ISP alternatives

11 01 2013

In the days of dial-up modem connections, we had variety when it came to choosing an internet service provider. Of course, this was contingent on us having a local telephone line, which was generally monopolized by Bell, and it was often the case that my phone bill would be higher than my internet bill.  Back in those days, our usage was measured in the amount of time connected, and it was often the case that the smaller companies were more generous with the cost of this time than were the ones ran by large companies.

A 9600 baud modem from the early days of Internet

These days, I pay for bandwidth, because I am always connected with modern high speed internet service. This market became monopolized in my area by Bell and Rogers, because they are largely responsible for the lines that come into our homes, the expense of which have been long paid for by us consumers. It wasn’t long before I was paying more for a basic internet connection than I was for my home phone service. Internet based technology advanced to the point where it became viable for telephone and television content to be carried on that internet connection. Recognizing this threat to their existing phone and television content businesses, Bell and Rogers placed artificial caps on their high speed internet service, and have employed “Bandwidth shaping” techniques making the use of online content streaming and telephony services impractical and expensive. In essence, the Internet provides an infrastructure that is good for a frugal person, but what is good for my savings account is not good for Bell and Rogers, and so they play these games with their caps and bandwidth shaping to keep their phone and television content services artificially viable.

The case for alternatives

As it turns out, the lines installed by Bell and Rogers, paid for by people like me, exist on public property, and companies like Teksavvy have successfully argued in court that the use of these lines should be open to competition. As a homeowner, I have paid for the cable and telephone lines running across my property, into my home, and throughout my home, so those are owned by me. This competition is good for the consumer, because a company like Teksavvy doesn’t have a traditional home phone and television content division to protect. There is also the fact that Bell and Rogers both have shareholders to take care of; shareholders that don’t add any value to me, so the shareholder-free companies can offer the same services at much more competitive rates.

My own ADSL modem, no fees

The first advantage is the fact that alternative companies like Teksavvy allow me to use my own equipment. To put this into perspective, Bell and Rogers browbeat their customers into paying, at minimum, a $4/month rental fee for a modem. $4 a month doesn’t sound like much until you realize you can go to Canada Computers and buy a good quality D-Link DSL modem for $30. After seven months, it pays for itself. A common argument is that, if anything goes wrong, you get a replacement covered, but these modems have a one year warranty and usually last forever, so it’s pure profit for Bell and Rogers, and pure expense for me. They know it, which is why they’ll offer to waive the rental fee for a limited time whenever I complained, hoping I’ll forget after a few months.

The second advantage is the reasonable bandwidth cap. With a 300GB cap, I can utilize an economical on demand video delivery service like Netflix ($8/month), which also eliminates the need for a costly PVR. It also provides a viable inexpensive alternative to my home phone. I can get local content in HD with a regular UHF antenna.

A third advantage is the fact that there is no contract. Want to leave the country for a couple of months? Run into some tough financial times, and need to disconnect Internet until finances look better? Call them up and stop service whenever you want, start it back up whenever you want. No penalty to break a contract. Having this option for a plan “B” is very important to me.

Fourth, it is generally less expensive overall. Rogers and Bell may offer a better rate over a very limited short term, but it’s usually limited in other respects, like bandwidth capacity. With Teksavvy, it’s a good rate that’s consistent.

Fifth, services like Netflix and Skype work better, because Teksavvy isn’t actively “Shaping” the bandwidth. This opens the door to further savings with alternative home phone service and TV content.

Conclusion

Alternative providers like Teksavvy might not be available in your area, but if they are, it’s to your advantage to make use of this Bell/Rogers competitor. If they’re not, try to fight for your right to use your own hardware to eliminate the rental fees. In any case, it’s always worthwhile to negotiate, because quite often you can realize discounts, even if they’re only for a short period of time.




The death and rise of film

5 01 2013

Recently, there seems to be a resurgence of film photography. Everywhere I look, I can’t help but see blog after blog advising everyone of the merits of film photography over digital. I understood this was true over ten years ago, but many of these photographers were making these observations over the past couple of years. Did I miss something? Was I wrong to abandon film and switch to digital photography? I still have my film SLR’s, and decided to explore my own personal relationship with photography to understand the reasons why I, and so many other people, made the switch to digital, and to see if film might be a viable alternative today.

The case for film: Early years

My son at 7 months

I’ve been using cameras for a very long time. I started out, like most people of my generation, with a 110 camera. My father gave me a Pentax K1000 for Christmas in the early 1980’s. I used this camera to take baby pictures of my own son in the late 1990’s. At the time, it seemed sensible: Digital cameras were cumbersome, expensive, and limited, only able to capture images at one megapixel or less with terrible low light performance. In contrast, my K1000, loaded with ISO 800 film and shooting through a fast F1.7 50mm lens, could take beautiful, high resolution handheld shots in very low light without needing a flash. I found the experience very satisfying and even gratifying. The ability to capture very high quality images without popping a flash into baby’s newborn eyes felt empowering as it created a special bond between father, baby, and camera. Using a manual camera with natural light made the entire process feel very natural. The possibility of that camera becoming a family heirloom became very real to me. The camera and lens was just over 20 years old; I reasoned that, mechanically and optically, it was possible for my camera to last for a hundred years if it was taken care of. This realization caused me to buy my second film SLR, a Pentax P3n, so that I could better preserve my K1000 for future generations.

The case for digital: Discovering advantages

My Pentax K1000 film SLR

By the time 2001 rolled around, the digital photography world had changed significantly. Up until this point, I would shoot pictures in rolls of 24. I would start by deciding which film to buy: ISO 100 for outdoors, ISO 400 for indoors, ISO 800 for low light; the higher the ISO, the greater the grain and the lower the image quality. If I didn’t load ISO 400 in one camera body and ISO 100 in the other, I’d usually go for ISO 200, a middle-of-the-road film not great at anything but not disappointing either. I often took two or three shots of people at events, just in case someone blinked. If I still had frames left on a roll after an event, I would shoot off some random pictures to finish the roll so I could get it developed. I had to pay for 24 4×6 pictures each time. Most of them turned out fine, but I ended up keeping more than I had to just because throwing out a perfectly good picture seemed wasteful, even if it was a near duplicate of another. This was all assuming the film I had used didn’t go bad or expire; a couple of rolls of cheap film bought in haste resulted in some pretty crummy vacation photographs. Photo albums, representing another expense of money, time, and space, would fill up and occupy increasingly more shelf space. My experimental creative photography endeavours were saved for the end of rolls used at events or on trips, because buying and developing a roll of film was an expense that needed to be justified. To share pictures with friends and family, I had to spend time with a scanner and software, scanning the pictures in one at a time and sizing them down to attach to an e-mail. This process could take hours.

A shot taken with my Fuji Finepix A201 digital camera

Some very affordable and well-designed 2 megapixel point-and-shoot digital cameras came into the market in 2001, with significant price drops during the holiday season. The pictures could be printed out at 8×10 size and still look sharp, and while the sensitivity of the sensor, typically at ISO 100, was a far cry from ISO 800 film, it performed adequately well for close indoor snapshots with its built-in flash and exceptionally well outdoors on well-lit days. The benefits were immediately obvious. When the Fuji Finepix A201 came into our family as a gift from my father, many of the shortcomings of film fell away. I wasn’t restricted to a batches of 24 pictures at a time, and I could see right away if someone had blinked by checking the picture on the LCD display on the back of the camera. If everyone looked great on the first shot, there was no need to waste everyone’s time for another. I could pick and choose to have printed only those pictures I really liked. Of course, I’d still keep all of the shots that turned out, but most would remain in digital format; as compressed JPEG’s, they took up very little space. The pictures were so much more brilliant and clear, with no dust. Photo albums that were once a chore to put together became highlights of our lives; instead of page after page of similar pictures, they held only the best few pictures to mark those milestones in our lives. I could explore experimental creative photography with reckless abandon. I could spend an entire day taking some very bad pictures as I explored the limits of this little point-and-shoot camera, and ended up with a few interesting gems at no expense to me. Suddenly, photography became a hobby that even the most frugal person could enjoy. It was more than instant gratification; the lack of expense of buying film combined with the lack of waste made digital cameras well worth their higher price tags.

Cheap digital photography progress

Easter lilly, taken with my Kodak DX6490

Over the years, prices dropped and features were added to digital cameras. By 2005, the savings in film and development were significant enough that we could afford to upgrade to a 4 megapixel superzoom camera, the Kodak DX6490, which was representative of many of the affordable superzooms available at the time. With an ISO that ranged from 80 to 800, the problem of choosing appropriate film was solved. Just like film, a higher sensitivity (ISO) resulted in more noise (grain). Further increasing the versatility of this camera was an impressive macro-capable lens with an equivalent zoom range of 38mm-380mm that had a versatile automatic or manual aperture range from F2.8 to F8. With a manual or automatic shutter speed that ranges from from 16 seconds to 1/1000th of a second, excellent low light focus capability, a great built-in flash, and with a compact size, this replaced both our point-and-shoot as well as my Pentax SLRs, as the resulting prints were amazingly clear and brilliant with colour. My household stopped using film entirely, and my SLR’s got packed away. At the same time, my skills were improving. The instant feedback allowed me to further experiment into greater depth in the world of photography. This camera had limitations; the zoom lens didn’t compare to a prime lens for image quality (but was still very good), the focus tended to be slow, and there was no way to adjust the JPEG quality nor the ability to shoot RAW, but these limitations were greatly overshadowed by the fact that it cost me nothing to shoot as much as I wanted for free, in addition to the benefit of instant feedback inherent in digital cameras. Instant feedback differs from instant gratification in that it enhances the learning process, with a result lasting well beyond the short-term effects of instant gratification. Did I also mention, no dust?

Enter the affordable DSLR

Dragonfly, captured with my Pentax K-x

Five years later, the price of digital SLR’s came down significantly. With further savings realized from shooting exclusively digital over those five years, I was able to afford the Pentax K-x. While the Kodak superzoom is still in use in our household to this day (a testament to its build and image quality), I remained aware of its limitations having had extensive experience with SLR photography. I missed the image quality of prime lenses. I often wished I had a wider angle of view than 38mm. I didn’t like the shutter lag of the Kodak super zoom. I would have liked to be able to hold the shutter open for longer than 16 seconds. I desired better manual control over the focus. I missed my fast 50mm lens, being able to open it to F1.7 with a beautifully thin depth of field, and I also missed being able to use my collection of 49mm filters. I still had those lenses and filters, and knew they worked on the new Pentax DSLR. Further, this new Pentax camera was boasting incredible ISO, up to 12,800, provided image stabilization to any lens attached to it, promised beautiful HD video, and eliminated the problem of shutter lag. The door to creative exploration didn’t exist anymore; it was blown clean off its hinges, as this camera transported me into a world of endless creative exploration.

Old lenses and filters still work today

I discovered a trade-off with using the older lenses; and that is the crop factor. The sensor in the camera is smaller than that of a full frame negative, resulting in a 1.5 crop factor. This means that my 50mm lens becomes a 75mm lens, my 28mm lens becomes a 42mm lens, my 17mm lens becomes a 25.5mm lens, and my 80-200mm zoom becomes a 120-300mm zoom. I acquired other lenses recently; a 40mm pancake becomes a 60mm lens, and a 135mm lens becomes a 202.5mm prime lens. The Pentax K-x came with a kit lens with a range of 18-55mm, which translates to a very useful 27mm-82.5mm.

Rediscovering film

After reading blog posts about how superior film is in 2012, I decided to take my film Pentax cameras out of storage and shoot using my newly acquired lenses in their full frame glory during the holidays. Loaded with Fuji 200 and a fresh set of batteries in the old flash, I enjoyed holding and using these cameras once again, relishing their simplicity. The relationship between aperture and shutter speed, and watching it translate to the needle showing me the optimal exposure point was a treat. Utilizing the focus screen with a split circle, I was reminded at how bright and effective it was. Overall, the process was a little slower as I double checked to make sure all the settings were correct. Put the flash on the appropriate automatic setting, check. Set the shutter speed to sync with the flash, check. Make sure the F-stop matched the ISO and distance in the chart painted on the back of the flash, check. Focus, check once, check twice, recompose, squeeze the shutter release, and…forgot to wind the film. Wind the film, check the focus once more, recompose, squeeze the shutter release, ker-klunk. That satisfying mechanical movement as the spring, wound by my advancement of the film, released its energy in a split second to paint a frame of film with the light and colours I had just composed. I started thinking that I could learn to love film again.

Negatives

My wake-up call started when I discovered that the only place in town that would develop my film was the local Wal-Mart, and that it cost me 65 cents per picture, for each and every picture on the roll, whether I wanted it or not, for developing. The second thing I discovered was that the K1000 seems to have developed a very small small light leak. The P3n performed fine, however. In the end, factoring out the light leak in the K1000, seven shots were underexposed, five were out of focus or blurry, and four featured someone with their eyes closed. I paid $10.40 for bad or useless shots that I would have otherwise deleted. Out of the rest, I might have really wanted just under half of them. In other words, I paid a total of $37.46 for, at best, 16 4×6 prints that I would have wanted to keep and print. That works out to $2.46 per 4×6 print. At that price, expensive ink jet printed pictures seem a bargain.

Staples had their photo basic glossy 4×6 paper on for $5.99. I bought two packs for a total of $13.54. That works out to 6.77 cents per picture, plus my ink costs. The ink costs may vary, but I estimate it won’t be greater than 20 cents per 4×6 print. If I wanted to, I could get a local “Dry” lab to produce 4×6 prints for me for around 10 cents a print. That’s 6 and a half times cheaper than film, which can really add up. If I wanted to be really frugal and only shot a single roll of film for each birthday, holiday, and vacation, that would easily add up to 480 pictures a year. The expense would be $312 per year. If I wanted to be less conservative and chose, on average, 15 of my most favourite pictures from digital to print from each birthday, holiday, and vacation, I would end up with 300 pictures a year and have paid $30 for all of them. If I wanted to do all of them myself on my inkjet, my cost would still be well under $100. Over 5 years, I would save between $1,060 and $1,410 – enough to buy a really nice brand new digital camera with money to spare. Realistically, the savings are even more significant, as the majority of my pictures end up on a digital picture frame, virtually eliminating the need for traditional photo albums.

Unretouched negative film scan left, unretouched digital image from RAW file right

I did a side-by-side comparison of two similar pictures, one taken with my film Pentax, and the other with my digital Pentax. I printed a digital 4×6 off of my printer, which was rated “Mediocre” for photo printing (but has fantastic ink costs and overall functionality). At first glance, the digital picture had colours that were brighter, more vibrant…but as I looked deeper, I could see the print that came from the negative had a greater dynamic range and offered greater clarity in the detailed parts of the image. This proved to me that the people who still prefer film weren’t crackpots. I could see exactly what they were talking about. Then I realized something. All of my pictures were JPEGs. This meant they were compressed; how could I expect the same level of detail and dynamic range from a JPEG as a film negative? I remembered that my camera offered High Dynamic Range (HDR) capture, as well as RAW mode. I also had to remember that my inexpensive inkjet printer was probably no match for the high priced professional lab machine at Wal-Mart. I tested again, this time shooting first in HDR capture and then  in RAW, and discovered that the dynamic range came back better than 200 ISO film in both HDR and RAW, but RAW alone not only delivered the dynamic range, but also clarity beyond 200 ISO 35mm film in the detailed parts of the image.

Conclusion

The days of mass consumer film use are long gone

I found this exploration and experimentation enlightening. Without the film comparison, I might not have bothered to discover the world of RAW digital photography; now I understand what digital photographers mean when they describe a RAW image file as a digital negative. I still shoot JPEG for quick shots that are going to be further reduced and posted on-line, but I make a conscious choice to switch to RAW for finer photography. I also learned that those who choose film for its aesthetics and the feel of the equipment are legitimate in their choice. There is no doubt in my mind that medium and large format film is significantly better than 35mm film, but that film has always existed in the realm of the fine arts world. For me as well as the majority of consumers, film is no more; it’s just not a frugal choice given the latitude offered by RAW and the exceptional image quality of modern digital cameras. I’ll probably hang on to the K1000 body as a keepsakes, but the family heirloom may very well be that fast 50mm lens. It still produces beautiful images with the latest digital Pentax cameras.





Happy new year!

31 12 2012

It’s the last day of 2012. What a year! It’s been difficult for me, and many others around the world. As I reflect on 2012, I have to admit that, through all the hardships that this year dished out, it was frugality that helped in a big way. I don’t pretend to be perfect; my path is guided with frugality, but I know I’m not frugally perfect, so I’m going to make some frugal resolutions for 2013 to help guide me closer to frugal nirvana.

The first resolution I’ll make is to commit to weekly updates of this blog for the entire year. Every Friday, expect to see fresh, new content, with original photographs.

My second resolution is to commit to a 2:1 ratio when it comes to acquiring stuff. What this means is that, for each new thing that comes into my house, two things must go. This is part of my on-going efforts to de-clutter, as well as to provide me with a moment to consider if I really need that new thing. Whether it’s selling through eBay, donating to Goodwill, or just gifting to someone, two things must go for every thing that comes in.

Finally, I’m going to resolve to spend more time enjoying life. 2012 was all about my new career, house, and adapting to the changes that occur as a result of a career and house change. I’m finally feeling settled in both, so I’m going to commit to at least a couple of weeks of “Down” time, to travel and enjoy life. This part is all about giving myself back some time.

All the best to you and yours in the upcoming new year, and if you have any resolutions you’d like to share, feel free to share them here.





Inkjet printers: A second look

28 12 2012

I’ve used many different types of printers over the years. My first printer was a Commodore dot matrix printer, which used a relatively expensive carbon ribbon. I later opted for an Epson 9 pin dot matrix, which utilized the more economical fabric ribbon. Inkjet and bubble jet printers introduced in the mid 1980’s became affordable in the early 1990’s, and promised laser-like quality, but I was rightly skeptical of the cost of ink as the cost of the printers was deferred by greater profits made from ink sales, and so I stuck with my trusty dot matrix. Eventually, I did buy an Epson inkjet printer, and suffered the shock of ink prices costing more than my printer. I discovered the Canon S300 was a reasonable and affordable alternative that paid for itself after replacing the ink on the Epson twice, but decided to defer that expense further with a Konica Minolta Pagepro 1400 monochrome laser printer for non-colour printing.

My first printer: Commodore MPS 802

The time has come for me to re-evaluate my printing needs. The cost of toner for my laser printer has gone up over the years and, given that the printer has been discontinued, has become increasingly difficult to find. I just discovered that this is the last time I can refill the toner cartridges I bought with the printer. A new toner cartridge costs around $70, and yields 2000 pages, for a cost of 3.5 cents per page. I can get a black ink cartridge for my Canon inkjet for around $10, but with a yield of 150 pages, it’s costing me 6.7 cents per page. The colour ink, at around $25, yields 160 pages, for an expense of 15.6 cents per page. I could try my luck with refills, but considering the age of my printers, I reasoned it was time to start shopping for a new one to see if the market had improved.

The case for the all-in-one

My trusty, crusty Canon S300

For years, I avoided the all-in-one printers. I was concerned that, if one device broke, I could still use the other devices. Nothing ever broke. Businesses from small to large, presumably ran by very frugal individuals sitting in front of spreadsheets, tended to favour the all-in-one solutions. After careful consideration, I understood why: The all-in-ones offer time-saving conveniences that stand-alone units don’t, in addition to cost savings. For example, the scanners will usually have a feeder allowing one to scan in multiple pages at a time, without requiring one to manually change the pages and hit the “Scan” button again and again – a big time-saver. It’s often the case that scanned documents need to be faxed, and the all-in-one provides a one-stop time-saving solution for this without needing computer use. With wireless capability, the fax, printer, and scanning features can be shared with everyone in my household with a minimal amount of effort. Buying a scanner and printer separately generally costs more. Finally, going back to my original reasoning, if my computer broke, I could still send and receive faxes as well as make copies. There is also the fact that those models oriented towards businesses typically have automatic duplex capability – the ability to print on two sides of a page at a time – saving on paper and resulting in a more professional-looking result. All-in-one’s really do provide an economical solution with significantly greater convenience. What’s good for business is good for me.

The modern cost of laser

A reliable, reasonably cost-efficient, personal laser printer

The Samsung CLX-3305FW colour multifunction seems a remarkable deal, currently on sale for around $180. A black toner cartridge for this printer costs $75, and yields 1,500 pages, for a cost of 5 cents per page! Each colour toner cartridge costs $75 each, and yields 1,000 pages, for a cost of 22.5 cents per page. This is heading into inkjet territory. The HP LaserJet Pro M1212nf, a monochrome laser all-in-one priced at around $130, has toner cartridges that cost around $95 each and yield 1200 pages each, for a cost of 7.9 cents per page. What’s happening here? It appears as though the laser manufacturers have borrowed a page from the low-cost ink jet printer makers: Sell the laser printers at extremely low prices, and make huge profits from the consumables (toner).

The case for ink jets

All-in-one inkjets are delivering competitive products to the business market, with business-oriented names like Epson Workforce and HP OfficeJet. Priced competitively but not ridiculously cheap, the consumables for these printers are on par with, or sometimes better than, competing laser printers. They also add the convenience of being able to produce colour photographs.

The all-in-one inkjet I opted for was the HP 6500a plus. A high yield black ink cartridge costs around $40 and yields up to 1200 pages, for a cost of 3.3 cents per page, squeezing out my laser printer. Each of the three high yield colour ink cartridges costs $20 and yield up to 700 pages, for a cost of 8.6 cents per page.

My new all-in-one HP OfficeJet

That’s just the tip of the cost-saving iceberg. Just like I did with my laser printer, I can obtain “Refilled” ink cartridges for my HP printer. The objective for moving towards an office all-in-one was to gain access to the low cost-per-page ink costs promised and delivered by HP, but I’ve seen the high yield black for $15 (1.25 cents per page), and high yield colour for $10 each (4.3 cents per page) which drives the cost per page down even lower. That beats a refilled toner cartridge for my laser printer by approximately 75 cents per page. Whether or not these re-manufactured ink cartridges work well is often a topic for debate, but of the people I know who have used re-manufactured ink cartridges, I haven’t heard any complaints.

Conclusion

It’s no surprise to me that an ink jet can be cheaper to buy and own than a laser printer. In fact, the only thing that made laser printers seem so lucrative was the fact that ink jet manufacturers charged excessively high amounts for proprietary ink cartridges, and went to great lengths to prevent the use of refilled ink cartridges. By all rights, ink jet printers should cost less than laser printers; the amount and type of materials used for the build of each printer type calls for it. Also, besides the artificial profit margins generated by certain printer models and vendors, there’s nothing to justify ink costing more than toner. In fact, it should, and generally does, cost less. The newspaper industry knows this full well, which is why, even today, newspapers come from a machine that uses ink, not toner, to produce their mass quantities.
It’s nice to see the cost of inkjet printing technology finally coming down to reality. My advice would be to stick with products marketed towards business, and do the math on the price of replacement ink. Most of all, avoid the cheap printers that have overpriced ink or toner cartridges. It looks like inkjet technology has a future for the frugal minded.




Happy holidays!

21 12 2012

‘Tis the season for overspending and overeating as we scramble at the last minute to get everything done. Perhaps it’s time to reflect on how we spend the holidays and learn to do more with less. Many of my blog posts to date have lead up to this, and I hope you’ve found them helpful. I’m in a time crunch this week, so I didn’t have time to finish a proper blog post. I did want to take the time to wish my readers all the best this holiday season.

Christmas 1978 in the Quirk house





The hardest thing in life

18 11 2012

Losing weight. Quitting smoking. Getting married. Buying a house. All of these things are nothing compared to choosing a career.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about a job. I’ve had no problems getting a job. Anyone can get a job, lose weight, quit smoking, get married, and buy a house, but choosing a career is an intensely personal endeavor, sort of like choosing a hairstyle or getting a tattoo, fraught with endless pitfalls and dead ends. One can’t do what someone else did because it worked for them, and one can’t always do their own new thing either.

Chase the money? Follow my dreams? I finally realized it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. I knew what I wanted to do when I was in high school, so I focused on that. Turns out that I had a certain clarity of mind in Grade 11 that somehow became confused by girlfriends and guidance counselors. Today, I’m happy to say that I’m an electrician, and I think it’s the best job in the world. At least it is for me. It might not be for everyone. 





Changes

16 11 2012

New changes are soon to come…stay tuned…