Weekly output: Amazon Echo, data caps, telecom bills

Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet? Me neither. But at least I’m further along in the process than I was at this point last year.

Yahoo Tech Amazon Echo review12/16/2014: We Try the Amazon Echo, Yahoo Tech

Amazon PR hasn’t exactly been handing out review units of the Echo, but a friend got a semi-coveted invitation to buy this Bluetooth speaker/digital assistant/listening device and was kind enough to invite me over for the unboxing and some of his early use. Yahoo Tech (by which I mean me) paid for that early access with a bottle of homebrewed beer.

12/16/2014: When Is a Data Cap Not a Data Cap? When Big Telecom Says So, Yahoo Tech

This story had been in the works for a while, and then I had to redo a paragraph in it as it was supposed to go online to note T-Mobile’s customer-friendly addition of a data-rollover policy. The photo, in case you were curious, represents a rare case of my getting actual value from the mailings Comcast sends me every other week; in the background you can see a Dominion Power smart meter.

12/21/2014: Give the gift of cheaper TV, Internet and phone service, USA Today

In need of a column topic for this weekend, I asked the Twitter hive mind which family tech-support tasks people were most nervous about. One person replied that calling Comcast led the list, and that made me realize that I was overdue to write a cheat sheet about ways to trim telecom bills.

Weekly output: AT&T throttling, car audio, Wikipedia, typewriters, 3G dead zones

The two themes of this week: mobile phones and obsolete technology.

2/6/2012: ‘Unlimited’ data has limits at AT&T, USA Today

This column started with a chance conversation after a local tech event in which a friend mentioned the weird “top 5 percent” warning AT&T had sent him–quickly confirmed in a reply from another friend and a blog post by a third. (The balance of the column suggests changing short, cryptic passwords to longer but easier-to-remember pass phrases, expanding on something discussed in a post for Discovery last week.) After it ran, I heard from so many readers who had not just gotten this warning but had also seen their connections cranked down to only 100 Kbps or so that I did a follow-up post here relating their testimony.

2/7/2012: Car Audio: Some Dashed Hopes On Dashboards, CEA Digital Dialogue

I spent a pleasant couple of afternoons at the Washington Auto Show parking myself in the driver’s seats of cars on display–so I could then inspect the stereo system in each vehicle. And just as in last year’s survey, I was disappointed by the results. Manufacturers still include abandoned standards (memo to Acura and Cadillac, DVD-Audio is dead) while neglecting current ones (I saw Audi, Nissan, Mazda and VW leave out USB ports in some cars, but that was nothing compared to the Infiniti missing a simple line-in auxiliary input).

Speaking of DVD-Audio: After writing this story, I was amused to discover that our Blu-ray player supports DVD-A’s barely-more-successful rival Super Audio CD. If only I hadn’t given away the SACD edition of Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue” I got from some PR shop years ago!

2/8/2012: Wikipedia Entries: How To Tell How True They Are, Discovery News

After the latest episode of a politician’s staffers favorably editing Wikipedia entries, it was time to revisit past advice on reading the open-source encyclopedia wisely. In the piece, I use Wikipedia’s entry on Discovery Communications as an example of how to judge an article’s reliability from its edit history, talk page and the user pages of its editors. Also: Note the examples of unreliable Wikipedia coverage cited in a comment on my post and another on Google+.

2/9/2012: Ode To Manual Typewriters, DIY-IT

After the first 30 or so e-mails reminiscing about manual typewriters on the Internet Press Guild mailing list, IPG member and ZDNet writer David Gewirtz decided to put together these stories in a post. Most of this testimony looks to the distant past, but Phil Shapiro tells a great story about taking a typewriter to the Takoma Park, Md., library last year to let kids play with it: “It’s key that they know what prior technology looked like and felt like — so they can better appreciate how far we’ve come in the past 50 years.”

2/10/2012: Map Shows 3G Dead Zones, Discovery News

Writing that Wikipedia post must have put me in an academic frame of mind, since my next item for Discovery discussed online cartography: the FCC’s interactive map showing what parts of the U.S. lack any 3G coverage. Lining up this map and the (generally uglier) coverage maps provided by the four major carriers for that screenshot at left was kind of a pain. One observation I had in mind after that exercise but then neglected to put into the post: The FCC’s map would be easier to read if it included Interstate highways.

Reader reports on AT&T data throttling

Since my USA Today column covered AT&T’s recent habit of throttling back the connections of unlimited-data subscribers judged to be in the top 5 percent of users in a given market, I’ve been hearing from readers subjected to this penalty. To judge from their input, you really don’t want to be among the 5 percent at that carrier.

Of the five people to report getting AT&T’s warning and then having their connection throttled, all said their downloads downshifted to 100 to 150 kilobits per second. (A sixth didn’t specify a number but also said the slowdown came without a warning.) That’s about the speed of AT&T’s decade-old GPRS data service, which was barely adequate for the WAP browsers of 2002.

The screenshots at right, showing the warning sent via text message and a post-throttling bandwidth test, come from Kevin Reifel of Williamstown, N.J.

Two of these readers cited monthly bandwidth usage above 5 gigabytes, fueled by the fast LTE service on their new Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket phones. Three iPhone users, however, reported bandwidth use below or barely above the 3-GB quota of AT&T’s current $30/month option.

Dave Spenik, of Walnut, Calif., said he also received warnings for hitting just 2.1 GB and change but avoided throttling those months–matching one of the first reports I got about this issue.

There was no real pattern to the locations of these reports, aside from them coming from outer suburbs of various metro areas (Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles).

But–you knew this was coming–these customers do share a pronounced unhappiness with AT&T. Gaithersburg, Md., resident David Rothfeld declared: “I will never go back to ATT again.” Wrote Spenik: “I plan to lodge complaints with the FCC, Calif State Attorney General, and Calif Public Utilities Commission, and am going to begin preparation to sue in Calif Small Claims Court.” Reifel: “I would have more respect for ATT if they simply just advised all their current unlimited data users that the plan was going away and to please pick a new plan.”

(The company did that in 2010 when it terminated an unlimited plan for users of some data-only devices.)

It’s true that most users don’t come near 2 gigs a month. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus that I’ve been testing extensively shows only 866 megabytes used over the last three weeks, nowhere near Verizon’s monthly 2 GB quota. But at least that’s an obvious limit. I would not be comfortable worrying that crossing an undefined and changing threshold would get my smartphone kneecapped through the rest of the billing cycle.