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The InGrid (or LifeShield) Home Security System – Is It Awesome? (Part 1 of 2)

by on Mar.05, 2010, under Reviews

NOTE: InGrid recently changed their name to LifeShield, but the equipment and service is still the same as is reviewed here

UPDATE (05-10-2012): I’ve been less-than-thrilled with the business practices of LifeShield lately. I still am a big fan of their products and services, so these reviews stand true, but if you’d like to know what they are up to, read this blog post.

UPDATE 12-08-2011 – THIS IS AN IMPORTANT ONE: In the past year LifeShield has changed their business plan a lot. As you read the review below, bear in mind that the following things are now the case for new customers:

  • They no longer sell the base systems outright, they are free-ish and subsidized by a…
  • Minimum 3 year contract. Sign up for a 5 year contract and your monthly rate will be cheaper (of course). Minimum $35/month for a 3 year contract, minimum $30/month for 5 year. One nice thing about being on contract is that the hardware is completely supported by LS, even including the batteries in your sensors.
  • There is a (minimum) $99 activation fee. It can be higher if you select certain options, such as the Cellular Backup unit

All this being said, it is still a decent deal. If I were security-system shopping today (instead of 2 years ago), I’d probably still go with LifeShield. I recommend you call the competition and get a quote, then check out LifeShield and see how it compares. If you are handy enough to install the system yourself (and you are… it isn’t hard), I think you’ll end up being happier with the LifeShield system.

Original Review:

As a security-conscious home owner, I recently came to the conclusion that I want a security system in my house. Partially because I have a family and belongings that I’d like to protect, and partially because I’m somewhat paranoid, it just seems like a good idea. I thought I’d blog about it to share my experiences with others who may be considering the same thing.

You have a lot of options, of course, but the big two options are: DIY or professional. We’ll talk about the professional option first.

I got quotes from two different home security companies: one big one you’ve heard of, and one local shop. I asked for pretty much the same coverage and monitoring on both systems, and both quotes ended up being very close. Here’s what THEY were able to accomplish for me:

  • open/closed sensors on every accessible window and door (all wireless)
  • one central keypad/base unit
  • two keyfobs for arming/disarming system (big clunky keyfobs that look like car alarm remotes from 1994)
  • smoke detector (which is in addition to my existing house-wired smoke detection system)
  • GSM module for communications with the call center (rather than using a landline… this accounts for $15/month on each service)
  • warranty on all the system parts as long as you are a paying customer
  • and the call center that monitors for burglary, fire, etc.

Both quotes were in the neighborhood of $1400 for installation. The local shop was going to charge $45/month for monitoring, the big company was going to charge $54/month. The biggest catch? Both came with a standard THREE YEAR contract. If you want to cancel the service before then, you have to pay a hefty fee. Lame.

FYI: I’ve heard horror stories about certain companies that will install a bunch of equipment for almost no cost, but then they have a big, nasty “buy out” fee (often over $1k) that drops WHENEVER you stop paying for monitoring service… even if it is after your initial contract is up. You basically have to buy out or pay for monitoring until you die. Neither of these companies work that way, but be sure to look at the fine print if you hear tales of free installs.

Neither of these were terribly attractive to me. I didn’t like the high install cost (I know they are gouging me on the hardware costs…I can look up the quoted parts on the internets, folks). I didn’t like the high monitoring costs (especially the big company… they charge extra every month for smoke alarm monitoring. Really?? It costs you more to call the fire company than it does to call the cops?). Those were perfectly acceptable, however, compared to the 3-year contract. Why three years? They clearly aren’t subsidizing the installed hardware with the subscription cost… so it is clearly just to screw the customer. They are simply afraid that you’ll decide in 6 months that you don’t want (or need) their service any more. I say BS.

I was also very disappointed in how low-tech all this stuff is. These companies seem to be mired in equipment and concepts from a decade ago, such as using POTS lines. The ability to use a GSM module to communicate with the monitoring center is clearly just tacked-on and meant to be used as a backup for landlines. It adds no functionality. There is no option for any kind of internet integration, such as email notifications or even SMS. The systems still simply call the monitoring stations when there is a problem rather than having some sort of heartbeat that is monitored, showing that all systems are green, etc. There is no mention of adding cameras to the system or integrating surveillance in any way. Even the salesmen are low-tech. The big company rep provided us with a quote that he came up with using a big calculator and wrote out on a piece of note paper. It was like I was buying a set snow tires. I’m guessing that this industry’s target audience is retirees.

So that brings me to the DIY systems. I did a great deal of research on these systems and learned quite a bit. I decided that a DIY system should do all the cool stuff the other systems cannot. It should be able to send me e-mail alerts or call my cell phone, at which point I can decide what to do about the alarm. It should be cheaper, and I shouldn’t have to pay for monitoring fees. I’d love to find a system that had a minimum of hardware and lots of software… perhaps a USB device that can interact wirelessly with some standards-based window/door sensors and an application that runs a web server of some sort. Wait… then I’d have to open a port to be able to access it from my phone… and I’d have to depend upon the software coders to be security-aware and not have a flawed httpd (not very likely)… and the whole thing would be worthless if my internet connection was down and/or my power is out longer than my battery backups last… so I guess I would need to have the software talk to an off-site server… and no such software/hardware seems to exist. Well, not as a DIY (please correct me if I’m wrong). This means we are back to paying for monitoring.

I’m OK with that, actually. The more I think about it, the more I understand the value of having pros monitor my system. If I’m unavailable to take a phone call and my alarm goes off, I want the cops or fire department to get called. I’m tied to my cell phone enough, I don’t need another reason to stare at it at all hours… “I need to check my phone and make sure my alarm system hasn’t called or emailed me!” No thanks. I also don’t want to trouble my neighbors or family by having it call them. So now I’ve settled on paying a monthly fee, it is just a matter of how much I am willing to pay.

In the course of my research, I looked at systems on the following sites:

Smarthome.com and homesecuritystore.com both offer monitoring service via Alarm Relay for $8.95/month. That’s a pretty nice price, right? I guess so, as long as you are only interested in simple phone monitoring. The service requires you to have a landline phone for the system. So much for my dreams of a nifty IP-based monitoring system. I don’t even have a POTS phone line and I don’t really want to get one. If I was a thief, that’s the first thing I’d cut before I enter a house. They also require a 1-year contract. Meh.

I found a few people talking about Elk systems…evidently, you can put together a pretty hard-core system using their hardware and software, but the stuff looks pretty intimidating. You can buy it and DIY it, but it is really meant for installers. I don’t want to be an alarm installer. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty for certain projects (especially if I think the knowledge gained will be useful in future projects), but this isn’t really one of them. I want something that is fairly simple to install yet feature-packed…and I don’t think that is asking too much. I also want the system to be super-reliable, not something that is a learning experiment for me.

After hours and hours digging through these sites, I tried another google search and I found something called InGrid (LifeShield) Home Security. A quick look around their website and they had my undivided attention. I started closing the other browser tabs that I had left open. Here are a few of the features that caught my attention:

  • No contracts. They bill month-to-month and you can cancel any time you want. Period.
  • Monitoring for $19.99 or $29.99 per month (more on this later)
  • Simple DIY installation
  • Loads of options for email alerts/notifications
  • Totally IP-based monitoring (a landline can be used as a backup)
  • Complete control and personal monitoring via the web and smartphones (I can see if a door is opened or closed, for instance)
  • Keyfobs that are 2-way, so you get a response as to whether or not your command was received (awesome)
  • Camera integration, also viewable via the web and smartphones
  • Inexpensive hardware, and very modular
  • A sweet referral program

Sounds pretty good, right? I wish the monitoring was cheaper, but at least I’m paying to get a bunch of nifty features that I really want. Simply put, the $19.99/month plan is for self-monitoring (so you can use all the web features and alerts and such), $29.99/month is for full monitoring (which includes all the self-monitoring features, plus the main feature you want: they’ll call the authorities when there’s a problem). They also have a referral program that will net me free monitoring for life if I can get 5 people to get their own InGrid systems. Their website links to over a dozen glowing reviews from PCWorld, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Tech, and more.

Sold. I priced out a system that would cover all the same bases as the quoted “pro” installs. It came out to $485 for all the hardware. Not only is that crazy-cheap, but I actually am getting MORE than the pro installs offered: even the basic InGrid system comes with the central keypad AND with a secondary keypad that also acts like a phone… perfect to keep in the bedroom. There’s a 30-day money back guarantee, and since there is no contract, I could ditch the whole thing 6 months from now and sell the parts on ebay.

Since it is so cheap, I figured I’d add on a few more features: 2 more open/closed sensors that I’ll put on the garage doors and a motion sensor that I’ll use inside the house. Now I’ll be able to get a clear answer when I get to work and say “did I close the garage door when I left the house?” The only thing I didn’t order is a camera. I think I’ll get one or two eventually, but I can’t think of a good use for one quite yet. You have to use the InGrid IP cameras, unfortunately, and they only make one. I’m hoping they add a weatherproof outdoor version soon. Cameras inside my house that feed to a server I don’t control… that makes me a little queasy. Cameras outside my house showing me who is at the front door? That sounds OK.

So now my system has been ordered and I’m anxiously awaiting delivery. Their offices are less than an hour away from my house, I should have just offered to drive down and get the stuff… In my next blog post, I intend to meticulously document the install/setup process (including video) so you can see how it all really works. So come back in a week or so and a new post should be up.

Part 2 of this post is now available here, detailing my experience installing the system.

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What can you get for $.99? An excellent, yet independently-published Kindle book called “Uncubicled.”

by on Jun.22, 2009, under Reviews

This is important, so pay attention.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when budding authors, musicians, and filmmakers were all hobbled by a common burden: Publishers. As a creative individual, finding a publisher was your only choice for distribution if you wanted to share your creations with the rest of the world (and, possibly, be paid for it). Having a quality product might seem like it would be enough, but it often was not. As an unknown, just getting your foot in the door of a publisher was an enormous feat. Often it was a matter of “knowing the right people.” If you didn’t know the right people, you’d have to hire them. Agents, managers, and many other people looking to take a cut of your hard-earned payday IF that payday ever comes.

Most would not get published, destined to return to anonymity and give up their dreams, their wallets considerably lighter for the effort.

Some would succeed, however, but few actually end up making a profit. Most would get a very weak record, book, or movie deal, thanks to their non-existent negotiating power. If your product happened to beat the odds and become very successful, the publisher and agents and other paper-pushers would make a great deal of money. The struggling artist, however, would still be working at their day job, hoping that their current success could be carried over into a more favorable deal next time they are at the negotiating table.

This all happens for a good reason, of course. Creating and distributing massive quantities of physical media (books, CDs, DVDs) costs a great deal of money. Publishers are taking a risk on every item they publish and many of them don’t pan out, so the ones that do succeed need to pay big to make up for the failures.

Fine, that’s capitalism, but it hardly fosters new and exciting media. Very few publishers would take a big risk, so an unbelieveable amount of marketable books, music, and films ended up in the trash, never to be seen again. Talented artists gave up their dreams and returned to the daily grind, their spirits crushed by the system.

As we all know, a system like this is hard to even fathom in the age of the internet.  MP3s have rocked the RIAA to its very knees (not just because of piracy) and sites like YouTube allow filmmakers to test out their craft on a world-wide audience (and build a fan base) before attempting to sell a larger production to a movie or television studio.

But where does this leave the authors? Sure, they can try to sell a .pdf of their Great American Novel on the web, but how will they get eyeballs on the website? And who even buys a PDF of a novel? Not many people are willing to stare at a computer screen for hours and hours reading a PDF. Well, I guess I would if I didn’t have a Kindle, but it isn’t preferable.

MP3s hit the scene in a big way around 1996 but didn’t really evolve into a major force until two things happened:

a) portable players (I had an original Rio PMP300 in 1999…32MB of storage)

b) digital distribution (iTunes, amazon.com)

This all means that anybody with a decent recording of their music (and a relatively small upfront investment) can get their tracks on iTunes or amazon.com or some other digital music store where people will find it and possibly buy it. The system is far from perfect (and still involves “labels” to some extent), but it certainly is an improvement. For more information on digital music publishing, check out this excellent blog post: Can A Musician Sell Their Music Online?

So, once again, where does this leave authors? This finally brings me to:

The Point Of This Entire Rambling Blog Post

If we look at the success of the MP3 model and compare it to books, we now have the two building blocks for success:

a) portable devices (the Kindle)

b) digital distribution (amazon.com, some other sources)

Ideally, we would not be dealing with only one company here (for the most part), but this is really just the beginning. Yes, I know there are other e-book readers (the Sony, etc). Yes, I know there are other places to purchase e-books. However, the Kindle + the amazon.com Kindle store make the first real Joe Consumer-friendly combination that really gets it right. The “Whispernet” wireless shopping and distribution method on the Kindle is the real deal-breaker, in my opinion, and sets the Kindle miles ahead of any other device or distro method.

Amazon has made it incredibly easy to self-publish a book via the Kindle store. Using their Digital Text Platform, anybody with an amazon.com account can upload a manuscript (in .doc format, for instance), set a price, and have their book available for purchase in the Kindle store almost immediately with ZERO dollars up front. They take a nice cut of your earnings, of course, but that’s the price you pay for having your material in front of a zillion eyeballs. You don’t even need to pony up for an ISBN, which is nice, since selling digital music still requires you to pay for a unique UPC (what a load of crap).

Let me clarify this just to make sure everybody is clear: I could take this blog post, upload it to amazon, set a price, and it would be available to be purchased for the Kindle (either via the web or via the Kindle itself) by tomorrow. If  (hypothetically) it started selling, I’d start to get checks from amazon.com. It is that simple. Maybe you’ll sell 1 copy (to your mom) or maybe you’ll sell a million copies. Either way, it didn’t cost you a dime to see if all that hard work really did produce something that people would enjoy reading. If it IS successful, I’m sure the book publishers will come knocking on YOUR door to acquire publishing rights to your current and future work.

As you may have guessed, I own a Kindle (the Kindle 2, to be precise). I think it is the greatest thing since my first MP3 player and I’m not sure what I would do without it. I’ve been reading materials by some established authors, but I’ve also stumbled across some interesting work that I never would have found in a Barnes and Noble. The book I’m most impressed by, and the very reason for this blog post, is called Uncubicled.

Uncubicled was written by Josh McMains. McMains is an electrical engineer by trade and, like many of us, thought “I have an idea for an interesting novel and I think I could write it.” UNlike many of us, he actually sat down and did it. Not just the first chapter, the entire book. As a first-time author with no connections to the industry, what does he do with the fruits of his labor? Does he walk into the HQ of a major book publisher with his hat in hand? No, he publishes his book himself. Although there are other ways to purchase the book, the keystone of his publishing strategy appears to be the amazon Kindle store.

Presently, you can purchase Uncubicled for the Kindle for only $.99. Yes, 99 cents. You spend that much on a single crappy song from iTunes. A pack of Tic Tacs. Clearly a bargain. But is the book any good?

You bet it is.

The Kindle version on amazon has 22 customer reviews with a 4.5 star average. I haven’t yet posted my own review, but I will after I finish this blog post (I’ll give you a hint, it will be 5 stars). Besides, for $.99, you can afford to find out for yourself. McMains has done an excellent job of marketing the book via twitterfacebook, and a website. I found him on twitter, actually (or HE found ME, I should say, after I mentioned my Kindle in a twitter post). This is a business model that I believe is very important to the future of digital publishing and, as such, needs to succeed. If you have a Kindle (or know somebody who does), you owe it to yourself to check out this book.

What’s that? You don’t have a Kindle yet? Well, there’s no time like the present.

One last thing: if you have read this book, please review it on amazon! The quantity and quality of reviews has a direct effect on the visibility of the book to amazon.com users. If he could get over 50 reviews, it would really help him out.

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The new MacBook Pro laptops suck.

by on Jun.11, 2009, under Reviews, Whining

People ask me all the time… they say: “hey, why do Mac laptops suck so much?”

Well, I’m here to tell you. One quick note before we start, tho..

This is not about the OS. I’m not talking about OSX vs. Windows 7 vs. Linux at ALL. That is a discussion for another day. Today we are talking purely about hardware. The MacBook “Pro” is marketed as… well… a tool for professionals. I argue that it is an overpriced toy and that Apple should be bringing the heat if they want to put a “pro” label on their hardware.

I watched the gdgt liveblog of the WWDC announcements the other day, waiting to see the magic they would unveil. I want to know why people are so passionate about this hardware. I wanted to see the amazing new features they would cram into their laptops which would then trickle down in future years to lowly PC users. Maybe I’ll be one of those guys who buys a MacBook Pro to run Windows 7 just so that I can have the most cutting-edge hardware available.

Nope.

I think this photo sums it all up nicely (image from gdgt.com):

img_1197

Wow. SD card slots? Core 2 Duo procs? 8GB RAM? And, of course, non-replaceable batteries.

Innovations? Drool-worthy? I think not.

You call this a feature table? I’ve seen more exciting feature tables on a pair of headphones.

img_1201

Here’s a quote about the 13″ model:

“We challenged the engineering team to add in an SD card slot, and they did it.”

Whoop-de-frickin’-do. My friggin’ netbook has an SD card slot. A 5 year old ThinkPad has an SD card slot.

Ok, let’s forget about the 13″ model… I’m more interested in the 17″ MBP. I’m a mobile-workstation kind of guy, and I feel that a 17″ laptop should be just that: a mobile workstation. One might even use the words “desktop replacement.” There is a LOT of room in a 17″ laptop chassis and there is no excuse for the dearth of features Apple has offered. Evidently, you get the ExpressCard Slot on the 17″ instead of the SD card slot. Why not both?? I mean, really… SD card readers take up almost NO room in a laptop. FireWire 800 is nice, but where is the eSATA?

Now is the part where I tell you how a 17″ should be built, and I’ll be using my Dell M6400 Precision as a prime, alpha-dog example.

dell-precision-m6400-mobile-workstation

First up: Quad-core processor. Yeah, that’s right. Enjoy your Core 2 Duo. My M6400’s Core 2 Extreme Q9300 quad-core will throat-punch your Core 2 Duo and send it gasping back to momma.

Next: 16GB RAM. It seemed like everybody was really impressed when they announced that the MBP’s would max out at 8GB of RAM. I’m really sorry to hear that. I have 8GB in my M6400 just for kicks, but it can hold 16. That’s a mobile workstation. Also, I’d like to add that I accomplish my 8GB via 4 slots. Have you seen the price of 4GB DDR3 DIMMs? Outrageous. It adds a cool $1000 on to the price of your MBP to go from 4GB to 8GB. One. Thousand. Dollars. I was able to use 4 of the comparatively-cheap 2GB DIMMs.

Dual internal HDDs. My Dell has a 64GB SSD as primary drive and a 500GB HDD as secondary. It is stupid-fast, but also has a ton of storage. I could also put dual 500’s in there and RAID them up, if I wanted to. That’s options, folks. No reason they couldn’t squeeze the option of a second HDD/SSD into that 17″ chassis.

Full keyboard including numeric keypad. Yes, I like to have a numeric keypad. It is extremely handy when you are entering numeric data. I can type over 100wpm, but numbers never flow faster than via the numeric keypad. There’s room for it on the MBP 17, but you don’t have it as an option. Oh, and just so you know, my keyboard is also backlit.

Fingerprint reader. I can’t believe they haven’t added these to MBP’s yet. Once you have a proper fingerprint reader on a laptop. you’ll wish it was on everything. For me, it was an option. I didn’t need to have it on the laptop, but I wanted it and it was available. Thanks, Dell, for giving me that choice.

Workstation-class GPU. The M6400 can be purchased with a Quadro FX 3700M GPU. That’s some serious pixel-pushin’ hardware there, kids, with 1GB of dedicated RAM. I don’t personally use CAD applications or other stuff that would make full use of that GPU, but it sure is great to have it as an option for a “mobile workstation.” The 9600M GT couldn’t dream to carry the enormous, titanium-reinforced jock strap of the 3700M.

RGB-LED backlit screen. This is a big one for me. The screen on this thing is amazing. The MBP uses an LED-backlit screen, but it is using white LEDs (to the best of my knowledge… apple.com just says “LED-backlit” and I think they’d tout RGB-LED backlit if that’s what they were using). By using RGB-LEDs, the screen is able to display an incredibly dynamic color gamut which is fantastic for anybody who works on photos. Ask anybody who has seen a laptop with RGB-LED next to a MBP and they’ll tell you it is a significant difference. Mobile workstation, indeed. I even have a choice of different resolution screens, but mine is 1920×1200.

Replaceable battery. Do I need to say more? You just can’t beat having a spare battery. Maybe there are so few features on this model because the entire chassis is full of battery.

Choice of optical drive. My M6400 has a DVD-RW drive…but I could have a blu-ray drive in there right from Dell (if that’s the way I wanted it)…and I could always do it later because I’m not afraid to take a few screws out and swap it myself. Choices.

Choice of internal radios. I have an Intel 5300 802.11a/g/n radio in my M6400 because that’s the radio I wanted. I had other choices. I also have a Bluetooth radio, which was optional. I also have a Verizon WWAN card. Can’t get those in MBPs yet, can you? Enjoy your USB WWAN adapters and tethered phones. Can you even get Bluetooth on an MBP? I have no idea, it certainly isn’t an option when you configure one.

Frickin’ buttons. Yes, I like buttons for my trackpad/pointing stick. I am not alone. My trackpad also does a neat trick for application-specific shortcuts which you can see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ad6Q7DuGCQY

Other random features:
Along with all of that, the M6400 also boasts: eSATA, ExpressCard, PCCard, Smart Card, SD, FireWire, VGA, DisplayPort (not “mini”), camera with dual digital array microphone…and probably more I can’t think of right now. The eSATA port is a big one, IMHO. I have every external HDD I own in a case with an eSATA port (these cases are more abundant and cheaper than cases with FireWire 800) and those drives are indistinguishable from my internal drives, throughput-wise.

Was this M6400 expensive? You bet your ass it was… but it was still cheaper than a clearly-inferior MBP. Seriously. All these extra features on the hardware, arguably important features, yet it is less expensive. I don’t think the MBP is a bad machine, but for all that money (and the “pro” moniker), it seems like you folks should demand more. You should, at the very least, have some options. I understand the minimalist approach, and I’m sure the MBP 17 is lighter and thinner than the M6400, but wouldn’t it be awesome if Apple produced a REAL mobile workstation as the MacBook UltraKickAssPro 17? The MBUKAP would be a little bit bigger (yet still stylish) and could be the first dual quad-core processor laptop.

That would be innovation. That would be drool-worthy.

For the time being, I guess I’ll just keep on using my PC.

In case anybody is wondering, I run Windows 7 (build 7100) 64-bit … and it is fantastic on this machine.
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OCZ SSD Speed Comparison on ThinkPad X60 Tablets

by on Jun.10, 2009, under Hardware, Reviews

SSD Speed Comparison on ThinkPad X60 Tablets from Jeremy Powlus on Vimeo.

My company has a bunch of Lenovo X60 and X61 TabletPCs in the hands of our salesmen. Seeking to extend the useful life of these computers, I thought I’d see how effective an SSD upgrade would be along with Windows 7 RC build 7100.
All 3 of the computers shown are X60 Tablets with L2400 processors and 2GB of RAM. The two on the left have the stock 5400RPM HDD installed, the one on the right has an OCZ Vertex 30GB SSD. The lone Windows XP machine is how the computers are currently configured. A lot of the extra time booting up is spent loading support apps, such as Lenovo’s fingerprint software, some of which is no longer necessary even in XP… MOST of which is not necessary in Win 7.
The tests I ran were standard tasks our salesmen run every day using SalesLogix which we use for CRM and invoicing. SalesLogix uses a local db via MSDE (or SQL Server Express on the Windows 7 machines).
I judge a boot process to be complete when the computer is usable… so I brought up the task manager on each machine and waited until processor usage was down below 3% for a few seconds before officially marking the machine “done booting.”
One of the greatest benefits of using an SSD in these machines cannot be quantified in this environment: the ability to safely turn off the HDD-protection software which senses physical shocks to the system and seats the HDD’s heads for a few seconds, effectively pausing anything the computer is doing until the “shocks” stop. This means that users can’t walk and launch SalesLogix at the same time or it will take a verrrry long time to open. A SSD removes this limitation and will make noticeable improvements in productivity in the field.
These 30GB SSD’s can be purchased for just over $100 right now and 60GB drives are around $210. I highly recommend them. Be certain to get the Vertex series (if you get an OCZ, that is)… avoid the Core series, they are awful.

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