Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Product Review: Four Seasons Hotel Pillows

We stayed at a couple of Four Seasons Hotels this past Fall (their New York City and Boston locations) and I wanted to capture some of the magic of those visits by purchasing a couple of the pillows they use in their rooms.

The image at left is the tag from one of their king-sized pillows.  It's a little blurry unfortunately, but hopefully you can see it's manufactured by Phoenix Down Corp and is 75% White Goose Feather/25% White Goose Down.

A large percentage of the pillows we owned prior to these weren't quite right for one reason or another.  Some were too thin, others too thick, and the net of it was that it was difficult to adjust them to just the right height.  One thing I liked about the Four Seasons pillows was that you could adjust them and get comfortable with them regardless of your preferences for big or small pillows.  I would guess this is due to the blend of feather and down in the pillow.

When I was checking out of the hotel, I asked if they sold the pillows and they gave me a sheet of paper that listed pricing for not only the pillows but also mattresses and bathrobes.  The prices seemed pretty reasonable to me, and a little less than I found them online.  The King pillow was listed at $60.

I called up the hotel to inquire about purchasing the pillows directly from them, and see how much shipping was.  The number for purchasing in Boston is (617)351-2000Kevin in purchasing gave me some helpful advice- that for a queen bed, 2 king pillows work quite nicely because although 36" x 2 is 72" and a queen mattress is only 60" wide, the edges of the pillows tend to round off and the actual dimensions a pillow takes up is less than what is specified for the actual fabric dimensions.  Kevin also let me know that the current price on the pillows was supposed to be $75 per pillow, but since the sheet from the front desk said $60 he'd honor that.  I ordered 2 king pillows for our queen bed and arranged to pick them up at the front desk to save on shipping.

When we got the pillows, I was surprised how flat they were since they were kind-of shrink wrapped in plastic bags.  Once we opened them up they got much fuller.  When we first started using them, they had a noticeable gamey odor to them.  Kind of like how I would imagine geese smell.  We aired them out for a couple of days and fortunately the odor went away.

We've been using the pillows for a few months now, and I'm very pleased with them.  They're very comfortable and I'm always able to adjust them "just right".  They're pretty large overall, so I'm glad we didn't buy 4 of them.  They fill up the width of our queen mattress nicely.

Update: I just checked at the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara and they use the same pillow.

Overall, I'd highly recommend these pillows as an option to anyone in the market for new pillows.

Here's a link to buy the pillows on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1YiF0Dn

Monday, December 21, 2009

24" Dell Monitor for less than $200

Ever since seeing one on a co-worker's desk 3 years ago, I've been wanting to get a 24" Dell flat panel monitor to attach to my work laptop.  I work from a home office so I spend a lot of hours in front of the computer, most of which are when the laptop is docked and I'm viewing the display on a monitor.

Previously, I had a 20" NEC MultiSync 2070NX.  That monitor wasn't widescreen and it wasn't quite as large as I wanted.  I've been watching the price on 24" Dells for the past few years and this year for the first time that I can recall prices are falling below $200.  One thing I've never been able to understand is the price spread on their monitors- $189 to $549 on their 24" models as I'm writing this.  I see that the more expensive models provide height adjustment and offer USB connections- but are there other differences in term of display quality?  I honestly don't know, but the price difference is so much it really doesn't matter to me for the everyday computing I do.

The model I got was the Dell S2409W 24-inch Widescreen.  With a corporate discount I was able to get it for $179 with free shipping.  Such a low price- very easy to justify in my mind.  It arrived this morning and I opened it up and hooked it up.  Using the VGA connection that I used with my previous monitor, I wasn't super-impressed with the quality of the display right out of the box.  Given the sheer size of the monitor, especially its width, I found myself needing to turn my head to see various parts of the display.  Furthermore, when I viewed the upper and lower corners of the display, the letters seemed a little distorted.  Kind of a strange phenomenon- the display was so big that inevitably much of it is viewed at an angle!

It occurred to me that perhaps it was time to switch to a digital DVI connector instead of using the old-school analog VGA connector.  Although my previous monitor supported a digital display, it didn't come with a DVI cable.  And since the image quality was pretty good I never bothered getting a DVI cable.  Since the image of the new Dell with the VGA cable was so-so I decided to try hooking up the DVI cable to see if that improved things.

I wanted to be able to toggle back and forth between the 2 connectors to see if there was a difference, but it turns out that it's non-trivial to do so.  You have to disable the VGA connection through the display settings in Windows, and in order for that option to be visible you have to physically disconnect the VGA cable.  For a while there, I didn't think my laptop supported DVI because there's no DVI output on the laptop itself- only on the docking station.  Anyway, after a little thrashing around I was able to get the display set up via DVI and the image quality improved- especially in terms of how crisp the letters in the corners of the display as viewed on a slight angle appeared.

It doesn't bother me that the height isn't adjustable.  I just tilted the angle up a bit and if it bothers me I'll do the old "stack some books under it".  It also doesn't bother me that there's no USB inputs.  I never used them on the old display anyway.

Brilliance: 7/10
I'd give the monitor a "7" on a scale of 1-10 in terms of image "brilliance".  It's a good clean picture, but not as amazing as some of the displays you see at the Apple Store.

Functionality: 7/10
Setting up the monitor was pretty easy, and the controls are easy to navigate.  Once you get a monitor set up all you ever need to do is hit "on/off" and that button works well.  The unit seems pretty solid overall. 

Style: 7/10
It's not like an Apple Cinema display or anything, but I think it's a nice clean, professional black flat panel that looks nice on a desk.

Value: 9/10
And a "9" in terms of value- this is a ton of display for less than $200.

Update (1/21/2010): I've struggled mightily calibrating this monitor.  The colors either look washed out or unnaturally/unevenly saturated.  I've never had to goof around with monitor settings so much.  We also got an iMac around the same time as this monitor and whenever I look at the iMac it just looks right without any fiddling.

Here's a link to the monitor in the Dell store.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Best $10 Toy You Can Buy a 4-Year-Old Boy

Just back from the toy store where I tried like mad to find a decent $5 toy to buy Sam to reward him for showing good behavior.  That's a tough price point.  Even when I stretched it to $10 I found a lot of toys that I had a feeling would be played with for only 10 minutes.

Although he already had 2 of them, I caved and got Sam another Automoblox toy car.  I think they're a stunning value at $9.99.

Just FYI in case you ever need to buy a top for a boy around 3-4 years old.  He loves the things and I think they're pretty cool too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Can Smart Cycle Extreme Games Work with the Original Smart Cycle?

So I'm doing some Christmas shopping online today, and I remember we've wanted to buy Sam a new cartridge for his Smart Cycle.  We got it as a gift a couple of years ago, and he really likes it.  It's a cool toy- he pedals while he's playing games on the TV so it provides some amount of exercise while he's enjoying the games.

Anyway, I keep finding these really expensive and out of stock cartridges for the games.  They're like $32 on Amazon.com with no Free Super Saver Shipping, whereas the same game labeled as Extreme is way cheaper, in stock and includes free shipping:
What gives?  I checked out Fisher Price's website, poked around a bit and called customer service.  After just a few selections in their automated menus, I spoke with a customer service rep who answered my question right off the bat.

What happened was, they came out with a new version of the Smart Cycle itself (now called Smart Cycle Extreme).  The old one is referred to as Smart Cycle Classic now.  The difference between the two is the Extreme hardware supports an ability to make the bike rumble when you go off road for example.

The new software triggers this rumbling, but the good news is that the new cartridges will work just fine on the Smart Cycle Classic.  I found this in the PDF for the Hot Wheels game:

Pretty good job of customer service for such an affordable product.  My compliments to Fisher-Price!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Setting Up Comcast Universal Caller ID (in 14 painful steps)

If Comcast is your cable provider, perhaps you're aware that they're long on introducing spiffy new features and short on making them "just work". Their innovative integration of TiVo software with their cable boxes, their iPhone app (which allows you to check Comcast E-mail, listen to your Comcast Digital Voice voicemail, and check TV listings), and now Universal Caller ID are all fine examples of really cutting edge technology...that doesn't work very well without a lot of work on your part.

A flyer in the Sunday paper a few weeks ago announced Universal Caller ID which promises to let you know who's ringing your phone via a little pop-up window on your PC -and/or- on your TV. Pretty cool! Or so I thought.

Here's what I had to do to get it going:
  1. Download the Comcast Caller ID client to my PC
  2. Make a test call to our primary line (didn't work)
  3. Make a test call to our secondary line (didn't work)
  4. Follow the instructions for getting it going on your TV
    We have Comcast TiVo, so the directions didn't make sense for the menu options we have. Although their FAQ page mentions TiVo no working, it's not clear whether this is a statement about true TiVo boxes -or- Comcast TiVo boxes. Later discussions and experimentation would reveal it does *not* work with Comcast TiVo boxes.
  5. I followed the instructions for the FAQ question about why pop-ups weren't occurring on my PC:
  6. I thought perhaps it had something to do with primary vs. secondary usernames. Honestly, I've never understood why we have so many passwords with Comcast. 2 I understand (1 to maintain the account, others for E-mail and such). But unique username/passwords for Comcast Triple Play Rewards that gets renamed every few months? Too much.
    At any rate, that wasn't it- I was using the primary username/password.
  7. I went to the next step to chat with an agent. Even though I'm already logged in, I have to enter all of this information:

  8. Okay, once in the chat session I explain my problem. The agent asks some basic questions and then checks my account and informs me that it's not set up on my account. I ask if there was some way that I was supposed to request it be set up, or documented somewhere that you needed to call to set it up? No worries he said- it'll be all set. In 48 hours.
  9. Okay, wait a couple of days and give it a whirl again. Still not working. Wait another day just to make double-dog-sure enough time has passed. Still no juice. What the heck?
  10. I hit up @ComcastCares on Twitter. I should have just done this in the beginning. No having to fill out the chat room entry form this way and then having to wait for the laggy chat interface to update. Someone responds on Twitter right away and tells me someone will be calling me soon.
  11. Get a call, and the technician says my account isn't provisioned for Universal Caller ID. I tell him that I went through this lengthy chat session on Monday where they said the same thing already- is there a record of that in my account? No record he says. So I send him the chat log which shows I've already had this conversation.
  12. While I'm talking to him, I ask about something I've been curious about- whether it works for primary and secondary lines. He says I have to tell him which line I want it to work with. Bummer! I wanted it to work with both lines, but my secondary is more important. So he changes the provisioning request to work on the second line. And I wait for another 24 hours.
  13. It didn't take 24 hours this time- a little later in the afternoon I get another call back and it's working. Sweet!
  14. Just for kicks, I test it on my secondary line too and it works. Pretty cool- I'm up and running!
Things I like about it:
  • Let's you know who's calling when you can't find the phone
  • Lets you know who's calling on any of your phone lines
  • Lets you know who's calling when you're on the phone
  • The application that runs is pretty harmless, discreet and auto-launches painlessly upon reboot
  • I even think it works when you're out of the house (not certain about that however)
I really like the way Comcast innovates. And uses Twitter. But I really wish they'd get things to work out of the box a little more, and if they can't make that happen let us know on their website what doesn't work and let us know when we have to call and request something on the phone.

Further Reading:
Hope this is helpful. I think it's worth calling Comcast to get it set up, but I'd recommend starting with Twitter to get to the front of the line.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

How To: Buy Authentic Souvenirs at Sea World (without paying a penny to get into the park)

Ever since our trip to Sea World San Diego last June, our little dudes have been Shamu-crazy. It's probably encouraged/caused by me- I'm pretty big fan about Shamu myself. When I let the kids know I was headed out of town on a business trip recently they started crying saying they didn't want me to leave, until I told them I was going to San Diego and would bring them home some Sea World souvenirs.

The only trick then is to procure said souvenirs. On the way out of the airport, I checked the Sea World souvenir inventory at Terminal 2 of the San Diego airport. Not good. Only 1 knock-off Orca stuffed animal:

I'm sure they had a better selection beyond security in Terminal 1, but I was flying in and out of Terminal 2 so I was doubtful they'd let me past security with a boarding pass for another airline. What to do?

I tweeted @Shamu and asked where I could buy Sea World souvenirs in San Diego without going to the park, and I got a response saying "Standby, I'll check." but didn't hear back with a solution.

After my customer meetings on Friday, I was driving past Sea World so I thought to give a shot at checking if they had some souvenirs outside the park -or- better yet working my way into the park for just a quick shopping trip.

It was about 3PM when I arrived at the gates where you pay for parking. Fortunately, nobody was there taking money- score! I grabbed a parking space and headed up to the park entrance gates. The booths where they sell tickets were also all closed (the park closed at 5PM the day I was there) but tickets were being sold at the Group Sales/Will Call window and there were other people in a short line.

I decided to head over to the park exit to see if I could sneak in for just a bit. The gate agent advised that I could get a Shopping Pass at the Will Call window.

Here's how it works:
  • Pay $65 for a refundable Shopping Pass
  • Spend less than 1 hour in the park
  • Buy something in the park and keep your receipt
  • Don't get your hand stamped
  • Go back to the Will Call window and they'll give you a full refund for $65
Once I got in the park I was like a kid in a candy store, snatching a Shamu Believe necklace for Will, a Shark-themed monster truck that Sam's been talking about since June, and a nice stuffed Shamu to boot. What seemed like expensive merchandise at the end of our last visit suddenly seemed like found money somehow. I exited the park, got my refund and headed back to the car a proud papa who would successfully return home with the goods.

When I got home to Boston, the kids were asleep. The next morning when they woke up they were very excited to see what I got them. I was tempted to hold back the Shamu stuffed animal for a future occasion, but since I'd sent a picture of the airport knock-off Orca, 2-year-old Will was searching sadly through the bag after receiving only his little Shamu necklace. I folded and gave him his very own Shamu to match a similar one I'd bought for Sam earlier in the year.

Although I do like bringing things home to the kids after a trip, I'm not a fan of buying junk at the airport. I'm still fuming about the $20 lead-infested cable car with 4 tiny pieces of Ghirardelli I picked up in San Francisco. Hopefully, next time someone does a Google search for "buy sea world san diego authentic souvenirs" they'll find this piece and it will help a traveler get some nice gifts for their kids. Please leave a comment if this helps- I hope it does.

Further Reading: Tips and Tricks for discounted admission to Sea World and other Southern California Theme Parks

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