taking Caltrain to San Mateo and had just ordered the Ricochet modem that never really worked well enough to use on the train. I hope this time is different (the reviews of the service I’ve seen are stellar). Fingers crossed!

Quick review: Plantronics MX150 Headset for Treo 650

Plantronics MX 150 Headset A while back, I asked for recommendations for a Bluetooth headset for the Treo 650 and the consensus from that post and other conversations was to get a wired headset. I happened to be near a Best Buy last night, so I decided to drop in and grab one that looked like it would fit my requirements without doing any research in advance. I grabbed the Plantronics MX150 for $27.99 (not the $44.95 listed on the Plantronics site), hoping that it would fit these criteria:

  • it should fit snugly in my ear, but at the same time, not feel like I’m getting an ear exam from a doctor
  • it should feature something to hold the earpiece onto my ear, but the less something, the better
  • it shouldn’t look too Star Trek-y
  • the volume of the person I’m talking to should be clearly sufficient through the earpiece
  • the person I’m talking shouldn’t notice I’m using a headset

After my first commute making a few phone calls, the verdict is clear — it’s just what I wanted. The earpiece fit nicely, but it didn’t feel like an ear exam. As you can see from the photo, there is a small clip that holds the earpiece to your ear, and it does its job effectively, though it slips slightly if I look over my shoulder (YEMV. . your ear may vary). It’s not too Star Trek-y for my taste. Finally, in a conversation with my mom, I could hear her clearly and she never asked me what was wrong with my phone. If you need a simple and relatively inexpensive wired headset that works with Treo 650, I highly recommend it.

Any recommendations for a Bluetooth headset for Treo 650?

The choices for Bluetooth hands-free headsets are dizzying — anyone got any recommendations?

I’m not looking for “style,” because I don’t believe it exists when it comes to a Bluetooth headset, and any claims to the contrary by vendors are patently false. I’m not planning to wear it everywhere I go — just in the car.

I’ve always found it incredibly distracting to carry on a conversation with someone who wears a headset as a permanent fashion accessory. If I ever become one of those guys, I beg of you. . . please come rip that thing off my ear and crush it on the sidewalk. I promise I will thank you.

Making built-in Contacts app the default on a Treo 650 with GoodLink

(if you don’t have a Treo 650 with GoodLink software installed, you probably want to skip this post entirely)

When I left InfoWorld recently, I got a very nice send-off and an utterly amazing cake, but as much as I wish the company-issued Treo 650 I had grown to love (after some serious hate) could have been a parting gift, it wasn’t meant to be. The telcom folks there were nice enough to give me an old phone they had in a drawer for a good deal, and I was able to transfer the account into my name and keep the SIM card, thereby keeping the number I have had for a long time. I got my Yahoo! Treo last week, and despite some porting issues, I carried the same number over to it and it’s all working now — except for one thing that was driving me crazy and was a bit delicate to fix (instructions are below). The GoodLink software that hooks the Treo into the company Exchange server links up to the contacts database stored on the Exchange server, and makes it the default contacts app on the Treo.

This matters to me because:

  1. I already had hundreds of contacts in my vanilla Palm contacts database and didn’t really want to sync those up to the Yahoo! Exchange server (stuff like aunts and uncles numbers, my favorite local Chinese take-out place, my friends’ numbers, and bars in SF with good jukeboxes)
  2. The Treo uses caller ID to display a contact’s name on an incoming call if there’s a match in your contact database. I love this feature, but if the GoodLink Address Book is the default, it looks there for a match, and if you don’t have all your contacts on the corporate Exchange server, you get nothing but the number on an incoming call.
  3. All the shortcuts to “Contacts” on the Treo go to the default app, which makes it more difficult to make phone calls easily (since you have to work a bit more to get to the old Contacts app)

On the other hand, the GoodLink Address Book includes a lookup facility for everyone at Yahoo!, including e-mail address, desk phone, and cell phone in some cases, so I didn’t want to wipe that out completely either. I just didn’t want it as the default. After some research, I found a way (and the whole process made me a bit nervous — kind of that same feeling you get when you login as root on a unix box to do something delicate).

First, I recommend that you run a GoodLink backup to your SD card. Open the GoodLink app, go to Preferences in the bottom pane (all the way to the right), select it, choose Backup, then run the backup (you’ll need to know your handheld passcode — ask your administrator. But don’t tell your administrator what you’re doing or you’ll probably get your hand smacked.)

Then, if you don’t already have it, you need to download and install FileZ on your Treo. All this does is give you access to all the files on the Palm OS filesystem. This is a tool that must be used very carefully, since you can move, copy, and delete any files on the Treo, even ones you didn’t know were there.

Next, use FileZ to find the file GoodAddressBookApp.prc on your Treo and select it. Look at the filename you have selected, count to ten, then look at it again to make sure it’s the right one. Then delete it.

After I did this, the built-in Contacts database on my Palm became the default, and I was back to managing my contacts on Palm Desktop and using HotSync as I did before. Even better, the GoodLink contacts database still works, but I have to get to it by going to the GoodLink app, then navigating to it in the bottom pane. No big deal. For some reason, though, the caller ID didn’t seem to work properly until I did a soft reset on the Treo 650. Now incoming calls once again display the name of the caller if they are in my personal contacts database.

Of course, I’m putting this out there because it worked for me, but if you blow up your Treo doing what I described, I won’t really be able to help you. Do this at your own risk.

One last thing: my decision to do this is no knock on GoodLink. It’s an awesome product, and I’m loving it so far. E-mail is pushed to the Treo Blackberry-style, and I can manage my calendar and meeting requests just as easily as I can using Outlook on the desktop. I highly recommend it.

(Some credit: one of the posts by dennisl on TreoCentral got me on the right track.)