Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Note About Making Baked Mac & Cheese with Pre-Shredded Cheese

Just a brief note to anyone making baked macaroni and cheese. If you are wondering if you can use pre-shredded cheese in the cheesy sauce, don't do it! Prepackaged shredded cheeses have anti-clumping agents like potato starch added. These other ingredients are usually disclosed on the label, but it's safe to assume that all pre-shredded (not block) cheese contains them. Their purpose is to keep the cheese from sticking to itself so you can pour it out of the bag freely. As a side effect, they make baked macaroni and cheese sauce have a terrible texture.

The potato starch will make your cheese sauce taste gritty. If you prefer to sprinkle cheese over the top it will also affect how this cheese melts and browns in the over during baking. While you will still be able to eat the resulting dish, be prepared for a gritty (potato-like) feel in your mouth with every bite. It completely ruins the creamy smooth cheesy goodness that should be baked macaroni and cheese. Just discovered this the hard way. Lesson learned. Do yourself a favor and get a nice block of sharp cheddar. No prepackaged cheese.

Guide To Buying a Refurbished Mac Computer

Part 1: Decide What To Get
I decided it's finally time to replace my HP Pavillion dv5000 laptop. Since I'm sure nobody has even heard of that model anymore, let's just say it's amazing it still works, struggling to run Windows XP with an AMD single-core processor, an 80GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM. I've had my heart set on a new(er) Mac laptop for some time now, and finally got the go-ahead from my better half to buy one.

After playing around on the models available as of this writing at the local Best Buy store, she wanted to buy the 15" MacBook Pro with Retina Display on the spot. Not so fast, I said, and convinced her that we could grab a great deal by buying a refurb. And rather than buying a refurbished Mac to save money, I am buying a refurbished Mac to get more bang for my buck. Instead of getting a new 15" MacBook Pro Retina 2.4GHz core i7 with 8GB RAM and 256GB of flash storage, we could suddenly afford a refurbished MacBook Pro Retina 2.6GHZ core i7 with 16GB RAM and 512GB flash storage for about $150 more. Sweet! (I wanted the extra RAM and SSD space since nothing about the Retina generation of machines is user-serviceable without a lot of hassle.)

(You can also pick up an older generation machine at the refurb store for considerable savings. If I wanted a Mac mini as a home theater PC for example, I probably wouldn't mind settling for one from 2011.)

Part 2: Make Sure Refurb Is Right For You
A little online research yields an impressive amount of positive reviews for Apple's refurbished store. A variety of Mac magazines and forums say that you essentially get a brand new Mac, looked at by a real human, with the same 1-year warranty as the new ones. The only downside is that it ain't 100% brand new: someone else has already smelled that new computer smell and then sent it back for some reason or another. This doesn't bother me one bit: the average savings are around 15% on refurbished Macs, and some models (specifically the higher-spec'd one I was looking for) give deeper discounts of 25%+ off the regular retail price. And Apple guarantees them to be pretty much good as new.

As an aside, I think buying refurbished is a no-brainer for most people. I could have saved a bunch of money back in college if I had just shopped the online refurbished store the summer before I left for school instead of going to the Apple store in person. Luckily the kind salespeople talked me out of the notion that I needed a PowerBook (top of the line at the time) and convinced me the more pedestrian iBook G4 would suffice for my needs. And it did.

But I imagine there could be some situations where refurb isn't what you want. If you're giving a gift, for example, the possibility of having cosmetic defects or having some kind of stigma attached to your gift since it's a refurb would make me think twice. Or if I was getting one for work and someone else was paying the bill, bingo, I'd rather have a brand new one.

Part 3: Watch, Wait and Buy
At this point I knew exactly what I wanted and exactly where to get it. There was only one problem: the specific model I wanted with the extra RAM wasn't available at the Mac refurb store at that time. If you check the refurb store and see what you need, you're in luck. But I had to resort to some other tactics to retain my sanity - rather than check the refurb store every minute, I needed a tool that would check it for me and send me an alert when the product I wanted was available.

To my surprise there is actually a tool that does exactly that. Enter (, an online tool (based out of Hong Kong, for what it's worth) that shows which items are in stock at the refurb store and can send users alerts via email or text message when your preferred build is available. Sure, it's a little sketchy since it's from Hong Kong and there doesn't seem to be any ads on the site, which leaves you wondering how they support their site... but whatever, there's definitely no harm in just looking at the site, and it's way easier to track down a specific product there than on Apple's own store.

I signed up for a free account (with one of my disposable email addresses) and (thought I) configured it to send me a text message when the refurb product I wanted was available. (more on that below.) I slept soundly, thinking I would be among the first to know if my soon-to-be new refurbished Mac was available for sale, day or night.

I also started using refurb tracker ( to create an RSS feed for the product I wanted. This tool lets you create a customized RSS feed for products on the Apple refurb store in specific categories. You can also create an RSS feed by user-enetered text, like "i7" and "16GB", then read them in a browser. Assuming I had everything set up right, if there were no new feeds, it meant that what I wanted wasn't available yet. Way easier than checking anything manually.

In the end though, both of these products didn't help me! One day I went to the site and saw my target model was green, meaning in stock, but I hadn't gotten any notification at all! After looking at my account, somehow I had created an account but not signed up for any notifications. Maybe I hadn't confirmed something with my account after clicking the email they sent me, maybe I misread something in their instructions (which aren't in the best English). Either way when my computer became available, there was no alert telling me about it.

At the same time, I also must have configured my refurb tracker RSS feed wrong (I had to use an app to read the RSS feed on my iPhone 4) so it didn't show me when a new product was added to the section of the refurbished store I was interested in! Luckily, I was able to get an order in without seeing a single alert.

In the end, compulsively checking the website (not their alert service) and the Apple refurbished store is what let me jump on the new batch of products and order a new refurbished computer. I would say if you are using or refurb tracker for something critical that you simply cannot afford to miss, you need to be extra careful about setting them up properly. There really isn't a way to test that they work, and in my case had I not manually checked the website I would never have been able to get the deal I wanted. Lesson learned.

These two tools do have a few other perks though. The site tells you when specific products were last seen and gives you a little graph of their price history, which can potentially help you anticipate when the next batch is going to be available. Of course, I also noticed (from the RSS history) that new groups of products hit the Apple store at seemingly random dates and times, and there was no obvious schedule for checking back to nab that elusive product.

One final caveat to the Apple refurb store: some of the products say "Available to ship in 24 hours" and some say "Ships in 1-5 business days". Not sure why that might be, but telling someone that's waiting that they'll send it in 1-5 business days is like telling a kid that Christmas could be coming any time between December 25 and December 30 this year. Still, I guess it's worth the wait since you can save a few dollars. Happy shopping!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lisle 63600 Oil Filter Wrench Review

I picked up the Lisle 63600 oil filter wrench for less than $9 at a local farm supply store and couldn't wait to put it to the test. It performed as well as all the other reviews suggested, but there are a few quirks that might influence your buying decision.

Essentially it is a cam-action clamp with a square cut out of the base for a 3/8" drive ratchet or extension. As you rotate the wrench to the left, the edge of the jaws grip the cylindrical shape of the oil filter. It is advertised as fitting oil filters from 2-1/2" to 3-1/8" in diameter. It worked great on the compact car I was using it on. (There is a larger version for larger truck filters.) All pieces are solid metal, but the spring is kind of flimsy. I guess it has to be in order to allow the jaws to open freely. But the fact that Lisle lists the replacement spring part number right on the package doesn't give me much faith. Besides the spring the clamp feels solid enough, it would survive being rattled around in a toolbox or dropped off a workbench just fine.

The reason the Lisle 63600 is so handy is because of the 3/8" drive hole in the end. You can put a ratchet right on the wrench, or you can hook up all kinds of extensions and universal connectors to create a wrench that will reach almost anywhere in the engine bay while keeping your hands clear.

One thing I noticed is that the cutout for the male end of my 3/8" extension is a little skimpy - it's not quite deep enough. There's also no detent or lip inside the square to hold the ball on the extension or ratchet, really it's just hanging there by the friction between the ball and the square. If you're using a wobble extension (like most extensions are these days) the wrench will wobble around considerably since you can't stick the extension far enough into the drive square to lock it into position. I think even if you had an extension with a locking ball it wouldn't have anything inside the drive square to lock to.

From the back you can see that it's made in the USA. Nice.

The jaws rotate on their rivets to open and accept an oil filter. The spring keeps their edges in contact with the oil filter. From this angle you can see the ball of my extension peeking out. If you were holding it sideways the wrench would probably fall off. For that reason this tool is best used to loosen the filter when it's stuck, but not for completely removing the filter. (I think most people already understand that your hands are best for removing the filter once its loose.)

Another angle showing the construction. The base is just two round plates of steel. You can also see how far it moves on my wobble extension. This is actually a good thing so you don't have to have the extension perfectly lined up with the filter before you loosen it.

One last shot of the Lisle 63600 jaws clamped around a filter. (It's a new filter.) As you can see only the  edges of the jaws make contact with the filter. It's easy to apply plenty of force to remove the most stubborn oil filters with this tool. But because of the jaw design, it only works to loosen filters. You can not screw on a new filter with this tool. Which is a good thing, since filters should only be screwed on by hand anyway. Although I can see if the filter was in some remote location on the block under a bunch of stuff where you couldn't fit your arm the ability to screw a filter on would be nice.

In a nutshell:
This is an oil filter wrench that will likely outlast you.
It is easy to get on oil filters at odd angles. If you can get your extension to it, you can remove it.
You can apply lots of force to a stubborn filter, even if there isn't room to swing the handle of a band-type oil filter wrench.
One size fits a variety of filters for domestic and import vehicles, unlike the molded plastic filter wrenches where you need a specific size for each filter.
It's a little loose on the extension, if you're going to be working over a full oil pan you'll want to keep one hand on the wrench so it doesn't fall off.
It only works to remove filters, it will not put filters back on.

If you're into changing your own oil, this is probably the only oil filter wrench you're ever going to need.