Tuesday, April 15, 2008

FM transmitters or cassette adapters?

Summary: Pros and cons of using FM transmitters and cassette adapters for listening to digital music in a car.

I do not get auto manufacturers. At the time when Ford is promoting SYNC (voice-activated audio) and BMW is pushing iDrive (entertainment system, which is so high tech that few drivers manage to master it), it is hard to find a popular model (Toyota, Honda, etc) which comes with a USB or AUX line-in port. If you want to listen to digital music on the go, you'll either need to buy an expensive upgrade, install an after-market audio system, or use an add-on, such as FM transmitter or cassette adapter.

I did not want to mess with my factory-installed stereo, and being too cheap to buy an overpriced upgrade, I tried my luck with FM transmitters. First, I wooted a couple of AudioBugs ATB-350 made by Aerielle (they seem identical to certain Phillips, Kensington, and iRiver models). I also bought another cheap model from, I think, Meritline (unlike AudioBug, which could be set on any FM frequency within the common range, this model supported just a handful of preset frequencies). I have been using an AudioBug FM transmitter for about six months until it suddenly died. Having had other problems with AudioBug before (one of the transmitters I bought was defective, so I had to send it to the manufacturer for a replacement), I decided not to push my luck and bought a cassette adapter (actually, I tried a couple of different models). Here is how I would compare these devices.

FM transmitter has a better form factor: when plugged into a cigarette lighter, it is more pleasing to the eyes (the wires of a cassette adapter hanging from the car stereo look gross). In all other respects, FM transmitters mostly disappoint.

First, in urban areas, it is hard to find an FM frequency not taken by a radio station. Even in a such semi-rural location as Sacramento, CA, I could not find a single available frequency. The one I ended up using was free most of the time, but not always (when it was not free, the station signal was weak enough to be overtaken by the signal from my FM transmitter). A word of caution: if you decide to buy an FM transmitter, never get one with a limited number of presets. The other one I had was totally useless because none of its built-in frequencies worked in my area.

After finding an available frequency, synchronizing your transmitter with the car radio becomes a challenge. First, the LCD of a typical FM transmitter is really tiny and, when the transmitter is plugged into the cigarette lighter, it is not clearly visible from a normal driving position. Switching the active frequency when driving is only possible from the back seat of the car and requires either an outside help or Mr. Bean's driving skills. With cassette adapters, this is not an issue.

Once you synchronize the frequency between the FM transmitter and radio, you will find out that the audio signal is rather weak. To get to a decent level, you must either raise the volume of the car's stereo or the volume of your digital music player (raising the volume of the music player beyond certain threshold, about 70-80% of the max, will cause sound clipping). Cassette adapters normally provide a stronger signal; in my non-scientific experience, it is about 20% stronger.

An FM transmitter may look nice in a cigarette lighter, but when plugged in, it will not let you charge the audio player unless you use a splitter (finding a splitter that works is a challenge; none of the cheap ones I tried worked). When using a cassette adapter, you can always charge your device (I find this very handy).

The only negative aspect of cassette adapters (other than aesthetics) is a clicking noise made, I assume, by the tape rolling mechanism. The noise made by the first unit I bought was so pronounced that I had to return it. The second model was quieter, but still I can hear the noise at low volumes; it does not bother me much, though. I'm not sure if more expensive cassette adapters (my model is very cheap) have this problem.

The bottom line: for listening to digital music in a car, get yourself a cassette adapter; just do not get the cheapest model and if not satisfied, exchange it for a different one. If you cannot use a cassette adapter (say, your car stereo does not have a cassette player), get an FM transmitter which allows you to tune to any FM frequency (not just to a limited set of frequencies).

Additional references:
How to Listen to Digital Music in Your Car

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Email etiquette: how to recall a message

Summary: Five courtesy rules of email message recall applicable to Outlook users (but not only).

It happened to me again: I sent an email to a (reasonably) large group of people and then realized that I forgot to include an important detail. What do I do now?

I could do the following:
  1. Send an updated e-mail containing original message along with additions.
  2. Send an update with a reference to the original message (not including the original message).
  3. Use Outlook's capability to recall the message and replace it with a new one.
Because I sent the message to my co-workers (all located in the same time zone) during lunch time, I decided to revoke the message and replace it with a new one. So I did.

Well, despite my best intentions, I did not do it right again, because several recipients had already opened the original message and weren't sure whether they needed to finish reading it or start over. Since this happened to me more than once, I thought I would define a few guidelines for doing it right. I hope they will help you as well.

Here are the five rules of email revocation etiquette I recommend:
  • Don't send the message right after completing the last sentence.
    Unless the message is urgent, do not send it immediately after writing. Give yourself a 5-10 minute break, then re-read it from beginning to end (do not rush), check hyperlinks (if you use hyperlinks, click every one of them to verify that they point to the correct sites), and only then send it.
  • Pick the right option to recall/resend the message.
    OK, you did not follow the first rule (or you did but then realized that you still needed to change something), so now you need to decide how to send an update: either by recalling the message, sending an update, or sending an update with the original message. First, keep in mind that the Outlook's message recall may not always work (see the Will my recall be successful? section). Second, consider time. If you sent the original message more than a few minutes ago (unless you did it in the middle of the night and all recipients live in your time zone), message recall will do little good. I suggest that you recall email only within the first 5-10 minutes of sending the original message or when there is a high probability that the majority (I would say 95%) of recipients did not have a chance to open it. If it's likely that people has already started reading the message, don't try to recall it, just send an update.
  • Modify the subject line.
    Keep in mind that message recall may work for some recipients and not for others. If you send an update (either via recall/replace or standard resend), indicate that this message is an update. Include an update indicator in the subject line, e.g. you can add the word [UPDATED] (with brackets) in the beginning or at the end of the subject phrase, such as
    Subject: [UPDATED] New training requirements
    Subject: New training requirements [UPDATED]
  • Explain the changes.
    To help those who have already read the original email, add a sentence (or brief paragraph) in the beginning of the message stating that this message is an update; describe the nature of the update. If the original message contained errors (e.g. a broken hyperlink), fix the original message (the part which was wrong). For example, you can start the message with the following paragraph:
    [UPDATE]In case you received my first message: the URL of the training company XYZ was wrong. I'm resending this message with the correct URL. Sorry for confusion.[/UPDATE]
    When adding new information (say, a new hyperlink), you can either include it in-line or add it in the beginning, e.g.:
    [UPDATE]In case you received my first message: I forgot to include the URL of the training company XYZ, which is: http://UrlOfXyz. Sorry about that.[/UPDATE]
    If you add new information in-line, make it stand out (if you use rich text or HTML formatting, mark it using a different font style or some other indicator), such as:
    Here is the list of approved training companies:
  • Be careful with them attachments.
    If the original message contained attachments, be very careful: do not include very large attachments in the update because it will take space on the server and fill recipients' mail boxes with duplicate data. If the attachments are reasonably small, you can assume that (or ask) recipients (to) delete the original message.
Additional references:
How to use the recall message feature in Outlook 2000 or in Outlook 2002