Saturday, 21 November 2009

Review: Office 2010 - First Blush

So, blessed as I am with a Microsoft Technet subscription I downloaded the Office 2010 beta and installed it over the Office 2007 installation I had. There were several things I noticed straight up. The big icon in the top left corner of the software is gone and replaced with a file tab that has all the options previously hidden under the big button. Outlook is substantially changed and I like the changes, with one small exception thus far. The black theme that I liked very much in Office 2007 makes it look sort of busy and isn't quite what I expected. I guess that it will get better in the full release to come (or at least I hope so).

The ribbon being used in Outlook is a welcome change. I didn't like the way it was in Outlook 2007 - after all, why have a new look if it doesn't get spread around all the programs in a suite? I've always liked the functionality of the ribbon, despite the dislike it has engendered in some circles. I dread the teaching of it's usage to my clients, but we'll see how it goes. Overall I think the direction Microsoft has taken Office is a good one. I'm a big proponent of OpenOffice but I find the interface clunky and unpleasant. Microsoft's Office is better in terms of the interface. To be honest, I don't have a lot of time to screw around with desktop software, but I do like the changes to Office and screwing around with it is interesting. The interface changes are smooth and look good.

I'll write an update once I've spent a couple more weeks and keep an eye on things as they develop. All in all, I currently like Office 2010!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Easy Peasy Update - 9.04

As promised I've been fiddling with this for a little while now. While the interface and boot process have been tidied up somewhat I've found several things that I do not like. The touchpad has gone from being perfectly balanced in response and speed to slow and clunky and making me cranky. I've fiddled with the settings but can't get it back to being as smooth and precise as it was with 8.04. Grr. Nevermind - it's OK now. When scrolling in the main screen if there are more options available than space, it scrolls between desktops. This is *not* what I want it to do and it's very frustrating.

I do like the colours and some of the updates are nice. If you've got a eeePC or a similar netbook, then Easy Peasy is a great OS replacement. It's performance leads me to another post - why is Linux so freakin' slow nowadays? It used to kick Windows butt all over the place but I can get comparable performance from a well crafted Windows XP install as an Ubuntu install. Something to ponder in that....

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Adventures with eeePC: Enter EasyPeasy

Recently I attempted to enable the Advanced Desktop on my eeePC. I'm not *exactly* sure what I broke, but I broke my little netbook good. Damn. I could get it to boot but had no desktop. No icons, no information nothing. Very, very disappointing. So I thought that perhaps it was an opportunity to have a look at a few other things. Hunting for a new netbook operating system found me looking mostly at Linux offerings, with some websites advocating Windows 7. Eventually I found my way to Easy Peasy (http://www.geteasypeasy.com/) which uses Ubuntu 8.04 as its base and builds upon that with a myriad of customisations and clever manipulations of the system. I love Ubunutu - it's basis in Debian means it's rock solid with tonnes of terrific applications. The installation was a bit nervy - I didn't want to brick my netbook. The website has an excellent walk through and after a few USB memory key issues I finally got things going in the right direction.

The interface is great. Speed is great. I still have a grip about Mozilla Firefox though. It seems to pause (and hold up everything else) every now and then. It disrupts my flow and annoys me. With the recent release of Easy Peasy 1.5 I hope that will be fixed. I'm downloading it now so I'll find out very soon I hope. Generally it was been excellent though. All the devices worked perfectly and although I've had a few problems with a bluetooth mouse I've got, it's been fine otherwise. The particular mouse in question is *very* sensitive to the devices it connects to. The addition of the 8GB SD card has made storage a non issue and I have a 160GB external disk with a heap of stuff on it if I require the extra disk space.

I'm installing the updated version now - it's based on Ubuntu 9.04 so I'll post another note about it when it's completed. Let's hope it goes well!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Review: Sun VirtualBox

Recently I've had to find a virtual machine emulator. Given my limited budget (read: zero) I was hunting around for various different pieces of software. Microsoft have their virtual machine software: Virtual PC which is a polished bit of software. It is, however, not up to par with what I want to do. Because I run a host Windows machine and want to use Linux as a guest operating system, VirtualPC has all sorts of issues with it. I tried it and didn't like it. I stumbled upon VirtualBox (www.virtualbox.org) which appears to be sponsored by Sun. Given Sun's previous support of Open Source, I decided to try it.

The installation is very simple and straightforward - it installs extra network adapters, DHCP servers for the internal NAT'd network and a few other bits and pieces. The guest OS support it offers is excellent. In a *very* short amount of time I had a copy of Debian running from the netboot cd, installed and configured an FTP server and I was very happy. My host operating system was Windows Server 2008, which isn't 100% supported but does the job very nicely anyway. I've run it under Windows XP too and it works very well (especially on my Dell D610 Latitude with a 1.6GHz Centrino processor and 2GB of RAM). I'm going to test OpenSolaris on it and see how it goes under the installation.

Some years ago I ran VMWare Desktop to have many virtual machines for testing and other purposes and I found it to be rock solid. The VMWare gear is very good. I have found, to my considerable pleasure, that VirtualBox is as solid and feature filled as VMWare was. It's free status is even better and I love the fact that it supports Linux so beautifully. I'll be experimenting with various other guest OSs in the next few days and I'll let you know my progress as I play with it.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Review: ASUS eeePC 701SD Linux

I recently picked one of these machines up for $279 bucks at the local computer shop. This is under their buy price so I figure it's a pretty good deal really. I've been interested in the netbook scene for a while and the eeePC was the one that caught my imagination first. Although I have had the Dell L400 it still wasn't a netbook. The specs of the 701 are readily available on the net - for the purposes my work I've upgraded mine in the following way - swapped in a 1GB RAM DIMM and installed an 8GB SD card to double the internal 8GB SSD's storage. I don't really intend on using this PC to watch movies and the like and I've only got a minimal amount of data to store on it so the 16GB of storage is more than adequate.

I love the lightness of this machine - I store it in the top part of my camera bag (a Targus one) and it fits easily without increasing the overall bulk of the bag. I take it pretty much everywhere - the ports available are exceptionally useful - 3 USB 2 ports, Ethernet, wireless Ethernet and SD card port too. Being able to quickly bring up a terminal windows (Ctrl-Alt-T) is really handy for the work I do when I'm network testing. The LCD is nice and bright and readable, the speakers aren't bad either for their size and the keyboard is fairly responsive.

Probably my biggest gripe, no definitely my biggest gripe - and one I can't really complain too much about - is the keyboard size. The width of my hand makes it hard to touch type on and I spend a fair amount of time looking at the keys. I've been spoilt by using a Microsoft Natural Keyboard 7000 at work, and a 4000 at home and these keyboards are lovely. The eeePC - yeah not so lovely but still quite usable. Typing in IRC can be a little bit of a trick - I really have to remember to review what I've typed prior to hitting the return key. That being said, I'm getting used to it and I am getting higher accuracy results with the keyboard. This entry, for example, has been typed on it and I find it no less accurate than the handwriting translation on my HP tablet. Bit of an ache in the fingers after a while though I must say and I would *not* like to be typing on it all day.

Battery life is pretty good - around the 3 hours, which I find to be more than adequate. If I'm doing work on my eeePC for more than 2 hours, I'll get my tablet out and use that instead - it has a much nicer keyboard and is a lot faster.

The RAM upgrade to the eeePC has made a huge difference - the speed of the system is greatly enhanced by having the additional memory available and it is much more acceptable to use. Prior to this upgrade I found that it sometimes lagged in responsiveness.

Updating and installing new software is very easy and there seems to be quite a bit of software available for this device, all installable via single click from the ASUS website. Given it's Linux OS once you drop into a command line and use apt-get it's even easier to install software :-) X forwarding and the like all work and monitoring servers and things is very easy on this device. In short I like it a lot and I'll probably upgrade to an eeePC 1000 or something similar once I'm in a buying frame of mind again.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Career Changes

I've been in the IT gig for 12 years now. I've seen the changes in the way computers are used, their prominence in business and at home change immensely. I started using Netscape Navigator to browse the net when a 14.4kbps modem was high speed and saw ADSL 2+ hit our humble homes (not to mention cable and everything else!). But now I feel it's time for a change.

But change to do what? This is where I find myself at the moment - caught in a quandry between what I already do and am not happy about, and knowing I want to do something different but having no idea about what I want to do. Whatever I do I'll be successful in - I'm not concerned about that. I'm more just confused - as if there are too many options out there for me to choose. I recently re-read Steve Pavlina's blog <- specifically that post there - How to Discover your Life's purpose in 20 minutes. I haven't gone through the exercise yet, but I have every intention to - well once I'm somewhere quiet and peaceful where people won't see me cry :-)

Because I've been thinking about this a fair bit, I've noticed there are people around me who feel the same way, yet refuse to do anything about it. They are putting up with an unsatisfactory and lame occupation that brings them no joy and certainly no meaning to their lives. Why bother I think to myself - and ask them when I have the occasion. It's like being in a relationship which is completely unsatisfactory - where one or both partners are not happy and the synergy between the couple is broken. The synergy between myself and IT is broken. I no longer want to fix computers/servers/networks. 

So what do I want to do? There are many wonderful tools out there for trying to decide what to do with your life. I've been trying them out - looking for something that will help me discover the underlying desire I have for my life. Ideally I'd like something with appointments or some sort of pattern to it. Currently things happen in a very laissez-faire sort  of way that I find annoying and unfulfilling (in addition to the actual tasks I'm performing).

One of the tools I'm going to use is very simply to write what down what I enjoy - what I'm interested in and what I think there is a market for. No point doing something that I won't get paid for - even as my own boss I want to have a certain income at any point and I think that's important too. Understanding my own worth is something that I have to work on - how many of you out there know how much you are worth? My experience has been that most people settle for less. Those that have an exact understanding of what they are worth are often seen as arrogant or demanding and potentially they are both at times. There are, naturally, those folks who take it to the next level and are kidding themselves. But there are a *lot* of people being paid vast sums of money for what they do so why shouldn't we want what we're worth? It's crazy not to.

I'll keep you updated with my progress on this - it's going to be an interesting ride. Let me note for the record too, that I'm very grateful for the work I have right now - without it life would be even more challenging!

Windows 7 RC - ongoing thoughts

I've been playing with 7 for a few weeks now and I have to say, I'm both impressed and annoyed by it! Odd in a way, but here is the reason for such a strange dichotomy. It's notably faster than Vista and handles pretty well. The crappy PC I'm testing it on runs smoothly and is usable for my daily tasks which is terrific. It has given the box a new lease on life and the only cost has been an upgraded video card. The driver support so far has been good and everything works.

Now for the bad - I recently joined the system to my Windows Server 2008 based domain and the log on time - from boot to three finger salute and login blew out enormously. I checked a variety of things that it might have been - often I find that DNS issues cause slow downs here, but my DHCP assigned IP addresses use my 2008 server as their primary DNS server so it isn't that. The system is on a gig network, and both server and client have gig networking cards in it. At first I thought it was only initial log in problems, but I have now come to realise that it does it *every* time. As I started a deeper investigation the hard disk that the system resided on failed which throws yet another variable into the mix. I'm yet to add the system back to the domain.

After the re-install (which has worked flawlessly) the system has run very smoothly and I'm very happy with it. I look forward to further updates for Windows 7 - particularly flash which doesn't seem to work. Software I'm using successfully with it includes Microsoft Office 2007, latest Firefox and Chrome and Adobe Reader. The interface is quite nice - I have the Aero effects on my crappy PC still handles it pretty well. Turning them off does give a noticeable speed increase. I look forward to putting it onto a more powerful system and seeing what it can really do.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Windows 7 RC - First Thoughts

Being a Technet Direct member is a great thing. I downloaded Windows 7 RC yesterday, burned it to a DVD and then started encountering difficulties. My test machine is a whitebox Celeron 2400 with 2GB of DDR RAM and 3 Western Digital hard disks. This wasn't the problem. The onboard video card and network card are, however. The initial installation of 7 blanked out as it booted - the LCD monitor I have was unable to display the horizontal resolution so it turned off. Eventually I got to a point where I could see stuff and I installed Windows 7.

After installation, the same problem occurred - no video. So I plugged my PC into a venerable 17" CRT monitor and I was able to see things on the screen. Unfortunately, after changing the video settings, the damn thing did exactly the same thing again when I plugged it back into the LCD. So I found myself an NVidia GX5500 or something similar - nothing special but does the job. So I can see Windows 7 in all it's glory, except that it doesn't recognise the onboard NIC so I replaced that too. Yay! Now I have networking. Time to use this baby for some actual stuff - better install Office 2007.

Part way through the installation - BSOD. Gone. Unrecoverable error. Reboot - same thing. After several tries I gave up and re-installed the system. We'll see how it goes this time :-)

On the plus side, Windows 7 is much quicker than Vista could ever hope to be. I mean, it's actually usable on a Celeron 2400! Resident memory usage is quite low, under 500MB which leaves plenty for actual software to run! Exciting I know. Further updates to follow once I get it re-installed.

Monday, 23 March 2009

IDE Failures and backups

For 80% of people, running backups is a non-event. We simply don't consider doing them, not because we are lazy but it just never crosses our mind. Fortunately I had a happy event last week - I ran a full backup of my beloved D610 Dell Latitude's hard disk and not 2 days later the bastard failed on me. It was then I found out how much harder it is to get IDE hard disks for laptops. The 40GB HDD in it was adequate for my purposes and the smallest I could find was 120GB. Now I know how easy it is to fill 120GB of disk with music or movies or whatnot, but in context, I store very little of such things on this notebook. It's for work, and for online stuff such as Google's services and apps. At any rate, I use the wonderful TrueCrypt (www.truecrypt.org) to create encrypted partitions and then use the equally handy rsync (or in a pinch xcopy) to incrementally back that data up across the network to my servers. 

I thought perhaps I'd share how I do this, using xcopy in a batch file and with the potential of using either an external USB device or whatnot. You can get *very* fancy, but in all honesty, any backup is better than no backup so here is the script (abridged for privacy purposes) that I use:

xcopy "z:\My Documents\*" "m:\My documents\*" /C/D/E/H/Y

You can see that I'm just backing up My Documents from one location to another. The first one, on the Z:\ drive is the source and M:\ is the backup. Easy! 
The switches do the following:
/C: Continues copying even if an error occurs
/D: Copies files changed on or after the specified date. If no date is given, copies only those files whose source time is newer than the destination time.
/E: Copies directories and subdirectories, including empty ones.
/H: Copies hidden and system files also.
/Y: Suppresses prompting to confirm you want to overwrite an existing destination file.

Pretty straightforward really. I run it manually at the moment, but plan to put a schedule in place once I get some error correction built into it. For example, if the M:\ drive is not available I don't want it to panic and grind to a halt, much better for it to gracefully exit.

Feel free to adapt it for your purposes if any. As I noted, it's better to have *some* sort of backups than none at all. This particular one of mine doesn't catch emails or the like, fortunately for me I use Gmail so it's not really an issue - all my emails reside on the Google servers (bless them!). For everything else, there's xcopy!

Friday, 13 March 2009

Review: Palm Treo Pro

As I mentioned in my previous post, I use a Palm Treo Pro for work purposes. I chose this phone for a very specific reason: we use an Alcatel/Lucent phone system and there are various integration technologies available (for both Windows Mobile and the Nokia Symbian OS) that I want to test and use in a production environment.

Having used the Treo 750 to great effect in my previous job, I hoped the new iteration would prove just as useful. Unfortunately I find this phone to be cumbersome and annoying at times - I will elaborate of course.

Visually the Treo Pro is slimmer and slightly smaller than the Treo 750 which is nice - the 750 was a pocketful by itself, whereas the Pro is slim enough to squeeze in with my keys. The screen is large and well lit and accuracy with the stylus has not been an issue. The touch screen is sensitive but not overly so and is quite responsive to the fingernail tap. Palm have added a wireless on/off switch on the side which I find to be redundant (you may not). I don't use the phone on our wireless network enough yet to find it to be wonderfully handy.

OK, here's the roundup:

Pros:
  • Windows Mobile operating system allows for excellent integration with Microsoft products
  • Browser is excellent
  • Many different methods of connectivity - bluetooth, 802.11 etc
  • Good call quality
  • Multimedia playback is pretty good
  • Threaded SMS/MMS - I loved this feature on the 750 and continue to love it on this device
Cons:
  • Crappy message tones (this can be fixed I know)
  • Phone has locked up several times and requires the battery to be removed to get it to work again
  • Keys on the QWERTY keyboard are hard to use quickly and easily
  • Unlocking the phone during a call to use handsfree is something I'm yet to master
  • Battery life is not impressive
  • Black case gets grubby looking quite quickly
  • Ringtones are soft, even when turned up to maximum value
All in all, it's quite reasonable, apart from my gripes above. I use it quite extensively to log work, fiddle with my calendar and email and it is adequate for all of those things. I think that some of the issues are to be placed at the operating system's door rather than the Palm hardware. It does seem to be reasonable hardware and the phone is much more compact than it's predecessor. I look forward to updating this review once I play with more of the features it has and the capabilities it has with the excellent Alcatel/Lucent phone system we have. Stay tuned!

Review: Nokia e66

Recently my beloved e61i perished in an unfortunate washing basin related accident. I was upset, more so because it was an expensive phone and only 15 months into a 24 month contract. Fortunately my SD card was undamaged and my photos and assorted other junk was safe - whew!

On to the topic of buying a new phone - firstly I had a list of requirements that it needed to match. The e61i provided email, wireless G networking and many other very nice features. I looked, therefore, at either the e71 - of which I've had one, or the e66 - the slide feature of which put me off a little bit. Having had an e71 for a short while as a work phone, I knew how lovely they were and enjoyed using one immensely. The full QWERTY keyboard was very nice and I liked it a lot. I was thinking of a smaller phone though - the e71, like it's predecessor was quite wide and hard to slip into a narrow pocket. So I investigated the e66. Here is a list of things I liked and don't like about the phone:

Likes:
  • The screen is large and lovely - the back light is bright and very easy to read. The swivel is excellent, although I note sometimes when I pick it up if I grab it on a funny angle it swivels on me and takes a second to adjust
  • keys are much better to use than on other slide models I've had before (N80 and the 6120).
  • The slide has an excellent feel
  • Aesthetically it's a nice looking phone - the grey steel look is very nice and the phone is quite compact and neat with the screen taking up nearly all the available acreage on the front. The keys on the upper part of the phone are back lit when in use and dark when idle and this is nice too.
  • Good call quality
  • Reasonable battery life - better than the e61i but not quite as impressive as the e71 (although that could be my faulty memory)
  • video / music replay is very good, the swivel feature is excellent for watching the various MMS clips I get
  • connection to the GSM/3G network is quite reasonable
  • 802.11 wireless connection works quickly and easily
  • Email set up is an absolute dream - I put in my Gmail address, user name and password and it did the rest for me! It set it up as an IMAP connection and even recognised my Google Application based domain for email as similar to my Gmail account. Excellent!
  • Speaker is quite good, even when on hands free
The bad:
  • Battery life, while good, is not as good as I expected
  • I have an unfortunate tendency to answer/hang up on people when I pull it out of the leather pouch it comes with - I'm not sure if this is bad design of where the lanyard connects or my clumsiness, or a combination of the two but it has happened on several occasions
  • The swivel is occasionally touchier than I would like.
Overall I'm finding this to be an excellent phone after a month of usage and recommend it to Enterprise users if the e71 is too bulky. I read a lot of email on this phone, but reply to very little so the lack of a QWERTY keyboard is not too much of a worry for me. I can still send emails / texts on it very quickly and find that doing it one handed is a *lot* easier than when doing it on the e61i/e71. It's compact, the slide feels firm and solid unlike the N80 I once had and it hasn't crashed on my yet. 

And it's also interesting to note that the price for the e61i was very expensive - about $1000 when I bought it, and the e66 (and the e71 for that matter) are around the $550 mark. Phones have certainly gotten cheaper.

I also use a Palm Treo Pro for work and the comparison between the phone is quite marked. I'll review the Pro in another post, but I will touch on a few points here that are worthy of note. Both phones are capable of email/802.11 wireless/viewing lots of things etc. The e66 is smaller, has a much more solid feel to it and is more reliable than the Pro has proven to be thus far. Not only that, I think the only thing that makes the Pro more useful to me is the touch screen and the integration I have with various Microsoft products that Nokia still needs to do some work on. At any rate, stay tuned for the review of the Pro!