Time to break up with H&R Block Online (formerly TaxCut)

You know, as much as I hated filling out all of my 2009 taxes in H&R Block’s new “At Home Deluxe” online product, I think I may just go ahead and try filing with TurboTax anyways.

Last year, I was wowed at how great their online TaxCut software was. It was quite helpful, easy to use, and seemed to take care of all of my investment needs.

This year – quite the opposite. When trying to find information about wash sales the site provided no helpful input, no automated calculations – nothing. It is really just a beautified IRS form. I had to research the web for hours and do my calculations manually in a spreadsheet. Even then, because they don’t show you what fields you’re actually filling in in the IRS form – there is not way to be sure I was doing it right.

Then, finally, I got to a point where I thought it was time to submit. And – it finds an error.

“Error 1 of 1: Remove the non-alpha characters in %P in order to electronically file this return.”

%P? Oh gee thanks, that is useful. Who knows where that is. So it brings me to a random spot in my return – all of the characters such as $’s and ,’s are automatically put there by the software. If it is complaining about those – I don’t even have the option to change them. After going through the portion in the survey that it takes me to multiple times with no success, I finally ask tech support:

Welcome to H&R Block At Home technical support. Please wait while we find a technical support agent to assist you.
You have been connected to Kelly A..
Kelly A.: Hello BRIAN, welcome to H&R Block’s At Home Live Chat Support! How can we assist you today?
BRIAN SAGHY: Hello, I’m trying to submit my return by e-file, and it is giving me an error message that appears to be broken:
BRIAN SAGHY: Remove the non-alpha characters in %P in order to electronically file this return.
BRIAN SAGHY: %P definitely looks like the backend code is somehow broken and is not being filled in correctly
Kelly A.: That means somewhere in the return there is a letter that is where a number should be or a number where a letter should be. You will need to review the entire form to find it. I apologize for the inconvenience.
BRIAN SAGHY: That is pretty awful
Kelly A.: I agree.
Kelly A.: Is there anything else we are able to assist you with today?
BRIAN SAGHY: i guess thats it

Tech support agrees – their product sucks. So why should I pay for it? We’ll see if TurboTax or TaxACT 2009 is any better this year.

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Break up with your DNS servers

When you sign up for an internet provider, like Earthlink, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Roadrunner, etc – the first thing you probably look at is the bandwidth that you’ll be getting.

“7mbps down, 780kbps up”

Sounds super, right?

But then how many times do you type a URL in the browser, or even search for something in the search field and get stuck with “Looking up ____________________” in the status bar? It could be that your DNS servers are just taking their good old time at resolving the domain name.

What is a DNS server?

Good question. You probably don’t really care. The DNS (Domain Name System) server handles the very first transaction when you try to load anything that has a domain name in it. This includes web pages, e-mail, and even those pesky ads. It converts human-friendly names (like http://www.google.com) to computer-friendly addresses (like 74.125.95.147). Think of it like a phone book. Easy to remember names translated into hard-to-remember phone numbers.

DNS Diagram

What your DNS Server is doing

So, the faster you can look up the address, the faster you can start downloading the actual website/content that you wanted to.

Why should I break up with my DNS server? I hardly know it!

Well, maybe you shouldn’t.  But chances are that there is probably a faster DNS server out there for you. And no, you don’t even have to write a breakup note.

I’m not going to go into great detail on how to do this, but I have found a wonderful utility that will basically compare your current DNS servers to several free and public DNS servers. It tests the performance of all of them, and then tells you which are fastest. It is called Domain Name Speed Benchmark.

Here are my personalized results (Running under Ubuntu 9.10 64-bit Wine, from Austin, TX on an Earthlink Cable connection):
Domain Name Server Benchmark Names
Domain Name Server Benchmark Response Times
As you can see, there were a few public servers that were much faster than both Earthlink and Time Warner’s Roadrunner DNS servers.

So long, Earthlink DNS servers. It was nice using you all of 20 minutes. [breakup] Helloooooo ThePlanet.com and Level 3!

Run the program for your own personalized results. Then, you can set your DNS servers to the fastest ones. I’m not going to outline how exactly to do this, but trust me – its easy with a little Google searching for “Change DNS Servers” + your operating system.

Happy browsing with less waiting!

WebOS gets fixed. A lot.

A while back I wrote a post about what the Palm Pre and WebOS were missing. It has been nearly 4 months since I bought the phone, and Palm has made great strides in updating its feature set and fixing many bugs that I wasn’t even initially aware of.

Some of these same features took Apple a significantly longer amount of time to implement on the iPhone from when it was first launched. I am very impressed at how quickly Palm is able to adapt its OS and meet customer expectations.

Most of all, I am still trying to get used to owning a phone that is actually updated. My old LG CU500 had “OTA Firmware Updates” – but that doesn’t mean anything since they never actually released updates. The 2.5+years that I owned that phone – I had to deal with the same bugs and quirks – feeling left in the dark by LG while they only focused on coding for the next phone model.

Palm, on the other hand, is clearly listening to customers’ desires and complaints, prioritizing software updates accordingly, and executing on them in a timely fashion. Apple has really raised the bar here for expectations in support & longetivity of Smartphone operating systems, and Palm, in my opinion, is possibly pushing that bar even higher. We’ll see if that stays true as they begin releasing more WebOS phones and the Pre’s spotlight is taken away.

To see all of Palm’s fixes to the Pre & WebOS to date, here is a great WebOS Changelog

Also, please see my previous post for updates. As Palm releases updates, I try to keep my complaint list up-to-date so that prospective customers aren’t disuaded from buying a phone from outdated information.

Palm Pre Cheap Cheap Charging

One of the major complaints of the Palm Pre is that its battery life is less than stellar. A simple workaround is of course to keep it plugged in. Carrying a charger around, of course, stinks. However, do to the magic that is IEEE standardization, there is no need for proprietary Palm chargers, as microUSB is available everywhere. For cheap.

I bought several of these cables for between $1.80 to $2.50 with minimal USPS 1st Class shipping from a great discount cable/adapter dealer, Monoprice.com. One for work, one for my laptop bag, one for my desktop, and one for my car.

Don’t want to spend $20 for Palm’s branded car-charger solution? I’ll admit, its a slick design but not really necessary to simply supply some voltage to the USB port. How about a $2 non-functioning charger, instead? (I’m sure there are others that can be purchased that supply more power).

Cigarette to USB adaptor

(Useless) Car Cigarette Lighter to USB Adaptor - $1

Micro USB Cable from Monoprice.com

MicroUSB Cable - 1.5 ft - $1.81

I tested it. It works hardly charges at all. Cheaply built piece of junk. I took it on a road trip and it couldn’t charge at a rate fast enough to keep up with the phone’s heavy power demand for GPS navigation. Perhaps a different, higher quality adapter would supply enough power. Who knows? It was worth a shot for $1.

That is the power of microUSB, choice. Thanks, Palm, for not being evil with proprietary connectors!

What the Palm Prē is missing

This weekend I actually stood in line and bought a Palm Pre.

Palm Pre

Palm Pre

I know. I’ve never stood in line early in the morning on a release day for any piece of technology before, but my old phone had about 15 minutes of talk time left and it was time to buy a replacement before I go on vacation to NYC and Philly this week.

The Pre has a great interface. You can read more about all of the nifty features on other sites. I find it easier to use than an iPhone, but I tend to be generally be incompetent with Apple products for whatever reason. So far, Sprint has been great and I’ve had no issues with coverage or dropped calls. I’m glad to no longer be sharing the same network with iPhone users. Ever since the day the iPhone 3G was released, ATT’s network seemed significantly more unreliable to me.

There have been some annoyances with WebOS, though. I think it is worth publishing lacking features and gripes so that people who are considering purchasing the phone can decide if it would be a deal breaker and also I hope that Palm may read this and fix the issues.

Messaging

Once you are in a thread/conversation view, there is no way to add more people on SMS. Say somebody sends me a text message “Ya’ll in for brunch today?”. Clearly, it was sent to more than me. I have a good idea who. I want to respond to more than the sender (SMS is very limited here, but I can guess who this person invited) and say “Yeah, how about that restaurant next to my place at 12:30”.  Unfortunately, from the thread view, I can’t just reply and add people. I basically want Google Wave here. Also, SMS sucks so I expect as more people move to smartish phones SMS as it stands will die when e-mail could be used instead. Not having the ability to reply-to-all will be SMS’s downfall.

Twitter does not integrate in to messaging, surprisingly. It is currently only available as a standalone 3rd party app. It would be nice to see tweets, replies, etc within the messenger so that you could quickly respond to a tweet via e-mail or sms. Imagine a conversation that could go like this:

Alex (Twitter): Heading down to Emo’s for a Foot Patrol concert. Let me know if you want to come, I’ll buy a ticket.

Me (SMS): Hey, sweet get me a ticket before they sell out. Can only afford $20

Alex (SMS): Cool man, see you there. Heading out now.

Alex (Twitter): Sorry everybody, show sold out while I was in line. Other ideas for tonight?

Me (Twitter): @Alex Oh that stinks. Emo’s sucks anyways. Who wants to go to Mohawk instead to see Spoon?

It could save Alex from having to duplicate a messages and allowing me to keep certain things private and send things for immediate SMS delivery as I see fit. Since I currently have to switch between twitter app and messenger now, the flow of conversation gets broken up. So much for synergy. I may have confused it a bit with Google Wave, but it seems like this isn’t a hard thing to implement.

*Update 6/9/2009*
There appears to be no quick way to forward a TEXT message. Copy/Paste may work.

*Update 4/2/2010*
This has actually been available since WebOS 1.3.5 which was released at the end of December, 2009. I’ve been using it quite frequently!

E-mail

E-mail can be made much better. There is no limited search functionality within e-mail. Even the J2ME Gmail client lets you search through your Gmail. I understand the limitations of searching large amounts of text on an embedded device – but this is after all WebOS – it should be doing the searching in the cloud and returning the results to me.

Also, I’m pretty sure it is connecting to Gmail through IMAP, which really limits the Gmail functionality. I can’t star, tag, or archive e-mails. I chose gmail for its rich feature set, not to have it treated like a standard imap account.  My usage model for finding e-mails has changed from organizing e-mails and remembering when they were sent to searching for emails by content. Hopefully they work closer with Google to integrate a more Gmail-native-like experience into the native e-mail client, and including the ability to search the e-mail subject/body through universal search.

*Update 10/3/2009*
WebOS 1.2.0 adds limited search functionality to the mail client. You can now search by subject, to, from, or CC fields – but not the full body of the text. This is certainly a great improvement, but not quite what I’m used to on Gmail yet.

I should also note that it is possible to star/unstar messages in the mail client by flagging them. I believe this feature has been available for a while. Deleting messages from the Pre actually archives them. Archived messages are also accessible.

*Update 4/2/2010*
I’ve found that like the inability to search through all of my gmail content – the fact that only 1 month worth of gmail is synced is often annoying. There are certainly times I want to reference an older e-mail. I’m not going to sync my entire history of gmail to my phone as I’m sure that would fill it up and slow it down immensely. To fill this need, I occasionally have to log into gmail with the web browser app. Again – this just doesn’t feel very cloud-based.

*Update*

It also turns out that I cannot connect to my work Exchange e-mail because “Error – The mail server requires security policies that are not supported”. This is a huge deal. I’m not sure if it is due to PIN authentication or what, but as far as I know, if an iPhone or windows mobile phone can work here just fine, so should my Pre.  Here is an interesting thread on the matter.

And here on Palm’s site

*Update 7/27/2009*
Exchange support has been updated in WebOS 1.1 and now works!

*Update 6/9/2009*
Last night I got an e-mail from a friend that I thought I’d try to reply to various paragraphs in-line. Unfortunately, the Pre doesn’t seem to indent the old message or change font color – nothing. So the text I was entering looked just like the text my friend had written. It seems there is no clear way to do in-line e-mail replies.

Contacts

Overall, the contacts program is nice. I have way more contacts now on my phone than ever before thanks to Facebook, gmail contacts. You’d think it would be a pain to have too many, but searching makes it nice. Unfortunately, it takes a bit of manual effort syncing profiles together where it can’t automatically figure out that, say, my only “John” contact is also “John Smith” on gmail and “John C Smith” in Facebook.

What would be really nice here is some kind of app that just made suggestions that you could approve/disapprove to link contacts together. Search for name overlap and ask me a simple “Same person? Yes/No” question for each to help speed up the synergizing.

Calendar

*Update 6/9/2009*
The calendar is very well done, and I love how it integrates with my Google calendar. The updating seems to take a bit of time, though. So don’t expect to put a reminder in your Google calendar through Google and expect your pre to remind you in 5 minutes. I don’t know how long it takes to sync if you don’t force it.

The calendar is nice in that you can overlay all of your calendars. However, this is actually quite a problem if, say, in your Google calendar account you have several friends’ calendars, events calendars, etc that you don’t want to follow. Same for holiday calendars, local events calendars, etc. I want to have the ability to be able to look at their calendars, but don’t want that to be the default as it gets incredibly cluttered. I can view just my own personal calendar, but not select a subset of calendars to view. Its either one single calendar or all calendars. The interface gives you a check mark next to what you’re viewing (check marks tend to imply you can select multiple), but you can’t select multiple things in the box. A solution could be to provide “views” or sets of calendars that you predefine. Or just let me check all that I want to view at a given time.

*Update 7/28/2009*
Synchronizing now occurs every 15 minutes from Google Calendar to the phone as of WebOS 1.0.3. This seems like a reasonable amount of time. One would hope that you can remember if you have a meeting in 15 minutes and not be dependent on getting a reminder 10 minutes after you created it in Google Cal.

Either the sub-calendar disable feature has been around all along and I missed it, or was introduced in WebOS 1.1. By clicking on the Google account under preferences, you can choose whether or not to display each of your “Other Calendars” under the “All Calendars” view. This is great – I can ignore my friends’ calendars and Brazilian holidays unless I really want to see what they’re up to. Now it actually looks like I have free time.

*Update 4/2/2010*
It is also possible to force a sync with the calendar to make sure that it is up to date. This is a rather nice feature – though I rarely have to use it.

Web Browser

Overall, quite nice with the exception of lack of Adobe flash. That is nothing new on any mobile platform.

Small gripes: I tried to open a pdf and it says “Cannot find an application which can open this file”. Which is false, there is a pdf viewer. I also can’t figure out a way to save files to my phone. I’ve tried double-tapping, long-tap, function+tap, etc and nothing worked.

Likewise, I haven’t found a way to open a link in a new “card”. There are times I want to leave one page open and have another one in a new window. Again, maybe the feature is there, but its difficult enough that I haven’t found it yet.

*Update 10/3/2009*
WebOS 1.2.0 Has added the feature to save files to the Pre, offers better support for opening of files in the correct applications, and allows you to open a link in a new card by holding a finger in the gesture area while clicking a link. Very nice!

Music Player

I haven’t used it too much, but it is very apparent that switching between tracks is disappointingly slow.

*Update 10/3/2009*
While most of my updates today are positive improvements that have been made, I feel the need to point out some additional issues with the music player:

You can’t create a playlist from the Pre itself. This is a pretty lacking feature if, say, you want to make a sweet party mix while at a party and let it play. You can do shuffle-All and start removing things, but you cannot add a bunch of bands to a playlist, or individual songs. Certainly iPhone wins here.

There is no progress bar that you can slide to skip to a desired part of a track.
*Update 4/2/2010* – This was actually introduced in one of the 1.3.x series, I believe. If you hold down on the progress bar, you get a slider. Nice!

There is no equalizer.

Applications

So far, its hard to say what kind of interfaces applications can have to each other, or what kind of overloading can be done. In Android, developers & users can replace features of the default system with their own. Like… get a new dialer or phonebook. It doesn’t feel like the Pre will support this extendability

The worst thing is Sprint’s NASCAR app. I have no desire to ever look at NASCAR. Ever. I don’t want it taking up valuable precious icon space. And yet, it seems I cannot easily remove Sprint NASCAR from my phone. Something tells me that most Pre users don’t want this app, yet Sprint shoves it down our throats. Garbage. I don’t mind if they put it on, but let me delete it. They aren’t advertising NASCAR by having this application, they’re creating more disdain towards it.

*Update 7/21/2009*
You can actually hide or remove/delete the NASCAR app with some rather hackish steps outlined here.

*Update 7/27/2009*
With the WebOS 1.1 Update, rather than making this app easy to remove, Palm went ahead and added yet ANOTHER non-removable program, this time NFL.  I’m sure a lot of people may like this app, but I could care less. Don’t force it on me. I removed it with the above step, again.

*Update 10/3/2009*
Although you can remove the pesky apps, it seems that every time you get a WebOS Update it goes ahead and re-installs these awful things.

Navigation and Maps

Google Maps isn’t as featured as my cheapo-phone’s J2ME version. Most importantly, it lacks public transportation directions. That is really nice when taking the bus/metro somewhere. This is going to be incredibly frustrating for my NYC trip coming up next week. Hopefully Google implements the public transit search feature soon, or public-transport city-dwellers aren’t going to be terribly happy with this limitation.

*Update 10/3/2009*
The Google Maps application was recently updated to include both walking and public transportation directions. This is most excellent and should open up the Pre to more urban environments like NYC, Chicago, Boston, Philly, etc. Previous searches are now stored for the session, but are not remembered the next time you open the app. There is still no ability to bookmark locations. Hopefully one day this will be tied to your Google account.

GPS Navigation software was pretty impressive. It even works nicely with Pandora, lowering the music volume to announce a voice direction. It makes me want to buy a new head unit for my car that supports Bluetooth.

I’d like to see more interaction between Google Maps and Sprint Navigation. Google is great for finding places in a map, satellite view, etc. But not good for turn-by-turn live directions. Let me click an address in gMaps (or contacts, browser, etc) and add an option to add it as a destination in Sprint Navigation.

*Update 7/28/2009*
I’ve noticed that Navigation kills my battery and heats up my phone more than any other app. Even with the phone plugged in to the car charger, the phone begins draining. This software is one power-hungry hippo. I’ve tried putting maps in 2D instead of 3D view, turning off the screen – nothing helps. Not terribly useful for long trips if its going to leave you with a dead phone.

Camera

The camera’s quality seems quite nice in daylight. The LED flash is handy, but seems to turn everybody yellowish jaundice tones. The color correction could certainly be improved in software when the flash is used.

There is little manual control over color balance, exposure, etc. It has no self-timer, either.

Worst feature is that it doesn’t preview the photo for a few seconds after taking a pic, which seems to confuse users.

The software feature set of the camera could greatly be improved.

The photo viewer also seems a tad slow at resolving photos. I doubt Palm is really using the graphics hardware to its full potential here, so here’s hoping for some improvements with upcoming OS updates.

*Update 7/27/09*
WebOS 1.1 update provides slightly faster previewing of photos, but is still noticeably slower than I’d hope for. Though there is still no immediate photo preview like you get on a digital camera, at least now there is an animation to indicate that a photo was just taken, which will hopefully not confuse users.

WiFi

Day one of trying to get the Pre working on a corporate wifi WPA2 Enterprise network is a failure. I’m not convinced that it is going to have the necessary proxy configurations, either. Hopefully they update this or there is no way that the Pre is going to be able to compete with iPhone, BlackBerry, and Symbian in the corporate world.

Hardware

These are things that aren’t going to change with a software update, but I can deal with.

Battery life isn’t spectacular. I think I’ll be charging the phone every night. Luckily, with microUSB charging I won’t have to buy 3 $30 charger accessories, just a cheap cable.

Headphone jack is at the top of the phone. I can’t complain much, since Palm was smart/kind enough to include a 3.5mm headphone jack. But, it would be much less in the way if it were placed on the bottom of the phone, and would be better for putting in your pocket that way.

Tiny keys. There is no way around this for the format of the phone unless they forced you to use it Rumor/Sidekick landscape mode. So far, I’m adapting and like it much better than both iPhone’s on-screen keyboard and certainly better than T9/multitouch.

The camera lens placement is too low, and I find that I’m always covering it with my finger when trying to take a pic. I guess I expect it to be at the top of the phone when its slid open, for some reason. But, this allows you to take pics with the keyboard closed.

Summary

All in all, the Palm Pre Has a lot of potential. I do enjoy the overall UI experience, and I hope that they continue to do updates to get rid of many of the quirks that I have outlined above. I’m sure I’ll find more irksome things to post here as time goes on, and I’ll be sure to update this as things are resolved.

Also, here is a forum of wishlist items for the Palm Pre.

eBay Spam

Every time I buy something on eBay, I’m frustrated by how much excessive mail fills up my inbox with repetitive garbage. Yesterday I purchased a new keyboard. Here is a chronological list of the subject headers that have flooded in over 24 hours. I expect at least 4 more to follow:

  • You eBay bid is confirmed
  • You won this item on eBay:
  • You have won eBay Item …
  • Your invoice for eBay purchase
  • Good news. eBay item …. (won)
  • RE: Item #  … – Notification of an Instant Payment Received
  • Thank you for your payment
  • Your package will be shipped by PayPal Shipping with UPS
  • Your eBay item has shipped

Nine e-mails. NINE! I knew I bid when I hit the bid button. I don’t need 4 e-mails all telling me that I won. I don’t need 2 e-mails telling me that the payment was received. And I don’t need 2 e-mails telling me the same shipping info. What is going on?

Here is what I want:

  • You won the item! Here is your invoice. Please pay here.
  • Your payment was received. Item will be shipped …
  • Item shipped, tracking number. Please remember to rate.

The only other time I want to be e-mailed is if I were possibly out-bid, I guess. Even then, I’m not so sure that would change how I use eBay at all.

Things that BUZZ [and i know why]

Dear GSM mobile phone carrier,

Fix your network. Fix your communication protocol. I am sick and tired of hearing interference from every cell phone which is on your network on my speakers, on my headphones on my landline on the conference room phone, and seeing my monitor shake and shimmy every time my LG decides to talk phone home like ET to the mothership.

This is entirely unacceptable. How much money did you have to shove in the FCC’s pockets to get this horribly engineered, chattery wireless protocol approved? I was hoping that maybe with the update of the W-CDMA/3G protocol that you’d have this fixed. I guess that wasn’t an option? Or are you just lazy and ignorant?

How did Apple overlook this gigantic flaw when choosing AT&T as their sole provider of the iPhone? For being so concerned about aesthetics and pleasure of use, forcing your customer’s speakers blast digital chit-chat interference at them every 5 minutes is not going to boost your sales or reputability. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is, because if I have to listen to this garbage noise then your music-playing phone is worthless to me.

Stop blaming the “poor” shielding on my [everything]. I’m sorry that not all of my electronics are wrapped in lead so that you don’t have to think for yourselves and come up with a protocol that doesn’t suck. Even Evil Verizon decided to go with a protocol that doesn’t suck.

I guess that means I’ll be switching back to crappy, Evil Verizon or maybe try Sprint. Thanks a lot.

Sincerely,

-Brian Saghy