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Google Play / YouTube Canadian online movie rental review

Almost 5 years ago, I discovered iTunes online movie rentals and it seemed like a revolutionary new way to rent movies. For a comparable cost to in-store rentals ($4 or $5) you could stream a good quality (standard or high definition) movie without having to go to the store or return the DVD. (As a side note, if you live near a rental kiosk like QUICKflick, you can rent a movie for $2 or $3!) Nowadays, retail movie rental stores are almost extinct, and there are many more online options.

Before I cancelled my cable TV subscription completely, I had Telus TV, which I found was the most convenient way to rent movies directly through the TV without having to worry about lag issues. If you currently have Telus TV, I would recommend checking that out.

As someone who doesn’t have a Wii, Xbox, or other intermediate movie rental device, I’m back to renting movies on the computer and connecting it to my TV. In addition to iTunes, website options now include CinemaNow, Cineplex, and Google Play (which I prefer to incorrectly just call “YouTube Movies”). If you’re not as interested in new releases, you could also consider subscribing to Netflix. CinemaNow, Cineplex, and Google Play all cost about the same amount as iTunes, and sadly the price hasn’t improved over the past 5 years: $4 to $5 for most movies. I haven’t tried CinemaNow yet, but I have tried Cineplex and found the streaming reliability to be mediocre. You might consider trying Cineplex if you want to earn SCENE points.

As for Google Play, renting is incredibly straightforward. An advantage over iTunes is that you don’t have to use any special software — it streams in your browser just like a normal YouTube video.

Step 1 is to pick the movie and select standard or high definition.

Google Play rental step 1

Step 2 is to use Google Wallet to pay with a credit card.

Google Play rental step 2

Once you’ve paid for the rental, you can start streaming it at any time within the next 30 days. Once you’ve “hit play” you have 48 hours to finish watching it. This is the same policy as iTunes, CinemaNow, and Cineplex.

Selection on Google Play is OK. It appears to have the same new releases as the other online movie rental services, but it’s hit and miss regarding older titles. Of course, if you’re looking for something in particular, you can browse the collection of all of the websites before deciding where to rent from!

Headset adapter: 3.5mm double headphone + microphone jack to single jack

I’m used to laptops and other computers having two sound plugs: one for the microphone and one for the headphones / speakers. Unfortunately, when I got a Lenovo T430s laptop, it came with a unified 3.5mm jack for both audio in and out. When standard headphones are plugged in, audio out works but you have to rely on the internal laptop microphone.

I already had a couple of headsets that I liked and didn’t want to purchase new ones. However, an adapter to convert dual audio jacks to a single audio jack was surprisingly difficult to find in stores. The only place I could find that sold such a converter was online. It’s marketed as a “smartphone” adapter. At about $16 US including shipping it was well worth it. It works exactly as advertised, and the plugs are very sturdy. There also appears to be a Canadian online store for the same product.

Adapter for 3.5mm headphone + microphone jacks to unified jack

This problem could have probably been avoided if I had a USB headset to start, but there are advantages to having a standard analog 3.5mm plug, such as being able to re-use the headset for other devices such as an MP3 player.

Non short code TransLink Next Bus

TransLink, the Metro Vancouver transit authority, has run a very popular Next Bus service since 2007. In short, you send a text message with the number of the bus stop you are at to the 33333 short code and you get a text message back to tell you when the next buses will arrive. My friends have found it very useful but I’ve actually never directly used it because my cell phone service provider has never supported short codes.

Wind Mobile, Mobilicity, Speak Out Wireless, Petro Canada, Chatr, and other smaller wireless service providers either do not support short codes or charge extra to use them (on top of your normal SMS plan). TransLink has been repeatedly asked to provide a non short code access number to Next Bus but they say they have no plans to provide one. As an alternative, they do have a useful mobile site, but of course not everybody has a data plan.

I can understand that 33333 is incredibly easy to remember, but it is not entirely necessary if repeat users can store a normal phone number in their contact list. Also, it doesn’t provide any cross-regional advantage (that is, the ability to send an SMS to one number even if you’re in a different area code) if all of its users are in the same area. Adding a normal phone number should be quite cheap for TransLink to do (especially compared to monthly short code fees), since their back-end is already set up.

I’ve set up a phone number — xxx-xxx-xxxx — to provide such access. It acts like any normal number, so if you are on a pay as you go service, you will be charged for a normal text message, and if you have an unlimited texting plan, it should be free.

How it works:

Send a text message containing the 5-digit stop number and get a response such as this:

[112] 8:46am* 9:01am* 9:16am* [116] 9:02am- 9:28am 9:58am*

Send a text message containing the 5-digit stop number and a bus route number (example: 52606 112) and get a similar response but only for that bus:

[112] 8:46am* 9:01am* 9:16am*

The estimated time might be appended with one of the following characters:

* indicates scheduled time
- indicates delay
+ indicates bus is running ahead of schedule
C indicates bus or stop is cancelled

I’ve tested those two use cases, but I cannot provide any official guarantees, and if you find any problems with it, let me know!

Although I find the Next Bus idea in general to be smart and complex, there is nothing particularly smart or complex about how my service is built: it uses the free TransLink API and the Tropo SMS service (which costs me a few cents per message).

If many people start to use the phone number I’ve provided, the usage will cost me more money than I can afford. Hopefully TransLink will add its own normal phone number or some generous donor can step in before that happens!

Update: My company Mugo Web is now backing this service.
Update: You can now call the same number and get bus schedules via voice. See this page for more information.
January 2, 2018 update After 4 years and thousands of users, my company has decided to stop providing this service. We contacted TransLink to give them the code behind it, but did not receive a response.

Are FareSavers recyclable? Partially

FareSavers are the prepaid transit tickets bought in packets of 10 for use on Metro Vancouver’s buses and SkyTrains.

I quickly asked a handful of people about whether FareSavers are recyclable and they were all unsure, and all of them, including me, got it wrong.

According to TransLink, the outer booklet is recyclable:

FareSaver outer booklet

… but the individual tickets are not due to the magnetic stripe.

FareSaver individual ticket

I suppose you could tear off the magnetic stripe to throw away and recycle the rest.

Extra related note: if you’re coming back to Vancouver via the YVR airport and planning to take the Canada Line SkyTrain, be sure to bring a FareSaver or purchase a booklet or pass at the 7-Eleven in the airport; the machines at the airport charge an extra $5 for an individual ticket.

Square stainless steel water bottle review: opens at the top and the bottom

Would you pay $45 for a really good reusable water bottle?

Clean Bottle Square

The Square is a stainless steel bottle, and the main feature that makes it different is that it opens at the top and the bottom. This makes it much easier to clean. It holds about 560mL (20 ounces). Currently (February 2013), you can only purchase it online.

Square bottle parts

This is what the bottom of the bottle looks like when the bottom cap is twisted off:

Square bottle bottom

Clean Bottle, which is the company that makes The Square, makes a cheaper, $10 plastic bottle that also opens at the top and the bottom.

The concept is rather brilliant yet simple. Clean Bottle owns a patent on the design; on the one hand, this is fair, but on the other hand every reusable bottle could benefit from that! Cleaning regular water bottles is hard because of the small-ish spout and the inability to reach to the bottom. It can get quite disgusting at the bottom of a bottle. There are of course alternative cleaning solutions, such as using a long-necked scrubber:

Long-necked scrubber

The square design of the bottle is also intended to help it pack better and prevents the bottle from rolling on the ground when it is dropped. There are other self-proclaimed features about the bottle, and you can find out more about them in the promotional video, which might seem unintentionally farcical.

There are a couple of potential drawbacks regarding The Square. The durability of the plastic elements — the lip and the bottom — is questionable. However, it’s supposedly “guaranteed for life”.

Also, due to the fact that the inside of the bottle has square corners, it is difficult to get the last drops of water out.

Square bottle top

The Square is indeed easy to clean, it’s comfortable to port around, and it fits in car and side pocket cup holders. If you care a lot about reusable water bottles or if you’re a hipster, this could be the bottle for you. Most people probably think that $45 is a crazy amount to pay for a bottle, but arguably it is still a bargain if you compare its cost to regularly buying throwaway water bottles.