My new car – 2013 Honda Accord

After a few month of casual car shopping, I finally decided it was time to move into something with a little more room and comfort. I ended up letting go of my 2011 Mazda 3 i Touring model for a 2013 Honda Accord EX-L 4 cylinder model. The Mazda has been a great, fun car to drive; unfortunately, it’s not the quietest when driving at highway speeds, the seats leave something to be desired when taking longer trips, and it’s pretty tight getting four adults to fit comfortably. Fuel economy in the 2011 model was decent, averaging right around 28-30 mpg (the SkyActiv engine wasn’t introduced until 2012). With a little over 30,000 miles on it, it still ran like new, no problems whatsoever.

Well, the Honda Accord EX-L met all of the criteria I was looking for: good gas mileage, more spacious and quieter cabin, a comfortable ride, leather interior, and a moonroof. I was comparing this to a 2014 Mazda 6 and 2013 Ford Fusion. The Mazda 6 would’ve been my next choice, I liked the Touring model, but in order to get leather and a moonroof requires jumping up to the Grand Touring model which bumps it up over $30k. I like the styling better on the Mazda 6 and Fusion, but the value just didn’t seem to be there.

At any rate, I went with the Accord, I’ve had it for about 3 weeks now and I figured I’d do a little review on my experience so far.

Overall, I’m happy with the Accord, but there are a few things I’ve run across so far:

– The “Premium” stereo system. I am actually sitting at the Honda dealership right now getting a software update that is supposed to fix the issues I am having (lockups, sluggishness, erratic staticky behavior). Hopefully this update fixes these issues, from what I understand, many people have been reporting these same problems and have been waiting for this update for several months. Unfortunately, the sound quality is no where near what I would expect for a premium system…hopefully this update has a positive effect on the overall sound quality as well. I’ll have to post a follow up after the software update. For those people experiencing radio issues, Honda recently issued tech service bulletin TSB13-001.

– Fuel economy. After two tank fills, I am averaging 27.5 mpg, and that is with a fair amount of highway driving (~60-70%). My car was a dealer demo, so it’s got a few thousand miles on it…so it’s not a break-in issue as one might expect. I was trying the Econ mode sporadically during that time and have decided to leave it off now since I don’t like the negative impact it has on acceleration. So far it seems like leaving Econ mode off has increased my fuel economy…very interesting as I was under the impression that there should be a slight increase.

– Heated seats. They seem to take a while to heat up, on the low setting, i can barely feel it and the heat seems to really be focused on the bottom center portion of the seat, I would prefer a wider area of where the heat is dispersed. Overall this is fairly minor, but living in Michigan with the cold winters, it is nice to have!

– Squealing noise from the right side when turning left at lower speeds. I’m occasionally hearing a brief high pitched squealing noise that sounds like its coming from the right rear, this only occurs when turning left at speeds less than 20 mph or so. Honda is looking at this as well, hope to find something out today.

– Occasional jerkiness when driving at low speeds. These seems to happen more so why it’s cold outside and the engine is cold…have to wait and see on this one…

Other than those few things, I really like the Accord, it has what I would consider good pick up for a 4 cylinder that has an EPA rating of 36mpg on the highway. There is a nice balance of comfort and handling, and the creature comforts and safety options seemed to make this a great value for a mid-sized sedan.

This is my first visit to the Honda dealership for repairs since purchasing the car a few weeks ago, I’ve had a good experience so far and the service reps are great. Just hoping I won’t have to come back for any more repairs for a long time…

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Wolfgang’s Restaurant – didn’t know what I was missing!

A friend and I headed out to lunch today and he suggested Wolfgang’s Restaurant in East Grand Rapids. I’ve lived in the Grand Rapids area for over 10 years now and I’d driven past the restaurant countless times, but had never eaten there until today. It’s not some fancy restaurant…more of a diner style atmosphere that cares more about great food and service than outfitting it with ornate woodworking or looking like your average chain restaurant.

The menu mainly consists of a few pages of breakfast fare and a page of lunch items. I had always heard great things about breakfast, and that’s what I was in the mood for anyway – so it was an easy choice…or so I thought. There were so many great sounding breakfast choices – it made for a difficult decision. I eventually decided on “Uncle Ron’s Skillet” – a conglomeration of red-skin potatoes, sausage, bacon, melted cheese and a little bit of onion – topped with a couple of eggs and a side of toast.

All I can say is “Wow!” The food was incredible and the size of the skillet was enormous. I wanted to eat the entire skillet, but just couldn’t polish it off. I had to at least finish off the eggs, they were cooked to absolute perfection, I just couldn’t resist.

I guess you could say it might be a bit pricey for breakfast (my skillet was just shy of $8)…but then again, the portions are huge and the food is excellent. I’m not sure if half-orders are available or not, but I think that would be about the perfect amount food so I don’t gorge myself next time 🙂

I’ll definitely be revisiting Wolfgang’s sometime soon, I only wish I hadn’t waited 10 years in the first place! Next time it will be with my family, and I’m sure they’re going to love it.

PlayOn – a worthy attempt, but I think I’ll be MovingOn

It’s been a few months since dropping our cable TV service in lieu of cheaper alternatives. The solution I came up with is a combination of over the air digital TV stations, Netflix streaming, and a piece of software called PlayOn that would allow me to stream Hulu (and a handful of other content providers) from a PC to my PS3 and Xbox 360 game consoles.

Well, we’ve survived so far, but it has been a bit frustrating at times. Picking up digital TV stations over the antenna has been pretty solid; only a few times during really bad weather that I’ve had any issues. Using Netflix has also been pretty solid when using the PS3 and the Netflix provided CD to stream video – I’m actually really impressed with the video quality so far.

That leads me to the last of the bunch – PlayOn. My first month or so of using PlayOn was great. I was able to watch Hulu using my PS3 and Xbox…and even stream Netflix to my Xbox without needing to have an Xbox Gold membership. I should have known it was too good to be true.

I ran through the 14-day trial period and decided to buy a license for PlayOn. It continued to work great for about 2 more weeks…and then all of the sudden…I had issues connecting to Hulu. That seemed to get resolved after a few days; however, it hasn’t been the same since. I’ve had nothing but problems with video lag, stuttering, hanging, audio and video being out of sync. To PlayOn’s credit, they seem to be releasing updates/patches to try to keep up with all of the bugs – I’ve had the “luxury” of downloading and installing at least 5 PlayOn updates/patches since installing the software a little over 2 months ago.

I’ve worked with their support staff for a couple of days trying to resolve the issue. Unfortunately,
I’ve pretty much lost hope after the last contact from their support said the following:

“This is often indicative of something such as Security or AntiVirus software killing the stream. That’s almost certainly what is going on here.”

I had already told them that I had uninstalled my anti-virus to eliminate that as the culprit – and I wasn’t running a software firewall; yes, I have an external firewall, but no changes have been made to it – AND let’s not forget, PlayOn did work fine initially for the first month or so.

So, I’m pretty chalking up PlayOn as a loss. Of course, your mileage may vary. I just don’t have the time or patience anymore. It has to be quite a challenge for the PlayOn developer staff to stay on top of all of the changes that the various video content providers make.

I’m thinking my best bet is to look at getting a small PC or Mac Mini to hook up directly to my TV, maybe slap a digital tuner in it, and call it good. I guess that would solve my DVR issue too!

Starting to simplify – cutting the cable TV cord.

Enough is enough already! I’ve watched my monthly cable bill keep increasing over the last several years (as I’m sure most of you have). Oh yeah, I’ve played the switching game to take advantage of the promotions: Comcast to Dish Network…back to Comcast…to Dish…to Comcast…and most recently to Uverse. I was simply tired of paying close to $80 a month for TV service. My most recent experience with AT&T Uverse finally did me in. Don’t get me wrong, I think they have a good product – their multi-room DVR pretty much sets the bar when it comes to the TV service offerings in my area. However, I couldn’t continue to justify the cost for the handful of TV shows that my family watches on a regular basis. This decision undoubtedly affects my kids more than my wife and I, as the kids programming is the biggest thing lacking (I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing though).

At any rate, we decided to stop paying that huge monthly bill by utilizing a combination of low-cost and free programming. I can’t say that it’s perfect, but it’s been working for our family for about the last 4 months.

So, what did I do? Well, the first thing I did was purchase an antenna to pick up over-the-air (OTA) digital channels in my area. I’m using a fairly inexpensive RCA indoor powered antenna (~$30), and am able to pull in about 20 digital channels – all of the major networks CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and PBS…with superb picture quality compared to pay-for services.

I was really missing the DVR capabilities to watch recorded/on-demand content, so that was the next thing to tackle. I found a product called PlayOn. This great little piece of software runs on a Windows PC and allows you to stream content such as Hulu, CBS, ESPN, CNN, YouTube, Netflix, etc to the three major gaming consoles: XBox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii (still beta). I tried the free demo for a couple weeks and decided it was well worth the $30. I have tried PlayOn on each of the three gaming consoles and in my experience, the PS3 is the best for both picture quality and ease of use. Using it on the XBox was a fairly close second…but the Wii was essentially unwatchable. So, now if I miss an episode of “The Office” or “House”, I’ll just fire up my gaming console and connect to Hulu through PlayOn to watch it on demand.

In addition to OTA and PlayOn, I decided to sign up for the basic Netflix account – no this isn’t free (it’s 8.99/month for the cheapest plan), but this gives you 1 DVD rental out at a time and unlimited access to their streaming media. Netflix doesn’t have a huge selection when it comes to movies (especially when it comes to new releases), but they also have a pretty big library of the previous seasons of several TV shows. I just recently opted to upgrade my Netflix account to add Blu-ray for an extra $2 a month, well worth it as far as I’m concerned.

As far as Netflix goes, there are several different options to play their streaming content (PS3, XBox, Roku, PC, Mac, to name a few) – the PlayOn streaming software even allows you to connect to your Netflix account to stream video. I prefer to use my PS3 for Netflix, the picture quality is much better than streaming through PlayOn….and the XBox 360 requires you to have a Live Gold account to use Netflix (c’mon MicroSoft, gimme a break!)….of course, this was one of the reasons I bought PlayOn – to use Netflix on the XBox without needing a Live Gold account.

I guess I do need to mention that I have a high-speed internet connection, which is really a requirement to do any kind of video streaming. I did keep AT&T Uverse for 6Mbps @ $35 a month….but hey, it’s necessary for my line of work anyway – and if you’re reading this, chances are, you have high-speed internet already too.

All in all, our family has been pretty happy with the switch. The “hardest” thing is a bit more inconvenience when it comes to switching between watching over-the-air channels and Netflix or PlayOn. Since most of our TV watching is over-the-air anyway, it’s not that big of a deal. Besides saving money, one of the other benefits we’ve found is that we don’t waste nearly as much time channel surfing anymore…and ultimately end up watching some crappy show because nothing else was on.

The Filling Station in Comstock Park

Some friends and I decided to try a new place for lunch, and decided to head over to The Filling Station in Comstock Park. We entered the restaurant and headed to the ordering line . It’s cafeteria style ordering, one person takes your order as you slide a tray down towards the other end to pay – the food is definitely not ready by the time you get to the end, I’ll get to that later.

The menu seemed quite large – both literally and the number of items. I didn’t have a chance to take it all in because I quickly saw what I wanted – a Philly cheesesteak sandwich – what caught my eye was the optional cheese whiz. I’d heard from a native Philadelphian that a “real” philly steak sandwich has cheese whiz on it…this just happened be the first time I’d seen it in the Grand Rapids area. So, I decided on the philly with a half side of onion rings. I can’t remember what the rest of my friends ordered other than a mix of burgers, fries, and onion rings.

The prices seemed pretty reasonable for the amount of food you get. After ordering, we grabbed a booth and waited (key word) for our food. I immediately noticed the decor, the dining area is adorned with old gas station type signs throughout. The dining area seemed clean and surprisingly quiet; it wasn’t empty, but not overly busy either.

It took a good 20 minutes for the first order to be called out…another 5 or so minutes later two more orders came out….and finally another 5 minutes later the last order arrived. And from what I can remember, the last order came out incorrect. This was by far the biggest complaint – TTGF (time to get food).

Anyway, when my order finally arrived, there was a heaping pile of battered onion-rings, deep-fried to golden perfection. Maybe not the best I’ve ever had, but pretty darn good nevertheless. Underneath these golden beauties was a delicious looking Philly sandwich. There were actually two “halves” about 6 inches each. The melted cheese whiz was oozing out over the very thinly sliced grilled steak and onions. I took my first bite….ohhhh yeah – the bun was toasted perfectly, everything in perfect harmony. It was like a party in my mouth. This was definitely the best philly cheesesteak I’ve ever had!

I can’t say that the rest of my friends had the same experience as me; one said the burger was “OK”…it looked to me like it was pretty overdone. I don’t remember anyone saying they wouldn’t come back; however, I think we were all in agreement that the speed and service had a negative impact on the whole experience. Overall, I’d have to give it a thumbs up for the great good food I had. Maybe next time I’ll try The Filling Station for breakfast or dinner and see if the service is any better.

How to Convert a Physical Windows XP Machine to a VM (P2V) for Use in VirtualBox

For those asking the question: “Is it possible to convert an existing physical Windows XP workstation using VirtualBox?” Well, the short answer is “No, you can’t convert it DIRECTLY with VirtualBox”. However, it IS possible to convert it to a virtual machine using a free product (VMware Converter) and then use VirtualBox as the host-based virtualization platform. VirtualBox is capable of using vmdk files, the format that VMware converter creates in it’s P2V process.

VirtualBox is an open-source, freely available virtualization product that can run on a variety of different host operating systems: Windows XP, 2003, 2008, Vista, Mac OS X (Intel only), several Linux distros, and Solaris 10 x86 to name a few. Go to http://www.sun.com/virtualbox for more information and downloads. Of course, there are other host-based virtualization products that are available: VMware Server and Fusion, Xen, and Parallels to name a few. However, none of these support as many platforms as VirtualBox – and it’s FREE!

The host computer in this example is an Apple Macbook 2Ghz Core 2 Duo, with 2GB RAM, running Mac OS X 10.5.7 and VirtualBox 3.0.0. The physical machine being P2V’d is an older PC with an AMD 3100+ CPU and 768MB RAM running Windows XP (non-OEM) w/SP3 (please be aware that you still need to adhere to Microsoft’s licensing policies). The physical machine has two PCI cards: an ATI 9600XT graphics adapter and an SMC 10/100 NIC. I also used a portable USB hard drive formatted with a FAT32 filesystem as a destination for the VM conversion.

This is essentially a 2-step process:
1. Convert the physical machine to a VM using VMware Converter
2. Create a new VM in VirtualBox using the VM that was “converted”.

So, let’s get started.

Converting the Physical PC
First, you’ll need to download and install the VMware Converter tool onto the physical machine you want to virtualize (in this case it’s the Windows XP machine). The version used in this example is VMware Converter 3.0.3

Installation of the VMware converter is pretty straightforward, just follow the dialog boxes to complete the install, I used the “Typical” installation option.

Launch VMware Converter:
1. Click the “Continue in Starter Mode” to get to the main converter window
2. Click the “Convert Machine” button located in the bottom half of the window.
– You will now be walked through the converter wizard –
3. Select “Physical Computer” as the Source Type, click next
4. Select “This local machine” as the Source Login, click next
5. The Source Data window allows you to specify which drives to include in the conversion. My machine only has a C: drive. It will list the drive size, as well as the used space. You can modify the drive size in the conversion – you can’t resize the “virtual” drive below the used space. Leave the “Ignore page file and hibernation file” checked (default), click next.

– Now it’s time to choose a destination for the virtual machine –
6. Choose “Other Virtual Machine” as the destination type, click next.
7. Give your virtual machine a name (mine was named xpvm in this example), and a location to store the VM that is going to be created. This is where I directed the location to the external USB hard drive. Select “Workstation 6.x, VMware Fustion 1.x, Player 2.x, ACE 2.x” as the type of virtual machine to create, click next.
8. Select a disk allocation option (I used “Allow virtual disk files to expand”), click next.
9. Select how many the NICs and the type of network you have and if you want them to connect at power on. I used the default which was one NIC, NAT and “Connect at power on” was checked, click next.
10. Customization window – all boxes were left unchecked, click next to begin the conversion process.

At this point, go grab a beverage of choice and a snack, it could take a while depending on the speed of your system and size of your drive(s) to be converted.

After the conversion finished, you need to move this newly created VM over to your host machine. I used an external hard drive as my destination, so I just removed it from the Windows XP box and attached it to the Mac. I then copied the VM to a location on the Mac’s internal hard drive. At this point the external hard drive is no longer needed. This probably all could have been done over an SMB share as well.

Now Let’s Bring the VM into VirtualBox (this assumes that you have already installed VirtualBox on your host machine)
1. Launch Virtual Box, then click the “New” button to create a new virtual machine, click next.
2. Give your virtual machine a name, select the operating system and version, for this example “xpvm” was the VM name, OS is “Microsoft Windows”, and Version is “Windows XP”, click next.
3. Select the amount of RAM you would like to allocate to the VM. In most cases, the amount does not have to equal the amount of RAM that was on the physical machine. This may depend on the amount of RAM available in your host machine. For this scenario, 192MB was used, click next.
4. You will now be asked to set up your hard disk – this is the key step; you are now going to choose “Use an existing hard disk” then click the folder with the green arrow on it. This brings up the “Virtual Media Manager” window.
5. In the “Virtual Media Manager” window, click the “Add” button, this should launch another window – use this to locate the newly created VM, you are looking for a file that ends with a .vmdk extension. Once you locate this, select it and you will return to the “Virtual Hard Disk” window (your vmdk file should be listed in the box, click next.
6. Click the “Finish” button, at this point the VM is created and available inside of VirtualBox; however, you may need to make the following modification for it to boot.
7. In the main VirtualBox window, highlight the VM and click the “Settings” button. Click the System button and check the “Enable IO APIC” option. Click OK to save the settings.
8. In the main VirtualBox window again, click the “Start” button to fire up the VM.

Be aware that you may receive a couple of warning messages regarding devices that may not be on the host machine (floppy drive, serial port, etc), this should not prevent the VM from starting up.

One final note using VirtualBox, install the “Guest Additions” tool within the virtual machine. This is a package that will significantly enhance keyboard, video, and mouse performance inside of the VM.

As with many howto’s, your mileage may vary depending on the host and guest OS you want to virtualize. Good luck and happy virtualizing!

VMware Cookbook (O’Reilly Media)

I’ve spent the last week or so doing a technical review on a book to be released later this year from O’Reilly Media. The book, titled “VMware Cookbook“, is authored by Ryan Troy and Matthew Helmke. Both are heavily involved in the Ubuntu Linux community and have written several articles that have been published in various Linux magazines.

This book is all about VMware’s enterprise products: ESX, ESXi, a bit of Virtual Center (vCenter), as well as content on the newly released vSphere. So those looking for information on VMware’s Workstation, Fusion, or free Server product need not apply.

That being said, this book is a must have for anyone responsible for implementing and/or maintaining an ESX environment. It is chock full of tips, tricks, and how-to’s gleaned from real world experience, most of which provide detailed step-by-step instructions. There are cookbook style “recipes” included for just about major topic within ESX: installation, networking, resource management, security, storage, and a huge section of miscellaneous tips.

What I really enjoy about this book is the mix of recipes using the command line as well as the vCenter client. We’re not talking just a “man page” for a command – these are practical example uses of ESX commands – all in an easy to follow format.

I don’t know about you, but I find it cumbersome to weed through four or five 300-page manuals trying to find information on how to perform a specific task (and worse, having bits and pieces of information scattered throughout all of them). This book pulls some of those pieces together to address real-world scenarios that we as systems administrators and engineers are faced with on a regular and sometimes not-so-regular basis.