Tuesday, November 13, 2007

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe Review - Nice Car!

I stopped by a nearby Nissan dealer recently and checked out the gorgeously styled new 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe as I was researching cars and the wheel-size and tire-size options available on various new automobiles these days (I did that for my recent environmental blog about how wasteful large wheels and tires are).

One thing that surprised me about the Altima Coupe (with the 4 cylinder engine) was how it offered decent gas mileage (23 city / 32 highway with manual transmission, and 31 highway with automatic transmission) and out of all the cars I looked at it used the least expensive OEM 16-inch tires ($71/each at TireRack) of the various cars I checked out. This surprised me, especially considering the car I looked at was rather "loaded" with an incredibly comfortable full leather interior, moonroof, and all sorts of creature-comforts. So many other automobile brands would have forced me to 17-inch (or perhaps even 18") wheels and tires just to be in a car with so many other high-end options.

I wish the price-tag for the entire car was a bit more in-line with its tire prices though, since the loaded 4-cylinder 2008 Altima Coupe I sat in was sticker-priced at nearly $27,000 (ouch!). It would take a lot of miles and tire-price-savings to make up for that price tag. Perhaps I'm just out of touch, since I expect to be able to find a nice car for under $20,000, which seems a bit of a stretch these days. I have found some that I consider decent in that range, but this 2008 Altima Coupe was certainly in a bit of a different league than the sub-20K cars I noticed. Nissan did a great job with the styling (in my opinion), both inside and out, and I guess this will allow them to command a premium price for this automobile.

At this time, my review is limited to the car's interior and exterior styling, its gas mileage specifications, and its wheel and tire size options (and other options, which are numerous and include that awesomely over-the-top comfortable form-fitting leather seats option), since I didn't bother to drive the car yet -- I don't think I can justify the price tag, though I'm rather sure I'd enjoy the car if I could. I may end up going back (on a non-rainy day, as it was this time) for a test drive just to see first hand if the 2008 Nissan Altima's road-test delivers what the styling and specifications suggest it would.

And, note to Nissan (and any other car companies interested enough to care): the only reason I even looked at the 08 Altima Coupe (4 cylinder - not the 6 cylinder) was because it had a mileage rating above 30 mpg (miles per gallon), which is my current bottom-threshold for consideration in any new automobile. And, it had reasonably-sized and reasonably-priced tires (a major consumable) that also carry with them a nice wear-rating!

Coming soon: Car Cost-of-Ownership Analysis
Car cost is one thing, but cost of ownership is another. I'll be exploring, in more detail, how expensive some consumables like tires can be in the overall cost-of-ownership equation soon. But, to give you a quick sample...

If you read yesterday's environmental blog posting I did (about tire size and wear), you'd have seen how the OEM tires on the decked out 2008 Honda Accord Coupe (18 inch low-profile sporty things) cost over $250 per tire, or well in excess of $1,000 per tire change, and were only expected to get perhaps 20,000 miles per set. Do the math: the tires alone are costing that loaded 2008 Accord Coupe owner over 5 cents per mile! By comparison, if the car manages 30 miles per gallon highway, and gas is $3.00/gallon, the gas is costing 10 cents per mile. So, those "top of the line" 18" tires can easily add a full 50 percent to the cost of driving a mile! That's some serious cost to consider.

Contrast that per-mile tire-cost to the cost for the standard 16" tires on this loaded 2008 Altima Coupe I just talked about - which were running under $300/set. Instead of budgeting 5-cents per mile for tires, you can save a ton and budget as low as a penny per mile for tires (since the smaller 16-inch tires also carried upwards of a 50% greater tread wear rating). Saving 4 cents per mile may not sounds like much, but if you drive 100,000 miles, that is $4,000 real dollars to be considered. And, when you need new tires, perhaps you won't have to go in debt to afford them.

On a related cost-of-ownership topic, you may need that extra 4 cents/mile to cover the rising gas prices! At 25 MPG, that 4 cents per mile savings covers another dollar-per-gallon gas price increase (i.e., you'll be better prepared for that four dollar per gallon gasoline that seems inevitable).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Environmental Impact of Larger-Diameter Car Tires

A recent trend I see that makes me even more conscious of our race to destroy the planet is this push towards large diameter car wheels and tires. Did you know that, counter-intuitively, a larger-diameter tire that has more surface area to wear down, actually nearly always wears more quickly than a smaller diameter tire?

Just go to a car dealer and ask them how many miles to expect out of those bigger and fancier 18" tires, and then ask the same question as applied to the same model car but with smaller (less "premium" / "sporty") tires. Or, go to a place like Tire Rack dotcom (which I highly recommend for great deals on tires), and just check out the wear ratings on the various size tires. I can pretty much guarantee the smaller tire is going to last longer. And, to top it off, the smaller tires are cheaper (conversely, the larger tires that are going to wear faster are more expensive)

So, not only do the larger tires wear faster, but the also cost more - talk about a double whammy to the pocket book! I recently saw a new 2008 Honda Accord Coupe in its "top of the line" configuration, which sported snazzy 18" low-profile sporty 235/45VR18 tires. I asked how many miles to expect out of a set -- "about 20,000" I was told. Eeek! Only 20K miles! Wow, what happened to the days where a Honda Accord was a family car that sported 15" tires capable of 50,000 miles between changes? And, these new 18-inch Michelin Pilot HX MXM4's are going to set you back at least $255 each (that's the discount Tire Rack Price too)! (read: over $1,000 just for a set of new tires that you may be putting on your car once ever year or two with "normal"-mileage driving habits).

Sure, like anyone with a sense for visual appeal, I can appreciate how fantastic these large wheels and tires look on something as sharp as the new 2008 Honda Accord Coupe, but what I can't understand is who wants to spend this much money on their tires regularly. And, I have yet to get to the environmental-impact side of the equation. Honda sells this car as something like a near-zero-emissions vehicle. Well, perhaps so (with regards to what comes out of the tailpipe), but what about all that (quickly) spent rubber that ends up polluting the environment? Oh, and "rubber" tires require a lot of OIL in their production. But, what's a little more oil consumption these days as oil reaches a record $100/barrel?

By the way, I don't want to seem like I'm picking on just Honda here. Fact is, after this little Honda experience, I went shopping around to see what all the various new cars sported for tires these days. Over and over, regardless of automobile brand, I was confronted with "base" models that had at least 16" tires on them, and quite often larger (even a little Scion Tc has 17" wheels by default now!). When asked why all the wheel options (which, never include downsizing, but nearly always include upsizing) are the way they are, some dealers say it is "customer demand", but others indicated that they believe tire manufactures have essentially worked deals with the car companies to push these larger, quicker-wearing, more expensive tires (gee, I wonder why!?).

If you are under 25 years old, perhaps you are not even aware of the day of 13" diameter rims on the small economy cars like the Ford Escort, and how these tires would last "forever" (certainly by modern terms). I'm not saying we need 13" tires on all cars or anything, but we really need to look at the impact that decisions like selecting the biggest wheels and tires possible for our automobiles can have on the envirionment. If you want some light reading on the matter, check out this 2004 USGS article on Tire Wear as a source of Zinc (pollution) to the Environment - it has all sorts of other neat tire-wear and pollution data in it too.

We can't just talk about making the environment cleaner, we need to have our actions reflect the essence of this talk. Car companies are advertising all over the place about going "green" and all, and I really think automobile manufacturers need to consider the tire side of the green equation too.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Comparison: Windows Live Hotmail vs. Gmail

I have free hosted email accounts with both Microsoft Hotmail (now "Windows Live Hotmail") as well as Google's Gmail. Ages ago, prior to Gmail's existence, I used Hotmail nearly daily, and since Gmail arrived on the scene, it's my daily full-time Email system of choice.

After Hotmail was "upgraded" to Windows Live Hotmail, I gave it another look, and if possible, Microsoft made Hotmail worse with this "upgrade". The Windows Live Hotmail interface is nearly unusable and completely intolerable to me. It is so SLOW, I don't know how anyone can deal with it - just checking a checkbox in the Inbox carries with it a significant delay while the screen refreshes, and the overall interface doesn't even work properly in non-Microsoft browsers (i.e., Firefox - where the splitter-control in the Inbox view is completely non-functioning).

Bottom line: Windows Live Hotmail has only one thing going for it - it is FREE - but, free doesn't make it good enough to compete with Gmail even in the least.

Functionality Comparison
Where to begin? These software products, both web-based email programs, are so completely different, with Gmail being fast, responsive, full-featured, and well designed from a usability standpoint, and Windows Live Hotmail being at nearly the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

Interface Speed and Usability:
As I already hinted above, there is no comparison: Google's Gmail wins this hands-down. Regardless of which browser I use with each product (yes, I have tried both Firefox and IE with each), there is still no comparison. Gmail's user interface is fast and responsive and logical, Hotmail's is the complete opposite and is slow, inefficient, and pure drudgery to use.

OK Hotmail staff, explain to me why you feel the need to show a default image in your checkbox column of something other than a checkbox? (envelope images, closed ones, open ones, ones with arrows, etc.) This is insane. It further slows the event-code on the rows and makes the UI controls exhibit anywhere near "standard" behaviour. Many times I just want to select a few messages to delete, but it takes forever, since your code has to refresh so much junk on the page, and the onclick routines are tyring to update the message-preview window below at the same time, and so much more. It is unusable. Just dragging the "splitter" (between inbox items list and the preview pane below) is slowwwwww. I'm using a FAST machine by the way, so what the heck is going on?

This type of experience persists throughout the entire offerings from each - Gmail tends to just "get it right" and do so in a fast and efficient and usable manner, whereas Hotmail tends to somehow overdesign their interface and generally make for a dismal user experience.

SPAM Filtering:
The default SPAM filtration in Google's Gmail is wonderful! Whatever Gmail is using for their SPAM-Detection logic is superb to say the least. In a given year, I can't recall a single piece of SPAM making it through to my inbox. As for "false positives" (i.e., valid email being considered SPAM), I have had only 3 or 4 emails per year fall into that category, and that is almost always a condition that occurs just once with any given sender, and typically the first time a new sender ever communicates with me where they just happened to use keywords in their email that looked suspect or something. By comparison, Hotmail's default SPAM filter is no where near as accurate... considering I use Hotmail much less than Gmail, it is rather ridiculous that I get at least one SPAM messages a day on average in Hotmail. Speaking of SPAM, one of the regular pseudo-spammers is Microsoft themselves, always sending messages from the "Windows Live Team" announcing something, whether important or not.

Related: In Hotmail, by default, if you get an email with a URL / link to an external web page and you click that link, a popup will show stating that "Attachments, pictures, and links in the message have been blocked for your safety. would you like to unblock the content of the message?". OK, this sounds like a nice security feature, but if my email had been properly filtered to begin with, chances are that the link in my email is one that I really want to view and this popup is nothing more than another clunky and annoying aspect of this interface.

Grouping of Email Conversation Threads:
No comparison! Gmail does it, Hotmail does not. The Inbox in Hotmail gets cluttered so quickly with conversation responses that it is overwhelming to manage it. Every new inbound Email is a line item in the inbox, which coupled with an incredibly slow user-interface, multiplies the absolute torture of using the Hotmail product. By contrast, Gmail presents your email Inbox lines as conversational-thread summaries, thus keeping all the back and forth communication on a single topic together in the inbox-view, whether there is a single exchange or 100 exchanges on a topic - this keeps the Inbox MUCH more manageable to say the least! Gmail gets mega-points for this well planned and well-implemented feature.

What I wish they (all email products - Gmail included) would allow for yet, would be the option to "split" a thread if I desired, and allow me to rename the subject-line (essentially, I want to be able to label a subject-line with something meaningful or more accurate if needed - especially when someone sends me an email about something important, and either leaves the subject-line blank or labels it "HI" or some such thing). If Gmail did this, their product would be nearly perfect in my opinion. Anyone at Google listening? Just abstract the subject-line property a bit, and allow for a user-defined override "label" if desired.

I'd like to continue with the detailed comparison of these products, but the fact is, as I sit here writing this, and using both email platforms as I type (to remember what the differences are), I just get so frustrated with the Hotmail product that I don't even want to deal with it anymore. I don't need to see a bunch of MSN Today crap on a "home page" for my email,... I don't need any of this user-interface frustration with the Microsoft product either. I'm sticking with Gmail, and just enjoying the fact it is so vastly superior. Enough said. Try both out, and see what you think.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

IBM Lotus Sympony for Windows - the brand returns

Do any of you remember the original Lotus Symphony software package, circa 1984? It was originally released in back then as an integrated software application for DOS, which so many of the younger persons today are not even aware of. Now recently, IBM has revived the Symphony name for a new office suite (currently in Beta 2 stage) that is to be released free of charge.

If you want to get the free Windows Office software package, it is available here at the IBM Lotus Symphony web site, and it includes a word processor (IBM Lotus Symphony Documents), a presentation tool (IBM Lotus Symphony Presentations), and a spreadsheet program (IBM Lotus Symphony Spreadsheets). From the looks of it, the IBM Office software is quite similar to the OpenOffice suite (OpenOffice.Org), but lacks a database tool and vector-based drawing tool like OpenOffice offers.

What I find even more interesting is how IBM supposedly joined the OpenOffice.org community, just a week before announcing the early public release of this re-emerging Symphony branded office application. IBM will be contributing code to the OpenOffice project, but also taking code from it to use in its own office suite. What I don't understand is why IBM just couldn't focus entirely on making OpenOffice a better product instead of releasing yet another office suite that will no doubt end up being just a marginal player on the desktop, aside from their need to promote their own brand recognition, if even for free. I guess I can just hope that whatever IBM does decide to contribute back to the OpenOffice project is something useful and technology that will help OO better compete with Microsoft Office. From my experience, OO is pretty decent, but it has a long way to go to catch up to MS Office 2007, and I'm sure this new IBM Symphony application will fall into that same status without some serious investment on IBM's part.

Bottom line: if you are looking for a free desktop office productivity suite, perhaps the new IBM Symphony Office will be an option for you. Can't hurt to consider it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

National Do-Not-Call Registry and permanent registration

For any of you who have signed up for the National Do-Not-Call Registry, especially those of you who signed up a few years ago already, you will be pleased to know that the FTC has pledged to not drop any numbers from the Do Not Call database pending final congressional lawmaker decisions about whether to simply make the don't call list "permanent" once you sign up.

This all sounds great, but my paranoid side has to wonder if this will ultimately turn out to be an orchestrated effort (pushed behind the scenes by telemarketing interests) to subvert the intentions of the do not call list through a tightly choreographed appearance of an attempt to make the list permanent, while the real objective is to have all of the names on that list that are reaching maturity (i.e., the existing 5-year limit) hold off on renewing their desire to remain unbothered by telemarketers as Congress "works on the issue", ultimately to have Congress not extend the 5-year period to permanence, and worse yet, do so with little notice and little press, effectively having all of us that are currently on the list "fall off" temporarily and subject ourselves to the harassment and calls we so want to avoid.

The real solution, and the obvious solution, to this do not call list is to make ALL phone numbers be automatically on the do-not-call list, and have it be an OPT-IN option to inform marketers that you actually want to receive calls from them (versus the current, and unbelievably lame, opt-out process that is nothing short of an obvious appeasement of telemarketing lobbying interests -- certainly not a consumer interest)! Of course, since the logical answer is to have all phone numbers be on a do not call list by default, that is one thing Congress will never require. So what if 76% of Americans have signed up to keep their numbers off the marketers' lists? (and, I presume most of the remaining 24% would do the same, but just don't take time or are not aware of how simple it is to do).

Let me start with a real-world example of how messed up the current do-not-call registration process-flow is, and what backs my presumption that Congress will, "after careful consideration" and so forth, not make the Do Not Call list a "permanent" thing. Recently my mother-in-law started receiving harassing calls in the middle of the night from some whacko that just happened to choose her number to call. Her existing number was on the do-no-call list, and she rarely received calls aside from the "exempted" stuff like "surveys" and political-campaign messages (gee, who would have guessed lawmakers would exclude themselves from being censored). After these harassing calls persisted for a few days, my mother in law decided to just have the phone company change her number.

Gee, guess what happens after changing your phone number? You are no longer on the do not call list, since it is an OPT-OUT (of being harassed by telemarketers) program vs. opt-in, and instantly you start getting bombarded with marketing calls, even if you go online and instantly register your new phone number with the FTC as not to be called, while the marketers have a sort of grace period to abuse you for a month or so. In my mother-in-law's situation, she went from rarely getting any calls, to literally turning off her ringer after a day because so many marketers were calling her. The phone companies obviously have financially-rewarding agreements with telemarketing firms to sell any information about new phone numbers ASAP so you can be abused and harassed "legally" for as long as possible. This is pure bull@#$! Especially if you were already on the do not call list, and are forced into changing your phone number for any of a variety of reasons.

It would be really nice if Congress would wake up and do our (the people's) bidding and implement some logical consumer-protection laws, but it isn't going to happen as long as lobbyists can hand them more cash and incentives than we, the public, do. It's not good enough to get our votes, they need constant monetary incentive up there on Capitol Hill in order to hear us it seems. So, don't be surprised when the "permanent registration" being considered in Congress somehow doesn't come to be (though, I sure hope it does!), and you suddenly start getting marketing calls during a period where marketers will exploit a giant hole created by Congress where your registrations lapses as an "unfortunate and unexpected side effect" of lawmakers efforts - since they'll postpone making a final decision until after many of us early signup persons pass our initial 5-years of peace we signed up for. I hope I'm wrong, but you can almost predict this sort of thing from lawmakers.