Category Archives: Hardware

End of the Experiment: Doomed SX280.

After two tries with eBay Dell SX280s, I’m giving up. A second one arrived a day or two ago, and it doesn’t boot, even to the BIOS setup. After researching this it looks like it might involve capacitors on the motherboard. The first eBay seller promptly refunded my money and told me to keep the unit.

The second seller also refunded payment promptly and requested that I send the unit back. I won’t be able to try the capacitor replacement fix.

Out of three purchases, one works fine, and two were dead on arrival. Not a particularly great record, and I think I will end this experiment and go back to looking at purchasing at the Dell Outlet, or even new machines.

I just configured a low-end new Optiplex for $371. Of interest is this does not include any floppy, CD, or DVD drive. I added an extra 1 meg of RAM for a total of 2 megs, and kept the Windows Vista home OS with the idea of replacing with a license that I have here for Windows 7 and/or Ubuntu Linux.

So, the upshot is we’re still looking at a minimum of around $500 for a basic Dell desktop machine which includes a flat screen. The hardware guys recommend Samsung and Viewsonic flat screens.

A new stock analysis service called Trefis has this to say about the Dell company.

Dell is known primarily for its product line of desktop and notebook PCs, printers, and PC displays. However, much of Dell’s value comes from higher profitability businesses, such as managed services and consulting, through which Dell provides business customers with services, such as desktop outsourcing or IT call center support.

We foresee Dell contemplating an exit from the desktops, printers and displays business.

Hmm.. They calculate that desktop machines are roughly 2% of the company value, laptops about 20%, (ten times the desktop figure!) and that the largest proportion of value comes from Dell’s acquisition of Perot Systems in “business services”.

The $30.00 Windows XP Computer.

Based on Jeff Duntemann’s suggestion about the SX270 I went on eBay and bought both an SX270 and an SX280. I bid and got the 270 for $30.00, however, the vendor required a shipping fee of $30.00 for UPS ground which I think is a bit of a ripoff. Still, $60.00 isn’t bad (potentially) for a working more-or-less modern computer. For those who have more time than money, who want to try this route, here are a few additional tips.

1. All eBay Dell SX270s are not equal. Many are stripped of their hard drives. This is presumably for security reasons. If yours does have a drive, it will probably have been wiped, so it will need an operating system.

2. Many of the SX270s have what is called a COA sticker included. Sometimes this is simply described as “COA included”. This gives you a Windows license key. You still need to be able to install a copy of Windows, so you need to have a CD lying around, and typically this needs to be a single user copy. (I tried installing using the media from our site license. This wouldn’t accept the COA as it the one on the sticker wasn’t a “volume license” number. I also tried using an old Microsoft Action Pack version of the Windows media and this didn’t want to accept the number either. All this nonwithstanding the fact that I *do* have a legitimate Windows XP COA number to input during the installation process. The best solution proved to be a Dell Windows XP “operating system reinstallation disk” of which I have several lying around from previous new Dell machine purchases.

3. Both the SX270 ad SX280 have power bricks, similar or larger to those that you find on inexpensive ink jet printers and laptops. These are by no means generic and you need to be sure you have the right one to fit the machine. The eBay listing may or may not include the power brick….if it doesn’t you’ll be out another $10-$30.00. I was unlucky, but managed to get a Buy-it-Now brick for $10.00 (plus shipping of, I think $6.00). So, my $30.00 computer now costs $73.00.

4. My machine arrived in reasonably good shape; but was dusty. The CD drive wouldn’t read a CD correctly. I bought a CD cleaner disk from Amazon, and that seemed to fix the reading problem; but if it hadn’t the PITA factor would have gone up considerably as I’d have to replace the CD drive.

5. Once Windows was installed, I downloaded the network drivers from the Dell site, using another machine… and installed these on the SX270.

Then there is the inevitable faffing about trying to find video drivers for the unit. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a utility that would contain all of the drivers necessary, and that would install them in one batch file? Anyway, according to the discussion on the Dell web site, drivers should be installed in the following order:

  1. System driver file…either desktop or laptop. (I never found this for the SX270)
  2. Chipset (motherboard driver) requires a reboot.
  3. Video driver. requires a reboot.
  4. Network driver (already got that, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to download directly to the SX270)
  5. Audio drivers.

When Windows was first installed, the machine wouldn’t produce any screen resolution higher than 600×480. Once the video driver was installed, it went to 1600×1200 automatically. Pretty dramatic.

Looking at the specifications on the Dell site, it says that this machine is actually an SX270N. I’m not sure what the difference is between an N and a non-N.

The fan is noisy. Too noisy. Like the wind in Wuthering Heights. The fan noise diminished when I placed the unit on end, with the vent holes in the top. I’ll also attempt to peel off a label that the bonehead vendor stuck on the top thereby covering about 20% of the ventilation holes….maybe that will improve the air circulation and keep the machine cooler.

Tech Friday: The Forgotten Art of Scripting

Well, maybe it hasn’t been been forgotten by everybody, but it has been a long time since I looked at scripting, which might be considered another name for “accessible programming for casual users”.

In the beginning was the shell script.. any of several flavors of command line languages that manipulated UNIX operating system shells. These included component programs with funny names like AWK, and SED that allowed the manipulation of data and (especially) text files. And they all still work and and are used. I’m personally fond of grep, which is a sort of search engine on steroids available on any UNIX variant (like the Mac OS X)

Then there was the DOS batch file, which appeared in the earliest versions of DOS and has been carried up through all versions of Windows with the availability of the Windows Scripting Host. It has now has morphed into the PowerShell… but you can still write and execute a simple batch file if you want. Great stuff for network administrators.

Then there is JavaScript, which has nothing to do with Java, used for calculations and manipulations of web pages. I wrote my TimeCard web page program in JavaScript; and it works, and it it is fast, but working with the language was kind of a mess.

Why bother?

The later versions of the Tandberg Codian Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) for videoconferencing includes an XML-RPC interface to allow programmers to interact with the box without going through the provided web interface. The latter, by the way, is actually quite good. Our idea is to figure out the basic sub-set of functionality that we usually use 90% of the time, and build a custom interface for that 90%.

XML-RPC is, (it appears) to be a languishing standard for having one machine issue calls to another machine, and allow the second machine to execute commands. The reason I call this “apparently languishing” is that Google searches for XML-RPC turn up documents mostly from the early part of the decade. Also, there are few good tutorials on how to get things to work… right now I’m winging it using an (excellent) free client for the Mac which sends XML-RPC commands to the target box from a Mac workstation. Still, XML-RPC is what our box expects to receive…and for the moment at least, that’s what it will get. Once we’ve figured out what to send…we’ll figure out how to send it, ultimately using any scripting language that will work, but starting with AppleScript, which is native to OS X and which comes with an editor and dictionary built in.

Tech Friday: Video-The Right Tool For The Job

Two Stories: 

I

I’ve been participating in a entrepreneur boot camp of sorts which requires us to create slide show presentations to introduce our company. Because the leader is using an older Dell laptop with Microsoft Office 2003 installed, we are required to create these presentations to run on PowerPoint 2003 on her laptop. After the presentations have been created, our team was asked to record a voice-over to accompany these slides. This was recorded using Audacity on a Windows machine using a Samson condenser microphone with a USB interface. We did it in a couple of takes, and listened to the playback. All seemed well, although the team expressed some trepidation at attempting to synchronize the playback of the audio with the individual slides, a finicky process which would take some hours.  So the question is, why not use the sound recording function in PowerPoint 2007, (Windows) or Keynote ’09 (Mac)? 

II

We’ve been engaged in a study comparing a 15 week exercise program delivered in three “modes”, 1.) a live class at the ‘Y’, 2.) an interactive version delivered over the internet using multi-point two-way videoconferencing, and 3.) a DVD version of the program.  As part of our telemedicine project we had a contractor create a version of our program for delivery on DVD. We shot great footage with professional audio, lighting, and camera work. The footage was edited to create a 15 week version of our program.  Once the raw edits were created, we sent them off to a DVD guru who used one of those $1,200 authoring programs to put it together.  The result was OK, but non-intuitive. The users of the DVD basically hated it and several dropped out of the study.  
Now, a year has past and the study subjects who participated in the live session and those who took the interactive tele-version of the program want to have a DVD version of the program as a reference so that they can continue their exercise. We decided to provide them with a free DVD, using clips recorded from the telemedicine session. I combined these using iMovie ’09 and the result is better than the original professional DVD. (!)  I subsequently bought David Pogue’s Missing Manual book on iMovie and iDVD and am looking forward to re-doing our original DVD as well as create some promotional material for sharing on the web.  
Now, video editing isn’t my favorite pastime, but it is certainly no worse than grant-writing, and if the results are near-professional, then why not take advantage of what has really become a disruptive technology? 
On the other hand, here is an example of Eva Sollberger’s Stuck in Vermont video blog. Eva is a one-person video production company. She shoots, edits and publishes. This particular episode is about 6-8th graders creating their own news show.  It sure beats Channel 5 eyewitness news. 
 

Cloud Computing Redux

A year or so ago I railed against the cloud. Or rather, I railed against the paid cloud. Notwithstanding the fact that even then I was already paying for the cloud.

The subject came up during the Freedom To Connect conference. We were sitting around having lunch, several pretty hard-core networking types and somebody was grousing about cloud computing. “It’s not secure!” “It’s slow!” “What if you’re not connected to the Internet?”, (this at a conference of which the entire point was being connected all the time at ultra-high speed). But, I’m Cloud-Boy.

web site hosted at my ISP
eMail hosted at my ISP
virtual disk iDisk hosted at MobileMe
project management BaseCamp
time cards Harvest
Calendar Google Calendar
RSS reader Google Reader
word processing Google Docs (occasionally)
invoicing QuickBooks via eMail

Then there are the mandatory online applications when dealing with the federal government:

  • Employee withholding and tax payments
  • Applying for federal grants at Grants.Gov
  • NIH Commons for managing those grants once you’ve got them.
  • Electronic Funds System for drawing down funds.

Unfortunately, our state of Vermont is far behind… they actually require paper for virtually every step of the grant application and management function. Hmm….I wonder if you can file for a gay marriage license online?

I guess the point is that you’d be nuts not to take advantage of some hosted applications, and even if you are dead set against the cloud, you might be using something in the cloud and barely realizing it.

As usual, the MobileMe suite of applications from Apple have a little extra. Theoretically at least, you can sync your Safari links, and dashboard applications. (I still can’t get the dashboard apps quite right). The iDisk is effective in that it essentially mirrors one or more folders that are present on a particular machine, my desktop iMac for example, and replicates that disk to one or more other machines. (can work for Windows too…although I haven’t tried it. ) The neat thing about the iDisk though is that there is still a local copy of the folders on each machine. This unloads many of the objections to Cloud Computing…the notion that if you aren’t connected, you don’t have access to your files. True disk transfer happens at “FTP” speeds, so sometimes it takes awhile to sync with the cloud.

Tech Friday — WES and Ruby

Microsoft has made available considerable information about Windows Embedded Standard, (WES) which is the latest version of Windows Embedded, based on Windows XP.

There are (roughly) three versions of embedded operating systems from Microsoft:

Windows Embedded Standard: Allows a stripped down version of Windows XP for powering set-top boxes, game boxes, and machines dedicated to a single application. This is what we’re using in one version of our telemedicine set-top box.

Windows Embedded POS: An enhanced version of WES for cash registers and checkout scanner applications.

Windows Embedded CE: This is the version of Windows used for mobile phones and other hand-held and portable devices. The code base and software development tools for CE are different than Windows Embedded, with many of these related to WES.

There are a total now of twenty-nine (29!) training videos related to Windows Embedded Standard.

The Windows Embedded Developer Center site is the gateway on Microsoft’s Developer Network to all things related to Windows Embedded.

The Windows for Devices web site has information related to all version of Window Embedded as well as hardware that runs under Windows Embedded.

Other Notes:

Smashing Magazine has a nice introduction to Ruby on Rails.

Revisiting

After more than two years, a former and much loved non-profit client called for some help in sorting out their donor database. That’s another story which may be worth telling, but I was interested in seeing how they have weathered the economic downturn, and how some of the networking decisions that we took some years ago have held up. They have a main office and several field offices scattered among three counties. They have about 55 employees.

  1. By the time I had left, most of field offices had a broadband connection. That work was completed, and each office now has a DSL broadband connection, either from a local ISP, or from Fairpoint (the company who bought the Verizon landline and consumer data service in the three northern N.E. states). After working with it for a couple days, I’d say performance is OK.. although today, curiously, there was a twenty minute outage.
  2. With broadband available, they how have remote access software going to EVERY computer in EVERY office, as well as their central file server. Much desktop maintenance that required an on-site visit, can now be accomplished over the wire.
  3. Electronic mail accounts are hosted by the local internet service provider. People use Outlook or Outlook Express as their desktop eMail client….and access their eMail account when away from the office via webmail.
  4. They refreshed their desktop hardware with Dell Optiplexes that were donated by a local large employer. Although the machines are hand-me-downs, they are more than adequate for eMail, web browsing, and running the database application. The donor also gave them several laser printers that were only a few years old. Everyone is running XP, with Office 2007. (Without prompting, they said that Office 2007 is fine.) They have Norton Anti-Virus which is managed from the file server. No less than three of the staff said, in casual conversation… “well, I do have a Mac at home”. I nodded toward my Macbook, running Parallels, wondering if this turns out to be a longer term gig, if I will need to get a new Windows laptop.
  5. Their Dell file server is probably going on five years; but it is built like a tank, with RAID drives, and the original HP backup tape system. They have HP Procurve 2124 ethernet switches, and HP continues to keep replacing them under a lifetime warranty, when the fans go bad. I think we’ve replaced two or three switches with this client, and a couple of them with other clients. It takes one phone call.
  6. Several old battles were, well, old, if not forgotten. They have made their peace with a state-mandated performance data application which gave us all fits for years. The Executive Director attributes this success to attentive support from the state agency which mandated the system.
  7. If there is one especially popular non-business application being used by the staff, it is streaming audio. In fact, today, the first indication that there was a glitch in the internet connection was when a staff member came in and asked why her “radio” wasn’t working.

In short, it Just Works. I think this is attributable to the existing staff who have educated themselves over the years, and new staff who have come on board with full expectations of a functioning network and desktop workstation and how to use it. Add in some longstanding support from management who recognize the value of investing in technology and training, and the efforts of the current part-time network manager who keeps it all humming.

Tech Friday: Programming the Logitech Orbit Webcam

Just dabbling.

The Logitech QuickCam Orbit AF Webcam is a motorized point/tilt/zoom (PTZ) web camera with outstanding resolution and performance. Logitech has provided some additional documentation on manipulating the webcam. In Windows this is done through the DirectView API. To get as far as “Hello World”, i.e just to demo the whole thing, I first downloaded a sample C++ program provided by Logitech called. PTZ.exe Then I realized that I better see if the camera works in the first place, so I downloaded the current QuickCam driver set qc1150 from the Logitech site. Once that was installed, it worked fine when testing.

Then I tested PTZ.exe. This seemed to work fine. It is a command line program which does the following:
* Scans existing USB ports to find the webcam.
* Issues a series of commands to exercise the mechanical and digital PTZ functions of the camera.

Because my camera is an older version, just the zoom seemed to work. I’ll have to test it again with current AF.

Since PTZ.exe also comes as C++ source code, I downloaded and installed Visual Studio C++ Express Edition. This is the free version of Visual C++ . I opened the PTZ “solution”, when showed the various header files, and the main routine in a “folder” hierarchy to the left of a standard editing pane.


[Click picture to see full size]

Just like old times. You compile. You link. You run the application in a command box. This all works pretty reliably, even in Vista, running on my Mac through Parallels.

I then downloaded a USB port sniffer, and watched the messages merrily going to and fro between the web cam and the USB port. Much more on USB in Jan Axelson’s books and on her web site.

Next steps: Get the proper webcam, and try modifying the PTZ program myself to see if I can change the parameters. Oh, and maybe get a proper Windows development system.

By the way, the Logitech support forum has support for Linux and Solaris.

Death to Microsoft LifeCam

… and Logitech Orbit MPs as well.

One reason I convinced myself that it would be good to move to the Mac is that I’ve been really tired of trying to solve Windows problems. I figured that there would still be problems, but at least they would be new problems. I was coming off a Vista disaster, where we attempted to install Vista on ten production machines, (because the University’s license with Microsoft specified that they can’t use XP) and Vista never worked. Hey what’s a hundred or more hours down the tubes for the sake of Microsoft?

Like childbirth, one forgets the pain with time, and I have merrily installed application after application on the Macbook and the iMac. This almost inevitably is a two-step process which takes at most two minutes:
1. Download file
2. Drag file to the Applications folder.

On the other hand, installations for Windows usually involve an opaque installer program which may or may not have an option to install things that you don’t want. Then there is the Windows registry… a nightmare. To make a long story short:

I had a Logitech Orbit AF camera installed on one box, and I removed it to substitute an older Orbit MP. The MP didn’t work, even after attempting to reinstall the drivers three times. I don’t know if if it is a USB issue…or what. So, I had a Microsoft LifeCam VX6000 lying around, and I figured I could use that. Hey its from Microsoft, right? This installer got into some kind of infinite loop, pegging the processor to 100% and basically hanging. Twice. Finally after five reboots, and a lengthy process where I just ignored the machine for awhile (fifteen minutes or more), it finally did install, and the camera does in fact work with my application. Elapsed time almost an hour.

A similar thing has happened multiple times with Hewlett Packard ink jet printers, and even my LaserJet 2420. The hardware is crap. How is it that a $500 LaserJet 2420 overheats after 30 minutes and stops printing when my Laser 2000 is still going after something like ten years? (I gave it to a non-profit.) HP has hundreds of printer models, each requiring separate support and drivers, many of which don’t work well. (Even the Indian tech support people have said that HP driver installer programs are useless).

Both HP and Microsoft have lost control, desperate to foist any half-assed product on to the market in an attempt to maintain their market share. And each of these sorry products can represent tens of hours of lost time and frustration. Grrrr!

MacBook Hard Drive Replacement

They say bad things happen in threes. Ok…I broke my foot three weeks ago, I blew a loudspeaker on my stereo (but it was 36 years old, “The Smaller Advent”) and now a week out of warranty, my MacBook hard drive headed south, giving a forlorn “click, click, click”… I found this out on a Saturday as I attempted to syncronize some files between the MacBook and the iMac. So far the aftermath has been relatively painless.

1. I put in a call to Small Dog Electronics. Within two minutes I was talking to a knowledgeable tech support person, who immediately verified that they had a replacement drive in three sizes in stock at both of their stores.

2. Went to the South Burlington store, stood in line at their repair window (equivalent to a genius bar) and got the replacement drive. I took the opportunity to upgrade it to 320 gig, from the 250 gig drive that failed. $120.00 for the drive. I also asked if they could do the replacement on the spot, but they demurred, saying it would be a couple of days before they would be able to get to it. Having seen several explanations on how to do this myself, including a YouTube video, I had no fear.

3. Disassembled everything per instructions. Vexacious. Tiny screwsheads easily stripped. The worst are the TT8 Torx screws that hold the shield on top of the drive. Naturally, I’ve never needed a #8 Torx screwdriver in my entire life, and didn’t have one. Ran to the hardware store, they didn’t have one either except as part of a Christmas special of 40 screwdrivers packaged in a blister pack for $13.99, product of China and evidently fabricated of pressed cardboard. Never mind, it worked.

4. Fiddled with restoring the operating system. The install disks from the iMac don’t work. The MacBook Leopard install disk was an “upgrade” disk, and since I haven’t already installed the earlier version of it said it wouldn’t install Leopard, until I had installed Panther. However, in the disk installer menu there was a restore option to restore from Time Machine.

5. Booted again with the Time Machine disk attached. Went around in circles as the restore program didn’t see the new disk. I hadn’t formatted the disk, so how could it have seen it? (some things would have been second nature in Windows, oh, and by the way, a format on a Mac is called “erase”). Once I did format the disk I was able to start the restore process , and it has been merrily restoring now for about 90 minutes with another 30 or so to go. I’m excited…will my new Parallels installation with Office 2007 and Vista survive the restore? Will my eMail be there and the VPN?

So far so good… everything works; Parallels, Mac Mail, Safari, iWork, iTunes and all the bits are there. Nice.

More on Time Machine

While at the ‘Dog, I took a look at the new alumininum MacBooks, trying to justify a full replacement. Something equivalent to mine would be about $1600, I think… a little steep, considering that I’m happy as a clam with my current plastic one from November of ’07. The performance appeared to be better on the new one, of course, and it seemed substantially lighter. In short..they are nice.