Tuesday, December 2, 2008

FIX: Error 1324. The folder path 'Program Files' contains an invalid character.

I just ran into this one yesterday evening while trying to install the service pack to Visual Studio 2008. After doing a lot of searching, I've discovered it's a pretty common problem encompassing not only VS2008, but .Net Framework upgrades and a few other patches.

Symptom


The Service Pack or update won't install. Upon examining the Log, you get a nonsensical message that a path with no invalid characters has invalid characters.

Other Factors


You're running the 64-bit version of Server 2008 or Windows Vista.

What's actually going on


Well, aside from the installer being completely b0rked, I'm not sure. It appears that at some point just prior to the error, the installer decides that your program files folder is located on a CD, DVD, Unmountable Partition or Virtual CD/DVD drive. To make matters better, it's looking in a helpful location called PFILES on this drive that it cannot write to.

How to fix it


It's almost difficult to write this without a quick facepalm. Microsoft actually documented part of this solution, but I'm going to expand on it a little more.
Step 1: Disable all virtual drives that you cannot write to. (DAEMON Tools, Virtual CD, all of them).
Step 2: This is documented in the KB article, but there's a few points to add. First, if you're installing the service pack or patch from your CD drive, now is a good time to copy it to your hard drive. Right Click "Computer" and choose "Manage", Under "Storage", select "Disk Management". Right click each CD/DVD drive and choose "Change Drive Letter and Paths". Write down the drive letter somewhere, then select the drive letter and click Remove (don't worry, you'll add them back in at the end).
Step 3: Unplug any external or internal drives that have raw or broken partitions, or format those partitions to make them valid. This one caught me as I had a data disaster earlier this year and have three drives that show up with no partition information and one that shows up with a partition with no data. I want to do some recovery on that when I have some time, so I elected not to format (or initialize) any of those drives.
Step 4: If you have any sort of card reader that shows drive letters for each of the card slots when there are no card installed, unplug it.
Step 5: Open up "Computer" and make sure that you have only drives that can be written to (the floppy, if you still have one, doesn't appear to pose a problem).
Step 6: Launch the installer again. Fixed.

Cleaning it all back up


Obviously, reboot if it's required and run the application you upgraded and make sure it works first.
Then plug in what you've unplugged.
Go back into Computer Management and right click each CD drive, select "Change Driver Letter and Paths", click "Add" and put the drive letter back that you removed earlier.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Debunking some Mac is Better Myths

Fanboys Calm Down


Sorry, I always feel when I'm going to attack one of the sacred cows of the computing industry that I had better take -- at least -- that precaution.

So for the fanbois: The Playstation 3 will be the end of Sony electronics, the Wii is for Children and the fact that geriatrics like it isn't "a good thing". And the Xbox 360 is owned by the most evil corporation in the world. In addition, Google is Evil. Apple is too. And Microsoft writes fantastic software. There, now you're sufficiently distracted (or your head has exploded), you can happily ignore the rest of my post and be angry about one of the former statements (none of which are actually my opinion) :)

First, Why I care


I love tinkering with operating systems. I've messed with Mac OS X in the past (even on non-Apple hardware), and have been impressed.
At home, my wife runs Ubuntu, but due to her desire to use some media services that require either Windows or a Mac (read:DRM requirement), she was stuck. So I upgraded her (is it upgraded? Lateral move maybe?).

I am neither a Steve Jobs worshiper nor a Steve Ballmer hater. In fact, I don't generally look at technology as anything more than utilitarian. I like Open Source and Free Software, but ultimately, I'm going to pick the best solution. Frankly, I've seen very few articles or posts that do little more than drool all over Apple products, so I thought I'd provide some of the less than great parts.

Reboot, again, again, again...


A two-year old is less repetitive. Once considered the defining characteristic of Windows (and, though better, could still be improved a lot). Apple's Mac OS X 10.5.5 takes the cake here. Am I crazy or does almost everything you attempt to install require a reboot? Why does upgrading QuickTime, when it's not in use anywhere, require a reboot? Contrast this with Ubuntu, which despite having eighty or so components requiring updates every few weeks, rarely required a reboot to actually apply an update. Application or service restarts might have been required, but rarely did I have to reboot the whole box.

One thing that I have to mention, though, is rebooting a Mac is nothing like rebooting Windows or Ubuntu. It is by far the fastest OS from Power On to USABLE. By Usable, I mean, after logging in, the point at which the hard drive has stopped churning and you can actually click on something and have an application launch.

Hardware Support


Awful. By design. You run the version of Mac OS on the hardware provided by Apple, or you hack it up using the OSX86 Project, but run the risk of violating the Terms of Use.
Lets assume you've taken the high road and purchased a Mac. Peripheral support isn't great. For instance, I have a wonderful USB Wireless adapter that gets spectacular range (much better than anything built into any laptop I've ever owned). I was able to find a driver for it, but only from the chipset maker. It barely works, so I muddle by with the built in Wireless.

OS Bugs


You may be surprised to learn that despite the press reports to the contrary, Mac OS has bugs! Real bugs! And some of them are nasty.
I was spoiled by Ubuntu. On my hardware it worked out of the box. The applications rarely crashed and I had not once encountered a Kernel Panic.
Day one on the Mac involved copying data from a thumb drive. Insert the drive: Kernel Panic. Get the right file system driver for the drive, insert the drive, it doesn't mount. Insert any other USB device, it doesn't mount. Pull hair out, reboot, swear a little, try again, and it works.
Over several days of getting this thing up and ready for my wife, I've had file systems that have their permissions get corrupted for what seems like no reason at all, Bouncing icons that do nothing, random wireless and wired network disconnections and all sorts of silliness. It's pretty stable now, though the wireless performance could be much better.

The Dock


The dock is a great tool. But to me it feels like the Frequently Used Applications, or Quick Launch tool more than it feels like the Start Button. Perhaps it's my ignorance of the OS (which I'll certainly take blame for), but having to launch a Finder window aimed at Applications to see everything installed and run it isn't exactly ideal.

Apple Update


It works. It's slow. I'd equate it with Windows Update. The worst part is that it seems some applications include incremental updates (meaning, install the update, reboot, launch Apple Update, install the patch to the update, reboot, rinse, repeat). Ubuntu's update tool much nicer simply because managing and installing 80 updates at a time in a matter of seconds is pretty impressive.\

Software Installation


Perhaps its more intuitive and I just haven't caught on, but I don't "get" the process of mounting an image file to install software. Again, Ubuntu reigns supreme with apt-get and the GUI equivalent.

Eject, Eject


I don't think twice about removing a pen drive from Windows or Linux as long as the write light isn't on. In OS X, I'm given a nasty alert that I must "put away" the device. There's no Put Away option, but there is an eject option which brings me to point #2: Since when did having a hardware eject button on a dvd drive become 'evil'? I remember day's past of having to find the right sized paper clip in order to free a 3.5" floppy from an older mac. Stop it! I want my eject button back.

That said, it's a small list compared to annoyances I had when I first sat in front of a Linux box. And it's an even smaller list than the one that contains my many gripes about Vista.

There is plenty to love about OS X, but you can find plenty of good resources on that topic, I won't waste your time with another gushing piece about the OS. I also don't want to give the impression that I hate the OS. It's fantastic in many ways and a pleasure to use. It's also helped by the fact that the hardware is fantastic.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Inexpensive Laptop Nightmare

I'm actually a big fan of buying the "mail-in rebate" black friday junk PCs, retail. Anymore, the "average" desktop is a commodity item made up of a bunch of other (name brand) commodity components. If you're going to buy retail, brand doesn't make a difference if you know how to replace parts in a computer. I've been doing it since I was 13, so it can't be that tough.

Friends gasp when I say I just purchased an E-Machines PC. Nevermind that I got an AMD Athlon X2, reasonable Seagate hard drive, reasonable LG dvd burner and a total lack of discreet graphics. Oh wait, mind that. Because that's what every one of them on the shelf had too. Even the big brands have their "retail only" models that are a combination of the most inexpensive components available. As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't consider buying a desktop at retail without the obligatory $200 instant savings and a $100-$300 rebate bringing the total package down to $300 including a monitor and printer that I'll sell on eBay.

That same logic applied when I needed to replace my wife's notebook PC. I like to have reasonable specs, but brand is unimportant. I've learned a new lesson: on a notebook, brand appears to matter. I purchased an Acer laptop for her at a cost of around $600. It's a centrino duo (a good processor at the time), had bluetooth, 802.11g, 80G hard drive -- essentially good specs. It's worked very well for the last few years until a month ago.
You see, you can depend on the built in parts most of the time. The commodity PC supplier isn't making those parts. Unlike a desktop, however, there are some very important parts that are provided by the vendor and without them functioning properly ... well, you're stuck.
It started with the "Z" key. I've been around long enough to know how to fix a keyboard that's gone bad. On a desktop, it's easy, you buy a new one. On a laptop, you take the whole thing apart, and take some 91% alcohol solution to the contacts. Not terrible, but certainly not something an average shopper at CompUSA is going to figure out.
Unfortunately, the problem has started spreading. It's on to the "X" key and sometimes the "C" key. Perhaps my beautiful bride dripped some liquid onto the keyboard and the result has been corrosion, or maybe it was just something simple like oils from the tip of her fingers? It's tough to say. Nobody remembers using a keyboard with wet hands.
Having fixed a myriad of old Xbox gaming systems with nothing but a soldering iron, steady hands and a nice magnifying glass, I'm not uncomfortable with the idea of repairing the keyboard, but it's going to kill a Saturday and again, what about the average end-user ... it's going in the trash most likely. A perfectly good laptop will be thrown away because a manufacturer skimped on providing a good keyboard.

So, my personal plug. My other laptops are Lenovo and short of a couple of models (the T30 and T43) that didn't live up to the Thinkpad name, the T60, 61 and now 5xx series are well built devices. Even Dell has stepped up and started producing more durable laptops. You see, in my ignorance by applying the same selection methodologies to Desktops as I did my wife's laptop I neglected two huge differences. The laptop will encounter more hazardous conditions. The desktop's "throw away" parts are not "throw away" on a laptop and might mean throwing away the whole laptop if they fail.

Just as a note, I've already found a replacement keyboard for this acer laptop. It's going to set me back $100. The manufacturer won't support it and why should they ...? $100 for a laptop that only cost $600 isn't going to happen. I'll post an update when I've fixed this one and (hopefully) include some instructions on how to do the repair yourself.

Another note: I don't own Apple products. I've seen their laptops, but I also don't trust the objectivity of an average apple user. Their stuff looks nice, OS X also looks great, but having not used them, I left them out. Sorry!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Pretend Tweet! Stuff I worked on is in Information Week!

You can imagine why I'm not on Twitter. If I kept up with that like I keep up with this blog, you'd have a message from 6 months ago saying "Going to work..."

Actually, I have nothing of substance to say as is the case with most Tweets and blog posts (especially on Blogger), but I do have one thing I wanted to keep someplace so I don't lose the link (Bookmarks are no good when you have a few thousand of them).
I've been working for a few months on a project centered around OCS 2007, and a little while ago we went production. Today I received an e-mail about an article centered around my company's implementation of Unified Communications. The Kiosk on Page #2 is the software I've been focused on.
Speaking personally and not on behalf of my company (hey, I'm a little biased, so figure that into what you're reading) ... I've seen the benefits of Unified Communication first hand ... I think Information Week did a great job of covering the technology and I believe it is the logical next step in the way the world interacts.
It's not just about slapping IM, Voice, Video and presence together in some silly client. It's about taking your line of business applications and adding conversation to them. I won't waste your time with my ideas, just read the article.

Maybe in a year I'll read this and wonder what I was thinking, but maybe I'll be chatting with myself via voice and video while writing or supporting software. Wait...no...that'd be strange.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This is not a political blog . . .

Obama, McCain, Palin, Biden, Paul, Nader, the guy, the other guy?

I don't have a set topic to my blog because I write for me. But this is not a political blog. I read my share of tech blogs, or sites that aggregate tech blogs and I'm growing increasingly tired of the hysteria surrounding this election.

That you vote and who you vote for is important, and I will be standing in line at my precinct and voting along with you. But if all you have to offer your pet cause is filling in a circle on your ballot, you have failed.


The President of the United States has very little ability to bring about positive change, no matter which party is elected or what kind of change you want.
Short of "Ending The War", something you and I have little control over unless we're actually fighting in it, everything else is within your power to impact.


Are you concerned about...

...the homeless? Give time to a shelter, or a soup kitchen. Take a look in your closet, remove some nice clothes that you don't wear often, specifically those that would serve as "interview" clothes and check to see if a city near you has a program or charity that focuses on finding jobs for the homeless. Often they need nice clothes for interviews. Take the rest, bag it and give it to the Salvation Army or another suitable charity.

...the Economy or Forclosures? You probably have someone in your neighborhood who could use a helping hand. You have two hands, what are you doing with them? In your own life, you could start paying off your house, eliminating your debt, and shoring up your savings. Quit borrowing the American dream and start paying for it.

...Abortion (as in, the prevention of), Racial Equality, the proliferation of Drugs, Gun Violence? Get involved in a group that mentors young girls and boys, perhaps in an area that is less comfortable to drive through than the place you live. Children who are kept "off the streets" are less likely to get pregnant young, do drugs, and will succeed in education. Don't give me the exceptions, there's always exceptions, that's an excuse. If you attend church, get involved. If your church doesn't have a place for you to get involved, find another church.

...Uganda? Invisible Children.

...Africa and the Third World? Try Kiva. Do this with your children.

...Healthcare? Donate to cancer research. Sign up for the Bone Marrow Registry. Donate Blood. Look around your city and find a private, non-profit hospital or healthcare related charity. Give.
Volunteer at a local Free Clinic. Even if you're not a doctor, pharmacist, or Dentist, sometimes they need building improvements, receptionists or just people to sit and help manage the flow of traffic.

...Supporting the Troops? There are many charities that give care packages, plane tickets, phone cards and other things to support the troops.
Don't forget about their families. If you know someone who has a son or daughter serving, thank them. Talk to them. They are all proud of their sons and/or daughters, but don't think they're not scared out of their minds.
There are charities supporting the families of the fallen, supporting the families of the deployed, supporting the injured and disabled and supporting the currently deployed. Give.

...Public Schools? Get involved in your PTA, if your school doesn't have one, inquire about starting one. Contact your son or daughter's teachers. Attend school board meetings. Private or home school your kids.

...Violent Video Games? Take a look at your own family's collection, then start asking your kids parents. Inform them of what you consider acceptable, if they give you trouble, don't allow your child to spend time over there. You'll find that most parents are surprised at the question but will react reasonably a lot of the time.

...Violence or Objectionable material on Television? Monitor or Turn It Off. There are stations I don't allow into my house, and I've never found any reason to write letters to the FCC.

...High Taxes and Government Evils? Hire a tax professional to do your taxes. A tax pro can find more legal deductions than you. That's less money going to what you perceive as Government Evil. Non-political charitable donations are often tax deductible, so get extra bang for your buck by giving to a charity that will spend your money precisely the way you want them to.

...Freedom of Speech and DRM? (This has to be a political one), support the EFF. They're fighting the cause on several legal fronts. Stop buying music that is utilizes DRM. Stop running operating systems that are riddled with DRM. Help others do the same. Don't patronize sites that stream or allow the purchase of movies that employ DRM.

...Religious Freedom? Start serving at your church, mosque, synagogue, or wherever you are affiliated in a place that focuses on building people up, not tearing things down. Serve abroad in countries that lack religious freedoms. Private or Home school your kids if you're unhappy with religious teaching at public schools.

...The Environment, energy independence, making our enemies rich through Oil, or the high price of gas? When you buy your next car, replace your SUV with something fuel efficient, replace your appliances with more efficient models. Turn your computer off sometimes, or let it hibernate, and buy a more efficient power supply/CPU. Install CFL or LED lighting. Be less wasteful: fix things that are broken instead of replacing them (yes, that's a contradiction to my previous statement, but it all depends on what you're trying to save). Shop second hand, and donate that which you are replacing. Use Freecycle. Install a geo-thermal system, or wind/solar power if those are options for you.

OK, I'm finished . . .


So go out and vote for the guy or the other guy. And when the guy or the other guy wins, be happy or upset about it, but don't waste your time protesting, rioting or writing blog posts complaining or praising the winner. Quit talking about what they're doing or not doing and go do it yourself.

I know there are about 40 visits a day to this blog, and I have no idea how many of them actually read anything, but please note that I will remove any comment that mentions or alludes to any political candidate for any office (though, I won't be doing that all day today). I don't care to spread anyone's propaganda. And considering I have not one blog post with one comment, I don't expect it to be a lot of work :o). And this post was not meant to give you the impression that your humble author does any or all of these things.

If, on the other hand, you have other non-political ways to make the world a better place, such as a charity or activity that's worth time and money, by all means share it.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Before you return that item . . .

I purchase a ridiculous amount of computer and Consumer Electronics products online. Because many of the products I purchase are niche items, I often have no choice but to go online for them, and where I can purchase retail, I can almost always find it cheaper online. Quite often I can find refurbs or Open Box versions of what I'm looking for at a pretty huge savings.

Of course, retail has one grand advantage. If the item is DOA, you can drive it back to the store and get a new one. And let me tell you, with Open Box items the DOA rate is very high.

Why not just return the broken product to the retailer?


Most CE or Computer vendors require you to foot the return shipping bill (those that don't factor it into the price of the product and therefore are places I don't shop). The argument is that a Brick and Mortar retailer won't refund the fuel cost that it took you to drive the product back, so they don't refund the shipping cost for you to get the product to them.
On that same logic, some online retailers won't even refund the shipping you paid to receive the dead item, leaving you only to tax and product price paid.

So this brings us to last Friday when my trusty 24" Acer monitor just died. After fussing with it for a bit, I was able to get it to *mostly* work in Analog mode. So I headed over to newegg and purchased a replacement. I wanted a specific NEC monitor, and I found that they had an Open Box version for $200 less than the Retail version. I figured, I have all of the cables, and I can download the manual, so if it's missing accessories (as is very common with OB items), it won't matter.

Unfortunately, it arrived with all of its parts and pieces, manuals, and everything and most of it was sealed except for the DVI-D and Power cable. Open Box items are almost always customer returns, and I've found that when you get one with "everything" in nearly perfect condition that generally means there was a defect with the product. When I looked in the box, I saw the story of a guy plugging in his fancy new NEC monitor, discovering that the thing didn't work at all, and returning it immediately.
The story was probably right. As I powered the monitor up on DVI, I discovered there was no picture. On Analog I got a picture with one bright stuck green pixel in the center of the screen and a corresponding bright yellow vertical line. Nuts.

Shipping this item back to NewEgg.com was going to cost about $30 and I'd be only given a cash refund. I needed a monitor, not a refund.

I don't want to be unfair to NewEgg. I knew the rules going in. NewEgg goes out of their way, even sending you an ominous warning prior to checkout that stops just short of saying "Open Box Items will Kill You!" So, sure, they could have tested the Open Box item a little bit, but it was clearly let the buyer beware.

If you aren't returning it because you "didn't like it", call the manufacturer first


I don't know why this wasn't obvious to me. I've found that even the worst manufacturers go to greater lengths for products that are within that "Return Window".
They do this for a few reasons. Preventing a return keeps your retailer happy. Items that have high return rates stop being stocked. They don't want their product to get that reputation. But the biggest reason is that when you return something, they aren't given the opportunity to keep you as a customer. Chances are good that you'll buy a competitors product because of your bad experience and you will be less inclined to purchase that brand in the future. So they've lost a sale, they've got an angry retailer and they may have lost a customer for life.

As such, NEC has a simple policy: if you purchased it within the last 30 days, they foot the return bill.
NEC also goes a step further that I wish all manufacturers did. They will ship you the replacement before receiving the damaged unit as long as you have a major credit card that can take a hold transaction (as in, not a Debit type Credit Card). This practice is referred to as Cross Shipping and for some reason it's incredibly rare.
I was pleased to find out that at least as of today, they allow Cross Shipping for the entire warranty period (the language is not written in the warranty itself).
Lastly, they ship your replacement FedEx 2-day by default. I'll admit that I've never seen that before. I have paid for expedited warranty service, some companies even over charge for the expedited shipping.

Having now worked with their warranty department, I can tell you that despite receiving a broken item, I will be more likely to purchase an NEC product in the future. Sure, the product was defective and that wasn't a good situation. But there's no way to produce 100% perfect products. How they handle things when everything goes wrong is very important.

Adding it all up: Return vs. Repair


So lets add up what this would have cost me if I had returned the product to NewEgg:
- $30 at least to ship it to them DHL Ground Insured. They'd get it in 5 business days. I'd receive my refund somewhere near the receipt time, so lets say 7 business days total.
- Assuming I don't have the money on hand to purchase the replacement immediately (I do, but it's not something I *want* to do), I'm looking at another 5-7 business days to receive the replacement and another $30 to get it shipped.
I saved $200 by purchasing an Open Box item, and because I got a dead one, I'm going to assume that all of the Open Box items of that model are probably similarly dead because I have no way of knowing and I'm not going to risk it. I'm probably also not going to buy an NEC because I have no way of knowing if this display has quality problems. Maybe a large batch was dead from the manufacturer? I'm not going to risk it. A competitive product of nearly identical specs doesn't exist, so I'm going to buy a better one for about a hundred more than the full Retail price of the NEC.
Total Cost: $360, and specifically $160 more than I would have paid for the display if I had simply bought the non-Retail version in the first place. And lets not forget the 2-3 weeks twiddling my thumbs waiting for the replacement.

The alternative "Repair route", cost me only in time. I dropped the broken item off, and will receive the replacement in two days. I had to spend about 20 minutes on the phone with tech support (probably less), while they had me run through the basic troubleshooting. I still save the $200 by buying Open Box.
Total cost: 0 (or -$200 if you consider that I got to keep the savings from the Open Box). And 2 days waiting for my replacement.

And then there's the added benefits


Most large vendors don't give you back what you've sent in. Sometimes the place your "Warranty Repaired" item is sent from and the place you sent your item in for warranty repair aren't even in the same state.
They usually do salvage the broken item for parts and repair the component that is damaged, but that item gets sent back to someone else with a new serial number or sold as Refurbished.
As a result, the thing that you receive from them has gone through a reasonable Q/A process probably very recently.
In 20+ years of taking advantage of warranties on products, I have never received a second DOA. I'm not saying it can't happen, but it hasn't happened to me.
And if the unit really does have a high failure rate, you may end up getting an upgrade. It may be the same model, but it might be a newer revision of that model that doesn't have the problems of the original.

I'm also not saying that all manufacturers are going to be as reasonable as NEC was. One of the reasons I picked them was because they still had a 3-year warranty on this display. I also chose a display that is targeted at professional, not home users. This often guarantees better customer service.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Nine things I want in a mobile phone.

This is a response to a story I read today at A VC. It got me thinking about convergence, which ... I'll say is a great idea ... but sits as a "Nice To Have" for me, rather than a Need To Have.

When the phone receives a call, it should instantly begin ringing


My current phone, the Verizon XV6800 waits about 5 seconds. Unfortunately, I have a 1.5 ring forward from my desk and that extra five seconds means I lose the call.

If I miss a phone call, upon turning my phone's screen on I should be greeted with a large, ominous notification


Generally, that call will need to be returned and when you hide that information within a silly looking icon at the top (that is *always* there no matter what), I'm going to ignore it.

A battery life that allows for me to have an average day's worth of conversations and usage without having to plug it in, even once, until it's time for bed.


My old phone would go days. My new one is lucky to make it to 7:00 PM.

A form factor that is smaller than a bar of Dial Soap


Point #1: If a phone is so bulky that after two days the silly little belt clip actually breaks in half, chances are it's time to redesign the phone.
Point #2: Since the phone is so big, it looks a little strange sitting in my pocket. "Is that a bar of Dial Soap in your pocket or are you just happy to ..." Those are not funny jokes, guys.
The reason my phone is so large is because of the last point. The extended battery is mandatory if you are expecting to actually use the phone.

Reception that is spectacular


Part of this can be blamed on The Network, but a lot of blame lies with the phone. My old phone worked in several parts of my home that my new phone starts to drop calls in.

The ability to use it, comfortably, without a Blue Tooth Headset


Really, I'm carrying enough around already. Holding a bar of soap up to my ear both looks silly and is very uncomfortable.

The ability to predict when an incoming or outgoing call is going to be sent to my BT Headset or my Handset, and a dead simple way to switch between them if it goes to the wrong place


Why must the Pseudo-Random Number Generator built into my phone be the single biggest predictor of whether or not the call is going to go to my headset? Generally speaking, if it is, in fact, connected to a BT Headset ... shouldn't the phone default to sending everything to it? And if it doesn't, why do I have to go through a menu to find the Turn Handsfree On/Off? Try managing that while driving 70 MPH down a Michigan Freeway and then consider why there are so many accidents on I-696.

Names for Caller ID should appear on my cell phone regardless of whether or not I have them in my contact list


I have never understood why my silly home phone gets the last, first name or company name but my state of the art cell phone running over a The Network doesn't. I get many calls from people I don't necessarily have listed in my contact list. The information is clearly built into the Caller ID system. Is it so hard to come up with a standard way to deliver it to a "Smart Phone"?

The software and features of my phone should never trump the single biggest reason I use my phone: To talk to people ... on the phone


That's why I bought a cell phone, instead of a two-way. That's why I own an iPod, instead of using my phone to play mp3 files at the cost of precious battery life. That's why I have a removable GPS system for my car, to provide me navigation where I need it most ... in my car.
I'll admit, it's nice having e-mail, and Instant Messaging. When I absolutely have to, browsing the web at a resolution of 320x240 is possible, though never enjoyable.
But if my phone can't make phone calls and receive phone calls, I don't want it.

Conclusion


I'll admit that most of my gripes are centered around the current, miserable, state of Windows Mobile 6 and the XV6800, which is ... positively ... the worst designed handset ever made. I've played with an iPhone, and it is impressive, but I'm tied to Verizon and WinMo due to things outside of my control.
As I said with the last gripe, I think that most of what is wrong with today's "Smart Phones" is that they're a little too "Smart" and a little too little "Phone".
While it'd be nice to have location aware software, twitter clients, a Bike Odometer (WTHeck?), Shazam (again...), can we agree that the first priority should be making the phone work?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review: Blue Jeans Cable BJC Series-1 HDMI Cables

As I've stated a few times previously, I have a bit of a hobby in Home Theater PCs. That said, I'm not a trained engineer in the performance of cables, so this is a non-technical review and should be considered as such before deciding to make a purchasing decision based on its content.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with HDMI, or more importantly, why HDMI sucks, you might want to visit those two links before you go buy your spanking new HDTV and Blu-Ray player (or cable/satellite set-top).

It's worth setting up a bit of history before I get into my very simplistic review. For those of you who want to just take my word for it, go to Blue Jeans Cable and buy one right now. While your at it, swear off buying AV cables from any retail establishment ever again.

HDMI sucks (did I say that already? Yes, I think I did). It's basically DVI-D with a Digital Audio Signal jammed into the same casing and crippled by HDCP (a form of Copy Protection). It's a nasty method for delivering digital video/audio, but it's the only choice at this point. As a result, companies like Monster cable make a cottage industry out of selling ridiculously priced HDMI cables that don't seem to offer any real performance benefit.

To make matters worse, the Best Buys and Circuit Cities of the world don't offer much of an alternative to those purchasing a new television.

"Save $100 on your next HDTV, and use the $100 to buy one lousy cable."

I didn't fall for it. I knew HDMI carried a digital signal, and the general rule is "the signal gets there or it doesn't". So I went to Wal*Mart and plopped down $30 dollars for a suitable HDMI cable that claimed to meet the rigorous specifications set by the HDMI folks themselves. Unfortunately, as those above links will tell you more than my summary would, there are no rigorous specifications.

None-the-less, the cable worked fine for a long time. Then I got Satellite and tried to get my satellite receiver to work at 1080p via HDMI -- No Dice. So I went component 1080i.

Then I happened upon this story through a few blogs I follow. The CEO, a former lawyer, stood up to a large corporate Monster. A small bit of research later and it turned out this company has some pretty unique products in what is otherwise the boring world of cables.

So onto the review


Despite being from a part of the world where "Buy American" is the same as saying "Save Your Neighbor's Job", I will not sacrifice quality in order to buy a product that's made domestically (I do, incidentally, own two American cars, but I digress...).

This company assembles their cables in the United States. That's nice. It's great to know that you can buy a high quality product that is at least mostly US made.

The first thing you notice when shopping for the BJC Series-1 is that despite the fact that it is Blue Jeans Cable's best cable, at 6' it doesn't cost $100. It costs $30. Lets consider this for a moment: A cable that is quality enough to take a lousy HDMI signal 100 feet costs as much at the 6' size as the lousy Wal*Mart cable I purchased after buying my first HDMI capable HDTV.

The first thing you notice when opening the box containing your newly purchased BJC Series-1 is that they're thick and rigid. You can feel the shielding surrounding the cable and it takes a bit of working it through to get it to not lift your very light DVD player right off the place it is sitting.

So how did it perform? Well, as I said early, the signal either gets there or it doesn't, right (I know, not precisely, but lets pretend)? Well, it got there. It worked flawlessly with my Satellite receiver at 1080p. It worked flawlessly with my new DVD player at every up-converted resolution it supported. But there was even one bigger surprise: I had an old LG LDA-511 DVD player that I positioned in such a way as to guarantee an overheat. As a result, it stopped working via HDMI (hence, the *new* DVD player). It worked flawlessly using the BJC Series-1 at all resolutions. I scratched my head, plugged in the Wal*Mart cable, and it failed.

Pros


Inexpensive.
High Quality. These guys have more than a few good reviews about their products (here's one for their component cables, also rather inexpensive considering the quality).
Up to 100-feet runs (read the site before plunking down the cash, though).
Assembled in the US.
Even if you decided not to buy the cable from them, their web site has an incredible wealth of information on HDMI. If you read it over, you'll be a better informed consumer.
Shipping was Priority Mail, reasonable and processed very quickly.

Cons


Paypal is the only accepted form of payment.
The web site could use a designer (though, look who's talking from his template blog).

Conclusion


You'll note that the two cons I listed had nothing to do with the cable, and that's the important part. If you want a great quality HDMI cable, buy from them. Ignore the site design, clearly these guys are good at one thing: Making a great product. Who cares if the site is a little raw?

You'll end up with the quality of cable that Monster -- at $100 -- would have you believe you've just purchased at a price that the limp Wal*Mart HDMI cable can't beat. What more would you like?

Just a note of clarification. I own a couple of Monster cables from several years ago (before they were so expensive). They work fine. I can't imagine someone making a case that they're worth as much as they cost at the retail outlets that they are sold. In addition, this post was not paid for or solicited by bluejeanscable.com. This blog is a hobby, and I don't do paid posts for anyone. I also have no relation to anybody who works for BJC. This review is my own opinion and as I stated in the opening, I am not an engineer in this field, just a hobbiest. Yell at me in the comments.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Amazon S3 7/20/2008: EPIC FAIL

I have a feeling this is one that will go down in history and will spark a few debates about the reliability of Services in the Cloud.

S3 - Great Idea, but was Amazon really the right provider?


This is the question that will probably be asked over and over again for the next several weeks.

When talking "shop talk" with co-workers, I have always come out on the side of Amazon. It's something I like to call Technology Recycling. They know how to keep their mammoth site up, and they have requirements that vastly eclipse most providers, so why not use their knowledge of hosting large amounts of data as a profit center?

The Fall Out of a Huge Outage


Working for a telecom, I'm very familiar with concepts surrounding disaster recovery and the incredible effort that goes into handling disasters. You can't avoid that hurricane that might blow through your office in Texas, or the earthquake in California, or (heaven forbid) an act of war that may interrupt services.

The cause is unimportant (until the problem is solved), the response is critical. Amazon's response has been pretty thorough communication, but through that communication, it's not exactly clear that they were ever prepared for this.

When this is over, Amazon will have learned something that enterprise telecommunications carriers know all too well: When you have an outage, you have no idea how much the impact of that outage will be. Enterprise carriers offer services to companies who turn around and use those services to sell services of their own. Sometimes the end-customer is several companies deep.

Case in point, this one hit me personally today. I sell products on eBay and use a provider called Auctiva. I'm not a power seller, I just don't like to throw things away that someone might be able to use, so I list old items on eBay or Craigslist, and if they don't sell, I put them on freecycle (or Craigslist "free" section). If nobody wants it, I put it to the curb.

I sell less than I give away (and throw away very little), but the amount that I sell is enough that I had to get a tax ID number here in Michigan.

One of the golden rules of small time sellers is closing your auctions on Sunday at 9:00 PM EST. It's probably half folk-lore about eager west coast buyers winding their Sundays down with a browsing of eBay, but I (and many others) stick to it.

Today is Sunday and I have an item that was getting great bidding right up until early this morning when all of my Auctiva hosted images vanished (lets face it, broken links to images don't exactly instill faith in the seller). Until now, I didn't know I was using Amazon's S3 service and at this point I'm strongly regretting using Auctiva's service. It's going to cost me about $30 (it's within $30 of my researched target price and nobody is bidding despite lots of activity last night).

It's not the end of the world for me, but I'm going to guess that it could spell some serious consequences for others. This is made especially more painful since the company who made the Fail Wail famous is among its victims.

Twitter and SmugMug have no excuses. They relied solely on the services of one individual company with no real back-up back plan.

Granted, Twitter and SmugMug aren't life and death services (well, most of the time).

The obvious loser here is S3. If they were hoping to attract the attention of companies who provide services that require five nine's reliability, they've already lost.

So, while I still think that S3 was a great idea from Amazon, it's beginning to feel like Sears Dental: While it's convenient to have oral surgery while the folks downstairs are replacing the tires on your truck, there are some things you want to leave to companies who "specialize", rather than diversify.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

How To: Fail at Usability

My job often surrounds writing usable and accessible systems. For the purpose of this post, I'm going to cover usability, and precisely how current web (and other) systems FAIL. My apologies for the rant-y writin-g.

FAIL #1: Make the User Conform - Credit Card Entry


The user won't conform and there's often no reason to make them. Case in point, if you're asking for a credit card number, what is so difficult about removing spaces, dashes or dots? Mastercard/Visa split their numbers into groupings of four out of convenience. Your web application makes them lump the entire number into a field without that grouping. This causes endlessly wasted bandwidth and frustration due to typo's. It's easier to re-read a number when it appears in the field the same way it appears in print.
Stop it: A simple regular expression can remove non-digit characters.
And while you're at it, if the user wants to type MM/YY instead of MMYY, or MMYYYY, or MM/YYYY, let them. This is also very easily fixed by careful parsing.

FAIL #2: Make the User Conform - Phone Number Entry


In the US, there are several phone standards. nnn-nnn-nnnn, 1-nnn-nnn-nnnn (nnn) nnn-nnnn. Again, this comes down to parsing. If you want the phone number in a certain format, format it on the backend. How much code is wasted trapping non-conforming phone numbers that would be better spent just reformatting what was given to you?

FAIL #3: Do Not Reply to This Message or You Will Be Ignored


Quite possibly the simplest thing to do is to hit the reply button to an e-mail. If you are sending an e-mail from an automated system, why do you insist on sending it from an address that is unmonitored?
Think about this in another communications medium. Imagine someone called your home and said "My name is Jenny and I'm calling to tell you that your order has arrived at our store. If you have any questions, please call me at 555-1234, because I'm calling you from a phone that does not have a speaker so I won't hear you screaming at me."

FAIL #4: Store Pickup, but Don't Forget To Bring These 9 Things


Firstly, I am not a fan of the "buy it online and pick it up in the store". If I want to pick it up, I'll go to the store and buy it, but there are a small number of situations where I have used this service:
1) It's cheaper online and I'd rather not hassle with the price adjustment in-store,
2) It's Wal*Mart, who does it "right". They allow you to buy many items online that the store normally doesn't carry, and do a "ship to store" (for free). This is great for large/heavy items in cases where an individual store may not carry that item and ordering it online will result in awful shipping costs.
3) You have a big store and I don't want to fish through seventeen aisles to find the item I'm looking to buy.
In all cases, though, why must I bring printed copies of the e-mail that was sent, my photo ID, the credit card I used to purchase the item and the clothing I was wearing at the time of purchase?
I work with databases, so I understand the power. If I bring in my photo ID ... and nothing else ... you should be able to look up my order and send me on my way with product in hand.
Sure, it's great to have that e-mail with a barcode on it that can be "scanned", but have a backup plan if I show up without the proper documentation.

FAIL #5: You're item will be ready to pick up sometime next year.


When your web site says something is in stock and available for order online and in-store pick-up, it should be ready right away.
Lets dig deeper. Obviously, the customer who is invoking this method of purchase is in a hurry and doesn't want to wait for shipping. A certain big-box home improvement store seems to think that if I place the order after 3:00 PM, I'll be happy with picking that order up the next day. Or if that item just happens to not actually *be* in stock, I'll be OK with waiting a couple of weeks while the store orders it and has it shipped in.

FAIL #6: Just use the coupon code HYTIDSOKFNSKDSA at check out to receive 10% off


Coupon codes are generally pointless. They don't stop smart people who don't subscribe to your mailing list from using them (see RetailMeNot, DealCatcher, Dealspl.us, and many other sites), and they're horribly inconvenient.
Use clickable links that embed the code. It's simple and doesn't involve having to retype some silly word combination that the marketing guys thought was cute.

FAIL #7: SKIP THIS INTRO


Think about why you needed that button on your homepage. If I went there, I probably "skipped your web site".

FAIL #8: Hi! I'm the Web Site! Are your ears bleeding yet?


Your product is very cool, but your web site should never, ever, just start singing. I like music. But if I didn't hit play and my browser unexpectedly starts making very loud noise emit from speakers I rarely use, I'm going to click the "x" before I've had a chance to see what you had to say about your very cool product.

FAIL #9: America Only: City, State and ZIP Code please


City and State can be derived from the ZIP code, and if you look the city and state up using various services, you'll get more accurate mailing labels. Don't make me type more than I have to. I recently sent a letter and completely omitted the city and state to see how the post office would handle such a mind boggling scenario. Surprise, the letter arrived at its destination. That five digit code is very versatile.
If you do resort to asking for all three, make sure you're using all three to your advantage. If your user puts in 90210 for the ZIP code, and Kansas City, Nebraska for the city and state, perhaps you should throw a friendly message up since that package is going to end up in a different universe if you ship it using that information.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

My Review of the SageTV STX-HD100 Media Extender and SageTV

Those of you who know me in Real Life(tm), know that I'm not one of those folks that pretends they don't own a television. I enjoy it, and I believe it can surpass movies in its ability to tell a detailed story.

Television dramas can be broken up into segments that span a long period of time. That's not to say that a lot of it is trash. That's also not to say that I'm above watching trash. But there are gems: Lost, Jericho, (beats, bears and) Battlestar Galactica, The Office (US and UK). These shows define why television is more than a boob tube, even though ... often ... it's a boob tube.

For a bit of background, I'm a US satellite subscriber and former Cable TV customer. I started using DVRs the day after the Tivo Series 2 became available. I purchased one because it was available at a steep discount as a refurb. Now I wouldn't watch television without a DVR. Owning a DVR means you get to watch precisely what you want to watch when you want to watch it. It's a time saver, or at least a way to waste less time watching bad television because that's all that happens to be on when you wish to watch television.
The Tivo was short lived. I didn't like paying a monthly service charge and I really didn't like the fact that I couldn't hack-upgrade my Series 2 easily.
Previous posts will indicate that SageTV isn't my first experience with DVR software.


SageTV


SageTV is a spectacular piece of software. But making it work spectacularly requires a bit of ... work. I wouldn't hand this over to my mother to get up and running. While it's not nearly as complicated to get working as MythTV (in its current state), it's a daunting task to get it to do "everything".


The Good Parts


SageTV will play back ... well ... whatever your processor is able to handle. This includes the obvious container formats like avi, and mpeg. But also some of the more obscure like mp4, avchd, Matroska (mkv), mpeg TS. You may have to install the appropriate codec or splitter in Windows, but provided you've done so, the files play back flawlessly.
SageTV can be controlled -- entirely -- by remote control. It works well on a range of televisions, from my very old 23" analog set, to my rather new 50" Full HD set. The interface is incredibly flexible, regardless of how inflexible your particular display technology happens to be.
SageTV includes Place Shifting capability (think Sling Box). And for a very small fee, you can purchase a placeshifter license. The SageTV PlaceShifter works beautifully.
It has the only High Definition Media Extender I've ever seen, and it's got the only Media Extender I've ever used that didn't come with a bunch of "It will work, as long as your media is encoded in precisely <insert format that your media is *not* encoded in> this format".
Though not Open Source or Free, there is no recurring cost other than major version software upgrades. The guide data subscription is included in the price of the application.


The Other Good Things (Provided you have customized SageTV)


I mentioned earlier that it's not easy to setup. This isn't entirely true. It is actually very easy to setup, provided you are happy with the default SageTV Interface. You won't be. The default SageTV interface is among the worst Media PC interfaces I've ever worked with.
All is not lost, however, as there is an add-on called Sage TV Media Center that fills in almost all of the gaps you can imagine. The interface is clean and refined. Screen real-estate is efficiently used and the ability to customize it is incredible.
Put bluntly, I wouldn't run SageTV were it not for SageMC.


The Not-so-good Things


With any system that is this customizable, you run into usability problems. Any system that is this customizable is always going to be geared toward the geekier amongst us. I had previously used, and enjoyed using, BeyondTV. It was a great system but lacked the ability to play many file formats, and as of writing does not support recording from the HD-PVR, which in my circumstances is a must.
Getting the device to work with one of the best remotes ever made, the Snapstream Firefly isn't trivial unless you have a license for Girder or have donated to and installed LM Remote Keymap (the latter being the most inexpensive choice).
Similarly, getting SageTV to work properly with the USB-UIRT, also requires LM Remote Keymap.


The downright bad


Television shows that are recorded are stored in "Recordings" and include all of the metadata that you'd expect from a Tivo, or other standalone DVR. All of the rest of your videos live in this black hole called Imported Videos. Assuming you have a large library of videos that were recorded with other software (BeyondTV), or downloaded (legally, of course), the Imported Videos might as well include a card catalog organized using the Dewey Decimal system.
The best analogy I can find is that it's basically Windows Explorer in a 10-foot interface.
As bad as this is, there are ways around it. The current best way is to use the SageTV Web Interface plug-in and provide the metadata yourself. Obviously, if you have several hundred videos from a different source (BeyondTV, or otherwise downloaded), you're going to be spending a lot of time manually typing metadata.
I whipped up a quick application (soon to be released here), that scours the web for the metadata and turns the "imported videos" into actual Recordings.
All of that said, based on how I have SageTV configured, including add-ons and my custom software, I give it an 8 out of 10.


The SageTV Media Extender


I was very skeptical the day that the SageTV STX-HD100 was released. I've worked with various media extenders and streamers (in fact, I own an Xbox 360, so I technically have another brand of Media Extender in my house). They're all lousy. Often they require you to run a client on a PC that re-encodes video (poorly) for playback on the streamer. Sometimes they have little to no user interface. And they almost always come with serious restrictions on what they will and will not play back.
Even the Xbox 360 -- with all of its processing power -- will refuse to decode and playback various file formats. Get into the obscure like Matroska (MKV) and you can simply forget it. It won't work.
I was intrigued when I discovered the list of formats that SageTV committed to supporting.
As of the latest beta firmware, you can play back video/audio files in these container formats:
Matroxka (MKV), AVI, ASF, MPEG1/2 (MPG), QuickTime (MOV, MP4), OGG, Windows Media Video (WMV), Good old DVD (VOB), and AVCHD.
You can play back audio files encoded in:
AAC, MPEG Audio, Vorbis (it appears only in the ogg container, which would be normal and it supports stereo only), AC3 (Dolby Digital is decoded if you're plugged in via the Stereo outputs, otherwise it does a pass-thru via the optical output), Windows Media Audio (WMA), Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC), DTS (It does not decode DTS but it will pass-through to optical).
You can play back video files encoded in:
MPEG-1 and 2 (at all DVD supported bitrates and several well above DVD), MPEG-4.2 ASP@L5, H.264 (AVC) up to 1080p, WMV9/VC-1 up to 1080p.
Video/Audio Output:
It's important to note that though this device is a High Definition media extender, it doesn't necessarily have to be. Despite the fact that the majority of my library is High Definition, I have one of my HD Extenders plugged into an analog television via the S-Video port. It does a brilliant job of displaying HD content on SD displays.
In fact, on the back of the HD Extender you'll find an optical port, two RCA stereo ports, an S-Video port, a composite video port, the typical "HD" component video ports, and an HDMI port, which means it'll plug in to just about any television made after 1990.
The versatility of this device is it's biggest feature. It'll play back almost everything, and it'll play it back to almost any kind of television.
The second biggest feature is one that you won't notice -- it's silent. Despite its ability to crunch through some of the more processor intensive video codecs, it's a small, silent and nice looking device.


The Two Drawbacks


It's somewhat expensive at $200 (more if you don't already own a SageTV license). Considering all of its capabilities, I'm happy to pay $200, rather than $100 or $150 for a device that has a slew of limitations.
No WiFi. Likely this is to prevent play-back limitations. 802.11G may not be able to handle the larger HD videos and "N" (in it's never-going-to-be-released state) is still "Draft".
You can always bridge if you need wireless. Though I'd hazard a guess that if you're really working with SageTV, you probably aren't uncomfortable with running Cat-5e cable into yet another room in your house.



The Verdict


SageTV is great, but tricky to get working "just right".
The SageTV STX-HD100 Extender is the gold standard. There is nothing on the market today that works this well and if you're serious about your home theater rig, you'll be happy to have a wallet that's $200 lighter.

Much thanks to Brent Evans of Geek Tonic fame for convincing me to buy one of these. He's got his own review of the STX-HD100 that puts mine to shame.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Konica Minolta Magicolor 2300 DL and Vista x64

Site Note: It's been a while since I've updated anything here. My apologies. Our baby boy is 6 months old, so getting a few moments to write is becoming less common these days.

I had to share this one, since I spent several hours today fighting with my printer. I place the blame squarely with me. My expectation was that any driver for any prior version of Windows would never work with a later version of Windows. It's a fair assumption, but it was wrong.

The backstory: I migrated from XP to Vista, then after discovering how terribly slow the Vista world really was, I bumped up my RAM to 6 GB. Of course, this meant having to move to Vista x64, otherwise my system would only have 3GB of (yes, 3GB, not 4GB due to the intricacies of Memory Addressing).

Here's the scenario:
You have a Konica Minolta Magicolor 2300DL with Controller Firmware 2.85S (you can find the firmware revision by printing the Configuration page using the kludgey menu system on the front panel of your printer). In addition, you're using the Ethernet interface, rather than USB or Parallel.
In a desire to torture yourself, you have installed Vista x64 on a workstation that you wish to print using your 2300DL.

Here's the solution:
The Windows XP x64/Windows Server 2003 driver is compatible with Vista 64-bit.
Download the XP x64 driver and follow the directions for installing the 32-bit Vista driver up to the point where they tell you to go to the advanced settings and use LPR printing mode. Skip LPR, use Raw, and make sure the port is 9100.
When it's time to select a driver, use "Have Disk" and point the "wizard" in the direction of the folder that you extracted the XP x64 driver to and you're set.

A note about the 2300DL printer and the liklihood that this will work . . .
I've noticed that most people did what I did. When this model went EOL in 2004 (or was it 2005?), OfficeMax and others started selling it (with rebate) for around $400.00. A quick calculation indicated that the cost of the consumables was about $400.00. And a quick look at competing products (at the time) had the next color laser-like printer around nearly double the price.
The printer had its drawbacks: It shipped with 64MB of memory and used enough electricity to cause the lights in your house to blink when it ran. But it had its huge plusses: It used typical PC133 memory, of which any geek has a box full of. It had an Ethernet adapter. And it was a 400.00 Color Laser Printer!!
If you purchased this printer when I did, your firmware is probably alreadya at 2.85S

If you purchased it earlier, there's a chance that your firmware isn't even able to be updated.

Before you embark on updating the firmware, do yourself a favor, call Tech Support at 1-877-778-2687. Despite the fact that this printer is discontinued and mine is well out of warranty, it took 4 minutes to reach a representative who spoke perfect English and I was never once asked to pay a "one-time $45 dollar support fee". You don't see that too often.