Tuesday, January 14, 2014

FreedomPop’s Phone, USB Data Modem, and Wifi Hotspot

Update 8-21-14: FreedomPop may be getting desperate in trying to get more income from their customers.  I can tell you that my opinion of them, already low, is even lower.  It's too bad; a company that is honest to its customers is going to keep them. 

I bought a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone from them about six weeks ago.  It took that long for them to deliver the phone.  The main reason I bought this phone from them was because their representative on the popular shopping site woot.com stated that this phone would offer wifi tethering.  The FAQ page on their website promised the same. 

Guess what?  When I received the phone, there was a "Freedompop Wifi Tether" app on the phone -- but it didn't work. 

I called and emailed FreedomPop customer service, and I also tried to post a description of my problem on the FreedomPop forums.  First off, the forums are sneaky.  I had to be approved to post something on the forum, and when I did try to post something, Freedompop censored it before it ever posted. 

I finally received an answer to my email.  This is not what FreedomPop promised and is really, really bad on Freedompop's part:

FreedomPop inbox@my.nanorep.com 


Dear Norbert Wu,

The reason why you cannot enable wifi tethering on your device is because it requires an active subscription to the Premier plan. Tethering on the Galaxy S3 is only accessible with the Premier plan. I currently have on file that you are subscribed to our Pro 500MB plan. You can always call our support line to upgrade your plan and receive more information.
Thank you for your support!
Your Personal FreedomPop Support Agent,

I am not completely upset here, because I did get a wifi tethering app to work (see my later post from August 2014) and, well, I expected broken promises and crappy service from FreedomPop.  You do get what you pay for.  I am not completely unhappy -- I have a Sprint networked Samsung Galaxy S3 phone that I bought for about $225, and it works pretty well -- and is completely free for the first 100 calls, texts, and 500Mb of data.  Except for the time spent having to call my credit card to get false charges reversed, which I anticipate -- but that's not any worse than my experience with Verizon and my iPad data plan!

Update: Since writing this review, I've checked the FreedomPop website, trying to look at their newer plans and devices.  I am sorry to say that FreedomPop's website seems to be deliberately making it harder for customers to know all the important details before buying a device.  First, as as PC World review stated, when you first enter the FreedomPop website, you are required to enter your email address (it notes that fake emails are often declined).  You are then required to enter your complete address, down to the street, city and zip code.  Yes, this is kind of creepy.

I went through this process to look at the details of a new hotspot and other devices.  I was disappointed.  The website is clearly designed to direct a customer to buy first and learn about the plans later.  If you choose a device, you are immediately hit up with a hard sell to purchase data notifications and other items which cost a bit each month (and I find unnecessary).  You are then directed to buy the device, without any information about the plans.  For instance, FreedomPop is selling an Overdrive Pro like I describe below.  I wanted to check to see if they had changed any pricing or other information about my $3.99 per month plan.  It was impossible to find any information about plan costs and the clear explanation that I received from a FreedomPop representative on the woot.com forums. 

Come on, FreedomPop.  You have great products.  You don't need to be deceptive to sell these products.  Open up your website, give clear descriptions of what you offer on your website so that your website informs.  The sales will  come, I am sure, and much of the stress of customers complaining and returning products will go away since you will have customers who are adequately informed from the start.

Here's an example: FreedomPop states for users of their FreedomPop phone:
"If you are experiencing a shortened battery life for your Evo Design 4G:
 First off, let us know if you want a new battery free of charge. Just email customer support with a valid shipping address." 

I looked and looked, but FreedomPop does not list an email for their customer support anywhere.  I called the sales number that they give out, but I was put on hold for 10 minutes and I gave up.  I did find a web form which I filled out, requesting a new battery.  We'll see if they come through.  I have a feeling that this is not going to happen.  I'll let readers know if it DOES happen.  

Here's my review: 
I have been an Apple customer since buying the first Mac at Stanford in 1983.  I operated a small business where all four of my staff used Macs.  My wife and I use four Macs, three Windows laptops, an iPad, and an iPod touch.  I say this because I know computer technology well and would normally be a perfect candidate for an iPhone or other smartphone.

I do NOT have an iPhone nor another kind of smartphone except for the FreedomPop phone below.  I refuse to become enslaved to another two-year contract and the exorbitant rates charged by the likes of AT&T and Verizon to use a smartphone.  Instead, I get by with my iPad when traveling, and if I really have to, I'll buy a month of data for my iPad from Verizon at $20 per month for 2 Gb of data.  However, I have not had to buy cellular data access in the last 18 months, since I discovered the offerings of FreedomPop. 
I have three products from FreedomPop.  I love the fact that they give me free Internet access, but I don’t like the sneaky stuff and the low quality of some of their product offerings. 

First, the basics.  FreedomPop is a service that offers free cellular data service up to a certain amount of data.  FreedomPop's network is actually Sprint’s network.  I’ll describe the three products that I have with them, and yes, I have to keep track of each product with a separate email address.  I don’t have a big problem with that. 

First, one reviewer on Yelp says this:
It's great that I get 500MB of free data every month, and I don't even get charged if I don't use any data in one month. However, their 4G WiMax network is spotty in my area, and it costs monthly to use the more reliable 3G network.

He’s right.  Sprint’s 3G network is far larger than their 4G network, which only works in major metropolitan areas.  Read on for more details.  And even Sprint's 3G network is nowhere near as widespread as Verizon's and AT&T's.  If you live and work in Lumber City, GA like my friend Andy, then you should buy a Verizon phone.  FreedomPop won't work much for you there.  

Here are the three products from FreedomPop that I carry around: 

1.  FreedomPop’s Bolt USB data modem: this is a USB dongle (stick) that you plug into your laptop.  It only gets Sprint’s Clearwire 4G service, so you can’t use it unless you are in major city areas.  Note that this only gives you 4G service, not Sprint’s 3G service.  Sprint’s 3G data service area is far more widespread than their 4G service. 

I live and work in two main areas: near Monterey, California and San Jose, California.  This Bolt USB modem won’t work for me when I am in Monterey.  It will work for me when I am in San Jose.  When it works, it is often very slow.  However, it  gives me internet access when I am traveling in major metropolitan areas, it is small and light, so I carry it with me in my backpack whenever I am traveling.  It’s a great solution for travelers and folks who have weekend homes in the city.  This way, if you spend your weekends in the city, you have internet access for free!  I bought my first Bolt for $50 from FreedomPop and then bought a second one for $10 when they offered it on woot.com. 

Each Bolt gives me 500 Mb (effectively 400Mb if you consider their rules) of free data per month.  After that, I know that I will get charged for data usage.  I have no problem with that.  FreedomPop’s website shows me my usage and I’ve never yet been charged.  I read the fine print and it’s a bit sneaky, but not beyond my comprehension (compared to the unbelievably sneaky stuff from Verizon and AT&T, this is nothing).  FreedomPop used to charge $1 per month if you did not use their gear at all, but they’ve since dropped this charge.  They also have some sneaky charges if you wish to be notified if your data usage approaches the limit of free usage, and if you want automatic top-off of your data or something.  I’ve had their USB modem for over a year now, used it infrequently, but have never had to pay for any usage charges. 

2.  When FreedomPop had a sale on woot.com, one of their reps gave the best information I’ve seen since in the forum discussions.  I bought a FreedomPop Overdrive Pro after reading her explanation.  Basically, it costs FreedomPop more to offer Sprint’s 3G data access than 4G.  The only data modem/wifi hotspot that they offer, which offers Sprint’s 3G data network, is the Overdrive Pro.  I am not sure if this is still offered by FreedomPop (they do offer the Photon, which only offers 4G access). 

I get 500Mb of data (again, effectively only 400Mb of data) free each month by buying this Overdrive Pro.  I pay $3.99 per month so that I can get 3G network access.  This is a good deal in my estimation.  I can travel pretty much anywhere and get access to Sprint’s 3G data network.  For instance, here in Monterey I can use this wifi hotspot to get on the internet from the golf course or beach.  I would not be able to get 4G cellular data in Monterey.  I don’t have a problem paying $4 per month for a bit of cellular data access when I need it.  The Overdrive Pro is a marvelous little device that is super-easy to use and understand.  It’s got a great LCD screen that actually gives you useful information.  I am very happy with this device and the data plan, but I actually rarely use the thing.

3.  FreedomPop phone: I bought this phone when it first came out and paid far lower for it than what FreedomPop seems to be selling it for now.  I believe that I paid only $100 or so, and I’ve seen it advertised now for only a year’s worth of “free” service ($10.99 per month beyond the first year) for $150 (and this was a 50% off deal). I probably would not buy this phone if it cost me more than $100.  When I bought the phone, I was promised free use of the phone for life.  FreedomPop also clearly stated that this phone could be used as a wifi hotspot and that the data from the phone could be shared -- but they have now stated that this phone cannot be tethered or used as a wifi hotspot.  So forgive me for not trusting them completely that I'll continue to be able to use this phone at no charge. 

I can’t say that I am overly thrilled with this phone.  The phone itself is OK but has the major drawback that it needs to be charged every 12 hours.  That’s a real hassle. 

This is not really used as a voice phone as FreedomPop configures it.  The phone has a voice function, but it is entirely over cellular data. It’s the same as using Skype or Talkatone on an iPad.  The phone comes with the ability to use Sprint’s 3G and 4G network, attempts to use 4G whenever possible, and uses 3G service if there’s no 4G network.  If you place a voice call using this phone, then it is converted to digital data and goes over the 3G or 4G cellular data network using FreedomPop‘s app – which really, really, really sucks.  I tried using this phone to make some calls over a month, and no one could hear me.  Not a single person.  It was absolutely horrible.  I’ve recently downloaded Talkatone from the Google Play Store, which I use on my iPad, along with Google Voice.  Calls made using this app seem to go through a lot better. 

I believe that the phone will not stay on to receive data unless you constantly press the power button to enable it.  It will look like it is on, but it is actually asleep.  Anyone calling you will not make your phone ring.  This is a hassle, obviously. 

I rarely talk on the phone, so it’s taken me a while to figure the above out.  FreedomPop’s allotted 1000 minutes and 1000 texts allowed for this phone are kind of ridiculous, given the fact that both of the apps used for voice calls and texts on this phone are just data-driven. 

I have kept this phone and carry it around because it is good at getting my emails.  It’s a free way to check on your emails while traveling around.  Just don’t expect to use it much for voice calls (unless this Talkatone app works better) and don’t expect it to work well as a voice phone (eg it won’t ring when folks call you unless you have it completely powered up).  The phone does give up up to 500Mb of free 3G data per month, so that’s nice.  Its web browser works OK within the coverage area, and I am pretty dang pleased with being able to view my emails while traveling around. 

In conclusion, FreedomPop’s service and products aren’t perfect, but they fill a real need for folks who travel and don’t want to pay up the nose for the major carrier’s usurious phone and data plans.  I wish they would be less sneaky about some of their charges, but in this shark-infested world of cell phone service, they are not as bad as Verizon and AT&T.  Being able to get cellular data for free, and even emails and limited phone capability for free, is pretty dang great.  Four stars for FreedomPop; five stars if their damn phone would work better and if they were more clear and forthright about the costs. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

DJI Phantom Initial Setup and Problems -- Some Notes

As I mentioned, I am generally a year or two behind the bleeding edge when it comes to technology.  My friend Eric Cheng has been doing great work with remotely operated quadcopters (drones) and has a great blog post on how to get started at skypixel.org. 

I bought a DJI Phantom in December, when the price dropped.  I’ve been astounded at how easy this was to set up and the great tutorials provided on the DJI Phantom website.  I got my practice by flying a Syma X-1 which cost $35 from Amazon and is a small quadcopter that is a great way to get practice flying these drones. 

Most bleeding-edge folks will buy the new Phantom 2, but I am still practicing with my Phantom I.  I have put a GoPro Hero on it, set to take still images every 0.5 seconds, and I’ve flown it a couple of times in the very basic GPS mode near my house.  I had good luck, but I don’t want to lose a $500 machine (well, $800 if you count the GoPro) just yet.  When the drone gets too high or far away, it is dang hard to tell whether it is coming at you or going away when you move the controls.  It is difficult to tell where the nose and rear of the drone is when it is far away. 

To solve this problem, the Phantom has a more advanced mode called IOC or Intelligent Orientation Control.  If you choose Home Course Lock, then pressing the drone to go forward will make it go forward in relation to where you are.  I have yet to try this, but it sounds great.  If the drone gets too far away from me, I’ll just pull the control stick back to make the drone go backwards, and it should come back to me.  Forward or backwards becomes in relation to me rather than how the nose happens to be pointing. 

For some reason, in order to enable IOC (which actually has two modes, course lock or home lock), you have to connect the Phantom to a PC via a USB extension cable, power on the transmitter, power on the Phantom, and then install their Naza M Assistant software.  Once inside the Assistant software, you navigate to the Advanced tab and click on a box enabling IOC. 

I tried this on Sunday, when I had some free time.  I list the steps and problems below for anyone else going through this. 

I.  Initial problems. 
Remember to always turn on the transmitter first.  Then turn on the Phantom drone itself.  This is a hassle when you are in an office at a computer. 

I downloaded the Naza Assistant software and drivers, but I was unable to enable the IOC.  At some point, a message came up and forced me to download the new firmware 4.2.  I did so.  I was then able to go into the software and enable IOC.  However, I remembered a message that after installing the new firmware, I needed to install the new parameters file (I still don’t know what this does).  After I did this, I could no longer enable IOC!!!

After installing the new parameters file, the GPS mode as indicated in the Naza Assistant software was always set to failsafe.  Normally, I could click the GPS/ATT toggle switch from GPS to ATTI mode, and the software would show this change.  Once the new parameters were installed, however, I could not switch to GPS or ATTI mode using the transmitter.  I also could not check the box next to “enable IOC”. 

After reading the manual and some forums (for some reason, on this Sunday, DJI very helpfully removed all the video tutorials that talked about the IOC modes and calibration software from their website, and I could not find the tutorials on YouTube or anywhere else), I decided to start from scratch and recalibrate the compass on the Phantom manually.  Unfortunately, since the video tutorials were removed, I had to rely on memory.  It’s taken me a couple of days now, experimenting, before I finally got the compass recalibrated.  Of course, this morning I discovered that this procedure is pretty well documented in their Naza user guide (not the place you’d expect to find it, in the Phantom Quick Start guide). 

Here are the steps:
1.  Do the usual: turn on transmitter first, then the Phantom. 
2.  Toggle the transmitter’s top right toggle between GPS and ATTI ten times.  The Phantom will go green on its LED. 
3.  Holding the Phantom horizontally, pick it up and rotate your body clockwise 360 degrees.  The LED should go green again. 
4. Hold the Phantom nose down and rotate it 360 degrees.  The LED should go off. 

If the Phantom’s LED blinks yellow-red, then the compass has not been calibrated properly, and you need to repeat the process above.  I may have gotten the lights and beeps wrong; check the manual. 

The first time I did this, the Phantom flashed yellow-red-red and the propellers would not start up.  I gave up for the night.  I got flashing yellow lights at one point also, which meant the same thing, I think. 

At some point, I was able to go back into the Assistant software and enable IOC.  I think. 

The next day, I tried contacting DJI’s California office for help.  You can see my email to them below.  In short, don’t count on DJI for good technical support. 

After some more reading of forums and their manuals, I decided to try recalibrating the transmitter.  There’s a description of how to do this in their Phantom Advanced Manual.  I did this twice.  The transmitters LED used to be red when I turned it on in the beginning, when everything worked.  It was green when I had trouble.  After re-calibrating the transmitter twice, it was red again.  I have no idea if that is the way it should be or if this just means that my transmitter batteries are low.  Whatever.  After recalibrating the transmitter, I could once again get my Phantom to fly.  Now I have to go through the manuals and figure out the technical stuff involved with IOC. 

Some notes I collected:
PPM is usual transmitter mode which is set in Naza Assistant Software. 

Some forum comments:
Question: Everything seems fine, but the motors wont start. I have checked almost everything that I could find on the internet about this problem, but no one seems to have this problem.

This sometimes can occur if your sticks are out of calibration. Hook up the NAZA assistant and run the calibration routine to make sure your control sticks are properly registered. 

did you pull both sticks down to the bottom corners and hold them there? That should start them up.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Some Tips On Choosing Fins for Boogie Boarding

I started boogie boarding when I was six years old, and I have been enjoying it ever since.  It’s the perfect surfing-type activity for me because I have strong legs and have been scuba diving for 40 years.  I’ve tried surfing with long boards, but it was a lot harder to learn, and I do not have the upper body strength and balance to use a surf board well.  I am much more comfortable on a boogie board, using my leg strength along with the proper fins to catch a wave. 

These are photographs I took while staying in Oahu's North Shore.  So no, that's NOT me in the giant surf of Waimea Bay. 

You can be forgiven if you think that choosing and buying a pair of fins for boogie boarding should be an easy task.  I used to think so.  After 49 years of swimming and 40 years as a certified diver (and 30 years as a professional underwater photographer), I am still learning about what kinds of fins work best for me in different situations. 

Every person is different, and fins for diving and boogie boarding are going to be perhaps the most personal and difficult choice of gear to get.  I can only describe my situation and hope that this review helps some of you folks out there.  I am a short Asian man who is in decent shape for swimming and scuba diving, but I am a good 40 to 50 pounds over my ideal weight.  I’ve done a ton of diving and boogie-boarding in different environments over the years.  I swim regularly at a local pool but that has not been enough to combat my bad food habits.  I have small feet compared to giant white males but my feet are wide.  I am 5 feet six inches tall, my feet are size 7-1/2 and I prefer New Balance shoes since I can get them in a wide EE size. 

For years and years, I just used whatever boogie board and diving/snorkeling fins that I had around.  They worked OK but were not perfect.  I finally learned what boogie boarding fins to buy when I rented a condo on Oahu’s North Shore for four months in 2006.  I went out one day when the surf was up at Haleiwa Bay.  I got out there using my usual Cressi Free Frog snorkeling fins and Morey boogie board, and quickly realized that I had blundered into currents and waves that were much too big for me.  A lifeguard screamed at me to swim back and followed me, yelling like a coach, as I fought the current to get back to shore and away from the large waves coming in.  I finally made it in, and the guy very rudely told me to get a clue, looking at a my noob gear in disgust.  

That same day, I went into a few of the local surf shops and tried on some fins that were made for boogie boarding, not snorkeling or diving.  I had seen these and had even bought a pair of Vipers back home in Monterey.  The Vipers just did not work for me.  When I put them on, bare foot, with nothing else except a thin sock, they were still too narrow for my feet.  I bought a size XL in the Vipers at the urging of a clueless salesperson, and these were still so narrow that I could not get my feet in fully into the foot pocket.  I thought that perhaps the   I was very wrong.  Vipers are designed for people with narrow feet.  I’d argue that you’ll rarely see these popular fins in Hawaii, but the folks in Hawaii generally walk around barefoot most of the time, and their feet are small and wide as a result.  In California, where most folks are white and walk around in shoes, fins with narrow foot pockets like the Vipers are popular. 
fins were designed to flop around on the end of my feet.

What fins should you buy for boogie boarding? 
First off,  any boogie boarding fin will be much shorter than any snorkeling or diving fin.  This is because with boogie boarding, you need a lot of power and speed in the beginning.  As you watch a swell come up behind you, you need to kick powerfully and quickly to match the speed of the incoming swell.  The entire goal is to kick quickly, in a short distance, to gain enough speed to catch the wave coming in behind you.  Ideally, the wave will smoothly rise up behind you, and your kicking and timing will move your body and board so that it falls down the wave as it breaks.  Too slow, and you won’t be able to catch waves, or they will constantly break over you. 

Another reason that the fin should be short is so you can put them on quickly, and waddle into the surf zone with the fins on.  You don’t want to be caught in the surf zone, with waves bearing down on you, as you struggle to get your fins on or off. 

Secondly, any boogie boarding fin needs to be wide enough to fit your feet comfortably.  You can wear booties in them, wear thin lycra socks, or go barefoot.  Whever you use on your foot, buy fins that have foot pockets that let your foot go entirely into the pocket.  Your foot should not flop around in the foot pocket.  Conversely, the foot pocket should not be so narrow that you can’t get your foot easily and quickly into the fin. 

I personally just wear thin Lycra socks, never booties.  I use the excellent Henderson Hot Skins® Fin Socks and Microprene Socks which you can see here:


You can buy them at my favorite dive/watersports store, LeisurePro: 


my pair of trusty, well-worn Henderson Microprene Socks

Back to the surf shops in Haleiwa.  These shops had a bunch of different types of boogie boarding fins.  I found that the Vipers and Voits are made for folks with narrow feet.  I bought some off-brand pairs that have been working for me for years.  They have a wide foot pocket; have a short powerful fin; and have a simple strap on the back, making the fins easily to get on and off in the surf. 

I always wear lycra socks to prevent blisters.  Cotton socks don’t work well.  Trying to swim too much with any fins will eventually cause a blister.  Almost nothing is worse than a blister on your foot during a diving or surfing trip.  It will cause you to sit out the rest of the trip, and so I take great care now to wear lycra socks.  I don’t wear booties because they are heavy, hard to get on, and sometimes will cramp my feet almost immediately. 

In summary: find fins that are made for boogie boarding, not snorkeling or diving.  As you get better, you’ll want to find a good surf store that can sell you a more advanced boogie board.  I bought a $150 board on sale in Oahu and it is an advanced board – it moves faster on the water.  I’ve since tried borrowing or renting cheaper boards in Bali and found that I move much slower on those boards, which can cause me to miss waves or get hammered.  The fins should fit your feet comfortably, have foot pockets that are wide enough so you can put your entire foot inside the fin (it should not flop around on the end of your feet), and be easy to get on and off so you can take the fins off very quickly, on the steep sand slope of a beach, as a huge wave appears behind you.  You don’t want to get stuck in the sand as a big wave closes over you, as you are trying to get  your fins off.  

A final note: I do most of my boogie boarding in the chilly (50 degree F) waters of Monterey and Central California.  For the past couple of years, I've gotten by just fine with a 3mm Henderson Aqua Lock wetsuit.  This is the most comfortable, warmest, most flexible, and best-made wetsuit I've ever had the privilege of using.  Being able to wear a 3mm wetsuit in these cold waters is a blessing; the thinner but still warm wetsuit gives me the flexibility to swim around without getting cramps or feeling stiff.  

Take a look: 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Mac Mini Goes to Sleep, Won’t Wake Up: The Problem and the Solution

A few months ago, I looked at the Geekbench performance ratings for my various Macs.  I had two old Mac Pro towers, which I had at my office as well as my home.  These were huge, indestructible machines.  But they were getting old at 7 years old, and their power consumption was very high. 

I noticed that one model of Mac Mini (late 2012, Intel Core i7-3720QM 2.6Ghz (4 cores), had a Geekbench rating of 11678.  This was much higher than the rating of my old Mac Pro, which was 4023.  It was one of the 10 fastest machines at that time (mid-2013) but was hard to find.  It is still hard to find for some reason. 

As a comparison, the Geekbench rating for a far more expensive Mac Pro (mid 2012, 12 Gb RAM, 12-Core 2.4GHz Intel Xeon Processor, 1 Tb drive, $3529 at B&H Photo in July 2013) is 17642.  My MacBook Pro (late 2011, 2.2 Ghz i7 processors) has a Geekbench rating of 9281. 

I bought one of these Mac Mini machines from B & H Photo in New York for $899.  It had, among other things, an HDMI output and USB3.0 ports.  I was particularly interested in upgrading all my Macs to USB3.0 because it was so much faster than USB2.0; and so many external hard drives from Seagate and Western Digital were now available with USB3.0.  The Mac Mini came with a 1Tb 5400rpm hard drive, and I put in a 512Gb Samsung 840 Series Solid State Drive (SSD).  Putting an SSD drive in your computer instantly transforms it into an awesomely fast machine, blazingly fast especially when starting up. 

I’ve been very happy with this new machine.  My old Mac Pros weighed over 50 pounds, and the new Mac Mini weighs about 2 pounds.  I can carry it back and forth from the office to my summer home.  It is pretty dang fast and a great replacement for my Mac Pros, which I used as a hub for all my Aperture libraries – still photos and videos which are stored in external hard drives (which are housed in external 4-bay RAID enclosures or with OWC Voyager docks). 

I had almost no problems with this setup.  I connected all my USB drives and other USB accessories with an Anker 4-port USB hub.  This hub came with a charger, and it worked perfectly.  I had absolutely no problems.  However, I needed more USB ports.  I bought a
HooToo HT-UH008 USB 3.0 Hub (7 Port, Bus-Powered, Detachable 2ft USB Data Cable & 2.3ft Charging Cable, Strip-Shaped Design) from Amazon.  This hub did not come with a power adapter.  I did know that the more USB devices you have on a hub, the more power you need.  I therefore unearthed an old charger for a cell phone and attached a USB cord with a power tip on the end, and plugged that into the Hootoo hub. 

The Hootoo hub worked well, but I started noticing that if the Mac Mini ever went to sleep, it was absolutely impossible to wake up.  I did the usual things, like resetting PRAM and the SMC controller.  Nothing worked.  Pulling out the USB hub did not work.  The only thing I could do, if the computer went to sleep and then into a coma, was to pull out the power cord from the Mac Mini and restart. 

I did more reading on forums, and a few forums gave me the solution to my problem.  The problem is that a USB hub connected to a Mac requires a lot of power.  If that USB hub does not have enough power, then for some reason the Mac that the USB hub is connected to will go into a coma.  It simply will not wake up from Sleep. 

My older Anker 4-port hub came with a power supply that is rated to output 2.5 amps.  I connected an old Apple ipad charger, which supplies 3.0 amps, and the Mac Mini is now waking up from sleep just fine – and super quickly.  I think that the problem is solved.  I can also see that there is a Hootoo hub on Amazon now that sells with a 4-amp charger.  The older Hootoo hub that I bought, and which did not come with a charger, is discontinued. 

Summary: If you are having problems waking up your Mac or PC from its sleep state, then see if the problem is being caused by your USB hub.  If taking the USB hub off your laptop solves the problem, then look into providing more power to your USB hub.