Scott's Column
More MP3 Info, Palm III Stuff, and House Budget Status

March 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

This month I maximize my Palm III, but contemplate why I would ever want one. I play around with MP3 files and learn some interesting things about sound cards. Finally we have enough bids in that I thought I would share with you the status of our dream house.

Palm III to the rescue

My wife has really enjoyed having a laptop that we can take with us to keep information about our house project available all the time. Whenever we can't remember a quote, or are worried if a price we are getting is too far off our budget, we pull out the laptop and plug in the numbers for instant answers. It has also been helpful in loading Toy Story I, II or Dinosaur to keep the kids occupied while talking with sub-contractors.

The laptop is a little bulky to take everywhere. Also, it is a little too geeky to take to some places. That's where the Palm comes in. The Palm III has two distinct advantages over the laptop. 1) It is much smaller and can be kept in a pocket to really take anywhere. 2) It's alarm sounds even when it's off. The alarm feature of the Palm Desktop software running on the laptop can only go off if the laptop is turned on. This would be the case with any scheduling software on a laptop. But the Palm turns itself on when an alarm event occurs. This has been helpful when the Palm is sitting on the dresser and starts beeping an hour or so before an appointment.

I recently went through Office Depot where they had all the Palm models on display to see. I looked at the newer Palm Vx. It is very sleek in appearance. The fact that it has two slots to hold the stylus would be great for lefties. But the software & screen were exactly like that on my two year old Palm III. I looked at the Palm IIIc. This was really nice. It has a very bright color screen. It was very easy to read. In fact, it was the only model that even had me thinking about upgrading. Although they had a Palm VII, it was a non-functioning model. I assume they didn't want people actually getting online.

Overall I was not impressed. As I mentioned last month, I had to force myself to use a Palm in the past. I still feel that way. I use the Palm for the house project, but that's it. I tried loading AvantGo. This is a application that allows you to view web content on your Palm when away from your computer. It downloads the pages you subscribe to when you HotSync. Although a neat idea... hardly the killer application that would make me use a Palm.

I saw a game pack for the Palm. The screen shots were in color, and it looked cool. I can't see playing those games on the regular Palm III, but a IIIc would be pretty cool. The IIIc looked a little nicer in color, as much for the bright screen as for the color, but it still didn't give me a real reason to upgrade and run the same programs. So the only reason for color on a Palm is for games. I think I would be better off with a Pocket PC device. Too bad they are too expensive. Besides, I already have the Palm III... and ultimately that is the only reason I am using it... because I have it already. Personally I don't find the Palm line of PDAs useful enough for me to spend my own money on one. When the house is done I will retire the Palm... again!

Quick Office

For me, Quick Office is the killer app that has me using the Palm.

When my wife started showing her brother-in-law the spreadsheet she started for the house project, he loved it. However, he does not have a copy of Works, and my wife's sister is an accountant and knows Excel cold. That was enough to convince my wife to give up on Works for spreadsheet work. We switched over to Excel. I built the initial information, and we update it constantly.

This also opened the door to buy Quick Office. I installed it on the laptop/Palm III and it does a decent job of allowing us to bring our detailed spreadsheet anywhere, and be able to access and edit it. It is a pain trying to navigate a spreadsheet of any decent size on the Palm's tiny screen, but it is good enough when we don't want to look like a couple of rejects carrying a laptop into meetings with an electrician or plumber.

My only true complaint about Quick Office is that it loses some of my custom formatting in Excel. I have created a format for a column that displays dollars in red that are over budget, and black that are under budget. Easy enough. It was a little tougher to get it to display a plus (+) sign in front of the numbers that were positive. A minus sign is easy for negative numbers, but ask for a plus sign... well that took some doing. Quick Office lost the formatting when I updated some cells on it. I worked this out by saving the custom formats in a text file on the laptop. If I need to restore the formats I just copy and paste the format from Notepad to the custom format dialog in Excel.

More MP3 Information

I have started getting a co-worker hooked on the MP3 format. I convinced him that he needed a CD-Writer to help him with is music collection. He finally bought one, and has been going crazy consolidating his music collection. I took the next logical step and showed him my Rio. I even ripped a couple of classical pieces for him to hear on the Rio. It convinced him. I let him listen to a MP3/CD I created. He said that a few songs were really bad and he understood why MP3s had a lower quality of sound.

I had not noticed what he was hearing. So I listened more closely. As it turned out I didn't need to listen that closely. He was commenting on a song I had not listened to at work yet. When I listened to it it was horrible. So I went home to do some digging. I decided to see if the problem existed on my Rio. I don't know why I leaped to this so fast, but I did.

The Rio played the song extremely well. Then it dawned on me. Our computers at work have "business audio" built onto their motherboards. It was the business audio that sucks for playing music. Now that I know what I am listening for I find it in a lot more songs.

That means I am even more impatiently waiting for the memory expansions for my Rio 600. This way I don't need to burn MP3s to CD for listening at work. Come on SonicBlue! Get the 340 MB backpack out, or better yet get the DataPlay backpack out. I will buy either one as soon as you make it available.

I have seen they finally released the 64 MB backpack for $170. Ouch! SonicBlue told me in December that both the 64 & 340 MB backpacks would be available by Christmas. Get with the program guys, give me memory!

I noticed SonicBlue is now coming out with a MP3/CD Player. It looks pretty cool. But I already invested in a MP3 device, and don't want a CD player. I rejected a MP3/CD hybrid solution because I can't image it would be durable enough to wear on a belt clip while doing construction on my house. However, I will be interested to see how the Rio Volt MP3/CD player will stack up against Sony's MP3/CD players when they hit the market (Sony announced them at CES in January).

While on the MP3/CD subject... If I didn't need the portability/durability of using a MP3 player for working out and construction work, I would get a good MP3/CD player in a heartbeat. It would be great sitting on my desk at work with earphones, or hooked to a stereo system at home. If you won't use a MP3 player in a rough environment I suggest you check for a good MP3/CD player. They will eat batteries, but with an A/C adapter they should be the most economical way to beat the cost-to-memory situation. I typically get 150+ songs to a CD when making MP3/CDs for listening to at work using my PC as the player.

The House Project

We have approximately 75% of the bids in. We are only missing a few bids, but they are small. We don't have bids on the insulation, exterior doors, interior doors and trim, and a couple of other areas. However, three bids that have come in were way above budget.

Let me back up for a second. My brother-in-law has a sheet from a bank that estimates the percentages of each major area of house construction. It states that the foundation should be 38% of the cost of the house, framing 37% of the house, cabinets 11%, electrical X%, etc. We used these figures to backtrack the price assuming we would build the house for $65 per sq. ft. This left us with dollar figures for everything. My brother-in-law made adjustments to those estimates based on his experience. Lastly, my wife found a decent cost building calculator on the Internet. We entered all the information about our project into that web site and received a nice price breakdown. Between the three different estimates each one is within a few thousand dollars of each other. They each have differences in some areas, but the totals are close.

Whenever we get in a bid we compared it to the three different estimates. All but 3 contractors have matched one of the three estimates. The 3 contractors that have not matched are the framer, plumber, and A/C. Since only these three were drastically off we feel we should be able to get better prices. The framer was the worst. He isn't close to any of the estimates, so we are going to find another framer. The Heat & A/C is a fair amount over budget based on 2 units. However, one contractor also provided an estimate using 3 units. He explained that it might not be a good plan to have the air ducts running across the house as much as they would have to for a 2 units system. He claims 3 units would be better for overall comfort and even heating and cooling distribution than 2 units. The estimate with 3 units was almost $3000 over the two unit estimates, and the 2 unit estimate was already about 4 thousand over budget..

I tend to believe the three unit vs. two unit argument. So we may end up eating this cost and letting the heat & a/c go way over budget.

The plumber's bid was very high considering my brother-in-law and I will be installing all the plumbing fixtures. We think the plumber is gouging his price. We will keep looking for a more fair plumber.

Lastly, the masonry contractor seemed high. I say "seemed" because his bid is actually under budget. However, I feel that he is under budget because we are getting a very good price on the brick. My wife's oldest brother is very good friends with a brick distributor, and he is giving us a great price on the brick. I feel this is the only reason we are under budget for the masonry work. In fact, the brick distributor said that we should expect to pay about $3.00 - $3.50 per sq. ft. for labor. The current bid is in the $4.50 - $5.00 range. If we can save at least $1.00 a sq. ft. on 3242 sq. ft. of brick work... that's a savings of over $3,000 just for the labor. So we will be getting bids from a couple more masonry contractors before we settle on one.

By next month we will have all the estimates in and have a good idea exactly how much we can build our dream home for. I don't know if I plan to reveal the exact price of our house in this forum, but we will see.

Stay tuned though, I will be starting to take pictures as the house is built. I plan to keep a really nice chronological display of the house from beginning to end.


Over the next few months this column may turn into a house building column. I hope that won't be the case. Maybe I will just create a new column on this site specifically for the house project. I am thinking about it.

Until next time...