In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

Category: computers Page 3 of 8

I don’t need a new PC, thanks

Microsoft has a new ad in which a woman doesn’t think she needs to upgrade their PC, so Microsoft employees go into her house when she’s not there, and they refashion her living room into a PC store. She sees the lovely new PCs and of course immediately changes her mind. She then chooses a new PC and her life is complete.

Microsoft has the ad on their site.

Putting myself in the woman’s place, I have words for Microsoft:

Dear Microsoft,

If you come into my place while I’m not there, expect the same look of surprise when I arrive home…but then expect me to dial 911 as soon as I realize what’s going on. Depending on my mood, I may then do my damnedest to kick the asses of all the Microsoft employees intruders before the authorities arrive. Of course I will start with the person wielding the camera.

If I smile as I enter my apartment, it’s not because I’m pleased to see strangers in my home. Rather, I’ve recognized that there’s money to be made by taking legal action against Microsoft. Profit makes me smile.

Your pal,

Rick.

And yes, I’m aware that Microsoft would have had permission, if the living room we’re shown is even the woman’s actual home. So either it was a home invasion or complete fiction they want us to believe. Neither is likely to have me look at Microsoft in a favourable way. The idea is just so dumb.

They should change ad agencies and fire the person who gave this campaign the green light.

My aging Mac

Apple released the new MacBook Pro laptops this morning and I’m again thinking about how my iMac is still trucking along. It hasn’t had any problems and I’ve had no complaints. Sure I want the 27″ LED display and an SSD boot drive, but in reality, it’s working as well as the day I bought it, and I feel no lack of performance despite it being in its fourth year of use.

When it’s time to buy, I’ll certainly be getting another Mac. I’m leery of the iMacs, however. The all-in-one design is very convenient, but it also means that you’re buying a monitor every time you upgrade your computer. Another disadvantage is that the heat produced by the display is radiated into the enclosure containing the heat-sensitive electronics.

If I were to buy today, I’d seriously consider a Mac Mini with a monitor. The Mini has all the horsepower that my iMac has. Granted the Mini is not available with the same processors as the current iMacs, but what it has is enough for me. The only thing holding me back (besides not needing an upgrade at this time) is the interface for external storage.

I’ve changed the hard drive in my iMac and I’d rather not buy a computer knowing I’ll have to do it again. The drives in the Minis are small and slow. They’re laptop drives, and the default drives are 5400 RPM models. What I want is a speedy connection to external storage so I can upgrade or swap drives with ease.

The Thunderbolt logo.

The Thunderbolt logo.

These new MacBook Pro models have a new interface called Thunderbolt that seems able to fulfill this need quite nicely. First shown in 2009 under the working name ‘Light Peak,’ Intel designed Thunderbolt as a combination of DisplayPort and PCI Express that will allow you to connect all sorts of peripheral devices, including hard drives and your monitor. The compelling fact is that it’s fast. It supports 10 Gbps transfers in both directions simultaneously. This is twenty times faster than USB2 and twice as fast as USB3, which is itself faster than most rotating platter hard drives. The current Thunderbolt implementation uses copper wire, but it will later switch to fibre optic cable and scale to 100 Gbps.

So I could, for example, someday buy a Mac Mini with Thunderbolt support, connect an SSD boot drive and another rotating platter hard drive to hold my data files, and it would move files significantly faster than a stock Mac Mini. I could also change drives at will by simply disconnecting the current drive and connecting a new one.

Computers are largely modular. The computer itself typically contains only the CPU, GPU, memory, and hard drive. The display is usually separate and you buy and connect everything else according to your needs. For example, if you need to print, you buy a printer and if you need to scan, you buy a scanner. Yes, you may have external storage right now, but because it is significantly slower than an internal drive, external drives are typically limited to portable or near-line storage. With Thunderbolt, I can see this changing. We’ll boot from external drives more and more often. Eventually, we’ll buy computers with no internal data storage because there will be no reason to have the drive inside the case. This won’t happen for laptops of course, but I can’t wait for a small, silent, cool, inexpensive, and hard-drive-free computer that’ll fit easily on my desk.

It may just be the next generation Mac Mini. I look forward to finding out!

Operation

Look, I broke my Mac:

20101028_imac_operation

Okay, okay … I didn’t really break it. Instead, it was time for an upgrade.

I bought it with a 320GB hard drive, which you can see to the right, just above the pliers. In the guts of the computer, at the top centre, you can see the brand-new 1TB hard drive I just installed. The LCD is still attached because removing the third connection was a little more trouble than it was worth. I had full access to the drive after removing the other two connections and swinging it away as you can see. I really wanted to blow out the fans with some canned air, but I wasn’t going to risk getting the LCD so dusty that I couldn’t clean it.

Dust was a major concern because there’s a piece of glass that covers the LCD, so any dust on the LCD or the inner surface of the glass would be difficult to remove once I reassembled the system. I dosed them both with compressed air and it seems to have worked out just fine. I was nervous when first booting the system because the canned air I bought managed to spray a quantity of propellant on the glass. Yes, I was holding the can upright. It would either evaporate entirely or leave some trace behind. Happily I can see no trace of residue.

I didn’t just tear into the computer, blindly. Goodness, I wouldn’t do that with a device so plainly not designed for user-servicing. I might be a little too eager to open things that I shouldn’t open, but not to this extent! I did it because I had the good fortune to discover an article called Upgrade your iMac 20″ or iMac 24″ aluminum 2007, 2008 & 2009 to 1.5 or 2TB Hard Drive — DIY Guide that described the procedure with lots of photos. It didn’t seem that hard so I decided to give it a try, planning to back out before I got myself into trouble. I know those sound a lot like famous last words, but it turned out that it was less complicated than I expected and it took between 20 and 30 minutes to complete.

The only required prep was to assemble the tools, including some small Torx drivers and a couple of suction cups, and to clone the old drive to the new one. I wasn’t about to reinstall everything so a block-level drive clone was the way to go. I cloned the drive before I did the swap so that after the operation, I could turn it on and everything would work as it should.

Everything is working so I feel that I can call the operation a success!

A/V revamp

My home entertainment system has been pretty simple for quite some time. I have a TV of course, and its signal sources were a DVD player, a PVR, and my trusty antennas. The biggest complication was that each device was connected to my receiver separately, so not only did you have to select the proper source on the television, but you’d have to do it again on the receiver if you wanted to hear anything. I had no problems, but my guests could make no sense of it.

Things have changed, however. With my joining the ranks of the debt-free, I decided on a reward. I got myself a new television. Nothing ridiculous … just a 46″ plasma. Anything larger would be silly as my viewing distance is a mere eight feet. Since it supports 1080p resolution, I wanted a high-quality source to go along with it. The Blu-ray player the sales guy recommended was less than $200 so I got it, too. The other high-quality source is the pair of antennas I have. I connected them, and it was good. Man, was it good!

The problem was that while I could enjoy beautiful high-definition television broadcast over-the-air, I could not record it. My PVR is standard definition. It does up-convert the output, but up-converted crap is still crap. And standard def broadcasts look a magnitude worse on a plasma or LCD TV as compared to the same image size on a CRT. I had no idea how I’d solve this issue as high-def PVRs are scarce in North America. Over-the-air broadcasting is ubiquitous, but few people take advantage of it. Those who have cable or satellite usually rent or buy the service provider’s PVR to combine the tuner and PVR into a single unit. There’s no money in stand-alone high-def PVRs.

In the meantime, I sprung for an Xbox 360 as well. I have an Xbox, and it supports output resolutions of 720p and 1080i, as well as the 16×9 aspect ratio. I connected it, and was terribly disappointed. The wide-screen mode simply stretches the 4:3 image to fit the wider screen. And although the signal was a higher resolution, the source wasn’t. It looked terrible. So an Xbox 360 it was. And I could finally play Halo 3, and Halo 3: ODST, too! And yea, it’s beautiful.

But what about the PVR I’d grown so used to? I wanted to time-shift high-def broadcasts, damn it! Where I started with no solutions, two popped up and my difficulty was choosing between them.

Channel Master has released the Channel Master 7000 PAL DVR. It’s a stand-alone unit with a two ATSC tuners and a hard drive that can store 30 hours of HD programs. It also has a live TV buffer that allows you to pause or rewind live TV. Connect the antenna, the TV, and off you go. A nice little unit that costs $400, unfortunately.

The other possibility was the HD HomeRun, which is a network device with two ATSC tuners. You connect your antenna to one end, and your local network, via Ethernet, to the other end. Then, any computer on your network can use the tuners. Windows Media Centre supports the device and it can also record high-definition broadcasts. See where I’m going with this? I have the advantage of being able to watch live TV or recordings anywhere in my apartment (either room!), and I can add more hard drive space at will. I could even convert the recordings to other formats because they’re right there on the computer. The HD HomeRun is less than half the price as well, at $170.

I liked the HD HomeRun, but how would I feed the picture from my PC to the television? I could run an HDMI cable. That would be problematic, and I’d need to replace my video card to get an HDMI output. Hmmm, maybe this wasn’t the way to go after all.

I looked at the new Apple TV, but it didn’t stay in consideration for very long. I’d have to buy software to run on my Mac to record the programs from the HD HomeRun. While I prefer my largely unused PC to take on this role, using the Mac isn’t a deal-breaker. What disqualifies the Apple TV is that it supports no more than 720p resolution. While it’s true that the difference between 720p and 1080p isn’t huge, I want all the picture my television can deliver. That’s especially true when the signal coming in over the antennas is 1080i. I can’t stomach sacrificing resolution because of a limitation of the device connecting the TV to the computer.

Then it all came together. The Xbox 360 can act as a media extender for Windows Media Centre. The Xbox connects to the Media Centre PC over the network and brings live TV, recordings, music, and photos from the PC to the TV. Although Windows Media Centre took a bit of tinkering to work properly with the tuner, setting up the Xbox 360 as a media extender was the very picture of simplicity … which I do not expect from Microsoft.

So not only can I record what I want, I can also pause or rewind live TV, I can record high-definition broadcasts, I have a lot more hard drive space than a stand-alone recorder, I can record two shows at the same time, and I can watch TV on the computer, too. It’s not as simple as a single stand-alone recorder, but it’s far more flexible.

This is the configuration as it stands today:

20101008_av_setup

Note that I’ve left out the audio connections. The only discrete audio connection is an S/PDIF cable from the television to the receiver. All audio into the television is carried with the video via HDMI. I no longer have to switch audio sources!

Also of note is that the black Ethernet switch lives behind the television and it’s purely for A/V gear. I’m still amazed that my home-entertainment system not only needs an Ethernet switch, but it uses all five ports. Why does my TV need a network connection? So I can watch You Tube, of course! It’s like I live in the future.

Also absent from the diagram is the rest of my computer equipment. I can indeed watch live TV on my iMac, but I wanted to limit the contents of this diagram to all the components used when I’m watching the television in my living room. It’s complex enough as it is.

My entertainment system is still incomplete, however. Of the eight channels I watch that are broadcast over-the-air locally, only four have gone digital. The HD HomeRun does not have an analogue tuner so I still rely on my stalwart standard-def PVR to time-shift the four analogue channels. When the digital conversion deadline arrives at the end of August 2011, I’ll be able to disconnect it and rely on the HD HomeRun for all my recording needs.

When I remove the PVR, I’ll also have to replace the coax splitter. Leaving an open connection can introduce interference, and I certainly don’t want that. Yea, it’s digital, but weak signals could have trouble if more interference makes its way into the feed. I worry about TV Ontario in particular. The analogue signal is marginal. After they convert, I may not be able to get the channel without tinkering or making some changes.

So for now I need to set my recordings on two separate devices, but that problem will take care of itself. I’m still very pleased at how it all came together.

Print by e‑mail

A few months ago, Hewlett-Packard announced a new line of printers that allow printing via e‑mail. I’m not exactly sure how it works but it must print the attachment of any e‑mail message it receives. Printing the e‑mail message itself doesn’t make much sense. The comments on the various news stories I saw often brought up how the printers would be targeted with spam in record time.

That’s certainly true if you allow wide-open access to the e‑mail address the printer would have, but you’d be silly to allow such access. Some posts even suggested that HP themselves would get in on this to sell more toner. I thought that was a step too far toward conspiracy theorist territory.

I was wrong.

According to Computerworld’s article, “HP partners with Yahoo for targeted ads,” the people over at HP have lost their fracking minds:

The company also sees a potential for localized, targeted advertising to go along with the content. While testing its ePrint Web-connected printers, HP ran two trials where consumers received content from a U.S. national music magazine and major U.S. newspaper along with advertisements, said Stephen Nigro, senior vice president in HP’s Imaging and Printing Group.

Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly clear. How did consumers receive this content? Did they print it themselves? Was it sent to them and just popped out of the printer without being requested? In the former case, I expect what appears on the page to exactly represent what’s on the screen. If it’s not, the printer isn’t doing its job. And the latter situation better not ever happen to me.

The most laughable comment, clearly indicating that Nigro has his head up his ass is,

“What we discovered is that people were not bothered by it [an advertisement],” Nigro said. “Part of it I think our belief is you’re used to it. You’re used to seeing things with ads.”

We may be used to it, but that’s merely a sad commentary on the current state of advertising, not a reason to extend it into new areas. That they’re doing this shows how far HP has fallen. They were the cutting edge of printing technology, and now they want to cash in on ads because their test group “isn’t bothered” by them. How about aiming a little higher than simply not bothering people?

Don’t think it ends there, either. Ho no! They also figure that they can use the printer’s IP address to get at least a rough idea where you are, and tailor ads to your location. Of course they assure us that they’ll keep our privacy in mind. Tell me another one.

The only way I can figure this working is if you must subscribe to whatever information is sent to you. The article mentions having the printer automatically print the morning paper for you at 7 am every day. That sounds all futuristic, in a 1960 sort of way, but surely the newspaper isn’t going to send you the news for free. Will it be cheaper to print the paper yourself than to have it delivered? Don’t bet on it. HP and Yahoo need their share of the revenues. And you’ll pay for the privilege of printing the ads. Lucky you.

For goodness sakes, why do I want my daily news printed on paper in this day and age?

I’ll pass, thanks.

I looked into how the printer does its magic. According to a digitalhome.ca article:

The way the ePrint platform will work is every HP ePrinter will be given a unique email address that allows users to send print jobs to their printer in the same way they would send an email message.

Once sent, the email containing the document or photo to be printed is forwarded to an HP datacenter, where the email message is prepared for printing, and then forwarded on to users printer about 30 seconds later. Of course, your printer must be turned on and connected to the internet in order to successfully print.

So all your print jobs are sent to HP on the way to your printer. Forget about printing anything of an even a mildly sensitive nature. I see that this makes it much easier to configure, but sacrifices security.

I’ll definitely pass. It’s a gimmick for which I can’t even imagine a use.

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