Beginner Barista with Krups XP4020

krupsxp4020

So i’ve had my Krups XP4020 for a month now and i’m just starting to get the hang of making coffee proper. If you are a new owner of an espresso machine, hit the net and check out the bountiful resources that teaches you barista know-how. Here are some beginner skills i learned.

First stop, making espresso. You need to make sure the ground beans are properly tamped down. Watch this video for a demonstration on how it’s done. There’s even a lengthy discourse on the science of tamping if you’re interested.

Next, frothing the milk. The trick is to use cold milk so you have sufficient time for frothing it before it gets too warm and starts boiling. I put the milk into the freezer before i start just to make sure it gets a little colder. Experiment with different brands of milk to see which will give you the best results of frothy milk that stays frothy while having the right taste. Again, here’s an excellent video on frothing milk (and another one) . Do read the comments on how to get better froth with your Krups XP4020 if you’re using one. Also notice that the container for the milk is typically a stainless steel pitcher. Here’s an article that says why. I need to try some of these suggestions myself.

What are my thoughts about this machine? I guess it works great as an entry level machine for someone new to making espresso. I have the same gripe that many others have about the plasticky tasting coffee when you first start using it. That taste comes mostly from the water tank. I followed the advice of a forum posting and stuffed newspaper into the water tank and i think the idea actually worked quite well in reducing the plastic taste. Still, it makes me worry to see plastic on the steam wand seemingly melting under the heat of the steam passing through it. If ever i will get a new machine i am going to make sure that it has a stainless steel steam wand and minimal plastic parts.

(Visited 76 times, 1 visits today)

Unlimited calls through mobile broadband

fringiphone

Here are further ideas on how to take advantage of VOIP.

Assuming that you subscribe to a mobile broadband plan (as discussed in my previous post) and you also have a home phone line (that allows you to make cheap or free calls) plus broadband internet, you can forward calls between your home phone line and VOIP. This should prove to be quite economical since many people would already have a phone line and broadband internet to begin with. In any case, a phone line + broadband internet combo is relatively cheap. Here are samples of available plans:

US – AT&T Double Pack US$65 includes 1.5Mbps broadband and nationwide long distance calls
UK – Tiscali Broadband and Talk £14.99 includes 8Mbps broadband and UK phone calls
Singapore – Singtel Mio Plan S$55.80 includes 3Mbps broadband, unlimited local calls and 100 mins mobile plan

To forward calls between a phone line and VOIP, you need an Analogue Telephony Adaptor (ATA). What an ATA does is to answer incoming calls on the phone line and initiate a VOIP call, or vice versa, make a call on the phone line when a VOIP call is initiated. This allows you to receive and make calls through mobile broadband and the home phone line, both of which are cheap, instead of your more expensive regular mobile line. Examples of relatively affordable ATA are the Linksys SPA 3102 and the Grandstream HT-503. These are even capable of handling Caller ID from both VOIP and the regular phone line so you will know who is calling you. Setting up the ATA to perform call forwarding may be a very difficult process though, so be warned. A configuration wizard is available here that may help if you are setting up the Linksys SPA 3102.

To avoid the hassle of setting up call forwarding that i just described, you could opt to sign up with a VOIP Service Provider (VSP) and have them handle all your VOIP calls. They will take care of routing calls to and from regular phone lines and calls will work almost exactly the same way as your regular mobile/cell phone, except that it goes through a VOIP client application running over mobile broadband. If you deem the mobile broadband connection to be reliable enough, you can even terminate your mobile/cell phone subscription and use VOIP on mobile broadband exclusively. To play safe though, you can take up a pre-paid pay-as-you-go mobile plan as a backup.

In the future all these will not be necessary as Telcos have no choice but to offer the very same VOIP services, as telephony transits onto an all-IP platform. The internet continues to level the playing ground for businesses and we are about to witness Telcos losing their monopoly over voice and messaging communication.

(Visited 20 times, 1 visits today)

Mobile broadband talk is cheap

fring-gizmo5

Here’s an idea your Telco doesn’t want you to know – you could use VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) on mobile broadband or data plans and save bundles on phone calls.

Mobile broadband plans are available now for cheap. Here’s a sample of what’s available:

US – AT&T PDA Personal (BroadbandConnect) – US$35 for unlimited data
UK – 3 and Vodafone – 3GB for £15 a month
Singapore – Singtel – 50GB for S$22.42 a month

Assuming a 5GB cap on the data usage, how much VOIP talk time is that equivalent to? According to this forum posting the G711 protocol uses about 38MB per hour in each direction (downstream and upstream), rounding that up to 80MB per hour, 5GB gives 62.5 hours of talk time!

How is it that Telcos can offer such a low price for mobile broadband data plans knowing that this can jeopardize their standard mobile plans business? For one thing, people are used to the reliability of their existing phone services which just work. Having to install and setup new software, sign up with a VOIP service provider or even understanding VOIP itself is like learning rocket science to most people. It took a massive marketing campaign like Skype to get people warmed up to the idea. Nevertheless, there’s no avoiding the trend that talk is getting cheaper, literally speaking, with mobile services moving on to an all-IP platform.

Here’s a little experiment (costs you nothing) that can get you started on VOIP (using SIP rather than Skype). You need a PC, Wifi and a Symbian/Windows Mobile/iPhone mobile phone with Wifi. First, sign up two new SIP accounts at SIPphone (so that you can make calls from one account to another. You could create an account on behalf of your spouse, sibling etc.). This is a free SIP account by Gizmo5. Notice that you’re assigned a phone number (1-747-xxx-xxxx) just like having a real phone number. Next, install the softphone onto your computer and have it setup with one of the SIP accounts you have created earlier. Next, get fring onto your phone. Follow this video tutorial to setup the other SIP account in fring. Make a call from the softphone to fring – simply dial the SIP phone number and moments later you will get a call on fring!

(Visited 36 times, 1 visits today)

SOR dips to new low

The 3 month SOR Fixing rate has just fallen to a new low of 1.16%. This is lower than the lowest i have heard of (1.17%) since i started tracking SOR.

The Fed rates have been kept at 2% as has been widely anticipated. Opinions are divided on whether they will hike rates in the next round of meeting, but the odds that it will be maintained at 2% is getting higher. Many analysts point to the fact that no time frame has been given for the rate hike is an indication that it will not go up soon. The Feds are said to be “behind the curve”, usually taking longer than expected to act. Perhaps the current movement in SOR is reflecting this effect.

Again, good news for home loan owners who have gone with loans pegged to SIBOR or SOR, but as always, keep a close watch.

(Visited 16 times, 1 visits today)

Laptop harddisk data recovery

http://www.thinkgeek.com/homeoffice/stickers/8d30/

The worst requests i get on fixing computers are from firstly, those who ask me to fix their friend’s computer (or their friend’s friend’s), and secondly, those who made a mess by allowing every kind of virus and malware into their computer. Ok, lets get on with data recovery..

I was asked to help fix a laptop (Windows XP) that refuses to boot up. Diagnosis shows that the harddisk was damaged. Naturally the first thing to do is to try to backup whatever data that can still be salvaged. To cut the long story short, this is the thing to do: get the Ubuntu Live CD, boot up the laptop with the Live CD, plug in a USB thumbdrive and copy whatever data that can still be read from the laptop harddisk to the thumbdrive. The copying process will take a long time because there will be a lot of retries when reading corrupted data, and you have to answer prompts to skip the corrupted file, so do be patient.

If the Ubuntu Live CD solution doesn’t work, the next solution worth trying is to use DiskInternals NTFS Recovery software, which comes for a fee. Use the trial version to see if data can be recovered before acquiring the full version. The easy way to attempt this recovery process is actually to dismantle the harddisk from the laptop, plug it into a USB harddisk enclosure or use a laptop to PC IDE adaptor (like the one pictured below), attach it to a PC and run the software from the PC. If these two methods don’t work, maybe you can try the harddisk freezer trick..

DSC_0051

(Visited 21 times, 1 visits today)

PC Surround Sound

Thinking of setting up a home theatre system with surround sound? Under normal circumstances the easiest way to go about it is to get a packaged home theater system which typically comes with a DVD player. This is usually cheap and hassle free (if you don’t go for high-end stuff that is).

However, if you want to play surround sound content from downloaded video files (e.g. avi or mkv with ac3) then a PC is necessary. Using your PC (assuming you already have one) has the added obvious advantage that you don’t have to spend another dime on getting a DVD player.

If you already have your sound system set up complete with a surround sound decoder, and your PC sound card has digital output (optical or coaxial), simply connect the digital output to the receiver, play the video file with the surround pass-through option selected and it should just work. If your PC sound card has 5.1 output instead, you might find the Creative Home Theater Connect DTS-610 useful as it encodes the 5.1 output into DTS signal for piping into your receiver, or, you may be able to replace the sound card with one that comes with digital output (like the HT Omega Claro) for a little more.

If you haven’t actually set up your home theatre system, you could choose to get a standard packaged speaker + receiver set, or you might want to consider building one. In my previous post i shared on how to build a decent Stereo Hi-fi. Now to extend it to a 5.1 surround sound set up, you need to get a center speaker plus rear speakers. If you deem the rear speaker sound as less important than the front, you can opt for low cost speakers. Get the Wireless Digital T-Amp, which uses the very same high quality Stereo class-T amplifier, to transmit the rear speaker sound signal wirelessly and you’re good to go!

(Visited 18 times, 1 visits today)

Refinancing 602

June 02, the day my housing loan re-pricing was effected. Buried under a pile of letters that i have forgotten to look through was a letter from my bank that says “the interest rate chargeable on your loan account will be revised 2.850000% to 2.018050% per annum on a monthly rest basis”. Finally the savings i have been anticipating have materialized!

The 3 month SOR fixing seems to have fallen quite a bit to 1.33% after surging to 1.55% a few days ago. Interestingly this seems to be correlate well with the Fed Funds Rate Predictions which is showing a higher probability for the interest rate to remain at 2% for both the June and August meetings. Looks like good news for home owners. Nevertheless, there is ever the need to monitor interest rate movements and to act on it quick where possible.

(Visited 23 times, 1 visits today)

Singapore Interest Rates Surge

The Swap Offer Rate (SOR) which i have been tracking has surged to 1.55 and 1.98 respectively for 3 months and 6 months fixing respectively. This is indeed alarming for those who have taken up home loans that are linked to SIBOR or SOR. How are interest rates going to move in the coming year? That is the million dollar question.

I thought i had better do some research to have a sense of bearing. First stop, what do analysts think? There are a few trains of thoughts:

  • The Federal Reserve is unlikely to raise rates ahead of the election
  • The Federal Reserve is unlikely to raise rates soon given the weak job and housing market
  • The Federal Reserve will raise rates to fight inflation

There has been repeated talks by Federal Reserve representatives, including Ben Bernanke himself, that fighting inflation is going to take priority. This had quite an effect on the market, sending the dollar, short term bond yields and also interbank lending rates higher in anticipation of a possible rate hike. The SIBOR and SOR is probably reacting likewise.

Many analysts however maintain that the Feds will keep rates at current levels until there is more evidence of economic stability. Meanwhile, India has raised its interest rates, and there is a possibility that ECB may raise rates.

So what does this mean for home owners? Probably a sigh of relief for now, at the same time a wake-up call to keep a very close watch on possible interest rate movements.

(Visited 27 times, 1 visits today)

Building a cheap (and decent) Hi-Fi

TAmpSX

I want a cheap and decent Hi-Fi. I was wondering, can i get something better with what people normally pay for a Hi-Fi? I know the off-the-shelf home theatre systems can go as low as S$250, but the itch to go the DIY way was just too hard to overcome. So, without actually evaluating any ready-made home theatre system, i decided to go ahead and build one!

The whole idea of a DIY Hi-Fi actually came from stumbling upon the T-Amp on ThinkGeek site. It is touted to be a US$30 amplifier that sounds like something 100 times its price (review here). Now that’ll fit my criteria for cheap and decent!

The next thing i acquired was the Creative USB Sound Blaster Digital Music SX. What caught my attention was the ability of this product to act as a pre-amp which is basically the equivalent of a receiver. I managed to get this piece of hardware at S$107, which is much cheaper than what receivers typically cost. I foresee that i wouldn’t have more than 2 or 3 sources of sound input so this will work just fine. It even comes with a remote control which is handy for controlling sound volume. The built in USB sound card was just an extra feature that i eventually used for sound output from my laptop.

Finally, to complete the set-up, i needed speakers. Again my search is based on “best among the budget”. Very quickly i settled my choice on the Monitor Audio Bronze BR2 as well as the Wharfedale SW150 subwoofer, both of which had been What Hi-Fi award recipients.

All in all, i spent around S$1300. Not cheap compared to the ready-made home theatre systems, but relatively cheap for a real Hi-Fi system. Amplifiers can easily cost S$1300. So how does my Hi-Fi sound? It is superb! Now i’m no audiophile, but i know it when i’m hearing clean and clear sound, with details exposed i never knew existed before. In fact, it reveals so much detail, i found out that some familiar tracks don’t sound as good as i thought they did..

(Visited 139 times, 1 visits today)

Building a cheap (and decent) home media PC

MediaPCFront

Objective: cheap, excellent sound quality, quiet, decent looking, cheap. One option is to go for the small form factor barebone pc which can be cheap (~S$160) but it will probably mean you have to use the onboard sound which is not going to satisfy my criteria for excellence in sound quality. The solution is to use standard form factor components housed in a compact casing.

Here’s the list of the components i have used and the estimated price (in S$):

MSI K8MM3-V Motherboard 100
AMD Sempron 2800+ CPU 50
512MB DDR RAM 30
WD 160GB Harddisk 80
Casing 60
HEC MiniQ 300 Power Supply 60
LG DVD Writer 50
Thermaltake Golden Orb 2 CPU Fan 50
ATI 9200SE Videocard 50
E-MU 0404 PCI Soundcard 140
Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop 2000 45
Total 715

Ok, i have to admit it may not be cheap afterall, but this meets the minimum requirement i have for a media PC. Here’s the reasoning behind the choice:

Motherboard, CPU, RAM and Harddisk Any low cost combination will do (CPU should be >1GHz). Use any existing ones you have or even try looking out for those that are being phased out
Casing Use a horizontal casing so you can load your DVDs like it’s a DVD player
Power Supply Usually the most noisy part of a PC, choose one that is sufficiently quiet
DVD Writer Although you only need to read DVDs on a media PC, DVD writers are so cheap you might as well pay a little more to get them. Go for a quiet one
CPU Fan Stock fans are too loud, replace it with an 18dB or lower one. Make sure it can fit into your casing as many CPU Fans are enormous in size!
Videocard A basic card with DVI output will do. Consider going for a fanless one so it won’t be an additional source of noise
Soundcard It pays to get a decent soundcard which will make a world of difference to the sound quality. Don’t use the onboard sound!
Wireless keyboard and mouse Use wireless keyboard and mouse so you can sit back, relax and control your media PC from your couch. Make sure the range is the length of your living room

Check out the innards of my media PC. Note how little space there is for placing a CPU Fan so do note down the measurements of the space available (including height) before you buy one! The small size of the power supply helps.

MediaPCBare  MediaPCTop

Stay tuned for my follow up posting on building a Hi-Fi!

(Visited 32 times, 1 visits today)