Amazon Fire Streaming Stick 50% Off with Prime

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fire_stickOffer expired, now $39. Many cable TV “cord-cutters” get their TV fix using an HDTV over-the-air antenna and/or a streaming video device like the Roku, Google Chromecast, or Apple TV. Amazon has just announced their new Amazon Fire TV Stick. The regular price is $39, but if you have Amazon Prime and order it by 10/29/14 at 6am Pacific, you can get it for just $19. Here’s a comparison chart against similar competitors provided by Amazon (click to enlarge):

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Notably, Google Chromecast does not support Amazon Prime Instant Video and does not include a physical remote. Fire does not support HBO Go.

Not a Prime member? Join as Amazon Mom for a free 1-month Prime trial and get 50% off diapers. Join as Amazon Student with a .edu email address and get a free 6-month Prime trial.

I have an older Roku box that I’ve been using on and off for the last couple of years – it is useful for Plex which streams my own media from my hard drive to my TV and also for various kids shows on-demand from Amazon Prime Instant Video. (I cancelled my Netflix subscription after having kids since I don’t have time to binge-watch TV anymore.) So why am I going to buy this? Because my 2-year-old lost/hid/ingested the remote, and this new gadget is cheaper than buying a replacement Roku remote!

Republic Wireless: Unlimited Talk, Text, 3G Data for $25/Month, Moto E for $99

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motoeSeveral updates. Republic Wireless uses WiFi coverage to place mobile phone calls and texts whenever possible, saving both you and them money. They have quickly become a popular frugal option for cell service. When WiFi is unavailable, you fall back onto Sprint cell towers. No contracts, but you must buy a phone specially programmed with their WiFi software. Some recent updates:

  • Moto E. This newly-released value phone costs just $99. It won’t compete with a cutting-edge phone and is 3G-only, but it will do nearly everything you need – email, text, Facebook, internet. The reviews are actually pretty positive – read the Engadget and Verge reviews. Looks like the weakest point is the camera.
  • Moto X. Their premium phone is the Moto X at $299, which has 4G capabilities and also has solid reviews at a higher price point. See Engadget and Anandtech reviews.
  • Switch between plans for free. You can switch between any of the new plan options, up to twice per month, with no penalty. This means you could upgrade to cellular data for a week or a month if you need it, or downgrade to the $5 or $10 plan if you are traveling or don’t plan to use any data that month. Nice flexibility, and you can switch plans directly from your phone without calling customer service.
  • MMS and text short codes now supported. MMS (multimedia/picture texting) is now officially working with all major carriers and most regional carriers. You can also now text shortcodes.

Plan Options

Here’s a new graphic that explains the plans pretty succinctly:

  • $5/month = WiFi only. This is basically like VoIP home service, but on a smartphone. You must route all calls and text through WiFi.
  • $10/month = WiFi + Talk + Text. Unlimited talk and text, no cellular data.
  • $25/month = WiFi + Talk + Text + 3G Data. Unlimited talk, text, 3G data.
  • $40/month = WiFi + Talk + Text + 4G Data. Unlimited talk, text, 3G/4G data.

Prices don’t included taxes and surcharges. Below is information quoted about their Acceptable Use Policy:

Our policy is targeted toward the top 1% of users, based on mobile data consumption —that means users who consume more that 5GB of cellular data or 100MB of roaming data. The vast majority of our users will never reach these limits. In fact, the first time you hit this threshold, we give you a free pass —once in any six-month period we’ll allow you to exceed the limit— and your speed won’t be reduced. If you hit the threshold twice within a six month period, your speed will be reduced to 2G speeds for the remainder of the month of billing. We’ll make sure you’re aware if your usage starts to approach either benchmark.

My Thoughts
I think Republic Wireless has found a good balance between offering “unlimited” data and still making sure people use WiFi at home/work whenever possible as that is critical to their business model. If you remember, their initial limit back in 2011 was about 500 mb of data, which many (including me) thought was too restrictive. Now, it’s 10 times as much at 5 GB of data, and you get a free pass every 6 months. I like that they are continually improving their service in a relatively open and transparent manner.

With the announcement of their new $99 Moto E phone, I finally bought one with the goal of letting my parents use it (and play with the technology myself…). Their previous phone was a Virgin Mobile Kyocera flip phone, so this should be a huge upgrade. They do have an iPad, so it shouldn’t be too hard to pick up. Hopefully, they can cycle between the $10 and upgrade to the $25 plan when they travel. I don’t think they need data on a daily basis. Learn more at RepublicWireless.com.

$20 Referral Bonus
Until October 31st, 2014 (only one more week!) new customers can also get a $20 monthly plan credit by signing up via my referral link. If you don’t use it all, it will carry over to future months. If you get $20, my parents will also get $20 of monthly plan credit. You should see the credit on your confirmation page, see this screenshot.

Which SUV, Minivan, or Crossover Is The Most Space-Efficient?

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siennaIn the October 2014 issue of Car and Driver magazine, they have an article “Space Exploration” comparing the space-efficiency of “hatchbacked” vehicles – hatchbacks, wagons, crossovers, SUVs, vans. Their definition of space efficiency was carrying capacity compared to the amount of ground a vehicle occupies. Specifically, the maximum seats-down cargo volume divided by footprint (length times width). Trucks don’t count.

I can’t find a version of the chart online, so here is my rundown of the findings:

  • The most space-efficient vehicles were cargo vans usually bought for commercial use. Not surprising, as these are often seen as airport shuttles. Examples are the Ram Promaster, Mercedez-Benz Sprinter, and Ford Transit. The extended body, high roof versions of these vans have ratios as high as 3.69.
  • After that, the minivans rule: Toyota Sienna 1.38, Honda Odyssey 1.33, Chrysler Town & Country 1.30. (Nissan Quest was only 1.00.)
  • Huge SUVs are next: GMC Acadia 1.06, Ford Expedition 1.08, Toyota Sequoia 1.06.
  • After that, things get more interesting. The Scion xB is 0.86 is actually a bit better than the Toyota Highlander at 0.83 and the Mercedes GL at 0.79. The Honda Fit is 0.71, on par with the Jeep Grand Cherokee at 0.68 and Audi Q7 at 0.67. Relatively disappointing small cars include the Nissan Juke 0.46, Ford C-Max 0.49, and Kia Sportage 0.62.
  • Want electric? The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is 0.80 while the Nissan Leaf is 0.35 and Chevrolet Volt is a paltry 0.12. I would note the MiEV is tiny though, it looks like a golf cart driving down the road.

As you might expect, in general tall and boxy shapes make for high numbers. Space-efficiency isn’t everything, but it can be an important factor to consider if you have a growing family or certain hobbies. It would have been nice if they also used the alternative definition to be cargo volume divided by base retail price (space per dollar).

Infographic Map: Cell Phone Taxes By State

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The nonpartisan Tax Foundation has released a new report on Wireless Taxation in the United States 2014. The average US wireless consumer pays 17% in combined federal, state, and local taxes and fees. Folks in Chicago, Baltimore, Omaha, and New York City have combined tax rates over 25 percent! Here’s their state-by-state map breakdown:

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They also point out that these effective tax rates are much higher than normal sales tax.

Actionable advice? If your area is subject to high cell phone taxes, it may be better to switch to a prepaid plan rather than the traditional postpaid. I’m not sure exactly how these work, but somehow the taxes are averaged out and baked into the flat price. Note that depending on your area, you may still be subject to a e911 fee and sales tax. You can often bring your own off-contract phone and save even more. Most discount providers now accept phones like the iPhone and Galaxy.

I’ve heard of some people fudging their billing addresses to stay in a low cell tax state, but that may be more expensive or trouble than it is worth.

More Research on Buying Experiences vs. Things

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travelsignpostYou’ve probably heard the advice that you should buy experiences and not things. (Except maybe when things help you experience.) This Atlantic article explores new findings from behavioral research about the differences between experiences and material objects.

With experiences, people are less competitive and worry less about keeping up with the Jones’:

Gilovich’s prior work has shown that experiences tend to make people happier because they are less likely to measure the value of their experiences by comparing them to those of others. For example, Gilbert and company note in their new paper, many people are unsure if they would rather have a high salary that is lower than that of their peers, or a lower salary that is higher than that of their peers. With an experiential good like vacation, that dilemma doesn’t hold. Would you rather have two weeks of vacation when your peers only get one? Or four weeks when your peers get eight? People choose four weeks with little hesitation.

Experiences elicit positive feelings and promote social togetherness rather than creating impatience and worries about scarcity.

Those waiting for experiences were in better moods than those waiting for material goods. “You read these stories about people rioting, pepper-spraying, treating each other badly when they have to wait,” he said. It turns out, those sorts of stories are much more likely to occur when people are waiting to acquire a possession than an experience. When people are waiting to get concert tickets or in line at a new food truck, their moods tend to be much more positive. [...]

Research has also found that people tend to be more generous to others when they’ve just thought about an experiential purchase as opposed to a material purchase. They’re also more likely to pursue social activities.

Baby Gear Reviews: Diaper Pails (Part 4)

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diaperpailsHere is Part 4 of my series on baby gear, organized in the order of Amazon’s Baby Registry. The entire multi-part series can be found with the Baby Gear tag here. This time I’ll talk about our experiences with diaper pails.

Gotta put the poop somewhere, right? I’ll focus on diaper pails for disposable diapers. Most of them have some sort of mechanism to help prevent stinky odors from escaping the poop bucket. We got a Diaper Genie Elite from our baby registry, which was one of the two recommended by the Baby Bargains book. (The other was the Dekor.)

It works more or less, but like with razors and printers, the bag refills are where they make their profits. Each refill canister is really only 3-4 bags of diapers and they cost $6-$8 each. So essentially you’re paying upwards of $2 for a plastic bag! Compare this with under 10 cents for a kitchen trash bag from Costco. Also, the advertised “count” refers to an imaginary pile of newborn diapers that are vacuum sealed or something because I’ve never fit that many.

Parents have come up a number of ways to frugalize the diaper pail:

  • Wrap up your diapers as tightly as possible.
  • Throw the pee diapers in the regular trash and only the poops in the diaper pail.
  • Don’t waste too much bag when cutting and tying. Make sure you squeeze all the excess air out. Some use scissors instead of the provided cutter. I used to use those wire twist ties from other bags.
  • Use a plain kitchen trash bag wrapped around an empty refill canister. Note that it won’t fit perfectly and we got mixed results.
  • Buy generic refills. Note that Diaper Genie changed their design so they might not fit right anymore on new models. Check it out. Rather lame attempt at keeping their monopoly, in my opinion.
  • When your Diaper Genie bag is full, place a regular trash bag underneath and cut only the bottom knot. Let the diapers all fall into your 10 cent kitchen trash bag and throw that away. If you keep your wrapped diapers clean your refill liners can last 5 times longer or more.

We experimented all these things (with my prodding). In the end, my wife didn’t want to deal with any added hassles and we just buy the overpriced refills at Sam’s Club. I personally throw all the non-stinky diapers that I change straight in the regular the garbage.

  • Verdict: Considering you only fit around 50 diapers max at $2 a bag, that’s 4 cents a diaper which is an additional 20% of the cost of the diaper itself. In the end, you either think the reduced odor and convenience is worth the extra cost (my wife) or think you should just throw your diapers in a regular trash pail and wrap up the stinky poops in an extra plastic bag (me). For what you’ll be paying in refills you could buy a really nice trash can that will last for a long time.

Eat Anything You Want, Just Cook It Yourself

Want to learn how to eat well without the need for fad diets or deprivation? This short video narrated by Michael Pollan does a nice job of explaining his simple “just cook” rule:

Found via Farnam Street. Also see my book review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Some other thought-provoking videos on the same RSA channel as well.

It’s now been nearly a month of cooking mostly at home from scratch. With proper planning, the cooking hasn’t been too overwhelming and we are definitely spending less money on food. But I must admit I haven’t lost much weight. The food is so good and new and interesting… I’m eating too much! Hopefully I’ll adapt and perhaps I’m getting healthier in other ways (less salt, preservatives, binders, fillers, etc).

Backup Hard Drives: Expect Failure and Plan Accordingly

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In the past month, both of my Western Digital 1 TB external backup hard drives have failed on me. This was pretty disconcerting considering I bought two of them specifically so they could be redundant backups. I was a bit lazy and barely had enough time to transfer my data while the last drive was limping along.

I turns out there isn’t that much data on real-world hard drive failure rates. When searching, many reference this post by online backup site BackBlaze which has owned over 25,000 hard drives (also see their recent update). In both posts, Seagate drives had much higher failure rates than Hitachi or Western Digital. However, other tech experts point out the flaws in drawing that conclusion. Brands don’t matter as much when they keep merging with each other anyway.

Really, the only conclusions I would confidently draw are (1) don’t buy specific “low power consumption” models of Seagate hard drives and (2) expect hard drives to fail on you. Imagine how little can go wrong in order to fit 4 terabytes of information on a little spinning disk. This Backblaze post is the one you should actually read. It cites other studies that say hard drives fail much more often than the MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) statistics put out by manufacturers, and it is hard to predict impending failures even with regular hard drive checks. Here is a chart showing that hard drives tend to fail either within the first year, or after 3 years.

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Here is a chart of survival rates over time.

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That’s roughly 1 in 5 drives failing within 4 years, and maybe half will fail within 6 years. That starts to make a service like Crashplan at $60 a year more palatable.

In the end, Backblaze still buys Seagate drives because their cheaper price more than offsets any expected unreliability. Perhaps that is what consumers should do as well. Forget brands, buy whatever is cheapest, keep redundant backups in expectation of failure, and save your receipts. Of course, hard drive warranties keep getting shorter and are now usually only a year long (perhaps an admission of their unreliability?). Here’s my plan:

  • Purchase with an American Express that offers their Extended Warranty which will double the manufacturer’s warranty, up to one year.
  • Purchase from Costco whatever is on sale, due to their generous return policy. While even 90 days is relatively good, but I also do not see hard drives included explicitly in their 90-day electronics return policy – “We guarantee your satisfaction on every product we sell with a full refund. The following must be returned within 90 days of purchase for a refund: televisions, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, touchscreen tablets, MP3 players and cellular phones.” Do accessories count?
  • Keep my important documents and family pictures on multiple formats (cloud, flash drives, multiple hard drives).

Feel Like You’re Always Eating Out? You’re Not Alone.

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Here are some charts illustrating a couple of interesting food trends in the US.

Americans are spending a smaller percentage of their income on food than ever. From America’s Shrinking Grocery Bill:

In 1984, the average U.S. household spent 16.8 percent of its annual post-tax income on food. By 2011, Americans spent only 11.2 percent. The U.S. devotes less of its income to food than any other country—half as much as households in France and one-fourth of those in India.

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But you see that big orange slice of the chart?

We are also spending a larger percentage of our food budget on food prepared away from home than ever. From Cheap Eats: How America Spends Money on Food:

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Looking at the chart, it seems like only a matter of time before we eat out more often than we eat in.

Our peak period of eating out was after the birth of our first child. It felt like we were whipping out the binder of take-out menus nearly every day. More recently, we completed the Dinner Boot Camp which contained a week-long plan for easy home dinners, and since then we’re on our 4th consecutive week of cooking dinner (and the following day’s lunch) at home at least 5 times a week. It’ll be hard to keep up, but doing a bit of planning before every week really does go a long way.

Baby Gear Reviews: Baby Bottles and Accessories (Part 3)

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azbottlesHere is Part 3 of my series on baby gear, organized in the order of Amazon’s Baby Registry. The entire multi-part series can be found with the Baby Gear tag here. This time I’ll talk about our experiences with baby bottles.

Our first baby was colicky and not a great eater, and that is really where these bottle companies make their money. Design a bottle nipple that reduces the unstoppable crying of colic, and we’ll gladly pay upwards of $6 per bottle. Heck, if it really worked I’d pay $50 a bottle without blinking an eye. The basic idea is that air is being swallowed when air backflows into the nipple during drinking, which supposedly causes colic. So the fancier bottles all have some mechanism to alleviate that vacuum.

Our babies were breastfed, so we got a “free” Medela breast pump (it was covered by our health insurance). Thus, we started out with a few Medela brand bottles. Baby didn’t like it. Between purchasing and borrowing from friends, we ended up trying most of the brands: Medela, Born Free, Playtex, Tommee Tippee, AVENT, and Dr. Browns Natural Flow. We tried the last three because they were the most recommended by the Baby Bargains book.

The two that ended up working best for us were:

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  • Tommee Tippee – The silicone nipple does look most like a human nipple with a wide base, the construction felt of high quality, and the wider bottle was easier to hold in my palm. Keep the air vent hole facing upwards so milk doesn’t block it. On the expensive side.
  • Playtex Drop-Ins with the Latex Nipple – I bought this when desperate in a drugstore after reading a recommendation from a parenting forum. Latex is softer than silicone and thus feel more natural, although silicone is more durable and some babies are allergic to latex. The collapsible liners are convenient and eliminate vacuum but are not eco-friendly. Really, it was all about the soft latex nipple.

All bottles sold today should be BPA-free, I would check if you are using hand-me-downs. I would also note that you can buy nipples with different-sized holes that change the flowrate, your baby may prefer one to another and that could make a big difference in itself.

Other things to buy. As for accessories, a simple dishwasher basket was a very good buy; we’ve used it daily for 2 years now for all kinds of small kiddie things, even after we stopped using bottles. A good bottle brush is also helpful for thorough cleaning.

Other things we didn’t buy. We did not buy any bottle sterilizers or bottle warmers. When we had our first child, I think the first two weeks we boiled water and manually sterilized the bottles every time. What a pain. After that, we only sterilize them before the first use. Now we just wash them with warm, soapy water or use the dishwasher and rinse them well. Hot tap water works fine for warming milk or formula. When eating out, we simply ask for some hot water like they would serve for tea. If you formula-feed, the advice is to start them at room temperature and your baby will be fine with it. Our pediatrician agreed these were unnecessary. Perhaps they are wonderful inventions, but I don’t feel like I’ve missed out.

  • Verdict: There are endless combinations of nipple shapes and bottle designs. I’m sure some babies will drink from anything. For us, there really wasn’t a huge difference between any of the bottles, but I listed our two favorites above. If possible, try to borrow different bottle brands from friends to try out.

OBi200 Adapter + Google Voice Installation Review

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obi200After the announcement that Obihai VoIP adapters were officially supported by Google Voice, I bought one of their discounted Obi200 adapters. I wanted to learn more about this cheap alternative to landline phone service, and also compare the voice quality with my Ooma device.

Obihai adapters have been around since 2011, but this is the first Obi product I have purchased. I don’t know that the installation procedure was in the past, but I believe the official integration has made the installation even easier than before. Supposedly the authentication method is also more secure and your Google password is no longer stored. I thought about making a video, but it really wasn’t necessary.

  1. Open the box and plug in the cables. AC adapter, telephone line, and ethernet cable to router. All ports are clearly marked. All the cables are included except the phone cable which you should already have. The image below says it all:

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  2. Write down your unique Obi number. This is clearly printed on the bottom of the Obi200 box. Mine was 9 digits like “123 456 789″.
  3. Go to your computer and visit ObiTalk.com. Click on the link that says “Register” in the top right corner. Then just follow the directions. Dial a test phone number when it asks. It is easiest to use the “Sign in with Google Account” button since you already have one if you use Google Voice. I didn’t even have to type in my password. They didn’t require name, address, or credit card number. A few confirmation clicks, and that was it.

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  4. Use your phone. I turned on my phone, listened to the dial tone, and called my cell phone. Success! Traditional phone service with unlimited calls within the US and Canada for the great price of $0 a month. The voice quality was fine, but I’ll test it out more over the next couple of weeks.

Total set-up time was under 10 minutes. If for some reason my directions don’t work, check out the official Obi200 Starter Guide [pdf] or their extensive set of tutorials. You can also add e911 service for $15 a year.

The Obi200 is currently $49.99 at NewEgg and $48.89 at Amazon, both with free shipping options. The newer Obi200 supports T.38 faxing and has a USB port which can be used to connect to your router over WiFi using an OBiWiFi adapter. If you want to save some money you can buy the OBi100 for $37.99 at NewEgg and $37.99 at Amazon (prices often change). NewEgg works with Shoprunner which many people have for free, giving you free 2-day shipping. Here is a comparison of the OBi100, OBi110, OBi200, and OBi202.

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Healthcare FSA $500 Rollover and Open Enrollment

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rxbottleIn October of last year, the government announced that administrators of Healthcare Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) could allow employees to roll over up to $500 of unspent FSA money into the following year’s balance . This change was designed up help address the (stupid in my opinion) use-it-or-lose-it nature of these accounts. Per this Reuters article, given the short notice only 8% of U.S. companies adopted this rollover policy in 2014.

As Open Enrollment season for benefits starts for 2015, keep your eyes out for mention of this rollover option. Adoption rates could jump up to 50% now that they’ve had a year to prepare, according to benefits administrator Alegeus Technologies.

If your company does offer a $500 carryover (and your job is stable), then it would be much more appealing to contribute at last $500 even if you are unsure of your future expenses. If you don’t spend all (or any) of it, you can simply roll it over year after year.

Despite the potential tax savings, we stopped contributing to our FSA last year because the company switched to a new (likely cheaper) FSA administrator that made you do everything online while also repeatedly rejecting half our claims without clear explanations as to why. So painful! Thankfully it sounds like everyone else hated them too, as they are back to processing FSA claims in-house.