At Home with Tech

Don’t let your gadgets kill your Zen. Byte back with your inner geek!

The VHS Twilight Zone

This is not the fifth dimension.  But be forewarned… This represents the final moments of a cautionary tech tale.

This is not the fifth dimension. But be forewarned… This represents the final moments of a cautionary tech tale.

Imagine recording all of your favorite TV shows on your trusty VCR for over a decade. Some of the episodes you’d actually watch as a time-shifting technique. Others, you’d never get to, because life is too busy.

And then you’d hold onto these bulky VHS tapes, believing some long evaporated rationale that you like ‘owning’ some of those episodes and would eventually get to the unwatched ones.

Yes, you’ve just entered the VHS Twilight Zone.

It’s Not a Bad Dream
Consider this evolving dimension:
Along the way to growing your media library you’d also get into the VHS movie-buying game. Here and there, you’d buy a few flicks you really enjoyed in the theater, because you were certain you would watch these movies over and over again.
(And by a few, I mean a couple dozen.)

And then you’d proudly position all of these tapes on your crowded bookshelves like they were part of some sort of family heirloom collection.

Eventually, the march of time and new DVD technology would force your VHS tapes to retreat into boxes that lived in the back of your closet or deep into your basement.

You’d consider throwing them all away, but still hold onto the entirely unreasonable belief that you would still find the time to consume the hundreds of unwatched hours. And you’d ignore the reality that your shows are now long cancelled and forgotten in pop culture zeitgeist.

Instead, you got married and had a family.

The Great Conversion Project that Failed
And when DVD recorders are invented, you’d have the misguided notion that you could transfer your favorite shows over to DVDs to save your media collection from oblivion.

But before you could make a serious dent in your conversion project, DVD recorders will encounter a premature extinction.

And those hideous rectangular black blocks would still remain….

HDTV and VCRs Can’t Live Together
When you’d buy your first HDTV, you would hook up your old VCR but never use it. The analog machine would just sit there… sucking power in its ‘phantom off mode.’

And then it would finally hit you:
Why would you even want to watch anything on VHS anymore? It’s mediocre resolution and old-school 4:3 aspect ratio is an insult to the eyes.

The haze would lift, but family life would distract you from taking action against the evil tapes. The boxes would then conveniently slip into the fifth dimension… into the middle ground between light and shadow.
(Dissolve to an image of a spinning clock…)

The VHS Tapes that Time Forgot
If you haven’t already guessed, yes, I’m liberally stealing language from
“The Twilight Zone,” and yes, this is my story.

So the other day, I ran across these forgotten boxes of ancient VHS tapes in the back of my basement.
(I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle.)

It must have been over a hundred tapes!
Okay… two hundred.
(I’m not proud.)

And guess what?
I searched my soul, looking for that inscrutable pull that forced me to tether these boxes to almost half of my life.
It was gone.
(I guess there is an expiration date on irrational tech hoarding.)

And then I sneezed.
(The boxes were dusty.)

It was finally time!
Time to purge these VHS tapes from my life.
(Even if I still wanted to save the content on any of these tapes, some over twenty years old, the magnetic coating on the tapes had probably entirely deteriorated.)

And now I’m happy to report my home is VHS free.

VHS is Not Cool
I know some of you are probably thinking, “What’s a VHS tape?”

The real irony here is there are other folks still using this dead technology.
(You can actually still buy a VCR and VHS tapes on Amazon.)

Look, I know I’ve suffered from some sort of undocumented VHS-hoarding syndrome. But why would someone choose to actively use VHS technology today?
(Let it go…!)

Avoid Your Own Tech Twilight Zone
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to retain your video content over the course of your life. You’ve just got to keep future-proofing it. And you can’t put this ongoing project off.

Technology is moving at such a fast clip, all your media… especially your family videos… is at risk.

DVDs used to be my media archiving solution. Now, they’re probably becoming drink coasters. And so it’s another race against time to transfer all of that content to my external hard drives. (Which won’t last forever either)

Maybe the whole notion of owning any media content in physical form over any extended length of time is indeed a flawed one. The whole cloud-based storage solution is finally making a lot more sense… something more than the media conglomerates exercising total control over their own content.

But the cloud is going to cost you a pretty penny as a decades-long solution.
(Still…. remember that people used to spend ten bucks on a single blank VHS tape.)

That’s the Signpost Up Ahead…
There’s always going to be a price to maintaining your video collection.
It would hurt to stress test your need to hold onto so much content.
Because at the end of the day, you can’t.

A cautionary tale in the Tech Twilight Zone…

Can You Afford to Give Your Smart Thermostat a Second Chance?

It’s impossible to completely hedge against all technical meltdowns that might afflict your home and by association… you.   By the way, have you double-checked your Nest Thermostat lately?

It’s impossible to completely hedge against all technical meltdowns that might afflict your home and by association… you. By the way, have you double-checked your Nest Thermostat lately?

I woke up in a panic at 6:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
My body sensed something was not right. (No, not a hangover)
I pulled off the comforter and quickly sat up in bed. It felt cold. Very cold…

I ran downstairs to check out the temperature and approached my
fabulous Nest Learning Thermostat. But my ‘smart’ thermostat failed to recognize my presence with its motion sensor, and it remained dark.

I then pushed in its circular face to manually activate it. Instead of happily popping on with a bright reading of the temperature, it simply displayed the cold message that I had to take it off its base and reattach it.

I think that’s code for there’s a problem somewhere…

Emergency Nest Surgery?
I thought about how to actually take my Nest off its base on the wall, never having done that. (You’re just supposed to pull.)

Then, fifteen seconds later… I heard the heat rumble on. I turned my gaze back to my ‘intelligent’ circle, which now looked completely normal. It glowed a chilly 62 degrees and its immediate plan to get the temperature back up to 72.

I never had the chance to yank my Nest off the wall to reboot it.
It just started working again.

I ran over to my iMac, which had recently had its own trip into the ‘Tech Netherworld.’ I furiously started Googling, looking for an explanation for this disturbing Nest anomaly. It quickly became apparent that there’s a small army of folks out there with their own Nest issues.
(But I found no smoking guns for my Nest’s troubles…)

I was able to confirm that my Nest’s message suggested some connection problem, though my experience pointed to its self-repair without human intervention.
(other than the touch of my finger)

I wondered if there had been some automatic software update that night, which was the culprit. In fact, this all going down in the early hours on the first calendar day of 2015 didn’t feel like a coincidence.
(Anyone else out there wake up cold on New Year’s Day?)

I walked back to my Nest and looked at my former champ.
I was a little heartbroken.
It stared back at me.

It had been intuitively managing my home’s temperature for almost eighteen months.
I trusted it.
Now, it was just another piece of glitchy tech for me to worry about.

I started thinking about what would happen if this kind of meltdown happened again when the family was away for a few days.
My house would become an Ice Station Zebra!

The only sure way to prevent this disaster would be to kill off my circular HAL before it happens.

“Daisy… Daisy…” my Nest would flicker in its final moments as I disconnected the last wire.

Have a Cup of Joe
I pondered this future, and then I walked into the kitchen to make some coffee and cool down.
(I mean warm up.)

At least the coffee maker still worked…
But even an innocent cup of coffee can become dangerous Tech Kryptonite.
(Your tech is never really safe…)

And I went about the rest of my day, which did not include replacing my Nest with a $20 dumb thermostat from 1955.

And so began my 2015….

Smart Human?
Now, it’s almost three weeks later, and my Nest is still solidly in place. It has demonstrated zero defects since the little ‘incident.’
And I have still taken no action against it.

And you know what…?
I’ve decided to give my little Nest a second chance.

Not because I have such a blind commitment to my tech, but because it would be a pain to replace.
And it’s been working just fine…

You’re welcome to point to this moment of human error when I blog in a few months that my house froze up, but that is only one of many possible futures.

Is It Smart to Trust Smart Tech?
No, I don’t know what happened to my ‘mostly-smart’ Nest. And that’s really frustrating. But an analog thermostat can fail too. Or my heating system can go on the fritz all by itself…

I thought about whether I should blog about my Nest blip and initially considered running silent, because I don’t really know what had happened.
And I don’t really have any solutions.
(How embarrassing is that?)

But now with a little distance and an ongoing toasty house, I’ve discovered my conclusion…
Sometimes there are no answers.
And that’s okay.

Yes, there are steps you should take to minimize your home tech problems.
But if you want to completely hedge against all tech failure, then you really can’t risk using any technology.

And what kind of fun is that?!

So take a deep breath.
(I did.)

Help your tech stay healthy.
(where you can)

And go on and live your life…
(Just keep a sweater handy!)

Five Rules to Follow When Your Computer Dies

How much should you pay to fix your computer when it stops working?  Should you just buy a new one if the repair costs too much?  I found myself smack in the middle of this decision tree as I contemplated the future of my broken digital companion…

How much should you pay to fix your computer when it stops working? Should you just buy a new one if the repair costs too much? I found myself smack in the middle of this decision tree as I contemplated the future of my broken digital companion…

My four year old ran into some unexpected trouble a couple of weeks back.
No, not my son. He’s fine.
I’m talking about my 27” iMac.
As you may have heard, its LCD screen stopped working.

The display didn’t entirely die… It just popped to black every so often.
Then, it remained that way until I forced the computer to sleep by pressing the power button in the back… and then reawakened it normally via the mouse.

Sometimes the screen would shine for another hour.
More often than not, the display would abruptly turn off again in a few seconds.

And that rendered my iMac rather useless.

How Many Apple Geniuses Does It Take to Fix a Computer?
So I took my ailing iMac to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store… three times.
Yes, it took three separate visits until one of the Geniuses finally determined that my precious computer needed to be formally admitted to the ‘iHospital.’

There were other Genius hunches and quick fixes, but eventually, the diagnosis shifted to something more serious.

Then, it took Apple almost a week to determine the display itself was the culprit.
The solution: replace the entire LCD.
(Originally, the Genius I saw on my third visit thought the two video cards were the problem.)

And this shift in repair diagnosis threatened to delay the fix beyond the
three-to-five business day promise I received.

But I got a happy Apple email on the fifth business day that said my machine was ready to go home.
(Apple really hustled!)

The Patient is Not Ready to Leave
I walked in to pick up the patient, carrying its original box with me. My iMac was whisked through the back door and placed onto the Genius Bar counter.

The Genius gleamed. I looked at the new LCD and spotted what looked like a horizontal two-inch scratch on the upper center part of the screen.

I pointed. “That wasn’t there before,” I said with concern.

The Genius peered at the scratch, pulled out a soft cloth and cleaning solution and carefully rubbed.

Nothing happened.

Then, she carefully touched the scratch. Feeling nothing, she looked closer.

“It’s on the inside,” she said.
“We can buff that out right now.”

And my computer was quickly carried away.

The Price for Computing Continuity
Twenty minutes later, we did a redo.

The scratch was gone.
Another Genius proclaimed the LCD screen had been successfully stress tested.
Now, it was time to pay up…

How much was the repair?

  • $510.23 for the LCD
  • $39 for labor
  • Plus tax

The total: $584.11.

Did your heart just skip a beat?

Buy a New Computer Instead?
Yes, that’s a costly fix.
(Unfortunately, my machine is over a year past its AppleCare warrantee.)

I’m sure many of you are thinking that at this repair price point I should have put the money towards a new iMac.

That’s kind of what the Repair Genius suggested when I got the call confirming Apple wanted to replace the LCD and asking for my permission to proceed.

As I hemmed and hawed over the phone over whether I should invest this heavily on fixing my old iMac, she said, “You can get a brand new iMac for $1799.”

Hmmm…$600 to fix vs. $1,799 for a new one
That’s a tough choice, right?

But it’s not really going to be $1,799.
Not for me…

Sure, the cheapest 27” new iMac today costs a buck shy of $1,800 for a 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor.

But my old iMac has an i7 processor… so I would buy the new iMac with the i7 for $1,999.

Then, I would double the RAM from 8GB to 16GB for $200.
(8GB is fine for now, but I don’t want to have to worry about RAM in a couple of years.)

And I’d have to upgrade the 1TB hard drive to 3TB for $150.
(My old iMac has a 2TB drive.)

Or another $200 on top of that for a 3TB fusion drive.
(more speed)

So now, we’re looking at a realistic price tag of $2,349-$2,549.
Plus tax.
And don’t get me thinking about the Retina 5K display option!

…Or less than $600 to get the old machine (which is otherwise in good shape) back up and running.

So that was my decision tree.

A Happy Ending?
And the million-dollar question… did the expensive LCD replacement fix my iMac’s problem?

It did.

I’m happily typing away as I write this post, and so far my screen is fi

(just kidding)

The Five Rules

So what did I learn from my little computer-repair adventure?
Here are five suggested rules it couldn’t hurt to follow…

Rule #1
Don’t Ignore Your Computer’s Inner Ghost
There’s always a ghost lurking in your computer. Or there will be. You’ve just got to be ready for it, when it eventually decides to come out and play. And when that day arrives, you should have additional technology available to manage your ongoing computing needs.
(I powered up my old MacBook Pro.)

Rule #2
Make Sure Your Hard Drive is Backed Up
Of course, your data should always be backed up. Then, when the emergency happens, you can stay calm enough to work the problem…
And if the patient dies, you can easily clone your content onto a new computer.
(It never hurts to repeat the obvious.)

Rule #3
Save the Box!
You should absolutely save the original box your iMac came in. Yes, it’s a huge empty carton that’s going to collect dust for a few years, but if you hold onto your iMac long enough, you’ll likely need it to safely pack up your giant 30-pound rectangle to schlep to the Genius Bar.

And just as importantly, save the Styrofoam inserts. You’ll want them to successfully bundle your computer as snugly as the day you first unboxed it.

Rule #4
Upgrade Your Computer After the Extended Warrantee Runs Out
This is my second iMac to need significant repair about a year after its three-year AppleCare warrantee ran out. No computer lasts forever…

You’ve got to decide if you’re willing to put some additional money into an aging machine when it needs a sleepover at the Genius Bar or whether you should buy a new one before your ‘classic’ goes bad.

To reiterate: Computers break.
It’s inevitable…

I don’t relish saying this, but if you want to give yourself the best chance of living trouble free with your computers, you should probably upgrade soon after the extended warrantee runs out.

That’s an expensive replacement program, and please note:
In the past decade, I have twice not followed my own advice.

Rule #5
Embrace Apple Genius Group Think
Finally, you should always take advantage of multiple Apple Geniuses offering you their own expertise on any number of Apple topics. That said, they’ll often provide different perspectives.

I typically appreciate this organic Genius ‘Group Think.’ Polling as many Apple Geniuses as possible can often get you to the finish line more quickly.
But not always…

I went through six different Apple Geniuses on the road to my iMac’s recovery. Each offered valuable feedback.
But I could have done without the three trips to the Genius Bar.
(Four, if you count the pick up)

Still, I’m not really sure I would have done anything differently if I knew the dance I would have to go through.
(I needed a working computer again…)

Even though a multi-day experience at the Genius Bar might suggest otherwise, I still endorse Genius Group Think as a powerful diagnostic tool even if it doesn’t seem like the fastest way to get your computer back up and running…

Find Your Tech Zen
If it wasn’t clear to me before… It’s now obvious that fixing a computer can be as much an art as science.

So in summary…

  • My iMac broke.
  • Apple took a long time to figure out the problem.
  • I was frustrated.

But Apple didn’t give up.

  • Apple’s repair process concluded with a strong sprint.
  • Now, my iMac is fixed.
  • And my wallet is thinner.

But the experience could have been worse.
Much worse.

Life goes on…

All you can do is be as prepared as possible when a digital ghost decides to come out and wreak havoc in your computer.

Pop quiz:
How prepared are you?


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