Category Archives: Reviews

Flying Friday: first flights with the CGR30p

Good news: we finally got the long-awaited CGR-30P instrument installed in our plane! Back in February, I said we’d put the plane in the shop for the actual install and, rather optimistically, said that I thought we’d probably get it out within a week or two. I could write a long, sad story about the various difficulties we had, including the unexpected departure of the shop manager, his failure to tell us we needed to do a pre-install maintenance check flight, and so on, but the details are both boring and depressing. Enough to say that the install is done, there have been no major problems with it so far, and we’ll probably find another shop to use in the future.

Anyyyyyway, here’s what the finished product looks like. We had it installed in the panel in the spot formerly occupied by a defunct Stormscope, in the upper left corner of the panel. The plastic cover that Piper uses on its panels obscures the tachometer redline, which is annoying but not insurmountable.

WP_20150328_001The rest of the installation is unremarkable; the CGR unit uses a small box known as the EDC (for “engine data computer”) that’s installed in the baggage compartment. All of the temperature probes and transducers feed data to the EDC, and a simple single cable runs from the EDC to the panel. In the engine compartment, there are six probes each for cylinder head and exhaust gas temperatures, a fuel pressure transducer, a fuel flow transducer, oil pressure and temperature transducers, plus an outside air temperature (OAT) probe mounted on the pilot’s side of the fuselage. The picture above shows manifold pressure and propeller RPM at the top, an EGT/CHT bar graph in the lower left side, and fuel flow, fuel pressure, and oil pressure on the lower right.

The CGR30P is connected to the master bus, not the avionics bus, so when you power on the master switch it comes on. Although it’s possible to use it as a fuel tank gauge, that would require a bunch of additional wiring, so we kept the analog fuel tank gauges and use the CGR to monitor fuel flow. When it boots, you can specify how much fuel you’ve added and then it will track both the flow (by using the flow transducer) and your fuel remaining (by subtraction).

The control scheme is simple; the “S” pushbutton sequences between different screens on the lower half of the instrument. The rotary knob (which can be pushed to select) moves a small carat cursor around between fields. The “E” button exits what you’re currently doing. This takes a little practice, but it’s easy to learn. For example, if I want to lean the engine, I press S until I see the CHT display, then use the rotary knob to select the CHT display type, press the knob in, and dial it until it reads “CGT ROP” or “CGT LOP.” Easier said than done.

At first, it took me a minute to remember that the old analog fuel flow gauge had been disconnected while I was priming the engine. Luckily I caught on, and that gauge is now placarded as inoperative so I won’t keep looking at it. Apart from the novelty of looking at a color screen instead of a 1950s-era analog instrument, engine start, taxi, runup, and takeoff are completely unchanged. Leaning the engine for cruise will take some getting used to; because EGT6 is wrong (see below), the lean-of-peak and rich-of-peak methods are just guesswork, so I stuck with setting approximately the same fuel flow I used back when the analog gauges were connected. I was very pleased to see that setting the throttle so that the CGR read 16″ of manifold pressure gave the same steady 500fpm descent rate that 16″ of MP would on the analog gauge. In fact, the only discrepancy I noticed was that the electronic tach reads 80-100rpm faster than the mechanical tach, probably due to flex or looseness in the mechanical tach cable.

The refresh rate, quality, clarity, and lighting of the CGR30P screen are all superb; it was easy to read it in all lighting conditions, including direct sunlight (though I haven’t flown with it at night yet).

Sharp-eyed readers may notice that the cylinder head temperature bars (the green ones) don’t seem to show much of a temperature on cylinder 6. During my first test flight, I found that the EGT for that cylinder was suspiciously low, although the engine functions just fine. We think there’s a loose connection, which we’ll troubleshoot once we get the airplane back from annual. For a while, I was sure that CHTon cylinder 2 was wrong, but no, it was just that I’d chosen to display the differentials for CHT, so that the coolest cylinder reads as zero and the other cylinders show how many degrees above the coolest they’re running.

I had to fix a few other things; the CGR30P didn’t know what the analog tach’s total hour reading was, and it didn’t know that it was connected to our KLN94B GPS. The GPS feeds the distance to the current waypoint and the total flight plan to the CGR, which can use it to show how much fuel you’ll have when you get there. The CGR is also supposed to feed fuel data back to the GPS, but ours is old and doesn’t know how to use that data. Newer GPS units can display a range ring that shows graphically exactly how far you can fly– and as you change fuel burn by changing the throttle or mixture settings, the ring dynamically changes to show how far you can go. The GPS integration still isn’t working quite right, though; I need to tweak it a bit more.

By about 30 minutes into my flight to New Orleans, incorporating the CGR into my scan was second nature, and I feel comfortable operating it. I’m looking forward to downloading engine performance data and having it analyzed to see what we can learn about the health of the engine and how to operate it for the greatest efficiency and longevity– the real reason behind getting the monitor. So far, it’s a solid device and I’m happy with it.


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Flying Friday: “When Penguins Flew and Water Burned” (review)

I don’t bother to review very many books, in part because I read a lot and in part because writing reviews takes time away from reading. However, I recently received the Kindle version of When Penguins Flew and Water Burned and wanted to quickly recommend it. The book is a recap of the career of Jim Clonts, a B-52 navigator (and, later, radar navigator) during the tail end of the Cold War. Clonts writes in an engaging style, and his tales of life on a bomber crew are absolutely fascinating if you’re at all interested in military aviation. Although his crew position is navigator, he’s also a pilot and so there’s a fair bit of inside-baseball talk. The book is moderately heavy on jargon, as you might expect, but it’s still pretty approachable even if you don’t know anything about bombers or the USAF in general. Well worth a read if you’re flight-minded.


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Training Tuesday: first week with the Garmin Fenix 3

Not long after I got my Garmin 920xt, Garmin announced the Fenix 3, which combines the same Connect IQ software platform with a round face and (to me) a much more attractive industrial design. I ordered one in January, figuring that I could probably sell the 920xt without too much trouble, then I settled in to wait for its arrival. I’ve had it about a week now, just long enough to get a sense of how it compares to the 920xt.

WP 20150317 002

First,I love the physical appearance and build quality of the watch. It reminds me of the Suunto Ambit 2s, though it’s a bit heavier. Whereas the 920xt felt plastic-y (makes sense, given that it was plastic), the Fenix 3 feels like a real watch. Screen brightness and clarity are excellent; the screen is a different shape but has the same resolution as the one in the 920xt. One significant difference is that the 920xt has six hardware buttons, while the Fenix 3 only has five. They’re also arranged very differently; for example, the “up” button on the 920xt and the “start/stop” button on the Fenix 3 are in the same location, on the upper right side of the watch. The difference in button location has been the hardest thing for me to get used to. Starting and stopping activities is easy, but there’s no longer a single-button shortcut for “connect to wifi” and there’s no dedicated button to bring up settings— instead, you hold down the “up” button. I’m still trying to master the button combo to enter drill mode when swimming and have occasionally fumbled with the other buttons in the midst of an activity, but I’m getting used to it now.

In terms of functionality, the Fenix 3 does everything the 920xt does for tracking runs, swims, and so on. However, it has four additional sensors: an altimeter, a barometer, a compass, and a temperature sensor. The Fenix 3 software thus has several features missing from the 920xt, including the ability to display data from all those sensors, “trail run” and “hike” activity modes that track your altitude using the altimeter instead of GPS altitude, and a slightly different UI paradigm for interacting with the sensors: each sensor type has its own dedicated widget, which you page through using the “up” and “down” buttons. Here’s a quick video I shot showing what the widget displays look like. The widget labeled “VIRB” is there for controlling Garmin VIRB action cameras. I much prefer having a separate widget for this than the 920xt approach of having the VIRB controller be a data page that appears within an activity. Here’s a quick video I shot showing a little of what the user interface looks like.


There’s about a $50 cost difference between the 920xt and the Fenix 3, assuming you buy just the watch and not the bundle with the heart-rate strap (and that you buy the basic Fenix 3, not the fancier and heavier one with sapphire glass). For me, the cost was well worth having a nicer-looking watch. One downside to the form factor of the Fenix 3 is that there currently isn’t a quick-release kit, as there is for the 920xt, so if I want to use it while riding the bike I’ll need to improvise a mount. That’s a small disadvantage, though, for the way I use the watch.

Of course, the back-end Garmin Connect service doesn’t care which watch you use to gather your data as long as it has the Garmin logo on the front, so switching the 920xt for the Fenix 3 was a non-issue there.

If you’d like to know more about the Fenix 3, I highly recommend this lengthy review at dcrainmaker. It goes into much more detail about the watch, how it works, and how it compares to its peers.

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1Fit Fitness (Madison)

Over the summer, I was looking for a gym. Since I hadn’t been a member of a gym in probably 20 years, I wasn’t really sure what criteria I should use to pick one, but I liked Brian’s review strategy of testing gyms before signing up, so  I started with the gym that was closest to my house: 1Fit Fitness on County Line Road in Madison. I met with Chuck, the owner, and got a quick tour. First, a word about Chuck, who is a retired Army officer and super nice guy. He and his staff keep the gym clean and neat, which was apparent when I waked in the door. The gym is divided into two large areas: on the left, there are dumbbells (12.5-100 lbs), a Smith machine, a squat rack, and a couple of benches. On the right, there’s an incline bench, a big combo cable machine, a rack for doing pull-ups and dips, a variety of selectorized machines, and half-a-dozen assorted pieces of cardio gear. Each side has at least one TV, and the left side has a counter area with a small fridge with drinks for sale. The decor is extremely basic, although there are plenty of mirrors, which always bugs me a little bit. However, there are none of the typical meathead trappings: no diamond plate or posters of gigantic ripped dudes.

I signed up for their family plan, which is about $40/month for me plus two kids. For that price, I get unlimited, 24/7 use of the gym. It is rarely busy; I’ve never seen more than 4 other people there, and most of the time when I go I’m by myself. If you want a social gym, this probably isn’t the best choice. The place is staffed in the afternoons, Monday through Saturday— while “afternoon” sounds vague, I chose it because the actual hours seem to start anywhere between noon and 4pm and end at 6pm. I’ve seen the owner in a few times outside that time, but that’s unpredictable. However, since your key fob gets you 24/7 access, unless you need company, staffing hours are pretty much irrelevant.

There are a variety of classes offered, and several personal trainers who work out of the gym, but I don’t have anything to say about them because I haven’t used them.

Cons? Sure, a few. The gym doesn’t have some equipment that I wish it did: there’s no leg press machine, no trap bars, and only one curl bar (which is broken). This isn’t a huge deal, but it does point out the drawback of using a small locally-owned gym; at least in this case, Chuck can’t afford to invest the same kind of money as the big-box gyms. However, the ease of access makes up for that in my opinion; I love having a nearby gym that I can go to whenever I want, and I prefer supporting the locals. It might be easier to sign up for a chain such as Anytime Fitness so that I have better gym access when I travel, but for now I’ve had good luck finding gyms in each city where I travel.

In the meantime, I’m toying with the idea of adding a second membership at Workout Anytime or Planet Fitness just up the road; $10/month or so would get me some equipment I don’t currently have access to, plus better gym access when I travel. However, when I start triathlon training in the spring, I’ll want access to a pool, which means I’ll probably be stuck with switching to a bigger gym (or the local Y), so I’ll probably wait.

Bottom line: 1Fit is a solid gym and I’m happy with the value I get for the cost. I recommend it.

140608 update: 1Fit closed in March 2014 and has been replaced by an IronTribe location.

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Surface Pro first impressions

Saturday morning I decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to try to grab a Surface Pro and try it out. This follows a well-established pattern; I wasn’t going to buy an Xbox 360 when it first came out, or an iPhone, and yet somehow on launch day I ended up with both of those. Anyway…

After some fruitless searching, Tom and I found a local Staples that had a 64GB Surface Pro. This was no mean trick because Huntsville doesn’t have a Microsoft Store (I know, right?) and the local Best Buys got zero stock. In fact, as far as I could tell there were none shipped to stores in Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, or Atlanta. I’m betting that at least the Atlanta region got a handful but those sold out. Anyway, my local Staples stores apparently got 1 64GB unit apiece, so I went out and grabbed one. Total cost with the Type Cover and sales tax was $1111.

This isn’t a review; it’s more a collection of observations, since I don’t have time at the moment to string together a coherent narrative instead of just giving you factoids and observations. Thus this post is worth what you’ve paid for it :)

The hardware build quality is superb. It’s true that the device is thicker and heavier than an iPad, but it’s much lighter and smaller than my 15″ MacBook Pro. I was able to comfortably use it on my lap while on the sofa. One thing I didn’t expect: the Type Cover flexes more than I thought it would. I guess I hit the keys hard or something. This was a little disconcerting at first. The kickstand works very well, and I’ve gotten used to the odd feel of having the Type Cover folded around the back of the unit.

Setup was simple: I signed in with my Microsoft account and it synced all of my profile information. SkyDrive works beautifully, as do all the other Microsoft services (notably Xbox LIVE). I’m glad to have multiple accounts on the device, because the kids cannot get enough of playing with it. They’re used to the iPad and don’t think of it as remarkable, but all of them are fascinated by the Surface. David’s used it for two homework assignments– in preference to his Win7 laptop; Tom is fascinated by the pen interface; and Matt likes that he can play all the Flash-based games that don’t work on the iPad.

The Surface Pro is fast. It boots fast, apps run fast, and the UI performance is “fast and fluid,” to coin a phrase. It does have a fan, and in a silent room you can hear it when it kicks in, but it’s not obtrusive– it’s quieter than the fans in my MBP, for example. 

Battery life? Haven’t tested it, don’t much care. If I want to just browse and watch, I’ll use the iPad, with its excellent battery life. The Surface Pro is an adjunct to, and replacement for, my “real” laptop, which means a 4-5 hour battery life will suit me just fine. I do want to see whether I can charge it with my external 10Ah battery (the excellent RAVPower Dynamo), though I’ll need an adapter.

Setting up VPN access to my office network was trivial. Lync MX won’t work until I get some more server-side plumbing set up. I tried to sign in to the desktop version of Lync 2013 and couldn’t because I didn’t have the necessary server certificate– but going to the Windows Server CA page with IE 10 resulted in a message from the server telling me that my browser couldn’t be used to request a certificate, even though all I wanted to do was download the CA chain. I’ll have to look into this.

And speaking of desktop access: I was easily able to turn on RDP access and hit the tablet from my Mac, but there’s a bug in CoRD that makes the cursor sometimes disappear. I haven’t tried Microsoft’s (lame and poorly maintained) RDP client, nor have I tried RDP from a Windows machine. Just to see what would happen, I plugged the cable from my desktop monitor into the Surface Pro’s mini-Display Port and immediately got a beautiful, mirrored 1920 x 1080 desktop, as expected. 

As many other reviewers have noted it’s a little disorienting at first to have two separate environments: desktop and Metro. However, since I can alt-Tab to switch between apps, in practice that has been absolutely no problem for me. The lack of a Start menu is a bit aggravating, but again, there’s an easy solution: tap the Windows key and start typing. Problem solved.

One night, I sat on the sofa using Word 2013 on the Surface Pro to revise a book chapter. This worked very well; I much prefer the UI of Word 2013 to Word 2011 on the Mac. I didn’t try using any pen input as part of my editing workflow, although that’s on my to-do list.

The smaller physical size of the Surface Pro compared to the MBP is a great asset; I’m looking forward to using it on commercial flights. The Ars Technica review shows the Surface as having a larger footprint than the MBP, but that ignores the fact that you have to open the MBP to use it, and when you do, the screen won’t be at 90° to the bottom– it’ll be tilted further back, which is where the footprint problem comes from. In that configuration the MBP screen impinges on the seatback space, which is how laptops get broken by reclining seats.

I tried running Outlook 2013, flipping out the kickstand, and using the Surface as a calendar display sitting next to my main screen. It’s a fantastic size to use as an adjunct display like that; I could have multiple browser windows (American, Delta, and plastered all over my man 2560 x 1440 desktop and still have glance-able calendar access.

Bottom line: I’m well pleased with the Surface Pro so far and will be swapping out my 64GB unit for a 128GB unit as soon as I can find one in stock.

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My first Instacart experience

One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is that we get lots of things first. I saw Zero Dark Thirty several days before its general release, for instance. We also get lots of experimental or startup services and businesses. Some of these services stick around, like Über. Some,  like Cherry, the we-come-to-you car wash service that recently folded, do not.

Recently I got a promotional e-mail advertising Instacart, a new grocery delivery business. Their business plan is simple: you go to their site, pick out groceries from Safeway or Trader Joe’s, and they deliver your order to you. You can pay $15 for delivery within an hour, or $4 for delivery within a one-hour window that you specify. LivingSocial was offering $30 worth of groceries for $15 (disclaimer: referral link), so I jumped on the deal and headed to their site to place an order… or two. 

Using the site was painless. I had to plug in a credit card and delivery address, then I was able to browse and search for the things I wanted to order. I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but I had no trouble finding all the stuff I wanted. I ordered a basket of groceries from each of the two stores: chicken pot pies, honey-wheat bread, sliced peppered turkey breast, sliced pepper jack cheese, and bananas from Trader Joe’s and milk, Jimmy Dean sausage, red beans, yogurt, pears, and orange juice from Safeway. I scheduled both orders for delivery between 7 and 8 pm, got an order confirmation text, and went on about my business. Here’s what happened:

  • 7:44: sure enough, my phone dinged to tell me that TJ’s was out of pot pies and bread, but that my order would arrive at around 8:10. That was followed almost instantly by another text message telling me that Safeway was out of yogurt.
  • 8:19: I got an e-mail from Jen saying that they were running a bit behind and that I should expect delivery between 8:30 and 8:45.
  • 8:23 I got another text advising me of an 8:45 delivery time. Since none of these e-mails or text messages told me which order, I couldn’t tell which they were for, but I guess most of their customers don’t place multiple concurrent orders.
  • 8:31: An e-mail arrived with a nicely designed receipt for my TJ’s order. It clearly showed what I ordered, what was out of stock, and what the total amount charged to my credit card would be.
  • 8:35: the delivery driver called to tell me he had both my orders. I picked them up, tipped him $5, and that was that.

When I unpacked the groceries, I noted that they’d gotten everything right with a minor exception: I got a can of diced tomatoes and a container of spices that I didn’t order. I wasn’t charged for them, but I imagine some other customer will be wondering where their spaghetti-sauce ingredients got off to.

What did all this cost? Well, the groceries cost their regular in-store prices, meaning I lost out on any Safeway loyalty-card discounts, as well as any in-store specials or sales. Your first order delivery charge is waived; the second order cost $3.99. I consider that money exceptionally well spent given the amount of time it saved me: no looking for a parking space, no shopping-cart jousting in the store, and no waiting in line. Instacart definitely rewards advance planning; I’ll probably wait until I have a larger single order, and I’ll use the notes field on the order form to specify substitutions (e.g. it would have been fine if they’d brought me a different flavor of yogurt instead of none at all).

Overall this was a good first experience, and I’ll definitely be using Instacart again.


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First two weeks with the Lumia 920

A few quick notes jotted down from my two-week exploration with the Lumia 920 as my primary phone:

  • LTE is awesome, and the WP8 tethering app works flawlessly, with none of the flakiness of the corresponding iOS app.
  • There’s no TaxiMagic app for WP8, so I grabbed my iPhone 4 this morning to book a taxi. It felt tiny compared to the 920.. but it also felt terribly slow. Granted, the iPhone 4 is two hardware generations (at least) behind the 920, but I’d always previously been satisfied with its speed.
  • The Bluetooth crackling I complained about seems to be a bug in the Nokia Music app; it doesn’t happen when using Xbox Music or the built-in music app.
  • The Mac sync tool is buggy. Really, really buggy. This is my biggest current frustration with the phone, although since it automatically uploads pictures to SkyDrive at least I can grab photos without too much hassle. It occurred to me that I might want to use the Windows sync tool in BootCamp instead of relying on the Mac client, but then I’d have to give up iPhoto and iTunes integration.
  • Only today did I discover the very cool Groups feature, which allows you to see all status updates for a subset of your contacts from a single tile.
  • The WP Evernote app seems to have a bug where, when you edit a note, you get a blank white screen with no note contents. I’m not sure what causes this or whether it’s known, as I haven’t really had time to dig into it yet.
  • Nokia’s Panorama app is superb: it is super easy to take panoramic pictures with great alignment, through the expedient of showing a hollow circle that you align with a solid concentric circle. This works really well– here’s an example of a panorama I shot at the I-20 rest area in Vicksburg.

Although I briefly considered swapping the 920 for an HTC 8X, I decided not to for three primary reasons. First, the 920’s screen looks better to me– blacks and colors both look better on the 920. Second, Nokia’s bundled (and supported) apps are better– Panorama, SmartShot, Nokia Music, and Nokia Drive are great examples of how they’re adding value for their users. Third, the 920’s wireless charging feature would greatly simplify my phone usage– or at least it has that potential, once Nokia ships the plates.

Oh, and as long as I’m fantasizing about future developments: it would be great to get a full-fledged Starbucks app one day… sigh.


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