Mike's Blue Ribbon Awards of Fabulous Finds

A Blue Ribbon Award

Every now and then I come across a product or service that I am really happy with -- based on its price, performance and/or technical merit (I'm impressed by actual substance here, not fancy packaging or sales pitches). Here are a few of the more notable (and in some cases unusual as well) ones that I recommend. Unless otherwise noted, I have purchased them for myself in the past. However, there is no guarantee that current/future versions will perform as well as the one I obtained when I made my purchase. Furthermore, as always, your subjective valuation may differ from mine. On a few companies below, I've utilized affiliation links so that you can throw a few bucks my way if you find a particular recommendation helpful, but I have not otherwise been compensated for any endorsement here.

Automotive

Pirelli Tires    The Pirelli Logo  The Pirelli P400 Touring Tire

Many Americans, unlike typical Europeans, buy tires based, in no small part, on price. Being price sensitive with regard to tires is, IMHO, a mistake because the frictional surface of a car's tires is perhaps the single most crucial factor that determines braking and cornering performance. Furthermore, there is a substantial difference between the grip of the best and worst tires -- a difference that often increases in wet or icy conditions under which braking ability becomes even more critical. How may times could an accident have been completely avoided if the driver could have stopped just a few tens of feet shorter? How much would that driver have been willing to pay to get that precious distance just prior to impact?

For goodness sake, save money on gasoline, save on car washes, save on oil, save on everything except tires. Instead, buy tires based on their performance and let price be a secondary consideration. A good source of objective data is the tire tests Consumer Reports magazine conducts every few years. Many years ago, they top rated the Pirelli P400 Touring Tire (sadly, now no longer produced) which was available in the 75R15 aspect ratio and rim size I needed for my old Ford. Based on that, I bought a set. I was utterly amazed at how the Pirelli synthetic rubber tread gripped and gave predicable handling (they give a "warning" rather than break loose abruptly at their traction limit), especially in wet weather. After that experience, I could never have went back to a lesser tire. Over many years of use, I have never encountered any problem with manufacturing defects (knots, going-out-round, etc.) with a Pirelli tire. Furthermore, the price is quite reasonable and in some cases, better than that of a competitor's inferior offerings.

My biggest problem with Pirelli has always been finding a place that offers them. On the net, the Tire Rack is a great place to check prices and user feedback as well as to make purchases (they deliver via truck to select local shops that agree to serve as "drop off" points in hopes of getting the installation business). Locally, I like NTB because they generally do a very good job with balancing and avoid the use of impact wretches when tightening the lug nuts.

RockAuto   The RockAuto Logo

There's always been a lot of mention of RockAuto on the net. I have generally preferred to buy most of my auto parts from local stores. However, based on my experience with RockAuto, my opinion on this is changing. They have a huge number of items in stock. Very often their prices are vastly better than those of local stores (in some cases by a factor of 2 or more) and they ship quickly and at low cost. With the ever increasing number of parts, it is becoming quite common for local stores to have to special order parts anyway. With mail order, there are the additional shipping charges to return cores, but even when this is considered, RockAuto's deal is usually the winner.

Stop&Go Tire Plugger    The Stop&Go Tire Plugger

A lowly nail can cause quite a bit of anguish when it punctures a tire. Fixing this all to common of occurrences normally involves removing the wheel, dismounting the tire and then repairing the problem with a plug/patch which is installed on the inside of the tire. That is a lot of effort and expense. Furthermore, it is not possible to do this procedure in the field. Consider the innovative Tire Plugger from Stop&Go. This remarkable device is capable of pressing a rubber "rivet" into the hole from the outside of the tire. Incredibly, it is able to do this even though the head of the rivet is inside the tire -- so as to make it virtually impossible for the rivet to be pulled out!

I have used this device a couple of times and can testify that it lives up to its claims. In one incident, I was bold enough to successfully inject a rivet with the wheel still on the vehicle and with the tire under pressure. (You do have to rotate the wheel, by moving the vehicle forward or backward a little, to get the hole to a position with enough room to work in. It may not be possible to get enough room around the puncture area with all vehicles, especially those with little clearance around the wheels.) Strictly speaking, it is supposed to be only a temporary repair, but I've driven on this "temporary" repair for tens of thousands of miles without problem. The tire plugger gun is well made -- it is a heavy, sturdy and quality tool. The side pressure on that rubber rivet is so great, that it would likely hold even in the absence of the rivet head and/or rubber cement.

curves sign After the repair, there may be a slight air leak which would require air to be added to the tire at intervals of weeks/months. This can be overcome with the use of a little bit of a can of one of those liquid tire sealers -- which will have the added benefit of gluing the rivet on the inside as well.

The Tire Plugger costs less than $50. There is also a newer version, the "Pocket Tire Plugger" which needs less clearance to operate and thus is designed to better handle on-vehicle repairs. I have never used the pocket version, so I don't know if it lives up to the original -- which is a tough act to follow.

Computer

A2 Hosting Web Hosting   A2 Hosting Logo

If you want to have exclusive control of a web site including multiple email accounts that you can create and name as your wish, then the free email accounts and ISP provided services might not be enough for you. The best way to get control over your net presence is by owning your own domain and obtaining the services from a web hosting company. Web hosting is surprisingly affordable these days.

In my case, I wanted an IMAP server so that I could use a real email client (rather than to be confined to web-only email access) and keep messages on the server so that I would see the same mailbox where ever I happened to login from. (This is unlike the simpler and more common POP protocol where all the messages have to be download to the PC.) Furthermore, I wanted secure access to the IMAP server via SSL so that my passwords would not flow all over the net in clear text.

I found what I was looking for and more with a company called A2 Hosting. Their feature list is impressive, only part of which is mentioned here:

You can really do some serious stuff with all these capabilities. However, their customer service and tech support is perhaps the most impressive of all. They are very eager to help and please -- not to mention technically inclined and knowledgeable unlike some of the people who work for some of the MS Windows based braindead shops out there. In the past, I had trouble with the fact that my ISP was filtering port 25 which I needed to connect to A2 Hosting's SMTP (outgoing mail) server. I emailed A2 Hosting's tech support about this and they opened up another port, 2525, just for me. Another time their IMAP server was set to limit the number of simultaneous connections (to prevent a denial of service attack), but the limit was too low to allow for full use of all the IMAP accounts. After I mentioned this to them, they raised the limit beyond what I required. They are good to work with, are anxious to please, and know what they are doing.

So, if you need web hosting, I highly recommend them.

WireStar Dialup Access   The WireStar Logo

WireStar (formally known as Dialup.CC) is the best national dialup ISP I've run across. Less than $8 a month gets you unlimited (well, almost unlimited -- using it as a continuously connected dedicated line is not allowed) net access. The connect speeds are among the best I've had. Even if you have high bandwidth net access, a national dialup account can be useful when you travel or to serve as a backup ISP. WireStar does require an electronic payment method (e.g., credit or debit cards, e-check, etc.).

The Firefox Browser   Firefox - the browser you can trust

Why on earth would anyone want to put up with the security problems and hassles of Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE)? Firefox is a better browser because of these features:

If you haven't already, do yourself a favor and see what all the fuss is about (and why Microsoft has been losing market share to Firefox). ;)

Go Daddy Domain Registration   The Go Daddy Logo

Want to own your own domain? It is easy, inexpensive and fun. Although their name is strange, Go Daddy has positioned themselves to be the Walmart of registrars. Their prices are much better than that of their competitors in the "old school" of registrars. Their service is excellent. Go Daddy also offers web hosting. However, I do not have any experience with them on that as I prefer the Linux-based A2 Hosting (mentioned above) for hosting.

NEC DVD+-RW Drives NEC DVDRW Drive at  Newegg.com Logo

After having suffered through the offerings of Optorite and Toshiba, I finally found a brand of DVD+-RW drive that I am happy with, NEC (now joined with Sony, called Optiarc) and LG Electronics are widely considered to be the best brands of DVD+-RW drives. I am very happy with my NEC 3550A. Even though these older NEC models are out of production, you can still sometimes pickup a new one on Ebay. The benefits of NEC drives include:

My only complaint with my NEC 3550 is that, under growisofs, if I specify a lower write speed, the drive uses that speed for future reads (until reset) thus slowing down burn verification (this happens with stock as well as Liggy and Dee's firmware). Hopefully, this annoyance will be fixed in future versions of firmware and/or growisofs. Actually, this really isn't much of a problem because, with the NEC drives, I don't have to lower the write speed to get reliable burns as I often had to do with other brands. Lastly, if you have a choice, I generally consider DVD+R media to be better than DVD-R because the former has embedded timing marks which makes writing more accurate. Avoid the noname brand media (Windata, etc.) as these have been described as being "landfill quality".

Finally, note that "OEM" drives do not come with software, cables or mounting hardware. However, included software is almost never as good as that of the full version anyway.

Printer Toner and Ink Cartridge Supplies   The Canon NX Toner Cartridge

Refilling/renewing your own toner or ink cartridges can not only save a lot of money, it can result in better print quality if higher quality toner/ink and/or internal parts are installed. I've found this has been especially true with my older laser printers because toner cartridge rebuilders often skimp by using cheap toner or reusing certain worn internal parts such as magnetic rollers and recovery blades.

Of course, it takes some degree of mechanical skill to renew a cartridge and some ink cartridges employ anti-refill measures (which will have to be defeated with special reset chips, etc.). At any rate, for those of you who are interested, I have found the following sources of cartridge refilling supplies to be of help:

Ink-Discount
offers a wide selection of toners and inks, as well as some internal cartridge parts such as wiper blades, at excellent prices.
NuPrint Technologies
offers recoated magnetic rollers, doctor blades and OPC drums. Their prices are excellent. They will even rebuild your old parts if you send them in.
Partsmart
is a good source of new cartridge parts such as magnetic rollers and doctor blades at good prices. The also offer some internal printer parts such as fuser parts and assemblies.
LaserLand (aka Mr. UserFriendly)
Sells unique items that simply can't be found anywhere else such as replacement recovery blades. Be aware that their web site is a tad hard to navigate (their product index is here) and they won't bend their minimum order requirements.

For internal printer parts:

Fixyourownprinter.com
is a first rate technical support site for printer problems. They also are a good source of used printer parts and offer repair services.
The Printer Works
probably offers the largest selection of printer parts in the world. Their site features what is perhaps the world's best printer illustrated parts catalogs.

TaxACT Tax Software    The TaxACT Logo

I really wish someone would come out with an open source tax software package ([rant] or better yet, do away with the income tax altogether because all it is being used for is to pay interest on the national "debt" to privately owned central banks which loaned money that was created out of thin air to our government [/rant]). Until the revolution, I recommend TaxACT. I used to buy the "mainstream" tax software Turbo Tax, but it started getting more expensive and they wanted to require registration and so I went looking for alternatives. The standard version of TaxACT is even free to use online. TaxACT deluxe is an inexpensive, self contained, light weight download (even over dialup). It's a comprehensive application that offers every IRS schedule you may need. The ultimate version also includes a state of your choice, at a price that is still lower than other federal only products. With all versions of TaxACT, there is no limit to how many computers or returns you can use it for.

Usenet-News "No nonsense, just Quality Usenet" and The Ngroups.NET Logo Usenet

It takes an extraordinary amount of bandwidth and processing power to run a Usenet (newsgroup) server these days -- especially if you want fairly complete newsgroup coverage. In fact, there are now only a few companies that can muster the resources needed to properly do so. For this reason, many, if not most, discount ISPs do not provide newsgroup access. Furthermore, many ISPs that do provide Usenet access have servers that will not retain posts for very long. In some cases, they even begin to drop posts. This is a real shame because Usenet can be an incredibly useful resource of near-real-time help. If you want real Usenet access, it is generally a good idea to obtain it directly from a provider that specializes in this service.

One of the best kept secrets is the value of Usenet block accounts. By far the biggest cost to a Usenet provider is the bandwidth involved. So, it makes sense to "charge by the gig" rather than by the month (as most providers do). However, at the end of the month the unused part of the quota is lost. However, with a block account, you pay only for the data you actually use and so the savings can be substantial.

The best deal I know of in Usenet service is the lifetime block download accounts of Usenet-News. Depending on your usage, their offerings can be orders of magnitude cheaper than those of other providers. For example, if you mainly subscribe to text-based newsgroups, a mere ten dollars can buy you years of service. Be sure to read their FAQ and understand that that some payment processors (e.g., PayPal) have policies that place limits on what newsgroups you can have access to.

If you want a conventional monthly account, these are offered by Usenet-News' sister company, Ngroups.net.

attention signWarning: Beware of Usenet providers that censor, especially with respect to discussions about the Usenet providers themselves, and/or try to control the content of your posts. This is a dirty little secret of the Usenet world. For example, I once had an account with Newsguy. One day, they began requiring that posters have a signature or otherwise Newsguy would automatically add one containing an advertisement. It was not possible to disable this new "feature". I got upset over this because one of the reasons I was paying for Usenet service in the first place was to avoid the intrusions of advertisements in my posts (and I did not want to use a signature line at the time). When I posted (or I should say, tried to post) to complain about this new policy (nothing obscene, I basically said that they should "stay out of the content of my posts"), within an hour they closed my account without warning. I didn't even get a "see ya" email. In retrospect, they did me a favor because with my new provider I'm getting better service at a lower cost.

Some Usenet providers are rumored to refuse to carry posts on their system that originate from people they have had disagreements with in the past regardless of the content of the (current) posts. Many people are unaware that they are not able to see all the posts in a newsgroup because of such "Usenet politics". You can see threads about this if you search Google Groups for terms such as "Usenet", "ISP", "provider" and/or "censorship". Of course, I understand the need to curtail illegal or spam activity, but many Usenet providers have taken it upon themselves to limit what can be said about the quality of their service. Before you you sign up with a Usenet provider be sure to investigate their censorship history as well as their policy regarding the appending of advertisements to the content of your posts.

Tools and Household

Click4Prepaid Rechargeable Phone Cards   The Click4Prepaid Logo

Click4Prepaid offers a lot of features and low prices for its prepaid calling card service. Using their 1-888 access number gets you a 5¢/min rate within the US (including intrastate). Even better is the 3.5¢/min rate that they offer when using their local access numbers in the major US cities. International rates are also very competitive. There are no minimums or connect fees. They also offer 4¢/min rate internet access which is great for a backup net dialup connection or to check email while traveling. The line quality varies, especially when calling from/to smaller cities, but they have been improving this in recent years. Click4prepaid has a surprisingly generous referral program.

If you don't want prepaid phone service, but still want to save some money on your long distance bill, you might be interested in 10-10phonerates.com which compares 10-10 "dial around" services. With so many choices, there is no longer a need to keep an assigned long distance carrier on your phone line. The 10-10PhoneRates Dial Around FAQ has some good information on dial around services.

Edible Landscaping   The Edible Landscaping Logo

Edible Landscaping is a high quality nursery that ships plants in pots (not bare root as is typically done by most mail order nurseries) year round. They have a large selection of traditional, as well as some of the more obscure and exotic, fruits including figs, hardy kiwis, jujubes, paw paws, peaches, pears, apples and mulberries. The varieties they offer have been tested based on ease-of-care and ability to resist disease. I've had very good results with their plants. The only negative point is that, because they produce all of their own stock, if a back order occurs be prepared to wait quite some time before the back order ships. If this undesirable, I suggest that you verify that all of your items are in stock at the time you place your order.

   Electronix Express Logo

Electronix Express is an unusual supplier of electronics parts and equipment. They don't offer everything under the sun like Digikey and Jameco, but some of their items aren't available anywhere else. They have a large selection of multimeters and test equipment. My main complaint is that they sometimes take their time shipping (probably because some items are only procured after a customer places an order for them). A lead time of a week or two is not uncommon.

Harbor Freight Tools   The Harbor Freight Tools Logo

Harbor Freight Tools offers an incredible selection of tools at unbelievably low prices. Most of their items are low cost imports, so quality may be below that of the "high end". However, the value is unreal in that you often may find that types of tools you previously thought were out of reach (sand blasters, paint guns, welders, air tools, generators, etc.) are quite affordable. Replacement part and shipping costs are very reasonable. They do have many retail stores around the country, so you might want to check if there is one in your area.

Oxalic Acid   A can of Zud

Oxalic acid based products such as Zud and Bar Keeper's Friend are absolutely amazing when it comes to removing rust stains from porcelain, stainless steel and glass. A chemical reaction turns iron oxide (rust) into a water soluble compound allowing stains to be literally washed away. Zud is a stronger product than Bar Keeper's Friend, but the latter has milder abrasives and is often easier to find in stores. As oxalic acid is used as a wood bleach, you can often buy it full strength in furniture and wood finishing supply stores, but use it with caution as it is extremely toxic.

However, for removing rust itself (rather than just stains of it) from metal, it is much better to use a phosphoric acid based product such as Rust Mort.

Robertshaw 400 Series Mechanical Thermostats   The RobertShaw 400 Series Thermostat

Sometimes I feel that people don't value simplicity as much as they should. Consider the rise of digital home heating and cooling thermostats. Today's thermostats often spout a plethora of features, but often have designs so botched as to cause users to yearn for the simpler technologies of the past. I've went through several digital thermostats and suffered from such "features" as:

I have little doubt that many families silently endure undesirable temperatures because they so dread changing the thermostat settings. This is practically a given for those who are members of the "pre-VCR" generations.

To be fair, there are issues with the traditional mechanical thermostats -- mainly designs that lack precise temperature graduations (which makes setting the desired temperature a guessing game) or that are not sensitive enough to temperature variations.

The need for programability is another matter. If you can live without it (or in my case, have come to actively loathe it), then may I recommend the 400 series of mechanical thermostats from the Robertshaw Thermostat Line. These thermostats have a number of features that make them real winners:

The datasheets for the Robertshaw 400 series thermostats and their subbases (the subbase is the part with the heat/off/cool and auto/on fan switches) can downloaded here as robertshaw_400_therm.pdf (PDF, 403K) and robertshaw_400_subbase.pdf (PDF, 433K), respectively. Assuming you need heating and cooling and are using a standard 24VAC system, I recommend:

The above models have everything you need including the subbase and decorative wall plate. Choose a heat anticipation rating that matches the current draw of your heat control (gas valve or electric relay). As I tend to prefer a longer cycle interval, I dislike heat anticipation (the early end of the heating cycle to compensate for the heat retained in the heat exchanger) so I tend to favor the 40x-421 series. I also prefer the appearance of the white models over that of the beige. However, the former is more difficult to find "in stock". Most distributors that carry Robertshaw products (Robertshaw's parent site has a distributor locater) will be happy to do a special order for you. Some online distributors I found that carry Robertshaw products include:

Electric Supplies Online
has good prices, and also has an excellent page on the 400 series.
Patriot-Supply
offers just about everything with good prices.

Prices typically run in the $40 range.

Simple Green   A bottle of Simple Green

Simple Green is a powerful, yet safe and biodegradable, degreaser/detergent. I often use it to clean car parts (or my hands after such jobs) as well as in an ultrasonic cleaner. It works where other cleaners fail. It has a fresh, clean sassafras-like scent, which makes it great for cleaning air and vacuum filters. Beware that Simple Green can "clean" the printing off of stickers, including those on license plates! Also, even though it is non-toxic, if sprayed as an aerosol and inhaled, it can irritate the lungs resulting in coughing.

SOS Light Bulbs   The SOS Light Bulbs Logo

Looking for unusual light bulbs? Want a better deal on the types you buy? SOS Light Bulbs offers an unbelievable selection of light bulbs. The have everything including instrument bulbs, germicidal lights, stage lights and compact fluorescents -- I didn't even know that such a thing as a 55W daylight compact fluorescent existed until I saw it on SOS's site. Their prices and service are second to none.

Widget Supply   The Widget Supply Logo

Widget Supply carries small, inexpensive, hard-to-find tools for precision work. They've got a great selection and their prices, including shipping charges, are very reasonable.