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Solar Energy System

Ok, a solar energy system isn't strictly digital, and its not really a gadget, but it didn't seem to fit anywhere else, so it ended up here. Rather than clutter this page with details and pictures, I've put all of that on a separate page. I'll limit my comments here to saying that we installed a 2KW system in June of 2001 and so far we are very happy with it.

WAF: Very High

Cell Phones

In December of 2001 my wife and I switched off of the StarTac and onto the Nokia 8260. We did this for a couple of reasons. First, the battery life is much longer than on our StarTac's, second, they support e-mail and text messaging, and third, I liked the ability to see the display without opening the phone. We've been very happy with the increased battery life. The sound quality is OK, but I still think our old analog cell phones were better. We use the e-mail and text message features every once in a while. For some reason my plantronics headset doesn't work very well with this phone. The volume is way too low. The supplied headset works just fine, but I don't like it as much.

These phones don't seem as sturdy as the StarTac's. Both my wife and I have dropped our StarTAC's in the past. I've dropped mine onto a concrete driveway and it was just fine. My wife dropped her 8260 once while it was in a case and it still broke the power switch. That was a little disappointing. All in all we're happy with these phones.

Here is some information on our old phones just for reference. My wife and I both had Motorola StarTac cell phones. She's had an analog and I had a digital (ST7790 - TDMA). I think the audio quality is better in the analog phone. The battery life is definitely better in the digital. The digital also has more features and has better rate plans in our area.

The 7790 has some really annoying features that aren't present on most other StarTac's. For instance, when you power the phone off, it makes a confirmation tone. This is really annoying if you want to turn the phone off without drawing attention to yourself. The only way to get around it is to disable all keypad tones.

The 7790 has Caller ID capability, but like all StarTac's, you can't see the display until you open the phone. By default opening the phone answers an incoming call so this makes the caller ID much less useful. You can disable the answer-on-open function and manually answer the phone by pressing a button. This makes caller ID accessible but adds a step to answering the phone.


I have a Garmin GPS 12 XL GPS. It's a 12 channel model that I mostly use for fun. When the governement recently disabled selective availability, the accuracy of the unit got much, much better - as expected. The EPE reading is usually around 25 feet.

I recently purchased DeLorme's Street Atlas, Solus Pro for the Palm, and a cable that links the Palm to the GPS. The cable came from an interesting company named Blue Hills Innovations. I ordered the cable from them and they didn't take any billing info. When I received the cable I got a note from them saying that if I was satisfied please send them payment. I was satisified and surprised. I would definitely use them again. The process for using this stuff is as follows. On the PC you use the StreetAtlas software to determine a route between two points. You export the map and directions to files. You then use HotSync to download these files to the Palm (assuming the Solus software has already been installed on the Palm). Connect the Palm to the GPS using the cable and make sure their both speaking the same protocol. At that point the Palm can talk to the GPS and get location information. The Solus software lets you follow your motion on the downloaded map. I found this almost useless as a driver. The display is so small that it's hard to see the cross hair location indicator amidst all of the map information. There is also a navigation mode that works reasonably well. In this mode the Palm displays information about where you are, what the next turn is, and how far until you reach it. It makes a sound when you're getting close. In this mode you don't really have to look at the display very much and what is displayed is very clear. I've tried this both for routes I already new and for unknown ones. It works pretty well, but the directions themselves aren't always the best (e.g. "turn right onto unnamed road").

All in all I'd say this is somewhat useful but not as good as the dedicated navigation systems available these days. I'm interested in what software other people use on their Palms for GPS navigation. Is there anything that's really good?

Home Automation

My only foray into home automation is with the Applied Digital CPU-XA controller. This box has a small microprocessor that executes simple programs that can control various devices in a number of ways including:

  • Sending/receiving InfraRed commands
  • Sending/receiving X10 commands
  • External modules with analog and digital interfaces

I use this device for two things. The first is to automatically open and close the skylight blinds in the media room. The blind controller has an infrared receiver that can control its functions. I programmed the IR codes for it into the CPU-XA and have it close the blinds in the morning and open them again in the afternoon when the sun has passed. The second use is to remember the on/off state of various components in my home theater. The TV and the DVD player only have power toggle IR commands. They don't have discrete on/off signals. I use the CPU-XA to control the TV and DVD player so that I can more easily set up macros that rely on the state of the various devices.

I wasn't very happy with the programming environment for the CPU-XA so I wrote a little compiler for it. The language that it accepts is a simplified Java syntax. The compiler itself is written in Java. You can read more about it if you're interested.

Digital Camera

Read the review of the CoolPix 700 and many other digital cameras at
I recently bought a new digital camera - the Nikon CoolPix 880. I've left my comments about my previous camera below. I don't really have much to say about this camera yet since I haven't used it much. From what I can tell though, I'm really going to like it. The "scene" capability looks like it will be quite handy for a non-photographer like myself. It allows you tell the camera about the kind of scene your photographing and let it make adjustments accordingly. For instance, you can tell it that the subject is backlit, that you're at the beach or in the snow, etc.

One of the primary factors that got me to upgrade is that this camera has a 2.5x optical zoom. My CoolPix 700 has no zoom capability and that proved to be a pain on occassion.

I'll add more about the camera as I gain experience with it.

I really like my Nikon CoolPix 700 Digital Camera. You can read a review of it and many other digital cameras at I haven't used a conventional film camera since I got it. I'm not a photographer and I understand the cameras limitations relative to film photography, but I still much prefer compact flash to silver halide. The camera came with an 8MB compact flash card which is way too small. I usually shoot 1600x1200 even though I normally reduce this substantially to post pics on the web. At this resolution, inidividual images are often 600-800k. You just don't get enough of those in 8MB. I have purchased two Sandisk 48MB cards and that's usually plenty for my purposes.

One thing about this camera is that it goes through batteries (4 AA) like crazy. Turning off the LCD monitor helps, but I often don't want to. I bought a couple of sets of NiMH rechargeables to help keep costs and waste to a minimum. The other down side to the camera is that it doesn't have a USB connector. It just has a serial port which is awefully slow for lots of data. To remedy the problem I got a SanDisk USB Card reader. You plug this thing into the USB port of your computer and then plug the compact flash card into it. The card just appears as another disk on your computer and you can use normal operations to copy the images to your hard disk. It works very well, is relatively fast, and doesn't drain your camera's batteries since the card is removed from the camera for this operation.

I wish the camera had an optical zoom. There are times when I have really missed it. I'm probably going to replace this eventually with either a Nikon CoolPix 990 or the Canon PowerShot S20. Both have excellent reviews. The CoolPix is larger and has a 3x optical zoom. The Canon is more compact but has only a 2x zoom.


I use a Palm V as my PDA. I bought a Palm Pilot 1000 when they first came out and have been hooked ever since. I mostly use the address book, calendar, and memo functions, but I do have some other software loaded as well. I've considered and rejected using a Palm for some other things. For instance, I thought about using a Palm as a learning remote until I learned about the Pronto. For some reason I've never been compelled to write code for the Palm. It's harder to resist now that there's a Java VM available for it, but time is still against me.

Check out the GPS section for information on coupling a Palm and a GPS for navigation.