Archive for December 2008

Cool gadget gift for your aspiring air guitarist

December 29, 2008

One of the interesting things about technology as it matures is that the toys get better and better.  A huge segment of the technology and electronics field is devoted to making toys.  I will pass on the opportunity to poke fun at our social condition and why we are so dependent on playthings, and simply skip to the toys.

My friend’s wife got this for him for Christmas.  It was one of the cool “fun” gifts that I saw this year.  Really not very geek-esque (or maybe it is!), but it’s a great way to apply simple technology in a marketable way.

Use the comments to refer any other interesting techno-gifts you saw this year.  If they are cool enough we will feature them in a post.

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Demise of the Hard-Disk? I think not

December 23, 2008

Computer world is running a post talking about the demise of the hard-disk (HD) in favor of solid state drives (SSD). The post has so many errors in it I have a hard time figuring out where to begin. First let me give you some background. Hard-Disk drives have been a de facto standard for some time now. The technology has advance through the ages from SCSI to PATA and now to SATA hard-disk drives, and we’ll throw SAS drives in they are found in extreme high end computers and servers. The technology has been around for a long time. A few problems exist with the technology, for one it is susceptible to movement, magnets, electric shock, or just wear and tear. When they fail they tend to fail hard and often your data with it. They are also bulky, so if you want something in your pocket hard-disks just won’t do. But there wasn’t any viable alternative that equaled hard-disks storage, performance, and price. Indeed, if you do a casual look on Newegg you will find plenty of 500GB or even 750GB for under $200 (this is looking primarily at desktop performance, so SATA drives no SCSI or SAS). Anyone who has been watching knows that the price of HDs has dropped dramatically in recent years. A couple of advantages to SSD is they are quiet, light, resilient to movement, and tend to take less energy to run. This makes them perfect for laptops, which is where, as the article notes, we have seen the boom in SSD technology. Netbooks, especially, have pushed this technology.

Now back to the article here is a quote in reference to ditching the hard-disk in favor SSD:

Sound impossible? Actually it’s all too possible. SSD (Solid State Drives) have gone from being small and pricey to being roomy and affordable. At the year’s beginning, you could only find 4 and 8GB SSDs on inexpensive, Linux-powered netbooks or a 64GB SSD on the expensive Rolls-Royce of laptops, the Macbook Air.

Now first off that “Roll-Royce of laptops” initially, if memory serves me right, came at an increase of $900 for the SSD option, hardly seems affordable to me. But secondly in all of these devices performance of the SSD is always mentioned as a potential problem. In other words, the performance of SSD is not up to par with HDD. This is true, my wife’s laptop is a netbook with an SSD. The machine is nice and light, but there is some noticeable lag time here and there. It isn’t all that bad, but it is still notable. This is a particular hurdle for SSD to overcome. Performance and speed become quite essential to the power desktop user (of which the author thinks will be using SSDs by the end of 09).

To be fair the article covers performance:

You say you want top performance? Then you really want a SSD. In a recent ComputerWorld review of the Intel X25 SSD, a 2.5-inch form factor 80GB drive, zipped by a Western Digital VelociRaptor. The VelociRaptor clocked in with a 250.2MB/sec. burst speed and 105.6MB/sec. average read through using the HD Tach speed tests. That’s a great time. The X25, though, beat it with a 256.7MB/sec. burst speed and what’s far more interesting, a sustained 230.2MB/sec. transfer speed.

The problem here is that he contradicts himself from his earlier claim, ” SSD (Solid State Drives) have gone from being small and pricey to being roomy and affordable.” Here is the lowdown. He is comparing the Intel X25 to the WD VelociRaptor. While the study may show that the SSD is marginally faster, right now the storage capacity is maxed at 80GB compared to the WD at 300GB (with 80GB I could barely fit my mp3 collection on it). How about price? Intel will set you back over $500 while the WD will cost you only $250 or so. What is this about, “roomy and affordable?” 80GB isn’t enough for anyone looking to do more than simply surf the net and check email. A couple of movies, an mp3 collection, and your digital pictures will soon land you in the upgrade aisle. And how about the price, Intel sets you back $6.25 PG (per gigabyte), whereas the WD sets you back $.83 PG (and that was giving Intel the benefit of the doubt factoring the cost at $500). Further the WD VelociRaptor is overkill for most desktop users. This WD from Newegg (adequate for most desktop users) costs a mere $89.99 which is just $.12 PG. I’m sorry, but at these prices you would have to pry the HD out of my cold dead fingers before I make the switch to SSD.

He then asserts, “After that it may not be long before they start replacing hard drives on servers. ‘Impossible!’ You say? Think again. It seems Google is already putting SSDs into service.” Well that may be fine for Google and their endless cash, but I work in the real world with real companies. I can tell you that the university I worked for wasn’t even, remotely, considering switching to SSDs and my current company isn’t considering it either. The author also ignores the current economic downturn as well. Tell me that CEOs, CFOs, and CTOs are going to look at $.89 PG to $6.25 PG and still choose SSDs? Maybe Google can do that, but most companies wouldn’t, even if the economy weren’t so dire.

SSD technology still has room to grow. I think it is a very compelling technology and perhaps one day will surpass HD, but 2009 is certainly not that year. So far almost every offering out there either under-performs or is simply not an adequate replacement (in terms of space and price) to the HD. And everything that was cited as such is vaporware as of now. No HDs are here to stay and given the price I’d say that is a good thing.

Music performance technology

December 19, 2008

I haven’t been posting much this week, mainly because it’s Christmas season and that means musicians are very busy.  In fact, I have a concert tonight at the local coffee shop.  It will be our first concert using computer-based recording.

There are a lot of programs and gadgets to do live music performance, but I’m not going to go into that here.  I will, however, share what we are using.

EW20ASENTI play an Ibanez EW acoustic-electric guitar (click picture or link for a better view).  It’s a work of art.  The figured ash body is probably the most beautiful guitar body I have ever seen, and the resonance is remarkably well-formed without being boomy. 

I usually run the guitar and mic into a 180-watt Fender Acoustasonic (the first series; they are no longer in production).  It’s completely one-of-a-kind — when I got it, the grill cloth was damaged, so I replaced the usual sand-colored grill cloth with a funky flannel.  It’s very unique looking.

I play a Kurtzweil SP88 as well.  It has excellent onboard piano sounds and works fairly well as a MIDI controller (though I don’t at this point use MIDI live).

I sing into a Shure SM57.  OK, if you’re TOTALLY new to music, the SM57 is one of the standard “classic” dynamic mics.  It is used for everything from vocals (G Love) to guitar cabinets (pretty much everyone) to snare and tom drums (also pretty much everyone).  Most people use the SM58 for vocals (folks like Bono) if they are using Shure, but the SM57 works well for me.  It’s probably the most all-purpose mic around.

We have changed our setup recently by adding Cubase LE to the mix.  Now, we run everything into a Tascam FW1082 (which I don’t particularly recommend, but hey, we paid for it already).  The Tascam serves as an interface between us, the computer, and the PA system (for which we use the Acoustasonic).  This allows us to run all the instruments and mic through Cubase, so that we can use the vocal compressor and EQ in the program.  Cubase and the FW-1082 support zero-latency monitoring, so the Acoustasonic really does work as a PA.  I just have to remember to turn the screen saver off and make sure the computer power is “always on.”

The computer we are running is a C2Q 6600 with 4 GB RAM and Vista Ultimate.  We use an Acer 22″ monitor.

So that’s the story.  Maybe I will add pictures of the setup to the post after the show.

Green Plugs

December 18, 2008

There is a new initiative out called green plug. The idea is that all of our electronic devices require different power bricks. This is bad for the consumer and bad for the environment. Raise your hand if you have ever lost your power chord and were outraged at the $50 or more price tag to replace it. Raise your hand if you forgot one power chord, but remembered a different one and thought it would be nice if both worked together. This site allows you to choose the most important electronic devices and advocates on your behalf. From their blog:

By submitting your vote on iwantmygreenplug.com, you’re sending a powerful, positive message to the consumer electronics industry. You’re voting for an end to power cord chaos, and for open standards that eliminate the need for multiple power adapters for consumer electronics. At the same time, you’re voting against waste, and taking concrete action to help the environment.

I’m not sure exactly what commercial ties are associated with the group, but the idea isn’t a bad one. I for one would love to have fewer power adapters, both for my own convenience and for the environment. I hope you will give it a look and sign up if you are interested.

Apple in the Enterprise

December 17, 2008

Ars has an interesting article looking at whether Apple is making a bid for the enterprise. I’ll admit that Apple is first and foremost a consumer end user company. Traditionally they have not been about enterprise. I also admit that Windows has dominated this market and continues to, but I think the Ars article incorrectly assumes that Apple is making no efforts in the Enterprise market.

In the end, the question of Apple and the enterprise comes down to this: if Apple wanted to attack the enterprise, it has the bankroll to develop and hire the expertise to do so. But given that its consumer efforts are going so well, why bother?

So their assumption is two fold. A) they assume that shiny cool looking objects have no place in the business and B) that Apple is making no effort and why should this change.

In the old days a lot of organizations relied on Access databases and various other products that were entirely Windows only. Now organizations seem to be moving to web-based standards that better incorporate Mac and Linux machines. This can only be a good thing. Access databases were buggy, and the software wasn’t that great to start with. In today’s corporate environment there are many people happily using Mac OS in spite of a Windows strong hold. This is also true of the educational environment. IT shops realize more and more that multiple OS may be present and all need to be supported. So I see a general trend towards OS agnostic business. Of course that has nothing to do with Apple, but it works in Apple’s favor. The article also correctly points out that there is great dissatisfaction with the Vista upgrade. It is obvious on the consumer market as you see Apple and Linux grow in popularity, but on the IT side I have yet to hear of any organization (and I interviewed at several and worked at two different ones this year) migrate to Vista. The cost was too high and there were too many bugs in the initial Vista release (I could write a big article just on what made Vista bad and why we didn’t upgrade). So the stage seems set for Apple to swoop in and take over the enterprise. So why haven’t they?

I give Apple more credit than Ars. I think they have made huge efforts into the Enterprise world. First they now have OS X server. If you take the time to look at all of the features and white papers you will see that this is a full featured solution for a Mac network. It has authentication, email, calendaring, and much more. Now I grant you that most of this is either open source tools repackaged with a pretty gui or outright use of open source, but hey isn’t that what open source was designed for? Since OS X is a fully compliant Unix server they can run most of the open source software and why should they reinvent the wheel? The point is that this is more than an effort. This is a full solution and actually can be a solution for quite a few things outside of the Mac only world (podcasting and such). Significant effort was put into the latest 10.5 offering. Secondly look at the iPhone 2.0 software. Sure they weren’t able to give full Exchange support, but I believe that is more Microsoft’s fault than a lack of effort on Apple. Apple gave the iPhone VPN, WPA-Enterprise, and much more support in 2.0. All of those things were specifically designed with the enterprise in mind.

I think Ars is confusing Apple’s lack of movement as a lack of care. I think this is Apple being Apple. When have they ever shown care even in the consumer market? Apple wants you to come to them on their terms. Their entire ethos is built around telling you what you want, when you want it, and this is how much you will pay. Why should the enterprise be any different. Even Apple’s commercials aren’t that proactive, and since when have you seen Microsoft advertise extensively for enterprise either? Apple is doing just fine breaking into the corporate enterprise without selling itself or going against its morals. Why would Apple want to tap into this market? The enterprise market is huge, and slow to change. If Apple is able to take over the enterprise they ensure stability and annual income for many years to come. Companies are making the switch on their own. I work for a corporation that is largely Mac with a Linux infrastructure, and when I was in Education I warned my replacements that they would have to support Apple because you couldn’t stop the onslaught of user demand (Mac users were literally growing exponentially each year). I think the end result is that Vista is such a disaster for Microsoft that Apple is able to sit back and watch the market shift. The enterprise is always more conservative and slower to react, but you can certainly see even that shifting. Companies are moving toward Mac in the enterprise all on their own. So is it time for Apple in the enterprise? I certainly hope so. It would certainly help keep me employed longer.

Killer songbird add-ons by Lifehacker

December 17, 2008

Ok I admit it I love songbird. When I first saw the app I fell in love with the concept (back when it was first released). I quit using it when the beta versions were too buggy and the concept wasn’t fully realized, but now that version 1.0 has been released I am sold. The most compelling reason to try songbird is the add-ons. When 1.0 came out there were only a few, but Lifehacker has a list of must have add-ons.

Forgive me for just re-posting Lifehacker, but I haven’t had time to dig through all of the add-ons and this is a perfect list. I hope you will give songbird a try.

Subsidized Netbooks

December 17, 2008

Wired has an interesting article about subsidized netbooks and how that trend is here to stay. We wrote about netbooks earlier on this blog. The idea is a super small, light, and cheap laptop. It doesn’t surprise me that there may be some interest in subsidizing netbooks with wireless plans, but it doesn’t seem to make sense to me. The devices are small and mobile so I could see why someone might want ubiquitous connectivity, in that case a wireless plan makes sense. The problem is that when you subsidize the price you have to sign a contract and, as of now, mobile carriers think they can control every device and piece of software that is allowed on their network. Imagine if some of the same restrictions that are placed on the iPhone are suddenly placed on your laptop (no skype or tethering of the device) though I grant you that many of those restrictions are Apples doings and not ATT the mobile carriers have a long history of restriction rather than openness when it comes to devices and applications on their network. Also the contract locks you in. Data plans are very different from cell phone calls. As long as you can get the call out you tend to be happy with your carrier, the signal could be slow or analog, but you don’t care cause you can hear the person on the other end. With data one needs speed. If you find yourself in areas where 3G or other fast networks aren’t available, or the signal is weak, than you will want to change your plan but the contract won’t allow for that.

Subsidizing phones came about during a time when cell phones, that did very little by today’s standards, cost over $500 (which was worth a lot more than it is today), and people weren’t sure exactly what the technology was nor how well it would work. The thought of signing up for a wireless phone that cost that much was only for the rich. The cell phone companies fixed this problem by subsidizing the phone (even to a cost of 0) to attract more mainstream customers. It worked and now just about everyone has a cell phone. The problem here is that it seems to be just the opposite. Netbooks are about driving down the cost of computers. Before netbooks people expected to pay over $2000 for such mobility, so, really, nothing needs to be subsidized here. The cost of netbooks start around $400. The Wired article notes that when you add up the monthly cost of the contract with the $100 payment, the Acer that could be purchased for $350 or so is now over $1500. So it would seem that the price is going in the wrong direction to me.

This is not to say that I think a wireless plan for netbooks is a bad idea. There are many good reasons why someone would want a data plan, but given the drawbacks listed above I’m not sure that a contract and barely subsidized computer would get me to buy one.