Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best and Worst of 2007

So this is Christmas … and what have we done?

2007 – The Product Year in Review

Well ladies and gents, it’s the end of another year here at Average Joe Consumer Product Reviews. We’ve had the chance to review some very interesting products in 2007 and are definitely looking forward at what’s to come in 2008. As usual this time of year as many of you are out looking for gifts to put under the tree this holiday season, here’s a summary of the best and worst products reviewed by your one and only Average Joe this year.

Best Product: GrandCentral “One Number for Life Service” (June)

OK, I’ll be the first to admit it: the best product I reviewed this year isn’t really a product, it’s a free service. However, I couldn’t help myself seeing that it’s a valuable asset for almost any computer-savvy consumers… not to mention its undeniable cool factor. In this day of multiple cellphone, work and home numbers, this service is useful, innovative and gets the job done.

Photo courtesy of

Where are they now?

Shortly after my review went up in June, GrandCentral was bought out by the almighty Google (I swear I had nothing to do with it!). If anything, this is a sign as to how good this product was… heavy-hitters like Google don’t just go out and add anyone to their team.

Since then, their new motto is “the new way to use your phones” and they have streamlined and upgraded their already snazzy website that I reported on. I’m sure there will be more to come in the future with Google investment dollars backing the whole production. The only setback? Still no service in Canada!

Great job to the Grand Central team for their communication and on building a fantastic service. We’re anxiously waiting for you up here north of border…

Honourable Mentions:

The Motomaster PowerBox (February) has served me well this year. I’ve inflated many a tire and it helped me out during a summer thunderstorm blackout.

Just for the record (no pun intended), the Sansa MP3 player (May) and the Reynolds HandiWrap (November) are still going strong. No regrets here.

Best Customer Service: Advanced Concept Innovations for the Limited Edition Oak Clock (March)

The product was simple, elegant and worked well - but the service was exemplary. I’m just amazed that such a small company can make a product like this in North America for less than $30 (including delivery right to your door if you live in US or CAN), process and send it off within one business day, and support you with a 24/7 online reference. Did I mention they are also in constant communication with you during the transaction (payment, confirmation, shipped)? They also guarantee delivery with a free-of-charge product replacement process so you know you will get your item. What more could I ask for from an online transaction? This is professional and timely service that you would have only expected from the big boys.

Where are they now?

You know these guys must have been hurt by the sudden rise in the Canadian dollar, but I see business has been steady on eBay (minus what appears to have been one hiccup… but why someone would ask for a refund when product replacement is free is beyond me).

Last word was of the expansion into new product lines in 2008 and the addition of similar ACI Outlet sellers on different marketplace websites. Best of luck to them too for continued success.

Worst Product: The City of Montreal’s Payez-Partez Parking Meters (July)

Ouch! What a fiasco! Tourists and residents beware; this feature-deprived lemon of a system is unfortunately here to stay, expanding and getting more expensive. Summarizing it again just makes me depressed, there are too many flaws to re-iterate so please just refer to my review…

Where are they now?

Besides prices going up (of course) the meters are still victim to the shortcomings I pointed out in my review. I have seen some flexible electronic scheduling around the Bell Center on game nights that allow people to load up the meter for 3 hours instead of the standard 2 (a smart move considering game warm-ups start at 6:30 and the meters run until 9:00). They’ve also added two metal binding posts on select meters for cyclists to lock up their bikes. Hey, if the meters have to be a pain in the neck for motorists, might as well help some other group out at least.

Biggest Product News Story of the Year: Overseas Imports

Whether it be a $1 item at Dollarama (April), counterfeit toothpaste or lead paint in Chinese toys (October), consumers were talking A LOT about cheaply priced imported goods and consequences to our health, safety and economy. Could 2008 be the year North Americans wake up and put national pride & safety before the bottom line like so many South American and European countries have already done? Wait and see: retail numbers and spending habits for this Christmas season will show if consumers were willing to vote with their wallets.

Honourable Mention:

The surge of the Canadian dollar opened some interesting options for consumers north of the border. Was it worth it spending $40 on gas to save $10 on a book? Apparently so - when the Canadian dollar flirted with a $1.10US exchange rate in November, domestic manufacturers and retailers cringed and consumers crossed the border in droves.

What was the result? To be honest, Average Joe found the hype to be… well, just overblown hype. The deals were OK – most big chains cut their prices in Canada fairly quickly, duties and high gas prices negated most exchange rate savings, people that bought cars got short-ended by warranty issues, and the dollar quickly fell back down to slightly below par.

In the end, I found the biggest benefits to Canadian consumers to be from mail-order items / internet purchases, as well as the spin-off domestic price cuts and promotions… not the cross-border shopping. My suggestions? Forget the long drives, line-ups at the border and silent prayers that the customs officer doesn’t pop the trunk. Shop at home for the big ticket items, lock in those US magazine subscriptions of yours and see what’s for sale online from those American sites.


So as you have seen, 2007 was quite the year for the average consumer, filled with hits and misses. Reviews are wrapped up until January as your Average Joe will no focus his attention to a different type of wrapping.

In the meantime, I would like to give a big thank you to all my readers for coming to check in, their support and always interesting emails. I will also take this opportunity to wish everyone and their families happy holidays and all the best for the new year. See you in 2008!


Your Average Joe

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Wrapping up a Good Deal

Reynolds' new Handi-Vac plans to take the burn out of your freezer.

Product Review: Reynolds Handi-Vac

You would think that by now, in the age of sleek stainless steel appliances brimming with modern technology, freezer burn would be a thing of the past. Fact of the matter is newer automatic defrost freezers actually have a greater chance of causing freezer burn to your frozen food due to this feature which works by automatic temperature variations. While food that suffers from freezer burn is still safe to eat, it can be shriveled dry, appear wrinkled or have lost most of its flavour. In any case, freezer burn seriously limits the amount of time you can effectively store your food in the freezer without losing its quality.

So what can be done? To prevent freezer burn, it is important to understand it first. Freezer burn is when frost or ice crystals form on your food and dry it out (this dryness is what makes us call it a “burn”). It is created by moisture being absorbed out of your food due to sublimation (a cold form of evaporation caused by contact with icy air) and then freezing on the surface. The more air near your frozen food, the more moisture will be sucked out to form frost on the surface. The solution: get rid of the air in contact with your frozen goods and you get rid of the chance for freezer burn.

There are many ways to accomplish this; the most common being using standard freezer bags and squeezing as much air out as possible before zipping them up. This also limits air circulation on the surface of the food slowing the whole process down. However, while this is the right idea, it is not completely effective as some air will always remain. A more efficient method is accomplished by certain countertop vacuum sealing models that literally suck the air out of the entire packaging materials and seal the food inside. While vacuum suction is the most effective way of eliminating freezer burn, however most of the products that do this to date are quite large, expensive and can take up valuable counter / storage space… until now.

Reynolds (the same people famous for bringing you aluminium foil and other household packaging material) are out to break the ice (no pun intended) with their handheld vacuum sealer system called the Handi-Vac.

The Reynolds Handi-Vac: giving freezer bags everywhere an inferiority complex.

Product Overview:

The Reynolds handheld Handi-Vac is part of a vacuum sealing system that works in conjunction with Reynolds brand Handi-Vac bags. The vacuum itself is very portable as it is battery powered and weighs in at only 340g (equivalent to 12 ounces, including the batteries).

The power to stop freezer burn – right in the palm of your hand.

The system works by placing your food inside a Reynolds Handi-Vac bag as your would with any freezer bag. The difference is that these special bags contain a small self-sealing suction port (bag air valve), and once the bag is closed, simply press the nozzle on the Handi-Vac against the bag air valve on and suck all that unwanted air right out. The valve will only open by suction which means air should not leak back in when you pull the vacuum away. No need to fumble and bumble in trying to squeeze every last bit of air out.

Bullseye! This suction port is what sets these bags apart from conventional freezer bags.

Overall, I found this to be a good product. There are many positive features and also some limitations to this product as we will discuss in more detail below.

Product Line:

Currently, there is only one type of handheld Handi-Vac available. The product line begins with a starter kit that includes the Handi-Vac, the necessary batteries, three medium-sized bags and an instruction sheet.

You’ll be off to a quick start with the extra goodies included in the Handi-Vac starter kit.

Additional bags are available as packages of large (gallon) and smaller (quart) sizes. There is no indication that these bags are interchangeable with other brand vacuum systems, however they can be used as regular freezer bags if you don’t need to suck them flat.

The product line is still quite young so I haven’t seen much in the accessories department such as nozzle attachments or different packaging options besides bags. Besides the batteries, there also seems to be no user-serviceable parts, so I haven’t come across any official retail plans for replacement parts at this time.


While the exact figure may vary, the starter kit mentioned above retails for about $9.99 in the United States. There is no firm figure yet in Canadian dollars, but this price should end up being the same given the recent parity between the two dollars.

The refill bags come in packs of 14 medium size bags or 9 large sized bags for $3.29 each. This is a bit more than standard freezer bags, probably due to the extra complexity in their design (bag air valve, etc).

Batteries are included in the starter kit, which is a good thing since six “AA” cells are required. Depending on how and what you decide to buy, replacing these batteries can come with a hefty price tag due to the large quantity.

Appearance and Design:

While it may sound silly, the first time I held the Handi-Vac in my hand I could only think about how much it reminded me of the handheld Phaser from Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes Average Joe loves his Sci-Fi). In this case, the overall shape is smooth, with clean edges and fits well in your hand.

Was the Handi-Vac inspired by Star Trek’s Phaser? One zaps freezer burn, the other takes care of Klingons.

The white plastic body is smooth, nicely fitted, feels sturdy and even the clear plastic nose at the front is of similar quality. The nozzle is attached to the nose vacuum chamber with a slightly flexible neck, which feels quite stiff and resilient when moved around. No flimsiness here.

This product really sucks … the air out of your freezer bags, that is.

The device is turned on and off by the large blue momentary button on the body. The button is a good size and located in the right place. One-handed operation is not a problem.

One button operation. Can’t really complain that it’s hard to use now, can we?

Battery storage is at the base of the handle and the arrangement is quite neat and orderly, which is a good thing considering there are six back there. The cover is sturdy and held on by tabs and secured with a screw. This is an excellent design as there is really no way to accidentally open it during use or to lose the batteries during storage.

The Handi-Vac (surprisingly) packs a lot of power. I could almost boost my car with this many batteries.

While there are no hooks or grappling points to hang it up, the size of the Handi-Vac makes it perfect to store in any standard-sized kitchen drawer.

The bags look no different from other freezer bags except for the blue “target zone” air valve near the top zipper and a second airflow mesh woven on the inside. The purpose of this mesh appears to be to encourage a uniform airflow during the suction by making sure air is removed from all parts of the bag. Besides this, the bags open and close easily and securely, and are of a good thickness meaning they won’t tear or puncture any easier than your standard bag.


Now for the fun part: can this product deliver as promised? Let’s see.

One of the reasons I was interested in this product is that it address a real every-day need. Freezer burn is here, whether you’re storing some meat you bought in bulk for months later or taking last week’s leftovers out for dinner. In particular, I’ve seen freezer burn first hand whenever I make my World Famous Average Joe Spicy Chicken Veggie Stir-Fry.

The frozen vegetables I use for the stir-fry come in this nifty re-sealable bag which normally would be a good thing, right? Wrong! Open the veggies the first time, and they’re fantastic. Put the leftovers back, and good luck getting the air out of that bag. The plastic bag is so think, the vegetables so different in shape, it’s impossible to fold the bag into a good, snug fit. Open that bag a week later and the result is a clump of vegetables that looks like they were recovered from a geological dig at the nearest glacier. Could Handi-Vac be the solution? Only one way to find out.

No this isn’t some health nut’s idea of a veggie ice cream, this is freezer burn gone wild.

After chipping the icicles off my baby corn, I followed the directions and added the veggie mix to a medium size Handi-Vac bag. It’s important that you put the right amount in (don’t overstuff) and ensure that at least part of the food touches that funny air valve strip I mentioned previously. The latter is quite important: if your food is located only below this zone, the suction will be strong enough to suck in the sides of the bag and pinch off the airflow before it has a chance to fully grab the air surrounding your food, causing ineffective vacuum sealing.

Next, I sealed it up at the top without the slightest effort to squeeze out air first. I then laid the bag flat on the counter top, which is also very important as it ensures the nozzle will be properly seated without side leakage on the bag air valve. I got the Handi-Vac ready by pressing it against the target zone, the alignment was quite easy, and everything was ready to start the suction.

The first thing I noticed once I pressed the switch was how loud the Handi-Vac was. Now, would I consider this as too loud? Well, it’s hard to say and people have different definitions of “too loud”, but I’ll go on the record as saying it was just louder than I expected. Think of a blender on low speed, but with a jackhammer rhythm. The good news is that the noise wasn’t really a major issue because the vacuum worked perfectly and fast from the get-go, meaning it didn’t have to stay on for very long. Within seconds, I could see the bag shrinking around the veggies and it sealed them in perfectly.

Going… going … gone! The air was sucked out of this bag in less than ten seconds.

The next part of the test was leaving the bag for several nights in the freezer to see if there would be any leakage of the vacuum seal over time. After a few days of testing, I was pleased to find that the bag looked just as tight as it did the night I sealed it, and there was no (if very little) frost to be found. The bag also opened easily from the zipper, meaning I was not required to cut the bag open as with other types of vacuum sealing equipment that create a permanent seal. Mission accomplished by the Handi-Vac.

Well preserved … like a fine Egyptian mummy (except with freshness).

Other Features and Fun Stuff:

While it is officially discouraged to suck up liquids or small particles, I can easily see a few drops of juice or crumbs getting eventually sucked up during normal operation. The good news is that the vacuum chamber is also removable, which (should it be required) makes cleaning fairly easy. It should be noted however that I found the nose difficult to remove and replace, which scared me a little since I didn’t want to break anything, but may not necessarily be a bad thing as this is supposed to be an air-tight connection.

While this technically is a handheld vacuum, you shouldn’t mistake it for a Shop-Vac.

I’m curious as to what the life expectancy of the black O-ring seals may be over time, especially the one on the tip of nozzle as it has the greatest chance of drying out or getting dirty. While this may not be a major concern, I was unable to find any information on this in the supplied instruction manual, but wonder what will happen as they dry out over time. Hopefully buying a new unit won’t be the only option.

The short instruction sheet provided is understandable, concise and to the point, which is exactly the way it should be. The illustrations are clear, important points that affect performance (such as “use only on a flat surface”) are raised and explained, and the tips and troubleshooting sections covers most of the imaginable areas where difficulty or confusion could arise. While I find the website a little too “marketing-friendly”, it is still a good resource and an adequate supplement to the starter kit instruction sheet.

Final Verdict:

Overall, I liked this product. It is useful and not just another gadget that you’ll only use once a year. The quality of the product is reasonable for the price and accomplishes what it was intended to do very well, without being complicated to use.

The main drawback I could see is that the vacuum is fairly noisy, but considering it works in seconds this may not be an issue to most people. It’s also unfortunate that the bags are not recommended for re-use, but from what I can assume this is probably more of a food health concern than a functional issue, as it’s not like the air valve breaks once used. Perhaps swapping meat into the same bag may not be a good idea, especially if the bag was also used to defrost, but there may be certain situations where the bag may be washed and re-used with reasonable user’s discretion.


• Starter package comes with everything that you need
• Reasonably priced
• Works fast and as promised
• Easy to operate and store
• Good quality construction


• Somewhat noisy
• Requires a fairly large number of batteries (six)
• Bags not recommended for re-use
• Relatively new product so lifecycle issues unknown

In summary, this product is a great little kitchen gadget that will definitely find good use in your home. This is certainly something to keep in mind as a nice stocking stuffer when Christmas rolls around.

Average Joe’s Product Rating: 8.5 / 10

Additional information on this product is available at:

Reynolds Kitchen: Handi-Vac

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Who’s to Blame?

Time to weigh in on the great import scare

Average Joe’s Opinion: Concerns with Imported Products

Hello once again ladies and gents… now that I’m back from my hiatus, I figure it’s time to take care of a few things before I settle back in for my humble product reviews. I’ll start off with the most major thing that I missed while away from the blog scene: the Great Chinese Toy Recall of 2007.

The Mattel Toy Scare has probably been the greatest consumer concern of 2007.

First things first: the safety of your child or family members is the number one priority. A list of the dangerous toys are available from many sources, if you have been unable to find the details you need please take a look at the following links to get informed on the scope of the recall and the products affected. If you have any questions, you can always try to contact the companies who are part of the recall or the local toy store distributor that carries these products.

Consumer Product Safety Commission (US)


Health Canada Advisories

So how did we get here? What events have brought us to the point where we are now searching and inspecting our children’s toys to see if we have inadvertently exposed them to danger? More importantly what can we do?

Here is my list (heavily laced with my opinions) on how the average consumer can handle this latest curveball at the store shelves:

It’s investment time - do you know where your money is?

First, the big picture: We whine and complain that it’s the big corporations who are slashing domestic jobs, moving operations overseas and selling us products of lower quality to add insult to injury. We imagine diabolic CEOs and other directors in the board room plotting and scheming on how to exploit yet another low-cost nation to make their sneakers, toys and plastic junk.

Truth of the matter is we are partly the reason why corporations are so money-hungry and profit-oriented. Corporations are publicly traded companies, meaning we prop them up with our own investments, mutual funds… even inadvertently through our pension and insurance policies. The result is always the same: we like to see growth. We invest for high returns on our dollar, rarely caring about anything else. This is only achievable if the company continues to make an outrageous profit.

When you see a high return on your investments, you will be inclined to invest more. Soft returns and you’ll pull your money out and place it with the winners. Do you really care that a company laid-off 700 North American workers and sent its manufacturing overseas to rake in that huge profit that shot your earning per share up 25%?

Wonder why CEOs appear so ruthless at making a profit? Truth is most of their contracts have heavy performance bonuses directly linked to the success of the stock. Essentially we are paying and encouraging them to get that stock up as far as it can go, any way possible.

If you would rather have good returns on your investments and not worry about the consequences, that is alright as you are free to do what you want with your money. However, do not cry foul when the factories close up and suddenly you find that your domestic product selection has all but vanished. Don’t forget: corporations are also free to do what they want with your (yes “your” as in you as a shareholder) money.

If you want to start making a difference, find out where your money is. If you don’t like the companies that are holding your dollars, pull some or all of your money out and support someone you are more satisfied with. With a little bit of homework, you can still expect good returns as there are plenty of high tech companies here in North America that are increasing profit by streamlining their operations, working more efficiently and coming out with breakthrough technologies – all while being regulated by environmental, tax and social laws.

There are also plenty of new mutual fund packages that promote growing businesses that meet certain social or environmental responsibilities. These new funds have been created due to popular demand, a demand that you can create.

Vote with your dollar. Your money should be supporting the companies you believe in and trust, not invested in the very companies you are denouncing.

Make a Statement Where it Counts - the Bottom Line

Now, on the home front: Boycott is a strong word, but comparative shopping when it comes to commodities is the key. If you want corporations to stop thinking only about money, then you should also stop thinking only about the price you’re paying. Let the market decide who wins and who loses, but instead of only looking at the price tag, look at other factors such as origin of the product and the company image.

If you do not like the fact that companies offload their manufacturing on low-cost countries, DO NOT BUY THEM. Look at alternatives and vote with your dollar by buying elsewhere. Complain to the manufacturer and the retail outlet. Ever hear the story about Dell’s now-infamous offshore customer support center? You’d be surprised how fast companies wake up when profits are at stake. If not, there will be others vying to work their way up and take their place.

Take your Time to Find what You Really Want

The main advantage to products made in low-cost countries is that they are usually inexpensive. Therefore, finding other sources for your goods at reasonable prices is hard to do. For example, walk into any toy store and you’ll see that most toys are made in China.

News Story

However, keep hope. The products you want are out there, you’ll just have to look a little harder. It’ll take time and effort. The solution is to shop smartly and start early. You may have to start looking in new or different places – perhaps online or at a lesser-known local store. I will not openly plug any businesses or websites that I did not purchase and evaluate a product from, but there are several online outlets that offer interesting domestic-made items.

Another advantage to starting early is that you will have enough time to check for promotions or sales to help offset any increased cost with buying domestically. This is not something you can do on December 20th to find your Christmas gifts.

Change your Mentality on the “Hot Items”

Sadly, most toys I found that were made in North America and Europe were quite different from what you’d see on most kids’ Christmas wish list, and it doesn’t look like it’ll change soon. Therefore, the only solution is to change our children’s (and our own) expectations.

While most popular plastic figurines where impossible to find domestically, I found lots of wooden toys and building block sets that are made right here in Canada. There were also a wide variety of educational toys, stuffed animals and sporting equipment that is made entirely in North America. Changing our kids’ expectations from playing with another Dora doll to using a building set requires a bit of effort from parents, but an effort that may be worthwhile.

Buy Yourself Some Time to Save When You Buy

I will not pretend that the toys you’ll find made here are cheaper than the ones imported from overseas. However, a good way to save money and bring down that extra cost is to start shopping early and use the extra time to find sales and other deals.

Making a multiple purchase (why not buy all the kid’s birthday gifts at one time and store them?) will help you save on shipping costs when buying online, and perhaps enable you to take advantage of minimum purchase amount discounts and other multiple-item promotions. Buying items when they are out of season (like a hockey jersey in the summer) and keeping it aside until the right moment is also a good way to find a deal. The only thing I would suggest is to make sure the item is tried out before the warranty or exchange policy expires if you will be hanging onto it for a long time.

National Pride

Time to take pride in that “Made in …” sticker. Why not support the hard working men and women of this country that are paying into your government pensions, sustaining your healthcare system and other programs than trying to save a few dimes? I don’t expect people to pay ridiculous amounts, but there are times where you’ll be surprised at what you’ll find for just a few pennies more, or even less.

Hey, if I can find Canadian-made packing tape at Dollarama, I’m sure you can find some goodies out there too. You just need to have the will to look.

Avoid Counterfeits

A lot of counterfeit merchandise comes illegally from overseas, and there is very little that can be done about it.

News Story

The solution is to cut it off at the end of the line. By buying these products, you are essentially giving your money to people who are working outside regulations and outside the system, both here and overseas. Increasing the demand thus encourages them to continue; decreasing demand makes it no longer worth it for them. Don’t pretend that Lacoste shirt you bought for $15 at the flea market isn’t a fake. Counterfeits are fairly obvious to spot, and if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is.

If you like your counterfeits because you can’t afford the real thing, fair enough, it’s your decision to make. But don’t go complaining about problems with our regulators and lawmakers when the toys your children play with bypass the system the same way as your shirts and watches.

Final Verdict:

We have every right to be upset at shoddy, dangerous products made in China (or anywhere else for that matter) and against the domestic corporations that carelessly design and sell them to us. Forget about mobilizing the masses to protest against corporations. I’ll say it again like I’ve always had: we are consumers, and we must vote with our dollar.

Now it’s time to tell cheap outsourced manufacturers what we think.

- Average Joe

A Little Clarification on My Opinion of Dollar Stores

Just wanted to set the record straight on some feedback concerning my “Told You So” sidebar and April review (why are people still focused on April?):

If you read my review from start to finish, you would realize that I am not denouncing the dollar store genre. I think that like in any type of store, there are some great deals and some bad deals that the average consumer can find. To summarize:

-In my books, when you pay a dollar and get a product that’s worth a dollar, you’ve got a fair deal.

-If you pay a dollar but get a product comparable and/or equivalent to a similar product that is worth more than a dollar, you got a good deal.

-If you pay a dollar (for whatever intent – I understand not all people can shop at other stores for financial reasons) but get a piece of junk that can’t do its main purpose or is of such unreasonably low quality that its practical use is impossible, well then you’ve got a bad deal.

Enough said!

- Average Joe

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Have a Great Summer!

Alright kiddies ... Average Joe is leaving the warm glow of his computer monitor for some much needed time in the sun! That's right, it's summer vacation time!

Have yourselves a fun, safe vacation and I'll see you all back here again in September!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Parking Predicament

The City of Montreal’s new electronic parking meter system leaves this commuter longing for the good old days.

Product Review: “Payez Partez” (Pay’n’Go) Electronic Parking Meters

In case you didn’t know, the days of the old clink-clunk-turn mechanical parking meters are coming to an end. In most urban areas, the traditional glass-domed metal meters are being phased out for newer computerized systems consisting of electronic paying posts and indexed parking spots.

I was actually excited a few years back when the City of Montreal announced it was going to test out a new parking meter system on a few downtown blocks. Finally, in this computer age the city that still has mechanically-timed traffic lights was boldly taking a technological step forward. I had read up on the system’s promotional info and had my hopes high at first. However, now after years of tinkering and putting up with this inconvenient and at times frustratingly ridiculous system, I’ve had enough and believe that I am ready to voice my opinion.

Like a plague, it’s spreading! This electronic parking system with its centralized electronic pay booth has recently moved from its downtown testbed into Montreal suburbs such as Lachine.

Product Overview:

The “Payez Partez” parking meter system works as follows:

The traditional on-the-spot mechanical meter that used to grace the sidewalk in front of the allocated parking space is gone. In its place is a plastic paddle ID board indicating an alphanumeric parking spot designation (letters are usually related to the zone, while the numbers increase in order down the street).

If I had to designate the name of my parking spot, I’d call it “Larry”.

Payments are made by entering the parking space designation in a common, centralized parking payment post located nearby the parking spots. The post is much larger than the old-style meters; it has an LCD screen, keypad and accepts various payment methods. It can be used to pay for any parking spot within about four letter zones, and there are usually about 3 or 4 posts located per average-length street block.

Electronic paying post: always closeby to take your money.

The advantages for this system are mostly touted as a great cost reduction for the operating entities (i.e. municipality). First, the plethora of old mechanical parking meters that would break, jam and require servicing are now replaced by a few-or-no moving parts system that requires little maintenance. Second, the centralized payment posts mean there are fewer and faster money pick-ups, as the meter maids don’t need to walk up to every single parking spot and empty individual banks as before. Third, changes in parking rates can be accomplished much more easily, as the price per hour can be instantly updated in the computerized system as compared to the mechanical re-calibration of every single parking meter in the legacy system. Finally, the electronic system makes life easier for traffic ticket issuers, as meters that are in violation can be browsed electronically by traffic officers.

The advantage for the consumer is somewhat muted in comparison. The big positives are the ability to pay electronically (no more fumbling and bumbling for change, just use your credit card) and the fact that the meter is intelligent enough to not accept money after hours (not too bad of a feature as I’ve accidentally loaded up meters on Sundays out of habit in the past). One last major upside is that the meter can be paid or refilled remotely, i.e. from locations that are blocks away from your parking spot, as long as you remember your parking spot designation and provided that there is a payment post nearby.

While the system may look good as described on paper, there are several flaws and major inconveniences for the end user. For the purpose of this review, I’ll overlook the parking price (as it varies and most people complain that it is too expensive) and focus only on the technology at hand.


So you’ve parked your car at one of these new meters. Now what?

Time to play the memory game! Now don’t get distracted on your walk to pay.

When you get out of your vehicle, it’s important to memorize the space number so that you can remember it when you walk up to the centralized paying booth. The post is usually nearby, so you’re looking at loading that alphanumeric jingle into your short term memory for about 30 seconds if you’re a fast walker, or a few minutes if you’re down the street and there’s a line-up to pay. Now here comes my first little nit-picky complaint: sure it’s no problem to remember the series of letters and numbers when you’re alone, but try recalling it when you’re with your buddies or if you have a child with you. I can say that the combination of chatting with someone on your cellphone and a line-up at the paying post has spelt disaster for me a few times already as I’ve often gone back to my space just to make sure it was B347 and not B348. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh, but if people were putting money in the wrong meters when they used to be right in front of the spot, then what’s happening now? I’m also curious how well the elderly or people with Alzheimer’s are handling this impromptu short term memory test.

Could the LCD screen be any smaller? It looks like someone glued a cheap calculator display on an oversized mailbox.

Once you’re at the centralized paying booth, you have the option to do your transaction in English instead of the default French. The user interface is quite poor; the buttons are fine but the monochrome LCD screen is tiny in comparison to this gigantic column - I’ve seen more lines of text and character capacity on a 6-year old cellphone. The screen displays the parking rate and tells you how much time you have paid as you start adding money. Now for the first time payment can be made by methods other than pocket change as the paying booth accepts credit cards or other electronic payment services, meaning no more running into the nearest store to break a twenty by buying a pack of gum when you’re short. Once you’ve filled up the right amount, you lock in and print your receipt.

A print-out with your parking spot number, time and money deposited is rendered after every transaction. No need to put it on your dash but I recommend hanging on to it.

A frustrating feature (or lack thereof) has to be the fact that the current time is not posted before paying. I’m not being ticketed based on my watch time, so why shouldn’t I be able to see what the exact “official parking meter billing time” is? The reason I’m so discouraged with this is:

1) it is something that would have been so easy to add to the display as the post already has an internal clock

2) for situations when you’re paying to the last hour of metered parking, every minute counts

For example, it’s happened where I’ve loaded up the meter only to find that I’m short by 4-5 minutes, leaving my car in the red for a brief period. Then the conundrum: do I risk a $48 ticket or do I just put in another quarter? Ideally, if I had known that I was a few minutes short, I would have waited it out before paying and then loaded the meter once I saw I could fill it to the maximum. True, I can cancel my transaction after finding out, synchronize my watch to “parking time” and then wait it out... but why all these extra hassles for something so simple? Chances are in the end that I won’t bother to fight the system and eat the loss. Now take this scenario and multiply it by a bunch of people per day over the years and you have a lot of average consumers shelling out money because of someone’s bad interface design.

Another thing that I absolutely detest about this new system is that you are unable to top off the meter. That’s right out-of-towners: you cannot add any money to your electronic meter without automatically (and inadvertently) resetting the existing balance to zero. I see several problems with this besides the obvious inconvenience:

1) Remember when you used to luck out and catch someone leaving a spot, then as a bonus find out they had left 20 minutes on the meter? Well no more. The guy before you could have left a full two hours and you would have absolutely no idea. And as soon as you punch in the number and start dropping in your quarters, his money is lost into the parking abyss and you’re starting from scratch.

2) Back to the memory game with this scenario: you load up your meter for 2 hours and walk away. Two minutes later another commuter coming in for a quick pick-up parks his car and loads the meter for 10 minutes, but realizes only after printing his ticket that he’s accidentally paid for your spot instead of his. Guess what? Your 2 hours of paid parking have just disappeared and are replaced by a measly 10 minutes, and unless the stranger decides out of the kindness of the heart to fill you up to make up for his boo-boo, you’re on your way to a nice surprise waiting for you tucked underneath your wiper. Even if you somehow managed to keep your tiny receipt, you can expect the inconvenience of taking a day off work to contest your ticket. Nice.

3) The pure annoyance factor. With most meters capped at 2 hours, good luck topping off your meter in between dinner and a movie, or before a 3 hour exam. In order to avoid paying for nothing, I’ve had to estimate my schedule down to the minute when grabbing a bite to eat before taking in a hockey game, and once too often either had to run outside in the middle of my meal to add some more money (took longer to eat than I expected) or stand around at the meter waiting for my previous payment to expire before adding more (took faster to eat than expected). So much for convenience.

4) Now the Average Joe paranoia factor: imagine you drive a big, hefty SUV and park near a university where a bunch of modern day hippies see you load up that meter with every bit of spare change. If any of these environmental activists decide to drop a coin (note how the website below says ALL Canadian coins accepted), they can punish your polluting ways for only pocket change with what will surely be a parking ticket. In theory, a malicious someone could probably reset a whole block for less than the price of a double-mocha-choka latte. Even if you kept your receipt to prove you paid, have fun wasting your time to contest the ticket. Perhaps there was a reason the old meters were designed to be top-up-only after all.

Seriously … would it have been so difficult to create an interface that would allow people to be able to check the existing balance on the meter and add to it? I find it hard to believe anyone could be so incompetent to design a system so stupid (pardon my language) that I’m convinced this is a pure money-grabbing move. Think of all the extra dollars being lost as consumers pay for parking in the same spot twice, or maybe even three times over. What a joke.

Despite the fact that you can’t top off your meter, the end user at least has the benefit of using other nearby parking posts to refill when their time is up. While not having to run back to your meter is a good thing, not all posts serve the same parking area. Again, the question here is: “why limit this feature?”

Each meter’s keypad can only select from four alphabetic zones. I’m curious if there is a reason for this or if it’s like that because they only designed a keypad with four buttons. Either way, make sure you stay within a few blocks, or you may run outside your meter zone. No filling up from across town, that’s for sure.

Now anyone can take a system and criticize it, and I know what most of you trigger-happy e-mailers are thinking right now: OK Average Joe, since you’re so smart, what would you have done… stayed with the mechanical system?

Not at all. Here are my humble suggestions to take this disaster and turn it around into something a bit more consumer-friendly.

Suggestions on How to make it Better:

Let’s begin with the user interface on the payment post. First of all, the 2 line LCD has to go. I’ve been in bathrooms with graffiti-proof 7 inch LCD terminals over the urinals, so isn’t there a way to equip these posts with something a bit more interface-flexible and generally more attractive?

Was two lines of monochrome text really the best they could do?

My suggestion would be to go with a nice colour LCD screen that would always display the official time, giving average commuters the information they need right when they walk up. Next, the first screen would display a simple graphical layout of the street and parking spaces, taking away some of the confusion from the memory game mentioned above (“Oh that’s right, I parked second spot from the corner”). Then, once the parking space number is punched in, the time remaining would be displayed and the user would be able to top up the meter and print his ticket.

So far so good for Average Joe?

The LCD screen can even be taken a step further by selling advertising on the screen to generate funds for the city. Imagine the potential of knowing that whoever is accessing the post is: a) a vehicle driver / owner and b) currently in a specific area. This opens the possibility for ads about car washes, body shops and insurance companies, or for a local restaurant to flash its lunchtime special to people parking within a two-block radius between 11:30 and 1:00.

These meters have prime location and a guaranteed audience… so why not use?

I wouldn’t go as far as turning the payment booth into an all-out tourist-type information post unless a second screen was added on the opposite side. Last thing I need when I’m in a rush to pay for parking and move on is to get in line behind some slowpoke browsing the map for the closest exchange bureau. Touch screens would probably be more prone to breaking down or being vandalized, so I won’t even suggest to go that fancy.

Next, I suggest adding more convenient locations for the payment posts. The outdoor street distribution is fine, but why not add more posts indoors at popular locations? Imagine topping off your meter from inside a downtown movie theatre before going in line for popcorn. Also, wouldn’t the owners of the Eaton Center love to have people go to the middle of the food court to add more money to stay and shop rather than head for the doors to pay outside (and probably not come back)? I personally would like to be able to pay my meter or check how much time I have left from inside the convention center during the car show instead of going into the cold and snow outside. Renting or leasing indoor payment posts to downtown commercial property owners could generate serious revenue for the city while being a definite plus to the average consumer.

Why should I have to go outside in the cold and the rain to put more money in the meter? Places like the downtown Eaton Centre would only benefit from having a paying post deep inside while providing a nice service to shoppers. Photo courtesy of Ivanhoe-Cambridge.

In terms of price, the parking rate system is dynamic and easy to change. Therefore, why not have different rates for the weekend than for weekdays? Or, since electronic payment is allowed, how about giving hybrid, small engine or electric car owners a yearly renewable card that they could swipe in the machine to get a discount before paying? I find this would be far more effective in helping the environment than the “take public transit at all cost” message people don’t seem entirely convinced of.

I believe the above suggestions are reasonable fixes that can turn the electronic parking system into a real winner. If we take this one step further, we can also look at future developments that might be appealing for the end users.

For example, the current electronic system is linked wirelessly to the traffic wardens to let them know which meters have expired. It would be interesting if this information was made available to the general public.

In this age of Palm Pilots, GPS displays in cars, wireless internet and Google maps, the parking system could be linked in to allow people to browse a map of nearby streets and see if there any spots available (i.e. not paid). While a spot that is past payment might not necessarily be free, this data it is a good start when planning which street to turn up as well as giving people a rough idea of the parking situation and whether it’s worth taking the car downtown or if they’d be better off with public transit or cab.

If we throw cellphones into the mix, it could get exciting if carrier companies get in on the action too. Imagine paying your meter and then text messaging your parking number to your carrier. The carrier could then link into the system with your parking spot number and keep you up to date on the time left, send you a reminder when you’re down to your last 5 minutes, or maybe even give you the option to text back a monetary amount to top off the meter remotely (billed to your cellphone invoice for what I assume would be an additional monthly charge).

Topping off my meter from my cellphone while sitting in a movie theatre may be wishful thinking today, but this is an indication of the full potential of a souped-up Pay’n’Go system.

Ready to vote me for mayor?

Final Verdict:

Is this system as bad as I’ve made it sound? Yes, yes and YES. I’ve tried my best to give it a grace period, I’ve remained patient and impartial and hoped for a massive upgrade before the system spread, but alas … it seems too late. Montreal commuters are now stuck with a parking system that gives one set of small benefits while taking away the basic needs of the end user. Overall, this is very disappointing for a system that could have been so much more.

The only positive that I can add in is that the monstrous paying booth works off solar power (with a hardwired backup I assume). While this may be a good step forward in helping the planet’s environment, I believe the system is more effective at helping Mother Earth by frustrating commuters to the point they will just leave their cars at home.

It may be a bad system, but at least it’s an environmentally friendly, solar-powered bad system.

Reaction from other users has been similar, and most seemed to like my suggestions, which shows this system leaves people wanting better. One ray of light is that I’ve heard that some good Samaritans have actually started leaving their parking receipts in the little crack of the parking spot ID panel to show the next person coming that there’s still some time left on the meter. I guess good will always does show up when it counts, and I definitely recommend this procedure to anyone else that would like to balance the scales.


• Multiple payment methods available
• Able to pay blocks away from your parking spot
• Printable receipt for tax deductions (OK that’s a long shot but the list was too short)


• User is not able to see how much money was left on the meter
• User is not able to add to his paid amount
• Very limited features
• Bare bones interface is too bare
• Several easy ways for others to make mistakes that inconvenience the user
• The entire system is outdoors

In conclusion, parking is a necessary evil, but it looks like we’re on what was an avoidable road to getting a raw deal. It is inexcusable for consumers to pay and repay for the same parking spot over and over, as well as being burdened with a system that is devoid of features to the point where you long for the old mechanical system.

Average Joe’s Product Rating: 1 / 10

Additional information on this service is available at:

Stationnement de Montreal

Thursday, June 7, 2007

All Aboard

Make yourself easier to reach by getting onboard at GrandCentral.

Product Review: “One Number for Life” service offered by GrandCentral

How many of you out there have only one phone number? I thought so. If you’re like me, chances are you tell people to call you at the office on weekdays, try you at the house after 6, on your cell if you don’t pick up at home and at the cottage on weekends. I know some people in my black book that have up to ten numbers listed under their contact info.

So what’s the problem with this? Well, the main problem is actually using this “contact info” to get into contact with the person! People change their contact numbers when they move, when they switch jobs, when they date a different girlfriend. Forget to keep your phonebook up to date, and you’ll find at least 25% of the numbers in there will be useless in reaching your buddy. In this crazy world of people constantly on the go and on the move, what can be done to restore some order into the contact page of your phone directory?

Enter the One Number for Life service by

Read on and I’ll tell how these guys put the “grand” in GrandCentral. All photos in this article are courtesy of

Product Overview:

The One Number for Life Service by GrandCentral is exactly that: one number which consolidates all your other numbers; the mother of all call forwarding. This web-based service allows you to sign up for a “unified” GrandCentral phone number in an area code of your choice, and then link other phone services to this number. All calls to your GrandCentral number are automatically forwarded simultaneously to your other registered phone services, be it a land line, cellphone or office phone. Your buddies dial one number, but reach you at all of them. We’ll get into the logistics of this later on.

Some advantages are obvious: No more missing a call because someone called your cell when you were at home. With GrandCentral, your cellphone and house line ring at the same time. Also, forget about contacting everyone to tell them you’ve changed number after a move. Swap the new number into your GrandCentral home page and your buddies won’t need to update their Rolodexes... or even know that you moved for that matter.

GrandCentral comes in two very attractive packages: a free, ad-based subscription service which lets you add up to two numbers and a full service package that gives you all you ever wanted from a phone service and more (for a monthly fee, though).

These services also come with voicemail as a backbone feature; notification is via text message to your cellphone number and I’ll give you more details later on. There are no setup fees or the need to buy / rent special equipment. All you need is access to a computer with Internet to set up and manage your account.

There are features galore with both services, and GrandCentral was kind (or smart) enough not to water-down the freebie package. Not only are these guys the first big players on the market, but I believe it will be difficult for someone to play catch-up let alone out-muscle their market position anytime soon.

One important note is that GrandCentral does not replace your phone lines; it only “unifies” them. You will still have to pay for your cell, landline, VOIP etc. regardless of whichever package you choose, as this is basically only a souped-up call forwarding service meant to work with existing numbers.

Product Line:

GrandCentral is still expanding its coverage across the United States. Its US-based coverage includes local area code numbers in several states already, and will be coming to Canada within the coming months.

I was fortunate enough to play around with this service while visiting some relatives in Boston, who signed up recently for a 781 area code number. Needless to say, I will be counting down the days until GC goes live in Canada.


As mentioned above, GrandCentral currently comes in two packages. The base package is free, but is capped at 100 minutes per month, features advertisements when using the online control panel, has a 30-day save limit for voicemail and allows only a maximum of two lines to be collected under the unified number.

However, for 15$ / month (this is the US figure, Canadian pricing may vary) the time limits are lifted, the ads disappear and you can add up to six numbers. When you think about it, this is a pretty good deal as most people are already paying monthly fees for voicemail and other features which the GC package either already offers or will blow out of the water with something better. In the end, the average consumer may not only enjoy this product, but even save a bit more money when the bills are paid.

For those who are already drooling after reading the first few paragraphs, my recommendation when this service finally does arrive to Canada is to sign up for the free service, give it a test drive for a few months (hey, it won’t cost you anything) and see if it’s worth upgrading to the higher package.

Appearance and Design:

The web based GrandCentral page is well designed, easy to use and packed with features. There’s a lot of stuff at your fingertips, so it may get some getting used to.

My favorite feature is the voicemail box, which is designed and works like an email inbox. You can sort and classify the voicemail messages just as you would with your Outlook, and even forward messages as you see fir or download them and save them as audio files for posterity.

Eat your heart out, answering machine! This is a cleanly designed voicemail “inbox”.

You’ll find that the overall site is clean and easy to use. It may seem a bit bland to some and I look forward (if ever) to the day that there will be more ways to personalize the backgrounds and colour scheme (perhaps a downloadable version from your desktop?). The ads can be distracting at times if you have the free version (I guess that’s the point) but it’s definitely not worse than what you’d see browsing an online news site.


OK – so you sign up for a GrandCentral account… now what do you do? First thing is to choose a good “uninumber” – this is the one number for life that will be your portal to the world. As mentioned, local area codes are not yet available in Canada or some states, but service is expanding so some of you may have to be patient unless you want your neighbour dialing an out-of-town number to reach you. Perhaps another reason to wait is that vanity numbers are expected to be available soon for all those people who want to put 555-HOT-STUD and such on their business cards.

Next, link your numbers online. This is easy enough to do with the online utility but I would have liked to have more options on where and when the incoming call gets forwarded. There is a general “business hour” option, but a more specific “time” setting would have been good. For example, it would have been beneficial to send my calls only to my cellphone after 10pm. You can however direct all calls to voicemail or another number (hotel room when you’re out of town) at the click of a button.

Line up your numbers in a row and tell them where to go.

After your lines are set up, I suggest you start adding people to your contact book. The good news is that you can import contacts directly from online services such as Yahoo, Gmail or your email client on your PC. The advantage to entering everyone on this list is that GrandCentral automatically announces the names of these callers when you answer the phone (“Call from Average Joe”) and then allows you to choose how to handle the call.

Call handling works by four options. Pressing 1 allows you to accept the call, 2 sends it to voicemail, 3 sends it to voicemail but allows you to listen in on the message as it is being recorded, and 4 accepts the call and records it.

In my opinion, these features put call display or any other service provided by local phone companies to shame. My favorite is option 3 because it reminds me of good old fashion call screening with the answering machine at home. You all know what I’m talking about – you let the machine go on, crank the volume and listen to the message as it’s being recorded, then pick up the phone if you like what you hear or leave it for later if it’s not important. I always found this was one feature that was underestimated and unjustly left behind in today’s world of digital telephone gadgetry.

Option 4 is also a welcome innovation, although I feel a bit queasy in certain situations about talking to someone who may be recording me for who-knows-what reason (look at the whole Alec Baldwin fiasco). I’m also not sure what the legal ramifications are, but this is a somewhat handy tool to have in certain businesses, or if you want to record driving directions for later step-by-step playback. This option can also be activated anytime during a call, and recorded calls end up in your voicemail inbox and are treated like any other message (fwd / delete / save / etc).

Another great feature that takes a bit of time to get up and running but is definitely worth the effort is the incoming call options. You can have specialized music or a personalized greeting set up for different callers. Instead of listening to the phone ring while they wait for you to pick up, a business client hears Mozart, your best bud hears AC/DC and the girlfriend hears you say “hello gorgeous!”.

These personalized greetings will let you blow the boys away with heavy metal while clients get a professional business message.

What I like most about this feature is the ability to leave an “inverse voicemail”. Ever experience a time when you absolutely had to get in touch with someone before going out of range, but they weren’t answering their phone or their voicebox was full? With GrandCentral, you can at least record a personalized greeting and hope they call you when they get back and see they missed your call. Sort of like: “Hey, I’m going into a meeting all afternoon but I’m confirming that we’re still on for the movie at 7. See you there!”

One other feature that really had me head over heels is the ability to switch lines without requiring the person to call you back. At the touch of a button you can, for example, seamlessly transfer your call over from your cell to your house phone as you’re walking in the door to save on airtime minutes.

As for reliability, based on my somewhat limited experience with it, GrandCentral ran very smoothly on the web even with a low-end DSL connection. The site was never choppy and every call we tried did in fact make it through. I’m a bit curious as to how well the site has been braced against hackers, as I wouldn’t be too fond of having people rummage through my personal messages or start making calls to people on my contact list from my number.

Other Features and Fun Stuff:

Some nice bonus and specialized features are also available. For example, a “call me” web button is available to be added to your website, eBay auction or other html application. This is a great way to advertise your availability for potential online buyers or clients without spilling personal information.

Having people call you without advertising your number will cut down on the weirdos and spam while keeping you in charge of your phone at all times.

GrandCentral also offers a spam filter to keep telemarketers at bay. I’m not entirely sure how effective it is as this is still a relatively new system, but it is updated regularly based on spam reporting by its clients, meaning it should get better and better with time. The spam filter blocks the call from making your phone ring and delivers piece of mind.

Final Verdict:

I seriously believe this could be the best innovation in urban telecommunications since the inception of the cellphone. This is a pretty high order for me as I will admit that I’m usually skeptical when it comes to new technology in the telecommunications sector. In my opinion, the fruits of the digital mobile revolution such as text messaging and web browsers may seem impressive, but I find they really didn’t make life simpler or easier for the consumer. Instead, they only offer a few limited advantages while seeming to be yet another over-rated option or service companies push you to add onto your bill (watch streaming TV on your 2” phone screen? Give me a break).

This is why I give a lot of credit to the brains behind GrandCentral. They are able to provide an innovative service for free with reasonable services and useful features. True, 100 minutes a month may not be enough for everybody, but at 15$ / month I doubt those high mileage people will back down from upsizing. Especially if they decide to cancel a few overpriced features with their cell / landline companies to make up the balance.

I would have liked to test this system out some more to see if all the kinks are worked out, so I’m anxiously awaiting its arrival in Canada. For example, what number shows on your recipient’s caller ID when you make an outgoing call from one of your phones? Also, the phones all ring at the same time – so what happens if two people answer different phones at the same time … are all the features available? What happens if one person sends it to voicemail and the other decides to answer? Or, what if you’re already using one of your phones? This system is still relatively new so there are definitely some questions to be answered and I’m left wanting to know more.


• Unbelievable amount of innovative and useful features
• Obvious benefits for people with multiple phone lines
• Clean, efficient interface
• Affordable for paying customers
• Free version is an honest application, not crippled to encourage people to upgrade
• Works with most (if not all) types of phone lines and service providers


• Computer and internet required
• Relatively new, just got out of Beta testing
• Security looks strong, but is unproven
• Local phone numbers not available in all area codes yet

To sum things up, GrandCentral looks to be the real deal. I hope the Canadian service will be as reasonably priced as the American version and that features will evolve or be added over time. It’s very hard not to like this product, especially considering the average consumer can get it for free.

Average Joe’s Product Rating: 9.5 / 10

Additional information on this product is available at:

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Singing a Sweet Tune

SanDisk’s Sansa m200 series players offer plenty of features and value, all of which is sweet music to a consumer's ear.

Product Review: Sansa m240 1GB MP3 Player

When Apple made a splash the size of a tidal wave in the portable music player market with its iPod, we’ve seen a drastic shift in the technology, price and benefits available to consumers in this field. In what has been a very short amount of time, the iPod and a slew of other players have all but buried the Discman and cassette Walkmans of yore.

While I will not doubt that the iPod has, and continues to, set the standard in this category, there have been other MP3 players that have quietly come along and offer some really good value for the music-thirsty public. One of these players is the Sansa m240 MP3 player from San Disk.

Meet your new best friend in affordable portable digital entertainment. And you won't need to pull out the sofa bed when he stays over. Photo courtesy

Product Overview:

Computer accessory company SanDisk entered the MP3 player market with its line of Sansa brand players. The m240 product appears to be aimed at the lower end of the target price market, and on a good day, this 1GB unit can be found on sale for just under $50. The feature package, as we will discuss in greater detail, also seems economical as there isn’t all the fancy razzle-dazzle typical of other higher end players.

The Sansa m240 and other m200 series players accept MP3 and WMA file formats, which are loaded to the unit via a USB interface. They use one standard AAA battery as the power source, and come with some extra goodies such as a built-in FM radio and a voice recorder.

They give you everything but the kitchen sink! However, the USB cable comes up a little short.

When purchased, most player packages also come fully stocked with some interesting accessories. Except for the non-included battery, the 1GB model comes with everything necessary to get you up and humming to your favorite tune, namely: earbud headphones, a USB cable, starter software, a protective plastic case, a wristband and a promotional offer to an online music service. All in all, I was fairly impressed with this accessory package and will cover this in greater detail below.

Product Line:

The Sansa m200 product line is in the lower tier of San Disk’s playback product suite, a bit more streamlined and feature-packed than the e100 series but below the colour screen flash-based c100/200 series and the flagship e200 line.

The m200 series is a set of physically identical devices featuring the same functions and styling, and differ only from one another by their colour-coded memory capacity (silver is the colour for 1GB capacity). The 1GB version holds well over 200 MP3 songs, which translates to about 16 hours of music.

I chose the 1GB version because I felt it offered the best solution to my needs: having enough music storage space for some serious playlist variety while not breaking the bank.


The price of the Sansa 1GB MP3 player has been steadily dropping since the 2GB and 4GB versions came out. I’ve seen current average retail prices in the $70 range, but as mentioned above, sale prices can be found below $50, which makes this product a serious contender to any budget conscious consumer. Seeing as this player is available almost everywhere (no joke folks, I’ve seen it at some of the big box hardware and grocery stores, as well as in a few pharmacy chains), a sale shouldn’t be too hard to find if you’re patient.

I’d strongly recommend shopping around and waiting for a sale; you’ll surely be rewarded in the wallet and get a great deal.

Appearance and Design:

This MP3 player is very unique in shape and style, but can appear a bit bulky as its counterparts have gone for flatter, thinner designs. It looks as if SanDisk started out with the AAA battery envelope and designed the case around that, giving a sort of a funny bumpy-oval prism with an extended face for the keypad. Despite this peculiar shape, it is fairly ergonomic and can still fit into your pocket. I was actually surprised as how well it fit into the palm of my hand, and I appreciate the fact that the buttons are easily within reach and other critical functions are always at your fingertips.

You'll have this little player in the palm of your hands ... literally.

The unit itself weighs around 40 grams, which is lightweight by MP3 standards. The plastic casing seems somewhat cheap, especially the flimsy battery access door. Considering how often it is required to change the battery, you’d think it would be a little more rugged.

The plastic cover is a must if you will be leaving the player in your pocket or bag for extended periods of time. The cover works well in protecting from scratches and other cosmetic damage (I've had it my briefcase, drawer and gym bag without any noticeable marks). However, it doesn't exactly fit as well as it should, most likely due to the fairly complex shape of the unit. You’ll find it’ll be loose at the corners, and the openings for the buttons and plugs will be a little off, giving a somewhat clumsy look when compared to other high-end devices. (I've always liked protective covers to fit as tightly as Michelle Pfeiffer’s catwoman suit in Batman Returns).

The tailoring could have been a bit better on this raincoat.

While the stock cover is still passable, I'd recommend to any disapprovers to pick up one of the tighter fitting, better-looking aftermarket covers available for sale. Do a search on your favorite shopping site or visit a large enough electronics store and you should these glove-like covers in various colours at reasonable prices.

Switching to this aftermarket cover is like comparing your lady in a frumpy sweater to a low-cut spandex top. Photo courtesy of


While I am not the pickiest audiophile, the sound quality is good enough for the price of the unit. Don’t expect to be fooled into thinking you’re listening to a live performance, but you’ll find that the audio range is there.

The headphones are of average quality, but then again I won’t hold any shortcomings here against the unit. Headphones are the easiest component to replace, so if you’re not satisfied pick up a higher-end aftermarket set. The sound is fairly crisp, even after heavy use (jogging, etc) and the earbuds are comfortable. There is no included pocket or sack for the headphones, so I recommend wrapping them in the little Ziploc bag that the player comes packed in. If you don’t, those little foam coverings will gather every single crumb and speck of lint they can find in the bottom of your pocket, briefcase or bag.

The buttons are wide and clearly identified, which is great news for large fingered gents such as myself. You do have to press fairly hard on them though, as they are of conventional technology (no fancy tactile sensors or “chocolate” technology here)… but then again, this is not really a deficiency in my book.

If you love pushing people’s buttons, you’ll have no trouble with these landing pads.

The screen is a minimal 3 line monochrome LCD, but it is one of the better ones I’ve seen in lower-end MP3 players. The information displayed is clear and concise (genre, scrolling title & artist, time elapsed / total time interchanges with volume and a constant battery power monitor); thankfully there are no display frills such as distracting “visualizations” that are more fit for inducing an epileptic seizure rather than enhance your music listening experience. Visibility of the text could have been better, especially with the blue backlighting on, but the fonts are fairly large enough to be easily understood.

If black and white was good enough to watch Jackie Gleason, it’s good enough for my song titles.

Loading music onto the unit is easy and straight forward. No special “music loading” programs are required to get the music off your hard drive and onto the player (thumbs up for this) - you simply attach the unit via USB to the computer, it is recognized as a removable drive, and then you just drag and drop your songs onto it. I really suggest using it on machines having USB 2.0 despite the fact that it is backwards compatible, as the difference in speed is quite noticeable. I did a quick test and found it froze or hung on my older machine with its older operating system (Win 98 original edition).

Plug her in and load her up. Unleaded fuel only, please.

The only real thing that bothered me here is that the stock USB cable comes up a little too short for my liking at 9 inches (I’ve eaten subs bigger than that!). This won’t be a problem if you have a newer computer with USB ports coming out the front of the unit or the monitor sides, but can be an issue on older machines, or in areas like the office where the computer is stored under a desk. Luckily, I had an extension with a 4X USB hub, so I was spared from bending behind and searching the dusty nether regions of my PC’s backside just to upload some tunes. Not a biggie, but I doubt a few more inches of cable would have hurt.

The easiest way to make playlists is to make sure you fill out your ID3 tags before uploading your files to the player. Just because the file name is correct doesn’t mean the player will magically recognize it. Without the genre and song info filled in, you’ll basically be flying blind when navigating through your songs and be unable to perform any effective sort of your music. By default, the songs are stored in order of name, so you can also make your mix by adding numbers in front of your filename (001, 002, etc.)

Battery life is another area for improvement, as the single AAA battery is rated at about 19 hours of continuous play. When I purchased the unit, I was hoping this rating was a cautious understatement, but to be honest, they’re bang on if not being over-optimistic. My recommendation is to either buy yourself a set of rechargeable batteries and keep one on the juice while the other in your player, or stick to the heavy duty battery brand names.

The battery door: get used to it because you’ll be seeing a lot of it when the player is under heavy use.

One funny quirk I discovered is that as your battery life approaches its final hours, the battery will have enough energy to keep music running, but not enough to start up the player if you turn it off. I would get frustrated seeing my unit not starting up after a shutdown, only to try again a few hours later after the battery had some rest to find it running for half a day. The solution I devised to get every last drop out of the battery is to keep the player playing once the battery status bar goes south. Don’t even bother to put it on pause to go to the bathroom as the unit will shut off if you’re not back in time. Keep it playing solo, and then scroll back to the songs you missed when you return.

Before buying the unit I did some research and noticed some early reports of the player software being bad and in some cases causing the player to freeze up or crash. While I did not investigate these claims further to see if there was an official statement from SanDisk or if they were addressed in later models, I can say from my own experience over what has been at least six months I have had no issues of this nature.

Other Features and Fun Stuff:

Kudos to whoever decided to include an FM radio within the unit. I find it a big bonus to be able to flip over to a local radio station to catch a traffic report, or to switch over to listen to something else when you’re tired of your loaded song selection. Surprisingly enough, there are not many competitors that offer this option. FM Reception isn’t the greatest in hard-to-reach places (note how there is no external antenna) but unless you’re crawling under the sofa in the basement, it shouldn’t be a problem. If you live in an urban area, you shouldn’t experience any degradation in the signal; I found the performance to be fairly similar to cell phone reception.

The voice recorder is another great add-in, but to be quite honest I don’t get as much use out of this feature as I do with the FM radio. The sound quality is fair (I can understand) but don’t try to record sounds in the background or clips for high quality playback as these are beyond the capacity of the built-in microphone.

I really like how the unit doubles as a USB storage drive. It works in the same easy way as the music upload mentioned above. Just plug it in, and you can drag-and-drop pictures and files into this removable drive for easy transport to another machine.

In the area of post-sale accessories, the list is rather short. Besides a nifty little docking station and some rubber covers mentioned above, don't expect much selection in terms of car accessories and so forth.

Coming in for a landing at this docking station will cost you extra. It is also one of the only extras to add to your wishlist in what is a scarce aftermarket. Photo courtesy of

OEM customer support is limited to some firmware updates available for download and a few accessories scattered in with a plethora of gizmos made for the higher end models. Overall I guess this is sufficient, but definitely not too impressive, especially after I was crowing about the customer support site for an unknown brand analogue clock in my review only two months ago. Somehow I just expected more in terms of online content from a computer-related company.

Final Verdict:

Look up the m240 on the SanDisk website and this player promises high quality music playback at an affordable price. From my evaluation over the past months, I have to admit the player delivers exactly on that. The complaints I have are few and not really major enough to deduct any serious points from what is a nice little fun-to-use MP3 player.


• Lightweight
• Ergonomic design
• Simple operation
• Very affordable (wait for a sale)
• Comes with a great kit of accessories
• Doesn’t use a player-specific battery, standard AAA instead


• You’ll go through batteries like clean underwear
• Not many aftermarket accessories available
• Display is really bare-bones, which may turn off some technophiles
• Nothing too interesting in terms of product support
• Apparently a few legacy software glitches (?)

In conclusion, if you’re looking for an economical MP3 player that does its job well, I think you’ll be fairly pleased with the Sansa m240. It’s not as fancy as the other higher end units, but that was never its goal so please don’t fool yourself by trying to substitute this for something that would retail in the triple digits. If expectations are reasonably held in check, and I can honestly say it delivers great value for the end user.

Average Joe’s Product Rating: 9 / 10

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