XP is Dead, Try Linux

Okay, this is a long one. If you have not upgraded to Windows 7/8 or you can’t go out and get the new shiny… Try Linux! You can download a “Live CD”, burn it to a blank CD or DVD, and reboot your computer. This will allow you to try it out first and see if you like it. To get you started here are some links:

Ubuntu (one of the most popular distributions)
http://www.ubuntu.com/

Xubuntu (Ubuntu with light weight desktop, great for aging hardware)
http://xubuntu.com

Linux Mint (based on Ubuntu with some awesome mixed, a personal favorite)
http://www.linuxmint.com/

Manjaro (I’ve heard really great stuff about this one and am downloading it right now)
http://manjaro.org/

Here’s a nice list of pros and cons I lifted from Linux.com:

“Let’s run through the pros and cons of switching to Linux. First the good parts:

Immune to Windows malware, and you don’t need anti-malware software
Offers both free of cost and supported options
Runs great on older, less-powerful hardware
No insane license restrictions
No artificially crippled versions to justify multiple price points
No phoning home to the mothership for permission to use your own computer the way you want to
Flexible and configurable
Easy one-click software installation and removal, from secure sources
Great hardware support, without having to hunt down drivers
A giant world of great software for free, and lots of great commercial software
Maintained by an open, global community of first-rate developers and contributors
All Linux software is available on the Internet, so you never lose it.”

Need to replace MS Office, sure I got you covered… https://www.libreoffice.org/

But Chris, I need to edit photos!
Boom! http://www.gimp.org/
Once again, Boom! http://www.darktable.org/

What if I play with recording audio?
Seriously? http://audacity.sourceforge.net/
Also, http://ardour.org/

Like to play games?
http://store.steampowered.com/browse/linux/

What if I absolutely, positively need this particular Windows program?
http://www.winehq.org/

Total cost = $0

Fake-Anti-Virus-Warning-Banner

You’ve Got a Virus!

How to remove stubborn PC viruses

This article was prompted by my experience the past two days with disinfecting one of my customer’s computers. He had managed to pick up the Trojan:Win64/Sirefef.Y infection, which typically produces this dialog box:

It also prevents the Windows Security Center from running, shuts off the Windows Firewall, and protects itself from removal by normal methods. One of the infection vectors is the use of an outdated Java runtime; more about that later.

So, over the course of the day, I tried the following:

So, with no effective results under my belt at this point, in desperation I turned to Microsoft. Now, anyone who knows me, knows I am not Microsoft’s biggest fan. In fact, I’d have been perfectly happy of Bill Gates had sold used cars (along with Steve Jobs) instead of founding a software dynasty; but this article is credit where credit is due.

First, I had to download Windows Defender Offline (aka “WDO”) and burn it to a CD. Other options are making a DVD, or using a USB flash drive. Note: If you do this, be sure to do it immediately before using it, to ensure you have the latest updates. It should go without saying that you do this on a known “clean” (e.g., uninfected) PC.

 

Then I booted from the freshly-burned CD and did a full scan.  The original Sirefef.Y infection was found and cleaned.

Ah, but we weren’t finished yet!

I copied services.exe from the C:\Windows\System32 folder on a “clean” machine onto a USB stick. Then, booting from the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows I overwrote the one on the infected PC. This might not be a necessary step, but I work on the “belt and suspenders” theory; that made me confident that the file itself was not infected. Then, using UBCD4Win, I searched out and deleted all other copies of services.exe, to prevent the automatic reinstallation of the same virus.

Now the tricky part: I booted from the WDO CD again, and ran another full scan. It found and removed another 8 or 10 infections that had been hidden by the Sirefef.Y trojan! Without the second scan, I’d have unwittingly put the PC back into service and probably have found myself tearing my hair out, trying to find the subtle problems these other malware packages caused.

Next, I booted into the freshly-cleaned system, and used the System Protection applet to remove all existing restore points and create a new one.

Finally, after checking to make sure the Windows Security Center was running and Windows Firewall was on, I updated Microsoft Security Essentials and run a full scan with that. No malicious software found!

Right now, I am making sure the same vulnerability is not exploited; I’ve deleted all Java runtime installations, and installed the latest (Java 7 Update 5), and Windows Updates are underway.

All in all, about 10 hours of work to fix a problem that would not have existed if Java had been kept up-to-date. I am a sad, but much more diligent, panda.

Android Apps

Interview: JABstone founder Joe Bureau

Android Apps

Due to a recent stroke in the family, I recently was motivated to look for a method of helping non-verbal people communicate without making everyone around them learn sign language, or play charades. There are a number of apps available for smartphones and tablets, notably the iPad and the Android platform. After comparing features (and prices), I settled on a AAC (Augmentive and Alternative Communication) app for Android called JABtalk (which I plan to review here also, Real Soon Now ™). I was able to reach the developer, Joe Bureau, directly and he graciously consented to an interview.

Without further ado, here’s Joe:

Q. Tell us about yourself and your company.

A. My name is Joe Bureau. I’m a software engineer living in the Seattle WA area. I’ve been working in the software industry for the last 15 years working primarily with early-stage startups. In 2011, my wife and I started a software company called JABstone, which specializes in speech communication technology for Android. Our first product is an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) application called JABtalk. We currently have over 20,000 active users in over 70 countries around the world. Our website is www.jabstone.com.

Q. What motivated you to start developing smartphone apps?

A. I first started developing smartphone apps for one of the early-stage startups I was working for in 2010. My initial experience was writing a location based application for the iPhone. I then ported that application to Android. Prior to building smartphone apps I spent a lot of time doing java development so stepping into the Android world was very straight forward. My experience with iPhone development was much more challenging since I had to learn a new language (objective C), new development tools (xCode), and was working on an unfamiliar operating system (Mac OS).

Q. Where did you get the idea for JABtalk?

A. In 2009, my wife and I took our five year old son, Wyatt, to a speech communication evaluation center to be evaluated for a speech communication device. Wyatt has Down Syndrome and struggles with verbal communication. The speech center we visited had an array of speech communication devices ranging from $8000 dynavox machines to $600 iPads. We tried several of the top communication apps for the iPad and spent a couple months evaluating the $8000 dynavox. After witnessing our son’s frustration trying to learn the various speech systems, it became clear he needed something much easier and intuitive to use. Having spent the previous year building iOS and Android applications, I knew I could build an app tailored to his specific needs that would give him a much better chance of communicating with us without the frustration he was experiencing with the other AAC applications he had been trying. Our son’s need for an easy to use speech communication device was the driving factor that led to the development of JABtalk.

Q. Why did you choose Android instead of iOS?

A. I get this question often. When we first started JABstone, our goal was to provide the most affordable speech communication app available. We also believed that a child needing a communication device should have access to the device at all times. This means taking it to school, to the playground, and anywhere else they may need it to communicate. At the time, the leading AAC app on the market was only available on the iPad and was $200. By the time a person purchased an iPad plus the application, they were looking at a minimum investment of $800. The idea of sending Wyatt to school with an $800 piece of fancy technology didn’t seem like a wise strategy. Being involved in the technology industry, I knew the market would soon be flooded with inexpensive Android tablets and would be a much more practical solution for the problem we were trying to solve. From my own software development experience, I also knew developing an application for Android would be much faster and cheaper than it would be for iOS. As of today, over 70% of JABtalk users are running the app on devices that cost less than $200 so I think Android was the right decision for our particular needs and goals.

Q. How long was the development process for JABtalk from idea to Google Play and Amazon’s App Store?

A. Building software is a very iterative process. The first version was pretty basic and only offered a few fundamental features like importing a picture and audio files from an SDCard. The first version probably took a month of mostly weekends to create and publish to the Google Play store. During 2011, we released 11 updates to JABtalk and now have dozens of features as listed on our website. If you were to ask how many hours have been spent working on JABtalk over the last year, it would probably be a couple hundred hours.

Q. What are the challenges of developing for the Android platform?

A. There are two main challenges with Android in my opinion. The first challenge is the fragmentation of Android versions available in the marketplace. Apple has the advantage of controlling what versions of iOS are in use by automatically pushing new versions of the operating system to iOS devices. Android users are at the mercy of device manufacturers or cellular carriers to send them updates. Unfortunately, making sure users have the latest and greatest version of Android isn’t always a priority or even in the financial interests of cellular carriers or device manufacturers. If you want your app to be available to the largest number of users, you have to write your app in a way that is backward compatible with versions of Android that may be 2 or 3 years old. This means you can’t take advantage of the latest Android features. For example, one of the features I want to provide JABtalk users is the ability to control the speed of a scrolling window. The API to add that functionality is only available in Android 3.0 and higher. Since more than 70% of JABtalk users are running Android 2.3, I can’t offer that feature unless I want to create a different version of JABtalk specifically for Android 3.0 or greater.

The second challenge developing for Android is the number of Android devices in the market that look and work differently. For example, the Nook Tablet, Kindle Fire, and Samsung Galaxy all run a flavor of Android but all look radically different from each other and have different hardware capabilities. Since each device has different capabilities, JABtalk has to detect the hardware capabilities of each device and suppress or enable certain features on the fly. While this isn’t a challenge from a technical perspective, trying to describe the features and capabilities of JABtalk can get complicated since the features available are completely dependent on the capabilities of each Android device. The wide variety of devices and capabilities can make reproducing and debugging a problem very challenging as well.

Q. If you had known all that before starting on JABtalk, what would you have done differently?

A. I’m not sure I would have changed anything if starting over. I still believe Android is the best platform for our particular needs and goals. Android owns 50% of the smartphone market now and I personally believe that trend is going to continue going upward. The iPad currently dominates tablets, but it’s hard for me to believe Android won’t overtake the tablet market as well over the next few years unless Microsoft can pull a rabbit out of their hat with Windows 8.

From a development perspective, I wish there were one set of tools or a specific technology available to allow you to create truly native applications for all platforms. If you want to create an application today that performs well and can take full advantage of Android or iOS features, you need to use tools and frameworks unique to each platform. That means if you want to write native Android applications, you’re typically going to use Java for your programming language and Eclipse or IntelliJ for your development environment. If you’re writing a native iOS app, you’re going to use objective C for your programming language and Xcode for your development environment. If you’re writing a native Windows phone application, you’re going to use a C# for your programming language and Visual Studio for your development environment. There are tools available today, like PhoneGap, that do a pretty good job of providing a cross platform framework using web technologies, but since no native user interface widgets are used, the resulting app look more like web app than a native Android or iOS app.

Q. What advice would you give to someone wanting to develop Android apps?

A. The first question they should ask is if the app really needs to be an Android app. In many cases, an app could just as easily be implemented as a web app optimized for smartphone sized screens and accessed via a web browser. If the app doesn’t need to leverage native smartphone features (i.e. camera, microphone, GPS, etc…) and doesn’t need to have a native look and feel, it may make more sense to build a smartphone optimized web app instead. If the obvious choice is to implement your software as an Android app, visit the Android developer website http://developer.android.com so you can get the free development tools necessary to get started and begin learning best practices for designing your app http://developer.android.com/design. I would also caution people away from using third party tools like Adobe Air or Mono for Android when getting started. It’s important to acquire strong fundamental skills when learning any new technology so you fully understand what you are doing and can troubleshoot problem when they arise. Once you understand a new technology and are competent with the native tools provided, using third party tools to speed up development isn’t as much of a concern.

Q. Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

A. If you know anyone who could benefit from a free speech communication application, please direct them to www.jabstone.com.

Streaming

Streaming your Own Media at Home

You’ve cut the cable and now you want to be able to watch videos, listen to music, and look at the (thousands!) of digital photos you’ve taken; but you (or your spouse) don’t want that “big, noisy, ugly computer” in the living room, where your biggest HDTV is.

Fear not, my friend! If you already have a Roku digital media player and a network at home (wired or wireless; I prefer wired, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to poke cables through the walls and floors), you’re already three-quarters of the way to streaming your own movies, music, and photos. There are other ways, of course, but this is definitely the least expensive option; Roku players start at around US$50, and the most expensive streaming option we’re going to talk about here is US$15. You can’t buy a general-purpose PC that can play steaming video well for US$65, and even a wireless remote by itself would cost around half of that, so this is the most cost-effective solution I have found.

What you need:

  • The afore-mentioned Roku player
  • A wired or wireless home network.
  • A computer that will act as the server for your streaming needs. More on that below.
  • The server software.
  • The client-side app for the Roku.
  • Software for converting files to the necessary format, if they aren’t already in that format.
  • An account at the Roku Web site (which is free).

Preparing your home media center:

While it’s true that Microsoft has a popular Windows Media Center package, the biggest problem with it is cost (you have to either buy a new PC with Windows installed, or spend US$90 or more to get Windows). Other issues are the noise and power requirements (which translates into unwanted heat in the summer), and that bulky computer. So, the first thing you need to do is get the Roku player set up and connected to your TV and network (and presumably the Internet; that was why you got a Roku in the first place, right?).

Next, select the home PC you’re going to use as your media server. This does not have to be dedicated solely to the purpose, but it’s not a good plan to have someone playing games on the PC while you’re trying to stream video from it. If you have only one PC, and it’s running Windows XP or Windows 7, it will work. Again, if it’s going to be a shared-use PC, plan accordingly, because most games will cause degraded streaming. Right now, just about the least-expensive PC you can buy with Windows 7 (or Windows Home Server) will be more than sufficient for your server, so if your budget allows, you probably ought to consider it. Whatever you decide, we’re going to call this PC your “server” from now on.

Make sure the server is set up in a place with adequate ventilation (to prevent overheating) and where any noise it makes won’t bother you when you’re watching the TV. Also make sure it has a reliable connection to your network. This is critical to the success of your home media enjoyment; if you can use a wired connection to your router, it is your best choice.

Now you’re ready to decide which server-client system you want to use. Since you can always change your mind, it might be a good idea to start with the least-expensive (e.g., free) choice and make sure everything is functional before you spend any more of your hard-earned cash (even if it’s only 99 cents).

The Server Options: In order of cost we have three tested choices.

  • MyMedia for Roku is freeware.
  • roConnect is freeware, but the Roku client app will cost you 99 cents. There is also an Android app available. If you want to stream to an Android device without hassle, this is really your only choice.
  • Roksbox is $15. There is a 30-day free trial period.

Putting it all together: I’m going to address only the video streaming in this article, but please be aware that all three solutions also support audio streaming as well as still pictures.

First we’ll talk about the free system, MyMedia. The detailed instructions are linked above, but here’s the short version:

  1. Install the private channel on your Roku.
  2. Register (for free) the app that you just installed.
  3. Download and install the server-side software on the PC you’ve chosen for that purpose.

Because the server is written in the Python language, it’s not going to be simple to run as a service (a “service” in Windows runs in the background without needing to have any desktop windows open). Thus you may want to set up a special user account on your server, if it’s not dedicated to being a server, use that account to run the MyMedia server, and then “switch user” to a different account, to prevent someone from accidentally closing the server window.

You will have to configure the server and client to “talk to” each other; all those instructions are on the MyMedia pages.

Because MyMedia is freeware, it’s the best way to be sure your network is going to support streaming video; it won’t cost anything that you haven’t already spent, except some of your time. This is the client/server combination I used for over a year with satisfactory results. If you try it and you are happy with it, feel free to stop reading here.

Next up: roConnect

roConnect has a slick setup program that installs everything you need on the server in one bundle. If you’ve looked at the roConnect Web site, you can see that the developer has a well-developed sense of pleasing design, and the roConnect interface is undeniably pretty. Everything (other than file conversion software) is integrated into the Web-based front end to the package, and when it works, it works smoothly. There’s an active community of users who try to help each other out when things don’t go right, as well. For roConnect, you will follow these steps:

  1. Download the installation package from the roConnect Web site.
  2. Install it on your server.
  3. Add the roConnect app on your Roku. This will cost you 99 cents. Come on, be a sport!
  4. Run the Web interface either directly on your server, or from another computer on your network, and configure the server (so it can find your media).
  5. Run the Web interface and “connect” the Roku.
  6. Index your media.

Because roConnect has built-in IMdB integration, it can find a great deal of information for each video, if that video is named properly and if it’s listed at IMdB. The developer recommends running with IMdB auto-lookups turned off, however, and my experience agrees; you’re better off to “edit” each video’s info after indexing. roConnect will still perform the IMdB lookup, but it won’t hang up your indexing when a video can’t be found on IMdB.

When I first installed roConnect it was on version 1.2 and I had to fiddle around a bit to get it working. The client end is a lot more “elegant” than MyMedia’s rather Spartan look, closely matching the Netflix look on the Roku. Unfortunately, I was never able to get the current version (2.0 as of this writing) to index completely. Not everyone is having problems with it, though, and the nice Web interface and Android app are big pluses, so you should still consider roConnect.

My final choice: Roksbox

  1. The first thing you’ll do here is add the Roksbox private channel. Instructions are provided in the Roksbox tutorial. It won’t cost anything immediately because you have the free 30-day trial period.
  2. Next, you’ll choose and install a Web server package, and configure it for use with Roksbox. This is a lot easier than it sounds. Instructions are provided for several Windows server packages, Mac OS X, Linux, and two ready-built NAS systems. I recommend using Apache on Windows, mostly because it can be easily installed to run as a service, and configuration is in plain text so you can easily see what you’ve done. I am, of course, assuming you’re not using a USB drive plugged right into the Roku (which Roksbox supports).
  3. Decide how you’re going to index your files. Roksbox lets you choose either a “regular” file system or an XML file. I tried both ways, and for my money, the simple file system is better; I had 969 video files when running my tests, and the XML would have to be regenerated every time I added another one. That’s too much work.
  4. Configure your Roku client app to tell it where the server is.

At this point, you’re ready to start streaming video, music, and photos.

Why I settled on Roksbox in the end:

If you go to the Roksbox Web site, you’ll find detailed instructions for setup of the server, and for creating beautiful “movie sheets” using the freeware program Thumbgen. While this part can be time-consuming, the end result is very worthwhile on the Roku. Here’s a sample sheet, using the default template (I actually use a different template; you’ll find links to download other templates both at the Roksbox site and on the Thumbgen site):

[Click to Enlarge]

Summary:

You can stream your media for free (MyMedia), for very little (roConnect), or for only a little more (Roksbox), and keep that annoying PC noise out of your TV viewing area. You can even stream to (and from) Android devices without a lot of hassle, in addition to the Roku.

The age of streaming home video is here. Don’t be left out.

deus-ex-human-revolution

Would You Get Augmented?

Like a lot of you I’ve been playing through Deus Ex: Human Revolution lately, and I couldn’t help thinking about whether or not I’d opt to get augmented. There are quite a few different ways characters are augmented in the game, many much more subtle than the half-machine protagonist. The thought of consciously choosing to replace a limb with a cybernetic seems crazy, but a number of characters seem to have chosen to do just that. Of course, it might be difficult to see an arm as “perfectly good”, when you can buy one that is “perfectly better”.

One of the most interesting concepts in the game though isn’t the arms, legs, and eyes- its the brain implants. At one point you might end up talking to a girl who has bought a chip to help her with analysis, so she can compete with other augmented brokers. This idea is much more scary than the thought of simply getting high-powered arms. The thought that “regular” humans might no longer be able to compete in business and education is not something touched on often in sci-fi. It takes the “bump” that an Ivy League education, or being president of an organization in college gives you and magnifies it. Imagine writing a resume where you list augments rather than skills! “I possess a Mitsubishi Advanced Calculations Unit, an Intel Statistical Analysis Engine, and an ARM Writing/Speaking Package”.

The game portrays augmentation at a stage of evolution where there is no question that augmented individuals are “better” than their normal counterparts. An interesting view though would have been to watch the debate as augmentations were right at the threshold of pushing that boundary. At what point did an ADD correcting chip give a student an unfair advantage, or an arm replacement give a person the ability to start punching through walls? The game’s narrative involves this debate, but far enough in the future that the issue is very black and white.

I for one hope this particular part of the future holds off longer than 2027. I doubt I’d opt to get a new limb or four, but an implanted chip could be crucial to compete. What about you? Would you choose to become less than 100% human to get a boost in one area or another?

The Synergy Project

The Synergy Project

The Synergy Project
The Synergy Project

I recently had to work from home and while I have much of the software I would normally use loaded up on my desktop I found that I needed files or software that was on my work-provided laptop. I also have some custom tools that I wrote running on another laptop running Linux. While I was unpacking the work laptop I recalled having to go troubleshoot a Synergy install for a friend some time ago. I remember thinking it was pretty cool back then. At that time I didn’t have a reason to use it so it slipped to the dusty, cob-web filled recesses of my memory.

The software is cross-platform, running on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X which makes it incredibly versatile. The software is released under the GNU Public License (GPL) which makes this software two of my favorite things, Free and Open Source. Synergy allows you to use one of your systems as the controller for the rest. According to their overview, “Synergy lets you share a mouse and keyboard between several computers over a network.”

It works by installing on each of the systems and setting up one instance as the “server”, this is the system where the keyboard and mouse that you intend to use are located. In the configuration of the server you get to set up the position of the other displays, similar to the fashion you PC sets up multiple monitors, you just add displays as necessary. The other systems are configured as “clients”. I found that I have more success pointing the client to the IP address of the server instead of using the computer’s name.

Once you have it installed and configured you can free up all that desk space that you would use otherwise. You can position laptops where ever you want to because now all you need to do is see the screen… I had three of them running all over the place connected to my desktop as the server, that was fun.

I love the fact that it is cross-platform and can run this on the Linux machines I prefer. Another thing that this software does is allow for the systems to share the clipboard, a happy little feature I discovered by accident.

You can find more information and the downloads at their website http://synergy-foss.org/

sinking_ship

Netflix killed by the MPAA: Where do we go now?

By this time you probably know that Netflix has been forced to increase their prices by sixty percent in order to remain profitable after Hollywood decided to kill the golden goose (e.g., jack up the prices that Netflix has to pay for streaming movies and rental DVDs). My wife is adamant that we’re going to cancel our Netflix subscription altogether because of this. I don’t have to live with Netflix, so I’ll live without them.

But what will replace our instant-gratification streaming movies and cheap DVD rentals?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that Blockbuster is not an option; they’ve just closed the local store in my home town, and I don’t trust them to stay in business long enough to deliver any streaming video after they get my money, so buh-bye Blockbuster, it’s been real.

What about Hulu Plus? Nah. One basic rule: Never pay to watch commercials (cable or satellite doesn’t count, you’re paying them for signal, not content). Besides, even the most recent experience I’ve had with Hulu tells me that they don’t understand how to design a streaming video client that works well on anything less than a Cray, or a HAL 9000.

So what else is out there?

  • The free version of Hulu. Not my first choice, but let’s just get it out of the way. Not available for Roku (yet). Works (for some values of “works”) on PCs.
  • Redbox for DVDs, although they’ve had to increase prices, too, from 99 cents to $1.15 per night.
  • A quick look at Amazon Video On Demand shows me that they have most of what I’d be willing to pay for, and mostly at reasonable rates. In fact, Amazon Prime members don’t pay extra for quite a few of the shows and movies I’d be interested in seeing. Amazon Prime works out to about $6.58 per month (it’s quoted as “$79/year”), so that’s even less than the Netflix streaming-only option under the new price structure, at $7.99/month. Supports Roku and PC.
  • E-Z-Takes offers both sale and rental of “hard to find” video, both streaming and downloadable (which can then be burned to DVD).
  • Crackle.com (mentioned here previously) has movies, TV, and original content for free (ad-supported, with considerably fewer ads than prime-time TV). They have a new Android app, too, in addition to the PC and Roku options.
  • First on Mars has a pretty good line-up of broadcast TV series. PC only as near as I can tell.
  • eclipse.tv works  with Google Chrome, Firefox, Google TV, and Ubuntu to bring you streaming video.
  • YouTube Movies offers full-length videos on a pay-per-view basis, including free and 99 cent rentals.
  • Boxee either as a downloaded and installed program on your Mac, PC, or Linux system, or the Boxee Box. This gives you centralized access to all sorts of streaming video as well as local content (on your hard drive or local area network).

So, I will miss Netflix, but not that much. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of content coming out of Hollywood that’s worth watching, anyhow.

boxee dlinkremote 2

New Gadgets from D-Link

D-Link has a couple of new gadgets out now that are great for those who have (or who plan to have) a Home Theater PC.

First up, announced in May 2011, is the DAP-1513 dual-band wireless-N bridge, or “wi-fi bridge” to those of us who want to say what it is before lunch is over. A wireless bridge is the opposite end of the wireless connection from your wireless router (aka “access point” or “WAP”) and allows you to connect a network device (or in this case, up to four devices) to your wireless network even though the device doesn’t have compatible built-in wireless capability. For example, you could use the DAP-1513 to connect your HTPC, a game console, and two other devices using either the “standard” 2.4GHz band or the higher-bandwidth 5GHz band.

According to the press release,

“The Wireless N Dual Band MediaBridge allows consumers to quickly and easily expand their home wireless networks to connect PCs, game consoles, media players, and more without running any messy cables,” says Daniel Kelley, associate vice president of consumer marketing, D-Link North America. “And, dual-band connectivity makes it ideal for streaming HD video content, whether you’re watching your favorite shows or battling with friends in an online game.”

The DAP-1513 offers four Fast Ethernet 10/100 ports for fast wired connectivity, supports WPA™ and WPA2® security standards and features Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) for push-button security and top-of-the-line encryption from possible Internet threats. And with 24-hour support for basic installation available seven days a week, it’s never been easier to expand a home network.

The DAP 1513 has a suggested retail price of $119.99 (U.S.) and $99.99 (Canada) and is discounted by many online retailers such as Amazon.

Next we have the Boxee Remote (DSM-22), announced today and already available at a 20 percent discount from Amazon. This is the same remote shipped with the Boxee Box (also made by D-link), with buttons on one side designed specifically to integrate with the Boxee home media center/home theater software, and a full QWERTY keyboard on the flip side. Anyone who’s ever tried to use an HTPC without a full keyboard will tell you it’s no picnic.

 

 

D-Link says, “the Boxee Remote Control enables easy access to the search and social capabilities of the Boxee software on PC or Mac. Allowing users to enjoy and share their favorite video-on-demand service through their social networks, the Boxee Remote Control lets anyone quickly and easily input URLs and account information for their favorite websites. In addition, unlike infrared TV remotes, the Boxee Remote Control uses RF signals via an included nano-sized USB adapter so consumers never have to worry about pointing the remote at the computer.”

MSRP on the Boxee Remote is $49.99 – see above for discount information.

Cable Con

And the Beat(down) Goes On: Getting Ripped Off in HDMI

Back in March of this year (2011), an electronics firm in Australia took the unprecedented step of letting consumers know that people who were paying more than AUS$10 (which is also $10 US, near enough) were getting ripped off. Kogan posted an offer on their blog to provide a free HDMI cable to anyone who bought an HDTV at JB Hi-Fi up until 31 March.

The Kogan blog explains in simple terms why the high-priced HDMI cables are a rip-off, and I’ll repeat it here: HDMI signals are digital. That means it’s an all-or-nothing affair; unlike composite video and S-video, if you get any signal at all over HDMI, then you have all there is. There’s no such thing as “HMDI signal quality” because if the TV can detect the signal, then it can act on the signal, and there’s no noise (seen as “snow” and distortion on video, and heard as “hiss,” “hum,” and distortion in audio) like there is on an analog cable.

I’ll go so far as to say that anyone who tries to sell you a “premium quality” HDMI cable is trying to steal from you because he thinks you’re too stupid to know you’re being robbed.

Now The Inquirer has reported that Kogan has challenged a couple of large UK retailers to demonstrate a difference in cables in side-by-side “A/B” comparisons. Naturally, the retailers (who make as much as a 1000% markup on the cables) have declined.

Personally, I get my HDMI cables from Amazon. Shop carefully; I paid 99 cents for two cables, and got free shipping.

AppSumo Logo

Quick Review: Google Docs Unleashed (video)

I subscribe to the daily email newsletter from How-To-Geek and often find it informative or amusing, and sometimes it saves me some money. Today it saved me some money. It offered a link to AppSumo.com for a free video tutorial, entitled Google Docs Unleashed.

This video is apparently geared towards the Marketing type, or an App developer. Frankly, I’d have been pretty angry if I had paid $99 to find that out. I did not find the video useful or interesting, and the faces seen in it are a little off-putting as well. Production values are good for Web video, but the clearly-amateur actors would be better left as disembodied voice-overs.

Overall, I would be quite interested in the tutorial if I fell into the narrow audience it seems to be aimed at. Since I am not (I’m the get-your-hands-dirty, PC-technician-buried-to-the-elbows-inside-a-tower-case type), it left me feeling… Well, meh.

I’ll be going back to AppSumo a bunch though. We Gnomes love deals!

 

WoWl official fansite ogo

Big News from the number 1 MMORPG

That’s Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, in case you don’t already know. If you listen to The Instance, you probably already know.

Effective this past Tuesday, 27 June 2011, there have been some important changes for players who had not yet bought the first expansion (The Burning Crusade) and those who are interested in trying WoW.

From the Rage of the Firelands patch notes:

  • Recruit-A-Friend now awards bonus experience and free level grants to level 80, up from level 60.
  • Players with a copy of the original World of Warcraft who had not yet upgraded to The Burning Crusade have had their accounts upgraded to access the content and features of The Burning Crusade expansion at no additional cost.

And from the new Starter Edition FAQ:

  • The World of Warcraft Starter Edition allows players to access World of Warcraft for free — all you need is a Battle.net account and an Internet connection. Starter Edition players can play up to a maximum character level of 20 and are able to upgrade to a full, paid account at any time, allowing them to continue their adventures where they left off. The Starter Kit gives gamers who are interested in trying out World of Warcraft a chance to experience the game before purchasing a copy.

The following restrictions are placed on all Starter Edition Accounts:

  • A level cap of 20.
  • A maximum of 10 gold.
  • Trade skills are capped at 100 ranks.
  • Unable to trade via the Auction House, mailbox, or player-to-player.
  • In-game access to public chat channels unavailable. Players are limited to communicating using only say, party, or whisper. (Ed.: This means gold farmers won’t be able to user starter accounts to spam Trade.)
  • Characters will be unable to create or join guilds.
  • Characters are not able to send whispers to other characters unless they have been added to the characters’ friends lists or have received a whisper from a character first.
  • Characters will not be able to invite other players into a party.
  • Characters will not be able to join parties with other characters above level 20.
  • Voice chat disabled on Starter Edition accounts.
  • Realms experiencing login queues will prioritize players who have full, paid accounts.
  • Starter Edition accounts are not eligible for character transfers
  • RealID features are disabled on all Starter Edition Accounts.

And that covers all of the important limitations. Got a friend or family member you’ve been wanting to get into the game? There’s never been a better time. Send them to Battle.net to create a free account and start playing now.

 

google chromebook

Build your own Chromebook for cheap

Looking for a Chromebook so you can cut your dependency on expensive commercial software? Well, I’ve got good news, and bad news. The good news is that you can buy one now. The bad news is that they start at $350 and go up. If you’re not absolutely sure that a Chromebook will do what you need, that’s a lot of money to drop on an experiment.

So, what to do? Build your own! The Chrome OS has a very small hardware resource requirement, which I have proven by installing it on an ancient Dell Latitude CSx. This little machine has no optical (CD/DVD) drive at all, a 500MHz CPU, and only 256 megs of RAM. It has no built-in wireless, not even an Ethernet port, so I am using PCMCIA cards for that. I replaced the hard drive with a CompactFlash adapter and a 16GB CF card from Amazon, and there’s still plenty of room. It won’t boot from USB, so I actually installed the OS on another, newer Dell laptop and moved my home-made SSD into the antique. It works!

Now, I’m not going to be watching live video due to the hardware limits imposed by chipping my own Chromebook out of granite (I think the frame rate is around 6fps on YouTube) but it proves that Chrome does meet my needs, so I can graduate to better hardware when the mood (and my budget)  takes me.

So, how would you make your own? Start by prowling the local pawn shops and find a reasonably-capable laptop or netbook. Be sure to check prices online before paying for it, most pawn dealers have a rather vague notion of the current value of a computer. Make the pawn dealer demo it for you, checking that the optical drive (if any) works, and that the wireless and Ethernet ports are functional (again, if any). Make very sure it can boot from the optical drive or USB! Look for cracks or blemishes on the case, and worn keytops; you can use those to bring the price down if you like to haggle.

If the machine you picked doesn’t have Ethernet, or Wi-fi, or 3G (most won’t have 3G), you’ll need to get appropriate card(s) for that. It’s best to get the 3G card from your cell provider anyway. I didn’t bother to get one, because I have no intention of paying for a data plan. If there’s no Ethernet and no wi-fi where ever I go, there’s nothing I need to see on the Web right then.

Once you find suitable hardware, you’ll need to download either Chrome OS (the “official” Chrome) or Chromium OS (a linux-based community-supported derivitive). Follow the directions on the download page to create a bootable CD or bootable USB flash drive. By the way, I went with Chrome OS on my little antique, but I have made a bootable SDcard with Chromium on it and run it on newer hardware; it’s a lot prettier but still contains the same heart. Be sure to poke around on the Web page so that you know what the default username and password are!

Boot your pawn-shop-rescue laptop from the disk or USB drive you just made. If all goes well, you’ll be looking at the Chrome/Chromium desktop in a minute or so. Play with it a little. When you’ve decided you want to install it (it will boot faster that way), follow the directions here for Chrome OS or here for Chromium OS.  After you install and reboot, you can log in using your Google account (usually somename@gmail.com but in the UK and parts of Europe it might be somename@googlemail.com or somename@google.com).

Yes, it really is that easy! And if you are good haggler, you might have gotten that laptop for as little as $150, or even less! Mine cost $60 but it is admittedly pretty old.

Oh, about that home-made SSD; you’ll need to know first if your laptop has an IDE (aka “ATA”) hard drive, or a SATA hard drive. See pics below.  There’s a DIY SSD guide here. After you check that out, go to Amazon.com and search for “CF to sata adapter” or “CF to IDE adapter” and you should be able to find the adapter for under ten bucks. If your laptop is IDE, be sure to get the 44-pin adapter; the 40-pin jobs are for desktop systems and won’t fit. You can use any fairly recent CF card with at least 2 GB capacity. I found that the Kodak card I have won’t work, it can’t be made bootable, but all of my SanDisks work. Oh, and generally you’ll want to avoid the two-card adapters; they won’t fit into some of the modern narrow drive bays, because they are too thick. Once you assemble to card to the adapter, make sure it’s insulated (some don’t come that way, but thin plastic as found in those annoying clear plastic clamshell cases can be easily cut to fit with ordinary scissors), and substitute it in your laptop. Then go back and reinstall ChromeOS.

Enjoy your new, budget Chromebook!


IDE Adapter:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SATA Adapter: 

Oops.

Cutting the Cord: More Ways to Get TV and Movies Without Cable

This past week, I was pleasantly surprised to find a new channel on my Roku player called “Crackle.” It was free (ad-supported) so I took a look at it. I found that it’s basically a Roku feed of Crackle.com, so you people using Home Theater PCs and other devices that can access the Web, and can play Flash videos, can access it too.

So I quickly poked around and found that Crackle has full-length movies, TV series, movie trailers, and original content, all free and ad-supported, more or less like broadcast TV. Now, the movies are not first-run stuff by any means; I watched a Godzilla film that probably dates to the Sixties, but I saw several others that are more recent, including both versions of Heavy Metal and more various Godzilla and Mothra movies than I even knew existed. I didn’t attempt to look at all of the offerings. Crackle also has such TV series as The Tick (woot!) and Bewitched. Later I checked out Crackle.com on my computer and perused some of the original content. One that I am definitely going to watch regularly is called Trenches. It’s science fiction, and the five-and-a-half minute “teaser” episode was probably eighty-five or ninety percent action, with spaceships and ground troops shooting things up with lasers and who-knows-what. Video is available up to 720p so if you’ve got your device hooked to an HDTV, be ready for a visual treat.

About those ads (it’s ad-supported, remember?): During my viewing of Godzilla, there were several “breaks” during which a 10-second blurb for Battlefield 3 played. That was it. It wasn’t long enough to go grab a soda and chips (but the Roku remote has a pause/play button so in theory I could have).

The description for Trenches, by the way, grabbed me: “The creator of Star Wars Revelations brings Sci-Fi online with a take-no-prisoners attitude reminiscent of Pitch Black.” If you’re any kind of a geek, I think it will grab you, too.

Now, let’s see what else is available; visit each link for full details:

  • Crackle.com (mentioned above).
  • Everyone knows about Hulu by now. Personally, I’m not impressed, but many people love it. I find Hulu to be a resource hog, requiring about twice the amount of computer compared to every other method of getting TV over the Internet. Your mileage may vary; try it for free and see if it meets your needs.
  • Boxee has quite a range of shows, plus there is a list of live streaming TV maintained in the Boxee forums
  • Eclipse.tv is an app meant for Google Chrome; possibly you could make it work with another browser if you’re that masochistic. It aggregates links to many other video sources. Incidentally, I am running it on my Chromebook.
  • YouTube while not as easy to search as some other methods, now carries full movies in addition to user-submitted material.
  • Netflix has both streaming and disk-by-mail services, and carries movies, TV series (I am currently getting Season 1 of Torchwood, a Doctor Who spinoff) and documentaries which have appeared on cable channels like Discovery and The History Channel. You can even get full seasons of Mythbusters which is great for those weekends when you just want to blow stuff up, but you live in a no-explosives zone.
  • Amazon steaming video rentals range range from free on up.

There are several others that I am currently reviewing; I’ll edit this blog if I find any worth your time.

 

Digital Media

How to Create a Digital Distribution System for Video and Music

Unless you’ve been living in a cave since June of 1999, you know that most people like the convenience of digital music and movies. You also know that the record labels (RIAA) and movie studios (MPAA) have been falsely claiming for that entire time that piracy is cutting into their “legitimate” sales. I’m going to tell you (and them, but I already know they won’t pay any attention) how to make piracy unattractive, improve their public reputation and customer relationships, and (probably) increase sales.

A system to do all this must be easy to use, convenient, and safe.

In order to do this, you need to create a digital distribution system that is easy for the consumer to use, allows the consumer to access his purchases on every device that has the hardware capability to play the media you have sold him (convenience), make it affordable, and maintain tight security over the consumers’ personal and financial information (to maintain trust).

How to make it easy to use? Web-based rentals and purchases, without any proprietary garbage like iTunes, etc.

How to make it convenient? Eliminate DRM (or as I believe it should be called, adhering the the truth-in-advertising principle, “Technology Users’ Rights Denial Systems,” or TURDS for short). Make it possible to access music and video on every device that is capable of playing the media; PCs, Macs, and Linux systems can all handle Web-based media, smartphones can download files and play them locally (this is preferable to streaming over 3G/4G/LTE because of both reliability of the signal, and bandwidth caps by cell carriers; most smartphones also have Wi-Fi capability), set-top boxes like the Roku and Patriot Box Office can stream like a PC, and other portable devices can sync to a desktop or laptop computer system through USB, bluetooth, or Wi-Fi.

By making it affordable, you play to the consumers’ sense of fairness and allow him to feel smug about buying your product, instead of pirating it. According to a study in 2009 (and many others since then), music pirates actually buy ten times as much as they “steal.” If you make it easier to buy, and price your product fairly, you can increase that ratio quite easily; people want to obtain music and videos honestly, but the RIAA and MPAA have made it difficult. Personally, I think under a dollar per track for MP3 music (the “gold standard”) is fair for music, and the same for a one-time rental of a video stream. Purchase of the a video should be less than ten dollars for newer releases, and five dollars or less for older ones. It’s also important to ensure that the one-time rental actually can be watched all the way through, with fast-forward and rewind capabilities, even if the consumer gets all the way to the end of the video. The easiest way to do this is to not start the rental period until the consumer actually starts the stream, and not terminate it for 24 hours after that. That way, if he’s interrupted during the viewing, he won’t feel cheated, because he knows he can go back later that day or the next day and pick up where he left off. Rental periods should *not* arbitrarily start when the purchase transaction is made. If you allow me to rent a movie today and watch it later in the week, I am more likely to rent several movies when I have a couple of spare bucks, rather than buying a candy bar or other snacks. Netflix, of course, is the way to go for the consumer; “all you can eat” for under ten bucks a month. With that price, there’s no incentive to pirate videos that are available on Netflix. Of course, the movies that aren’t on Netflix remain as piracy targets.

Purchased music and video should be downloadable in a customer’s choice of formats; MP3, FLAC, and OGG should be available for music, and video should be accessible in MP4, WMV, DivX, and possibly other formats, in a variety of resolutions, to accommodate different playback devices. At the very least, 720P and 1080P formats must be available. Ideally, the purchaser should be able to log in to his (Web-based) account and download the video in any format at any time, on any computer or device, once it has been purchased, and continuity of access plans MUST be made; the consumer needs to know that, in the event Blah Studios goes belly-up, whoever purchases the remains will continue to provide access to content the consumer has paid for, or else the consumer will feel a lack of trust, and probably choose to obtain the video another way – one which will not gain any money for Blah Studios.

Finally, the consumer needs to know that his information will not be sold (other than as part of the necessary baggage to ensure continued access) nor easily stolen; Sony’s PSN and SOE are perfect examples of what you should *NOT* do. The bare minimum of security consists of:

  • Require a secure connection for rentals and purchases (HTTPS: or whatever comes after it)
  • Encrypt usernames
  • Use a one-way hash to verify passwords, and never store the actual password at all.
  • If you absolutely must store credit card information, store it using strong encryption, and in an electronically-isolated way so that an intruder can’t gain access to both usernames and cred card data with a single intrusion. It’s better to not store it at all; consider using a third-party payment processor, so that you don’t ever need to “see” the actual method of payment.
  • Keep all of your servers up-to-date with security patches

And that’s the basic business plan for digital music and video. Let me know if you start one up; I’ll try it out!

brains

Is it Memory?

I often hear people saying that they need to get more memory for their computers. Sometimes I’ll ask how much they have now, and I’ll usually get an answer like, “Oh, 250 gigs.”

No, you don’t have 250 gigs of memory. You have a 250 gig hard drive, also known as “storage.” Chances are you have 1, 2, 4, or possibly even 8 gigs of memory. Let me explain.

“Memory” (“Random Access Memory,” or “RAM”) is like your brain; it’s fast, immediately available, but limited in capacity. It’s also relatively expensive (computer memory, that is; your brain is priceless). DDR memory runs around $27 per gigabyte (depending on speed, and density; more gigs per “stick” usually means a higher price per gig). Locating an item of data in memory is close to instantaneous. We’re talking about nanoseconds here. The data in RAM goes away – is “forgotten” – when the power is shut off.

“Storage” is like a filing cabinet. It has lots of capacity (a 250 gig “filing cabinet” or hard drive) and you can expand it pretty easily either by buying a larger filing cabinet, or adding another one. However, it’s fairly slow, compared to memory. But it’s inexpensive; a terabyte (1000 gig) hard drive retails for around $60 to $70 now. That’s about 7 cents a gigabyte.

The speed difference is why you want as much memory as your operating system and budget can handle; the more information you can keep in memory (as opposed to storage), the faster your computer will operate. When your memory is full, the operating system swaps some of it out to the hard drive, into a file known as “virtual memory,” but due to the speed issues with hard drives, you want to avoid that as much as you can. A very fast hard drive will still require 6.4 milliseconds (ms) to access some random data; that’s nearly a thousand times slower than memory.

And now that sold-state drives (SSDs) are getting somewhat affordable (64 gigs for $128, or about $2 per gigabyte), does that mean there’s no difference between memory and storage? Absolutely not! A very fast (And very expensive) SSD still needs 0.10 ms for random access. That’s still a hundred times slower than RAM.

So that’s why your computer never “runs out of memory;” it swaps memory out to storage as needed. The more RAM you have, the less often it has to be swapped out. When you “hibernate” your computer, everything in RAM is written out to a file on the hard drive, and then the computer is shut off. When you wake the computer from hibernation, that information is reloaded into memory, and you can pick up right where you left off. The trade-off here is that the more memory you have, the longer it takes to save or load it for hibernation.

So, is that clear? While you may indeed need more memory for your computer, it’s pretty unlikely that you have 250 gigs already, unless you spend over $6000 on memory. And every time you confuse memory with storage, a geek someplace dies a little inside.