This discount code source really works. Whenever you are about to make a purchase online, you should go to RetailMeNot to check to see if it has discount coupons for your merchant. There’s a good chance you’ll find current codes, and you’ll also see the likelihood that they’ll work based on previous user’s experience. It’s a clean interface telling you what the discount is, when it expires and what percent chance it will work. In my experience, the probabilty is good if the codes are rated high. They also seem to have codes for pretty obscure and specialized stores I would not have expected. I’ve saved a lot of money this way and wish I knew about it long ago.

There are a lot of discount coupon sources on the web but most of these are subscription types: you are bombarded with sales offers on an ongoing basis. RetailMeNot is different: You solicit the exact discounts you need only when you need them. Instead of bombardment, you get discounts on demand. My kind of shopping.

And if you really want to browse for hot deals, they have current bargain discounts on their front page. But their real asset is discount codes on demand.


-- KK  

Eneloop Batteries in bulk

The key to using rechargeable batteries in a heavily electronic household is to a) hide the non-rechargeables, and b) have lots of rechargeables already charged and handy. The problem we had in the past was not having enough rechargables in stock and charged, which meant we had to have a cache of regular batteries, which meant we tended to reach for those first, defeating our efficiency intentions. Now we have a decent stockpile of charged rechargeables and no reason to dip into the outmoded stuff. You want to have an inventory of about 1.5x the number of batteries in active use, so you always have a stockpile of ones already charged. You are probably using more than you think.

Eneloop rechargeable batteries, which we have reviewed twice before, come somewhat charged in the box, recharge fast, and can be acquired in bulk packages of 20.

-- KK  

[Note: Most Costco stores (not their online store, unfortunately) carry bulk packages of Eneloop batteries with chargers, and occasionally have them on sale for cheaper than anywhere else.--OH]

Eneloop NiMH Rechargeable Batteries
$44 for a pack of 16 AAs

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Panasonic

How to Find Free and Cheap Ebooks


Where I live, decent public libraries with connections to the software service Overdrive allow surprisingly easy checkout of “library books” wirelessly to your Kindle. The Overdrive system provides libraries with both audiobook downloads and eBooks. I find, like most, that reading or listening to these books on a computer is untenable, but transferring audiobooks to my Sansa Clip player is as easy as pie.

For the (increasingly) large selection of books with Kindle versions, it’s very easy to get free content to show up via Amazon’s Whispernet. Nothing fiddly about it, no cables either. And for the earlier cool tool of “User Manual First“, Kindles are a pretty good place to keep these PDF files. Either transfer via cable (easy) or use your Kindle’s email address which allow your docs to show up via Whispernet.

Finally, if you sign up for Amazon Prime service, you not only get free shipping on your purchases, you also get access to the “Kindle Owner’s Library” – more books without fees. And if your Kindle is a Fire (or you don’t mind watching on a PC), you also get access to lots of streaming video (my wife is re-enjoying Ally McBeal (and I’m enjoying not being exposed to it, too)).

Anyway, go to your library’s website and look for Overdrive services. Another convergence of several cool tools that merge to form a new level of cool tool.

— Wayne Ruffner

project gutenberg.jpgThe ubiquity of ereaders like the Kindle, Nook and iPad has driven a surge in ebook availability. Retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble have the lock on bestsellers and the like, but a flourishing underground market for free and cheap ebooks has become a boon for readers.

The best established source for free ebooks is Project Gutenberg whose archives contain over 36,000 ebooks that represent nearly every out-of-copyright classic piece of literature along with a vast archive of obscure but pleasurable reads. The quality of digitization is excellent, and the site’s vibrant community ensures that any errors are quickly fixed. They also offer the ebooks in a variety of formats (ePub, mobi, html), including some as downloadable audiobooks.

With more and more libraries getting into the game of lending ebooks, the software company Overdrive (that Wayne mentioned) has been leading the way. Libraries contract out their ebook libraries to OverDrive who make them available for a limited loan period (via a proprietary DRM from Adobe) through their software that is available on most operating systems including iOS and Android. Once you have the application, simply add your local or state library system (some are better stocked than others) and Overdrive allows you to browse the ebooks that they have available to check out. Everything’s automated so there are no late fees, and often times you can get best sellers without waiting (or, if they’re “checked out” you can reserve them and when they become available they are automatically downloaded). is the friendliest index of free ebooks of the bunch. It will search Project Gutenberg’s archives, as well as troll through numerous other archives. They also provide recommendations and reviews (which is incredibly useful given the sheer number of available titles).

Outside of strictly free sources, InkMesh is the best search engine I have found for identifying if an author or a book is available in ebook form, whether it is free, where I can download it, and in what format. They have also collated a comprehensive list of free ebooks available for a variety of platforms.

Two more sources for the ebook crazy are the blogs Pixel of Ink and Books on the Knob which highlight attractive deals for the Kindle.

Finally, to manage this inundation of ebooks I heartily recommend the previously reviewed Calibre. If you have other recommended sources for eBooks and the like, feel free to leave a note in the comments and I’ll make sure to update this page.

— Oliver Hulland



Amazon Prime
$79/year (or $39/year for students)

Project Gutenberg


Pixel of Ink


User Manual First

In the old days (before the web) you could not read the operating manual or instructions for an appliance, device, or tool until you got it home and unpacked it. Getting the manual was considered one of the benefits of purchasing the product. In fact, you had to purchase extra copies if you lost the original, or wanted to check it out. It was often only later when you finally had the box opened that you discovered a) it did not permit the function you bought it for, or b) it was a quarter inch smaller than it looked and so didn’t fit, or c) it was incompatible with the assessors set you already had, or d) it had no manual!

Those days are gone. You can find a PDF version of the manual for most products on the web if you search hard enough. It is not as easy as it should be, but the smarter manufacturers make it easy to download the specs of whatever they sell.

That leads to this new rule: get the manual first, before you buy.

For a large home remodel I had to purchase a pile of new appliances, lights, plumbing fixtures, hardware, materials, gadgets, and some tools. I instituted a “Manual First, Buy Later” policy, and it had immediate positive effects. Once I identified a possible candidate for purchase, I would google for its manual. Equally important as finding the operating instructions and basic specs, is to get hold of the installation instructions. There are few sites that aggregate manuals and specs of major lines, but often I would wind up at the manufacturer’s site. There I would download the PDF and read it carefully. That’s where you find out its precise dimensions, its actual power needs, its exact connections, its real compatibility. I lost count of the number of inappropriate bad purchases I avoided by studying the manual and specs first.

What baffles me are the clueless manufacturers who still don’t put their installation and operating manuals online in 2012. (I’m thinking of you, LG.) The main result of this process is simply fewer surprises. Less returns, better integration.


I was heartened to see that even the professionals do this. Here is a snapshot of our plumber “at work” in the bathroom. He has his tablet opened to a installation PDF, and his phone is googling a help number for questions brought up by specs in the PDF.

Locating any particular item’s installation and operating specs is still not as easy as it should be. Amazon could make it the norm to have the full spec PDF for every item they sell, or Google could try to algorithmically sort them out, or some clever aggregator could centralize them all. But for now it is worth seeking them out first, any purchase later.

— KK



Extended Warranty Evaluation

The sales pitch for an extended warranty is simple: pay some extra money now to extend the manufacture’s 90-day warranty another 3 years to save on expensive repairs later. For most appliances an extended warranty is a rip-off. The cost of this insurance rarely pays for itself. Either the device keeps working till just after the warranty period, or the cost of the warranty extension exceeds the cost of replacing the unit. Either way, the money made by selling uneconomical extended warranties is a major source of profit for retailers. That is why they are selling it: because on average most devices don’t break during this period. Therefore, the wisdom of the smart shopper: skip the extended warranty.


There are a few exceptions to this rule. At this particular moment in technology, there are 3 major devices that seem particularly repair-prone and problematic, with frequent failures within their first 3 years, and with high costs of repair. According to a study by the independent Consumer Reports (August 2011), those three are: personal computers, refrigerators and zero-turn-radius riding lawn mowers. And because of their frequent failure across brands the insurance of an extended warranty is justified in their cases.

But not all extended warranties (EW) are the same. You can purchase an EW from the manufacturer, from the retailer selling the device, from a third party, or from your credit card company. And different issuers have different selling points.

In the personal computer realm, the best deal is Apple’s. As 25-year Apple fans we automatically figure in the cost of AppleCare’s 3-year EW for any device we purchase from them. Sad to say, we frequently need it. Happy to say, their service is great. We take the ailing unit to a local Genius Bar, and they swap out what’s broken and make it right. Over the years we’d had screens, keyboards, drives, motherboards, power supply, all repaired for no extra costs over the EW. And that is not to mention the great real-human phone support help for any kind of software related questions.

Refrigerators are a different matter. Almost everyone has one, and newer models (particular those with ice makers) can be very complex. In the past few months, we needed to purchase our first new refrigerator. Even our plumber told us that the EW was worth getting for a refrigerator. But what kind? Sears offered one plan. Home Depot another. Visa, our credit card company offered another if we used their card. Square Trade offered third-party service. With the help of Camille Cloutier, we researched all the plans to see which had the best deal using a new LG refrigerator as a test case. Her research is summed up in this table here.

The short answer is that like many other industries, when you get behind the curtain there are really only a few major players. Most retailers and card companies outsource their extended warranty programs to a few industry giants, who rebrand their service, and then outsource the actual repairs to local companies. But because there are so many brands involved in this transaction it is very hard to assign credit or blame when things don’t work out. If you read the feedback in forums on refrigerator repairs most unhappy customers aren’t making the distinction between the manufacturer of the appliance, or the retail seller of it, or the company selling the EW, or the actual company supplying the repair technicians who come to your house. Those are four different companies for one experience for the customer.

What I found in warranty repair is that the competency of the local service branch probably plays more of a difference in customer satisfaction than anything else, but was the least consistent. If the local agency did a poor job fixing a problem, customers would naturally blame LG, or Panasonic, or GE for crappy quality and service. It is hard to judge the service quality in an EW, but it is essentially the same as the quality of a regular warranty repair — that is dependent on local crews — and this is important — who often service all the different manufacturers. The Maytag man is unusual because most of the others repair technicians are contracted out and work on all brands.

Maytag repair man

So the choice of EW providers comes down to price and plan. All the policies we examined include a “No Lemon” clause — if three of the same repairs are made in a 12 month period and a fourth becomes necessary, they will replace the unit, and most of them share the same long list of exclusions. Of all the policies, Visa’s was the shortest and least specific. Its instructions on claim processing seemed the most lengthy (to report a problem, they mail you a claims form, you get an estimate and return that claim form, once it’s approve, the claim can proceed).

Most 4- to 5-year service plans cost about 20% of the purchase price. Except Home Depot; they charge a flat fee of $100 for a 4-year extended contract on refrigerators (on a large one that’s only 4%). It begins when the 1-year manufacturer’s warranty ends, so I went with them for our extended warranty on a new fridge. I now have 5 years of service for $100, which seems like reasonable insurance.

— KK


Taunton’s 2012 Tool Guide

taunton tool guide.jpeg

This special issue published by jointly Fine Homebuilding and Fine Woodworking magazines gives in-depth, comparative reviews of several hundred tools. The two sister magazines of Taunton Press roundup all the tool reviews that have appeared in their pages during the past year. They’ll test a bunch of jigsaws, or portable table saws, or T-squares, and then give you smart recommendations for the best one to get.

Their selection of candidates for each tool is wide, fairly unbiased by freebies or advertisers, and just not stuck on the newest things; they’ll include older models as well. I’ve used their annual Guide to find and choose a number of great tools for my toolbox. This year’s list includes deep reviews of the best routers, miter saws, shop mats, hole saws, paint brushes, bench-top lathes, cordless nailers, and many more. (“201 tools tested” they claim on the cover.)

I like their sensibility — stressing function over looks, reliability over fancy features, and I have come to trust their judgements. Generally if they recommend something as good, it is. I especially value the non-power tools they review, such as the best first aid “tools” for injuries on a worksite in this issue. Their reviews are is the same spirit as Cool Tools, but they go much deeper and are more thorough.

These annuals are so good I even recommend the past few year’s versions, since building tools don’t change that fast.

-- KK  

Taunton’s Yearly Tool Guide
2012, $10
2011, $10
2010, $5
2009, $5

Published by and available from Taunton

De-ice with Rubbing Alcohol


For most of my life I’ve lived in the Los Angeles area, where the idea of ice on the windshield of the car is only a winter morning fantasy witnessed on television. But last year I spent the winter in Lansing, Michigan, and morning frost was a daily chore to deal with.

Having to deal with the stuff myself, I wondered if there were a better way as it seemed there are so many other ways to remove ice from all kinds of surfaces. So I went to the local hardware store and bought a quart size spray bottle with an adjustable nozzle, and a quart of rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol freezes at around -128F–OH) at the local drug store.

The next morning it took a few tries to find the right nozzle setting, but after I got it down the ice quickly melted as the car engine warmed up. I was on the road in much less time and with no new scratches on the windshield. Overall, I have found that a bit of alcohol is a much better method for removing ice from my windshield.

-- Opher Banarie  

[A bit of research online shows that 70% isopropyl alcohol in a 2:1 ratio with water seems to be the optimal solution to deice windows (if you have it on hand, methanol is recommended as well), and that it won't hurt your car's paint-job (although it might remove some wax).--OH ]

Isopropyl Alcohol
Available from Amazon

Lucasol Spray Bottle
Available from Amazon

Most Hackable E-Reader

I’m interested in purchasing an e-reader of some kind (i.e. must use e-ink tech, no LCD screens) and wondering if anyone has any suggestions about which reader lends itself most to tinkering / extending / hacking? Are there any that make it possible to install your own software? (It would be cool to see i.e. Emacs running on one.)

Nook Color, hands down. Unfortunately, your eInk criterion limits you to cheap Chinese knockoffs. If you’re willing to go LCD, you won’t be disappointed with a Nook Color.

Cyanogen makes the ROM for it, and they are nearly impossible to brick. Heck, you can run a custom ROM right off the microSD card, never putting your warranty in jeopardy. And, because it’s Cyanogen, you can read nearly anything, and have full Android Market access.


Nook Color
Available from and manufactured by Barnes and Noble

Cyanogen Nook Color Rom
Available from Cyanogen

Have a different answer to this question? Submit your own!


How To Sanitize A Hard Drive

For non-Solid State Drives (SSDs) I would use a tool like the open source TrueCrypt full-disk encryption. Using the software you want to encrypt the entire disk, including all system partitions, and then change the key to a very long random string. Then format the drive.

If you put sensitive data on a non-encrypted SSD then a good way to physically decommission the drive is to heat it with a propane torch until the PCB catches fire. At that point the magnetic domains aren’t magnetic anymore.

-- Willy Yam  

[This question got some great answers, and in addition provided some interesting insight into the differences between traditional hard drives and SSDs, and why SSDs are harder to rid of data. Check out the full question for more info.-- OH]