Thursday, March 19, 2015

LTE + Google Hangouts: Surprisingly Workable

In my previous blog post, I wrote about my experiment using Google Voice, via Google Hangouts, as my main communication line. I previously had a sour experience because T-Mobile's HSPA+ is not too widespread, especially in rural areas. But, even within well-covered areas, my Google Hangouts calls tended to jitter and drop. I was ready to write off the experiment until I switched to LTE.

Here is what I discovered about LTE service in my area. LTE coverage is greater than HSPA by a long shot. There are rural roads where my old phone and mobile hotspot would drop down to 2G or EDGE. Yet, those stretches have LTE service. Beyond that, the service is quite fast and reliable.

When it comes to call quality, LTE proves to be very capable in maintaining my Google Hangout call going with few hiccups. Obviously, carriers are moving towards VoLTE; but, the same technology that makes VoLTE possible also makes other VOIP services viable alternatives.

Wireless carriers aren't about to sell you data-only subscriptions so that you can use another voice service, or are they?

A New Way To Call


Do you know how Google Wear and the Apple Watch are supposed to free you from what photographers call chimping? If you don't know what chimping is, it is when you take a digital photo and immediately view it on the camera display, rather than just keep shooting. You can't chimp with film cameras, by the way.

Well, we tend to chimp with our phones. Phones spend most of their days in peoples' hands whilst we check for text messages, social media updates, look up information, or pretend to be busy so we do not have to talk to people.

Wearable technology is supposed to free us from staring at our hands all day. Google Glass is supposed to allow you to put the phone away and work with your hands free. Google Wear watches are supposed to make it easier to glance at and reply to messages without whipping out your phone.

We are using our phones less and less for voice communication, relying more and more on richer media communications. The dedicated phone circuit is on its way out. But, will carriers still charge you a line access fee when they do away with the circuit and move entirely to VoLTE?

You would feel silly buying a handset for $500 with no dedicated line (because your voice is going via LTE) when you could buy a tablet that does the same thing for $150. Would carriers sell data-only handsets like they sell data-only tablets?

In case you're wondering where this is going, this is where I redeem myself. Until you can buy handsets that have no phone line, meaning that they are data only, we will have to rely on tablets for VOIP service. Tablets are ridiculous as handsets; but, they make for great base stations for Bluetooth headsets.

So, since we now wear our notification devices, and would be foolish to pay more than double for a phone with the same circuitry as a tablet, and pay higher rates for a non-existent dedicated circuit, I see us moving towards headsets and base stations until service providers start to offer data-only subscriptions for handsets.

It makes sense that mobile carriers should move towards data-only subscriptions. On one device, you can have multiple phone numbers. You can have a Skype line, a Google Voice line, and a Truphone line, for example. We could choose phone services like we choose among Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo for email and collaborative work. It's the network effect for phone numbers.

What LTE Does


What LTE does is open up voice services on mobile devices in the same way that DSL and cable opened up the market for voice services like Vonage. You can choose to use the carrier's voice service, or use one from elsewhere.

LTE has the speed, reliability, and coverage to change the voice communication landscape. Handsets are going to have to do some evolving like T-Mobile is doing with WiFi calling. Their WiFi calls, for example, if done on both ends, jump up to high definition audio. Other VOIP services also default to high def audio when both ends are on the same service.

All of these things came to mind once I realized how doable it is to rely on Google Hangouts as a phone service via WiFi and LTE. It's exciting; but, I do not think we are ready to make the leap. The rate plans that carriers offer do not lend themselves to the transition. The rate plans too will have to evolve. We would have to request a standard line as an add-on to our main subscription rather than make it a requirement for handsets.

The best example of this is Republic Wireless. For a meager $5/mo, you get unlimited calling and texting if you provide the WiFi. If you want a backup phone line in case there is no WiFi, then it's $10/mo. It's going to be tough for carriers to unbundle the phone line from data.

My experiment is not over. T-Mobile currently has the fastest LTE network. I'm waiting for Karma to ship their hotspot, which runs on the Sprint LTE network. I wonder what difference network capacity will make on my Google Hangout calls?

Besides Google Hangouts, I am also testing Skype and Truphone for outbound calls. The caller ID shows my Google number, of course. There is no need to confuse call recipients with multiple phone numbers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

An Experiment With Data-only Calling

I've been meaning to experiment with Wi-Fi calling via Google Hangouts for some time. But, with the death of another phone, I am forced to run the experiment ahead of schedule. Google Hangouts now sports a handy dialer that allows you to make voice calls using your Google Voice number. It used to be that the Google Voice app would send a request to Google Voice, which in turn would dial your phone number and then dial your intended person. It was a bit of a hack; but it still required you to have an existing phone line, land or mobile. For that reason, calls were reliable. 

I tried the VoIP exclusive back in the dark ages of 3G via mobile Skype with limited success. Wireless data was not fast enough nor reliable enough for consistent call quality. 4G has improved on both, but occasionally farts out. In these days of LTE, carriers are starting to roll out VoLTE, which is essentially VoIP over LTE. So, then the question is, why not just use a handset without a voice plan and route calls via an LTE hotspot?

My idea works great this time around so long as I stay within city limits. It becomes unworkable when travelling out to the rural areas, which I have done. Downgrading to 2G service left me without Internet and without voice calling.  I did carry with me a backup GSM phone with voice and text, just in case. But, I've come to realize that relying on Google Voice as my main number requires me to stay put in town. 

Earlier tonight, I tried talking to my wife via Google Hangouts voice call from my tablet through a 4G hotspot (HSPA+). As I drove home, our call quality was rather lousy, probably because handoffs from tower to tower aren't smooth enough on GSM. I should attempt the same via LTE. If carriers are starting to roll out VoLTE, then perhaps travelling from cell to cell is smoother. I am waiting for Karma to finally ship their LTE hotspot to experiment, but that's not until April. 

Without a phone, I'm at a loss as what to do. I could make and receive calls from my tablet using Google Hangouts; but, things get tricky. I'd have to carry the tablet, a headset, hotspot, and backup phone everywhere. I suppose it would make sense to have a tablet with built-in mobile service. This way you only need one device, make that two devices, because you'll need a Bluetooth headset, 

Yes, this is very much like having a regular mobile phone, with the exception that you are not paying for voice and SMS. I think data only is a better value than bundled voice, text, and data. The bundling is an upsell because you figure that you're getting them all cheaper. Ultimately, however, you really only need data nowadays, which can provide the same unlimited texting and calling. So, you're paying extra for unlimited use of something you use less and less.

Of course, we still need legacy phone service as a backup line. But, I see the day coming when handsets will mainly be data devices like tablets. It's feasible for city folk. I think I would be fine with an everyday tablet phone and a "travelling phone". 

With all of that said, I think I am going to have to cough up some money for a new phone. Wi-Fi only calling simply isn't fitting in with my current business needs. Someday, when I become a virtual assistant or some other work-at-home professional, maybe I can go all Wi-Fi. But for now, it isn't practical. I shall have to re-evaluate when I can get my hands on an LTE device. 

Saturday, March 07, 2015

2014 Taxes and Evernote Efficiency

Why do we do this to ourselves every year? Why do we neglect our record-keeping and end up scrambling to get our taxes sorted out right before the deadline? Bah!

Fortunately for me, I keep records sufficient to piece together what I need for reporting. There is plenty of redundancy between my bank records, invoices, receipts, and 1099s. Ultimately, it becomes a task of story telling through numbers. 

I am a bit obsessive about writing down notes; however, I'm lousy at keeping my notes organized and consistently in one place. Sometimes I write them on paper, sometimes in Evernote, sometimes I text message them somewhere, or I'll record an audio note. The end result is that much of my data is scattered, and ultimately may as well not have been recorded. 

But, thanks to redundancy, my income tax story can still be told by gathering corresponding information from other sources. 

One thing that is different in this year's tax preparation is that Evernote plays a larger role than in previous years.

The key differences are that I adopted a simpler method of record-keeping. Rather than create a note for each transaction within Evernote, I make one note for related transactions. So, for example, my Smartsheet subscription will generate 12 invoices in a year. Rather than make a note for each of the invoices, I stuff all 12 invoices in Smartsheet 2014, or as is now the case, Smartsheet 2015. 

But, that is not all. It also helps to use the features inherent in PDFs, such as combining multiple documents into a single document. Rather than have an Evernote note with 12 documents, it makes sense to combine the 12 statements into a single document. Obviously, it is beneficial to have some type of software that allows you to edit PDFs. 

I should like to add that having fewer, more comprehensive notes in Evernote makes it so my information is easier to find. One does not feel like one is wading through murky waters. It is more like splashing in kiddy pools. 

Learning to use PDFs as one would use paper documents has been the greatest improvement I have made in better using Evernote. This includes highlighting passages and writing notes in the blank spaces like one would do with a book or report. It is for this reason I would recommend having a PDF editing application such as Adobe Acrobat, Foxit Phantom, or one of the Nuance products. I think most of us consider PDFs as read-only files; but, when you dig in a little deeper, they can do so many more things. And, when combined with something like Evernote, then so many more options open up. 

Another thing I have come to realize is that paper notes are great for working. But, once they have done their job, it is vital to scan or make data entries. Yes, it's a pain to have to touch information twice; but, if you neglect to do it, you'll have the tax-time crunch waiting for you. Therefore, it is important to schedule some time, regularly, to "transcribe", for lack of a better word, all your paper notes into digital format. 

For a while, I would take photos of my text, or scan my notes. However, plain text is so much more usable. Although I spent so much times fawning over PDFs, they are best suited to original documents rather than scanned documents. If you go through the trouble of writing notes, it is best to type up your handwritten notes rather than scan. You get much better information density with plain text than with scanned handwritten notes. I'm talking about usable information per KB of storage. 

I won't go on. I'm tired. Brain dead. And I need a shower to clear my head and go to bed. But, keep in mind how keeping better notes, not merely keeping notes, can improve your tax time experience. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

If you can measure it, you can barely change it.

Recently, my wife and I replaced our old scale, which had been broken since before the holidays. I really shot up from 160 pounds to a bit over 180. Part of the reason I gained so much weight was simply being unaware that it was happening. We splurged and got a Fitbit Aria to complement our Fitbit step counters.

I figured that so long as I put in my walking every day, I'd keep things under control. Obviously, that's not the case. So, now I'm being a bit more mindful about my weight. In addition, we have begun taking advantage of the food logging feature that comes with the Fitbit app, although for probably the wrong reason.

You see, as the day goes by and you add more steps, your calorie burn count goes up, which also increases the number of calories you can eat. Thus, one can drink that glass of wine for a few thousand steps.

All this makes a game out of exercise and diet. Keeping score tends to do that, I suppose. The ability to step on a scale and have it automatically update our accounts makes for a sustainable game. It removes a lot of the administrative hurdles that come with tracking data.

One drawback to automatic metrics is that frequency means that the changes are small. This can be discouraging. For example, the plans offered by Fitbit give you the option of 1 pound per week, 1.5 pounds per week, and I think 2 pounds per week. That means that from one day to the next you might lose an ounce. It can be disheartening to starve and then have the scale show no change. Or, perhaps you have some pants that you want to wear again, but can't even after a week of effort.

Obviously, you should play for the long-term. But, it's mentally difficult when you are keeping score daily and even from meal to meal.