No vans allowed: 3 affordable family cars you should consider.

Of course there are mainstays that everybody looks at when they need a new “family” vehicle. Most people don’t break out of the box. And I get it, I really do. If you’re willing to drive a van, you get a Dodge Caravan if you’re budget is tight, or a Honda Odyssey or a Toyota Sienna if you have a little more to spend. And if you’re not a fan of the van, you’re almost certainly going to set your sights on some sort of SUV.

Most people who ask me about what car to get say, “I really want an SUV”, and I just don’t see why. They drive worse than cars. They’re worse on gas than cars. And they usually have no additional utility over a hatchback or wagon. The only quality an SUV gives you that cars don’t is that they’re tall.

So, what would I recommend people look at if they want to break out of the box? Here are three cars that are a little bit off the beaten path that I would send people to look at in 2015. Continue reading

CAA Road Test Revival

CAA Road Test Revival HeroIt’s been a couple years since I took my driver’s test (okay, maybe more like 13 years, 9 months, and 15 days, give or take), so when I was invited to take part in CAA’s Road Test Revival, a little nervousness was mixed in with my eagerness. Like all men, I know I’m an amazing driver. But I’ll admit, I wasn’t entirely sure my reflexes were as razor-sharp as they once were, or that my memory of all the rules hadn’t become slightly cloudy with the passage of time. Besides, we all get a little lax in our habits over the years, don’t we?
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5 ales that taste like actual beer, not barley-scented water.

Let me just start off by saying, it’s a great time to be a beer drinker. There are so many amazing choices out there now brewed by people who are passionate about the craft.

If you live in Ontario, your local LCBO carries so many of those great beers. If you’re still buying beer by the “two-four” and getting giddy about the free, heavily-branded t-shirt inside, then you may be a lost cause, but if you’re man enough to drink beer with flavour and have the stones to brave the refrigerated aisles of the LCBO with cougars looking for fluorescent fruit-flavoured sugar-booze, then you might want to keep an eye out for these five brilliant ales that taste like they may actually sprout hair on your chest with each swig of the bottle: Continue reading

Getting rid of home phone & netTALK Duo Wifi Review

As I discussed in my post about switching away from traditional television service, another great way to save costs is to cancel your home phone. I mean, why pay for a home phone when you already have a cell (or two, or three) in the house, right? The major stopping block is that when you leave the house the phone goes with you, and you still need a phone for babysitters, friends, or family to use when you’re out. Enter VoIP.

Just like with television, you can use your internet connection to handle phone, as well. To leverage your internet to handle yet another service, however, you really need to have a good connection — high-speed is a must.  VoIP requires a minimum constant speed or the sound quality will suffer, so using so-called “light” high speed isn’t going to cut the mustard. Full fat internet, or bust.

VoIP phones will cost you a little bit upfront, but they quickly pay you back for the outlay. In its simplest form, VoIP can be any way of talking over the internet (Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP). Skype is probably the best known form of VoIP. The real magic happens when you use it in a seamless way, by using the same phones you always have. Having to provide IT support to your visiting relatives just so that can make a call is not seamless. So, you need a converter that will act as a bridge between your trusty old home line phone(s) and the Internet.

A converter box, freestanding or plugged into your computer, will be required to convert your old-timey phone call into internet-friendly digital code, and then back to old-timey phone call again at the other end. There are several different companies that provide these sorts of boxes.

netTALK sent me one of their converter boxes (the netTALK duo wifi) for free, and I was happy to try it out. In truth, I already have VoIP at home, but I paid a fair bit more for a box with more features. The netTALK is much cheaper at $59.95 for the non-Wi-Fi version (connected directly to your router or computer), and $74.95 for the Wi-Fi version (plugged in anywhere and connected wirelessly), so I was happy to try it out.

Setup of the netTALK was easy. I went to their website, set up an account, set up my address for e911 service, selected a number, and before I knew it I was up and running. The only trouble I had was that when I was trying to set up the Wi-Fi in my Wi-Fi-equipped unit. The software for this was only available for Windows PCs, and I have a Mac. Thankfully, I have a virtual machine that runs Windows on my Mac, and I was able to use this in order to set up the Wi-Fi. If you don’t have a PC, you’ll have to follow some more complicated setup instructions, but I looked them over and they don’t require a computer science degree to follow them.

Once set up for access to my wireless network, I was able to simply plug in the small netTALK box into a wall socket and connect my regular phones to the netTALK and, boom, phone service throughout the house! Sound quality is a little bit quieter than what I’m used to, but it did the job. Because I already have a phone system, and people expecting to call me on my home number, I couldn’t test the system for an extended period, but incoming and outgoing calls worked just as expected, and at just under $40 a year for the service, it is less than four dollars a month for home phone service. How does that compare to your last Bell or Rogers bill?

Long distance rates are really cheap, too. Nearly unlimited long distance (3,000 minutes a month) in North America and mere pennies a minute to most other places. Compare this to other phone services at around $40 a month (without long distance), and you find yourself saving a lot of money over the course of the year.  As if to make the purchase a no-brainer, when you buy the netTALK box, you get if your first year of service included, that makes the original purchase price $40 cheaper, and brings the non-WiFi version’s price, net of the service cost, down to $20. What would you do with an extra $480 a year?

The netTALK box and account doesn’t have all the value-added features like the one I already have, but at the end of the day I never use those anyway, so that’s irrelevant. It does the job, and I have no problem recommending it to people as it’s easy to find at popular box stores like Future Shop, Best Buy, and Walmart. Before buying, however, make sure that you can get a local number in your area by checking here. You can also port in your original number, but I think there are some limitations to what area codes netTALK has access to.

Is the netTALK unit the very best box in the business? Probably not. Does this mean you shouldn’t buy one? Not at all. While some of the reviews online are negative about their customer service and the quality of the units, it feels to me like a classic case of you get what you pay for. At $60 including the service fees for a year for the basic unit, I can certainly forgive netTALK for being a little slower on the customer service call backs, and it doesn’t have to last forever in order to save you serious coin.

Bottom line: For those dipping their toes into the VoIP waters who don’t see home phone as mission-critical, then this is a great place to start.

Full disclosure, I was given the netTALK box to review and it is mine keep. I am, however, giving it to a friend so that she can use it for the balance of the year.

2013 Canadian International Auto Show highlights according to Squrrell.

Reflections of a Squrrell

Well, it’s over. The Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. It’s my one chance a year to “browse” cars of every make and model. It’s my Mecca, my Shangri-La, a giant, two-building shrine to my passion — cars.

Did you get to see the show this year? I hope so! If you did, I’d love to hear what caught your eye. If not, below are my favourites. Be warned, though, for the most part I have very down-to-earth taste. So it’s not all exotics and concepts. Continue reading