Reviews

Hardware preview: Apple iPad

Today, Apple launched the iPad, their long-awaited version of the tablet computer. In spite of the failures of their predecessors, I think Apple will pull this off. I think the iPad will be very successful. In case you haven’t gotten your iPad fix yet, grab a cup of tea and sit down, this post is loaded with photos of the iPad and its accessories.

As I mentioned yesterday, I wrote a post in September of last year, where I unwittingly described the functionality of the iPad. I was actually focusing on the need for what I called a portable Apple TV, a device that bridged the gap between an iPod and a laptop, and that’s exactly what the iPad is. Let me quote myself:

Clearly, Apple has the technological know-how to put together a really nice Apple TV that’s not yet another box tethered to a TV in the living room, but a display with integrated speakers and the circuitry that allows it to get on my network and access media from various drives, or to play the media I sync to it through iTunes, or to download media from the Internet.

Just think, with a nice LED screen of about 13-17 inches, a touch screen, plenty of onboard storage, a good battery, WiFi, Bluetooth, and speakers, they could have an amazing device that I could take with me wherever I decide to sit in the house or in the yard. I could take it in bed and watch movies without draining my already tired laptop battery, I could take it outside on the patio at night to watch stuff there, etc.

Apple already has all of this technology. Why don’t they put it together?

Wouldn’t you know it, someone at Apple must have seen my post… I’m kidding, naturally — the iPad has likely been in development for at least a year, so it’s not like I had much to do with the iPad’s invention — but it’s nice to see that my hunch, or at least my perception of a need in the marketplace for a product like the iPad, was right.

What does the iPad do? It can:

  • Browse the web
  • Read and send email
  • Enjoy photos
  • Watch video
  • Listen to music
  • Play games
  • Read e-books
  • Basically, anything but any real work 🙂

I may be wrong about that last capability though. Here’s what Apple says:

“Apple also introduced a new version of iWork® for iPad, the first desktop-class productivity suite designed specifically for Multi-Touch. With Pages®, Keynote® and Numbers® you can create beautifully formatted documents, stunning presentations with animations and transitions, and spreadsheets with charts, functions and formulas. The three apps will be available separately through the App Store for $9.99 each.”

So who knows, we may be able to get some work done on the iPad after all, if we’re not too tempted to watch movies or read books on it.

Before we get too awestruck with all of the awesome things the iPad can do, it’s important to note two of its capabilities. I’ll let Apple explain:

“iPad is powered by A4, Apple’s next-generation system-on-a-chip. Designed by Apple, the new A4 chip provides exceptional processor and graphics performance along with long battery life of up to 10 hours. Apple’s advanced chemistry and Adaptive Charging technology deliver up to 1,000 charge cycles without a significant decrease in battery capacity over a typical five year lifespan.”

Apple has not only developed new battery technology which is already in use on its laptops and now, on the iPad, but, and I think this is huge, they’ve now developed a new chip, called the A4. Since when do they have the technology to develop computer chips? I thought they always outsourced that function, to Intel, and before that, to PowerPC. Now they’re making chips? Wow. And since this new chip is called the A4, are we to assume there’s an A3, or A2, or A1, or more importantly, an A5, or an A6, or A7? Where were they used, and where will they be used?

Let’s look at the iPad’s exterior. It is a gorgeous device, incredibly thin, made of aluminum and glass.

It comes in two models: Wifi-only, and WiFi + 3G. The only difference (on the exterior) between the two models is a bit of extra weight for the 3G model (1.6 lbs. vs 1.5 lbs.), and the presence of the 3G antenna, which looks like a black strip at the top.

Height: 9.56 inches (242.8 mm)
Width: 7.47 inches (189.7 mm)
Depth: 0.5 inch (13.4 mm)
Weight: 1.5 pounds (.68 kg) Wi-Fi model; 1.6 pounds (.73 kg) Wi-Fi + 3G model

One thing I’m not clear on is whether the 3G version of the iPad will require the AT&T network, or whether it will be “unlocked” for use on any 3G network. I’m certainly not keen to use AT&T’s network, for reasons with stem directly out of my personal experiences and my parents’ personal experiences with their horrible customer service.

Let’s move on and look at the display. I was hoping to see a larger-size device, but as things stand, the screen is 9.7″ across, at 1024 x 768 resolution. What does compensate for the somewhat smaller screen is the ppi (pixels per inch) spec, which is 132 — almost double the 72 ppi of standard displays. The display uses a technology called IPS (in-plane switching) which allows for a wide, 178° viewing angle.

When I look at the TV and Video specs, I’m glad to see that it will also output 1024 x 768 to an external display with the aid of a dock to VGA adapter, and that it will output SD and better-than-SD video (480i/480p and 576i/576p) to a TV with an Apple Composite A/V cable. More than that, it can play 720p (HD) video, which was expected and was the right thing to do.

“H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats. “

The iPad’s power adapter is rated at 10W according to the specs, which is great in my book. It means it’s a very efficient device. Think about it, what you basically get with the iPad is an HD TV which you can take to bed with you, and which only consumes 10W when plugged in. Have you even looked at your HDTV’s power usage lately? Even the most efficient LCD displays consume more than 100W, and if you look at how much plasma displays consume, you’ll want to run away.

The iPad can open most of the usual file formats, as is expected since it will have its own version of iWork, but does that mean we’ll get a Finder, with a Home folder for our account? After all, if we’re going to work with documents, we’ll need a place to save them and access them.

“Viewable document types: .jpg, .tiff, .gif (images); .doc and .docx (Microsoft Word); .htm and .html (web pages); .key (Keynote); .numbers (Numbers); .pages (Pages); .pdf (Preview and Adobe Acrobat); .ppt and .pptx (Microsoft PowerPoint); .txt (text); .rtf (rich text format); .vcf (contact information); .xls and .xlsx (Microsoft Excel).”

This becomes an even more important question if we consider the iPad accessories, among which we find the Keyboard Dock, which clearly allows one to use the iPad as a lightweight computer. If it’s going to be used as such, we’ll definitely need a Home folder, with a Documents folder and other such usual amenities to keep our stuff. And will these documents get synced with the documents on our home machine? Furthermore, if we’ll download our emails onto it, will they automatically get synced with Mail on our laptops and desktops?

There’s also a regular dock, which lets the iPad charge and holds it upright, so you can watch movies unhindered.

I like the camera connection kit, which lets you download photos from your digital camera either through a USB cable, or with an SD card reader. That’s a smart and elegant solution.

The iPad case is great, too. It’s wonderful for carrying the iPad about, and for travel, as it turns into a stand that lets you watch movies without needing to hold the iPad in your hand.

All of this exterior beauty wouldn’t be much without interior smarts and looks that match it to a tee. Here’s where Apple’s advantage really comes into play. Since they make both the hardware and the software, they can marry the two so well that they act as one. There’s never any doubt that a button you press on an Apple machine doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, because it was made specifically for that reason and there’s a part of the code on the machine written specifically for it. On the iPad, I can see that significant thought and effort was put forth to design the software UI around the look of the hardware, to make the two act as one, and it’s a success. Have a look at how well each of the iPad’s purposed uses is represented by the software written for those uses.

Photos on the iPad:

Maps on the iPad. Can you believe how gorgeous those maps look on the iPad, and how cool it is to manipulate them (zoom, pan, annotate) on that large multi-touch display?

iBooks on the iPad. The Kindle’s battery may last longer, but can you argue with color?

iCal on the iPad. It’s just gorgeous, much more than its counterpart in OS X. Why doesn’t it look this good on my MBP?

Contacts on the iPad. Very cool.

Notes on the iPad. I’m going to love taking notes now, even more so than on my iPod Touch.

There is one disappointment. I expected an iSight video camera on the iPad, and there isn’t one. I’m not sure why. Possibly for the same reason the iPod Nano got a video camera last year instead of getting it one or two years prior to that. It’s very likely the next gen iPad will have a video camera, and it will have iChat as well.

Still, the iPad is a fantastic device, and it exceeded my expectations in many ways. I’d love to know what you think of it.

iPad will be available in late March, worldwide, for a suggested retail price of $499 (US) for the 16GB model, $599 (US) for the 32GB model, and $699 (US) for the 64GB model. The Wi-Fi + 3G models of iPad will be available in April in the US and selected countries for a suggested retail price of $629 (US) for the 16GB model, $729 (US) for the 32GB model and $829 (US) for the 64GB model. International pricing and worldwide availability will be announced at a later date.

The video from the Keynote iPad launch is available here, and the iPad overview video is available here.

Photos used courtesy of Apple.

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Reviews

Hardware preview: DroboElite

Drobo Pro side

Updated 1/14/19: I have revised my opinion of Drobo devices. After experiencing multiple, serious data loss events on multiple Drobo models, even recent ones, I no longer consider them safe for my data.

Today, November 23, 2009, the new DroboElite becomes available from Data Robotics. It’s the top of the ladder when it comes to their product line: it’s the fastest, biggest, most configurable SAN they’ve got, and it eats terabytes for breakfast. It’s got multi-host support, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, and it can have up to 255 Smart Volumes.

Background

Data Robotics launched the original Drobo in mid-2007, then upgraded that to what we call the Firewire Drobo toward the end of 2008, introduced the DroboPro in April 2009, and now they’re launching the DroboElite, which you can see here, and the Drobo S, addressed in a separate post, also published today.

drobo-s-and-droboelite

This means the company now has four great pieces of hardware in their product line, geared toward different groups of consumers, starting with the desktop storage needs of the media-heavy consumer and going all the way to companies’ server rooms:

  1. Drobo,
  2. Drobo S,
  3. DroboPro and
  4. DroboElite

Design

The front of the DroboElite is identical to that of the DroboPro. The dimensions are the same — and they’d have to be, since it needs to fit into a 3U rack space and take the same rack mounting kit as the DroboPro. The weight is also the same: 16 lbs. 3 oz.

Drobo Pro top

Things are different in the back though. What you’ll see there is a lack of Firewire and the addition of a second Gigabit Ethernet port. The USB port has also been downgraded to the role of diagnostics. As you’ll see in a bit, there’s a reason for this change.

A side-by-side comparison of the backs of the DroboPro and the DroboElite makes the changes even clearer.

drobo-pro-and-drobo-elite

The inside of the DroboElite is once again identical to that of the DroboPro. There are eight drive slots, arranged vertically, plus the usual power, activity and action indicator lights.

Drobo Pro cover off

Performance

The DroboElite, like the DroboPro, is aimed toward SMBs, who are facing increasing data storage and virtualization needs, increasingly complex systems and limited budges. Also like the DroboPro, the DroboElite aims to make reliable storage dead simple. The eight-drive array in these two devices is self-managing and self-healing, and can be configured in single or dual-drive redundancy. It’s scalable, and with Smart Volumes, incredibly flexible. There’s no need for partitioning or file system expansion — a serious problem with traditional SANs.

droboelite-thin-provisioning

Having dealt with the problem of rigid LUN configurations, which lead to frequent and cumbersome free space issues, the Drobo’s ability to use a common drive pool for its Smart Volumes, and to reclaim deleted data blocks without any intervention from system admins is a Godsend.

For those of us familiar with the Drobo, it’s easy to overlook its amazingly easy upgrade path, where SATA drives of any capacity and brand can be added at any time, resulting in lower costs and no time and effort lost for needless data migrations.

If you’ve looked at the DroboPro, and now you wonder what the DroboElite brings to the table, there are three significant advantages to the latter:

  1. Multi-host connectivity: whereas the DroboPro could only be connected to a single host (two if using VMware), the DroboElite can connect to 16 different hosts.
  2. Higher performance: thanks to its dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, a host of advanced capabilities were put in for the express purpose of speeding up its bandwidth. The DroboElite offers up to 50% faster throughput than the DroboPro. That’s also the reason the FireWire interface was dropped, and the USB interface was downgraded to diagnostics-only. This machine was built to run on a fast Gigabit network and to give you the most speed possible through it, up to 200 MB/sec, as a matter of fact, which trumps any other sort of current interface, by far.
  3. More Smart Volumes: the Drobo Pro can only accommodate up to 16 SVs, but the DroboElite will let you configure up to 255 SVs, all of them using a common drive pool and automatically reclaiming deleted disk space.

droboelite-consolidated-storage

If we look toward the future and other possible improvements to the DroboElite, perhaps Light Peak might play a role in that (see my Drobo S review for more on Light Peak and the Drobo). Still, since this is a network device, and networks are still Gigabit at best, even if direct DroboElite-to-host connections are made with Light Peak, there’s still the Ethernet bottleneck. It’ll be interesting to see how this gets resolved over time, and I’m sure plenty of people are already at work on this problem already.

Pricing and Availability

The DroboElite has a suggested price of $3,499 by itself, or $5,899 with an 8×2 TB drive bundle, for a total capacity of 16 TB. Because it’s a more specialized product, it will only be sold through select direct marketers, resellers and integrators such as Synnex, Bell Micro and Ingram Micro. It is available for purchase immediately, provided initial stocks aren’t sold out.

The DroboElite is also available with a rackmount kit, just like the DroboPro. The whole assembly will take up 3Us in a standard 19″ server rack.

Drobo Pro rackmount kit

drobo-pricing-and-availability

The DroboElite is available for purchase from Amazon or B&H Photo and other retailers.

Images used courtesy of Data Robotics. Side-by-side comparison shots were created by me, using press images from Data Robotics, so please obtain my permission if you’d like to use them elsewhere.

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Reviews

Hardware preview: Drobo S

Drobo_S_Right_Hi

Updated 1/14/19: I have revised my opinion of Drobo devices. After experiencing multiple, serious data loss events on multiple Drobo models, even recent ones, I no longer consider them safe for my data.

Today, November 23, 2009, the new Drobo S says hello to the world. It’s a supercharged, triple interface version of the 2nd-generation (FW800) Drobo, with eSATA, FW800, USB 2.0, a faster processor, 5 drive bays and dual drive redundancy. It combines the best of both worlds — the smaller form factor of the regular Drobo with the larger capacity, speed and data protection of the DroboPro. Data Robotics summarizes this as “more capacity, more protection and more performance”.

Excuse my little pat on the back here, but when I first heard that Data Robotics was getting ready for a new product launch, an eSATA interface was the first thing that came to my mind. I’m glad to see I was right.

Background

Data Robotics launched the original Drobo in mid-2007, then upgraded that to what we call the Firewire Drobo toward the end of 2008, introduced the DroboPro in April 2009, and now they’re launching the Drobo S, which you can see here, and the DroboElite, addressed in a separate post, also published today.

drobo-s-and-droboelite

This means the company now has four pieces of hardware in their product line, geared toward different groups of consumers, starting with the desktop storage needs of the media-heavy consumer and going all the way to companies’ server rooms:

  1. Drobo,
  2. Drobo S,
  3. DroboPro and
  4. DroboElite

data-robotics-product-comparison

Design

Let’s first look at the exterior of the new Drobo S, to see what’s changed there. On its front side, you’ll notice the bezel is different. Whereas the trademark magnetic cover was flush with the metal bezel of the enclosure, now it’s recessed and no longer covers the entire front surface. The capacity meter was kept at the bottom of the enclosure, but it’s no longer underneath the plastic cover, which was kept square rather than made rectangular, to fit the now-taller Drobo. The power and transfer lights were also made visible and placed inline with the capacity meter. A row of vents was added above the capacity meter, to pull in cool air for the drive bays.

The new dimensions are 5.9″ wide x 7.3″ tall x 10.3″ long, as compared to the regular Drobo’s 6.3″ wide x 6.3″ tall x 10.7″ long. This makes the new Drobo S thinner and shorter than the regular Drobo, in spite of its 5 drive bays and the new eSATA interface. It is taller, though only by a single inch (2.54 cm). That’s an achievement in my book, and I’m sure the Drobo engineers spent quite a bit of time planning out the hardware layout. Kudos to them. The differences are made readily apparent when we look at the regular Drobo and the Drobo S side-by-side. Keep in mind the scale may be a bit off in real life, since I took two separate images and put them together in Photoshop for this article. This image isn’t an official one from Data Robotics, though the individual images are.

On the back of the new Drobo, we can see a much larger cooling grille, which makes sense given what we’ve discussed above. We also see something new, something which I’ve only seen on the DroboPro so far: a power switch. Then we see the rest of the stuff we expected, like the power connection (which is now marked by a shiny metal circle), the reset switch, the cable lock slot, and, of course, the triple interfaces: eSATA, Firewire 800 and USB 2.0.

Let’s look at a side-by-side comparison of the backs of the Drobo S and the regular Drobo, so we can see the differences in the design.

drobo-and-drobo-s-back

When I look at the Drobo S from all these angles, I’d say its design is much sleeker and more streamlined than that of the regular Drobo. There’s no doubt about it, I love it. I felt from the start that Drobo made storage sexy. There are very few storage enclosures on the market that look really good, and Drobo has looked great from the start. When you combine those looks with its amazing capabilities, the result is well worth my money.

You know what else? I think a future iteration of the regular Drobo’s enclosure will include the design elements of the Drobo S. I also believe at some point this same, newer design philosophy will be carried forward to the DroboPro and the new DroboElite.

Let’s look behind the front cover, to see how things look over there.

Drobo_S_Open_Hi

The five drive bays are clearly visible here, as well as the five action indicator lights, as Data Robotics calls them. On the Drobo S, the indicator lights give more status messages than on the regular Drobo, because each light is capable of displaying two colors at the same time. You can see what I mean by looking at this indicator scheme.

drobo-s-lights

Performance

Now let’s talk about performance. Clearly, with an eSATA port, the new Drobo S must also have the capability to stomach all that data that comes at it. It must be able to process all of it and write it to the drives fast enough to make the new interface worth getting. I haven’t tested the Drobo S in person (yet?) but Data Robotics says the new eSATA interface is “up to 50% faster than FireWire 800“. On the Drobo S, the FireWire 800 interface is also faster than on previous hardware, “up to 25% faster“. All these speeds are due to a new, faster processor that can crunch all of those data bits just as quickly as they get to it, writing each of them across the five drive bays.

In my phone conference with Mark Fuccio from Data Robotics, I asked him why Data Robotics hadn’t included a Gigabit Ethernet interface so that Drobo S could also be a NAS device. He explained that the direct-attach market is 4x bigger than the NAS market, so DRI will always go for that market first, and second, the eSATA interface on the Drobo S is faster than is possible going through file sharing protocols like Windows SMB or Apple’s AFP. The Drobo S has “performance ranges between 70-90 MB/sec or approximately 80-90% of the performance of the DroboPro’s iSCSI connection”.

I also asked him what he thought about Light Peak, and if we might see that in the Drobo as another interface next year. He didn’t say no, but he also didn’t promise anything, which was expected. He said it’s likely that DR will build it into the Drobo when and if Intel finalizes the specs and starts to make it available to companies.

It’s important to mention two features of the Drobo S which are just plain wonderful. One is the dual-drive redundancy, which is a feature borrowed from the DroboPro and is so important for those of us who absolutely must protect our data, or else. You can switch back and forth between single-drive and dual-drive redundancy at any time, but keep in mind there’s a capacity trade-off in dual-drive redundancy mode — that is, you get less available free space since the Drobo must now make sure your data is protected against two drive failures.

Dual drive redundancy is something Data Robotics was able to offer because it included five drive bays on the Drobo S. It would have been overkill on a four-drive unit, because it would have meant even less available space. Another effect of this dual drive redundancy is more capacity, up to 10 TB, as a matter of fact, given current hard drive specs. With five 2 TB drives in the Drobo S, you would indeed have 10 TB of space, but only 7.3 TB would be available for your data; the rest would be kept for data redundancy. Consult the handy chart below to see approximate capacities given typical drive combinations.

drobo-s-capacity

The second feature worth mentioning is the self-healing technology included with the Drobo S (also available in the DroboPro and DroboElite), which works as follows:

Even when sitting idle, Drobo S will continually examine the blocks and sectors on every drive, flagging questionable areas. This preemptive “scrubbing” helps ensure your data is being written only to the healthy areas of your drives, and that your data is always safe. Even if a drive fails, Drobo S keeps your data in the safest state possible, utilizing the available space on the remaining healthy drives.

I’d like to know if you get that with any other storage device on the market today. Compare it with RAID 0, where even if your drives don’t fail, any hardware or processor mistake in writing the correct bit sequences to the stripes will cause data corruption, leading to data loss.

Drobo_S_Left_Hi

Pricing and Availability

I was told the Drobo S will be available right away, as of today. It’s possible that initial supplies will be sold out, but more units will become available later. Suggested retail price is $799 for the Drobo S itself, or $1,799 for the Drobo S loaded with 5×2 TB drives. Although the price may seem high, keep in mind that at 10 TB capacity, it’s only 18 cents per GB for the Drobo S and the drives, together.

The Drobo S is available for purchase from Amazon or from B&H Photo.

Images used courtesy of Data Robotics. Side-by-side comparison shots were created by me, using press images from Data Robotics, so please obtain my permission if you’d like to use them elsewhere.

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Thoughts

It’s no surprise broadband internet sucks in the US

A recent Akamai survey, which I shared here and here, ranked US in the 33rd spot (globally) when it came to broadband internet connections above 2 Mbps. Sure, it moved up two spots compared to last year, but it’s still lagging behind countries such as Monaco, Slovakia, South Korea, and believe it or not, Romania — which is where I’m living these days.

That’s sad. It’s very sad because a country such as Romania, with fewer resources than the US, and with a LOT more corruption at every level, has managed to provide better Internet services than the US. It just goes to show you how much pork barrel legislation and ridiculous lobbying can slow down an entire country’s Internet access. Why, every time a company tried to improve the way broadband worked in the US, it was eventually bought out or dragged down and kept down for the count.

Remember Telocity? It was one of the first companies to offer DSL service in the US, ahead of Ma Bell. Even though it was paying hefty amounts of money for the right to transport Internet traffic on Ma Bell’s lines, they had enormous problems with the same Ma Bell, due to problems that would somehow just happen to crop up on the same wires or the switching equipment. Then they’d have to pay more money so Ma Bell could fix their own equipment, which they’d say Telocity broke, etc., ad nauseam, and so on and so forth.

That’s just one example. Another was the more recent push to restructure the way cable services are provided (both TV and internet). One of the efforts was the a-la-carte programming initiative, and another was the push for faster and more reliable cable Internet services. You wouldn’t believe the advertising, PR and lobbying blitz the cable industry started and kept up for several months — actually, I’m fairly sure you saw their ads on TVs and buses everywhere, particularly in the Washington, DC area.

Or what about when they got together in late 2007 and 2008 to ask for an Internet tax? Remember the tiers of traffic they wanted to create? They wanted all the big websites to pay them for the traffic, as if they weren’t already getting enough money from the customers for their slow and unreliable services. They also wanted large chunks of money from the federal government in order to upgrade their infrastructure. No matter how much money they make, they’re so greedy they always want more, more, more.

What I’d like to know is how all these other countries, including Romania, can manage to offer faster and more reliable Internet services without asking for money from their countries’ government, without charging big websites for their traffic, and also by charging less per month for better broadband? How is that possible? Could it be that these companies actually know how to run their businesses while their counterparts in the US are filled with lazy, greedy idiots?

I still vividly remember an incident which happened while I was a director of IT at a Florida hospital, several years ago. A BellSouth technician had been called in to check the phone boards, and my network and servers kept going down and coming back up. The Medical Records system kept giving errors when employees wanted to access forms to fill in patient data, not to mention that other network services, like file sharing and printing, kept going on the fritz. I checked every one of the servers and they were fine. I finally walked into the switch room, at my wits’ end, only to find the moronic BellSouth employee with his fat, lazy butt on our UPS, jiggling it back and forth as he chatted with someone back at BellSouth HQ, plugging and unplugging the power supply that fed one of the main network switches. I went ballistic, grabbed him by the collar and threw him out of my switch room. Was he that stupid that he didn’t know where he was sitting? Was he such a pig that he couldn’t feel the plugs underneath him as he sat on them? He didn’t even want to apologize for taking out an entire hospital’s network during daytime hours. That’s BellSouth for you.

I don’t know how the US can get better broadband, unless it’s legislated. An ultimatum must be given by the government, one that can’t be overridden by any lobbyists or CEOs shedding crocodile tears in front of Congress. These companies simply will not get their act together until they, too, are grabbed by their collars and shaken about. They’ve gotten used to the status quo, they like it, and they’re clinging to it with all their might.

Meanwhile, here’s a sample of the Internet plans you can get in Romania right now. For comparison purposes, 1 Euro is worth about $1.4 these days.

Romtelecom (the main phone carrier, provides ADSL services):

  • 2 Mbps, 2084 kbps/512 kbps, 4.88 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps, 4096 kbps/512 kbps, 7.02 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps, 6144 kbps/512 kbps, 9.40 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps, 8192 kbps/768 kbps, 14.16 Euro/month
  • 20 Mbps, 20480 kbps/1024 kbps, 24.87 Euro/month

[source]

Birotec (provides fiber optic services, all plans include phone line with varying amount of minutes based on plan price):

  • 3 Mbps up/down, 10 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps up/down, 15 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps up/down, 20 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps up/down, 29 Euro/month
  • 10 Mbps up/down, 49 Euro/month

[source]

RDS (provides fiber optic, cable, cellular modem and dial-up access — prices not readily available on website):

  • Fiber optic access up to 2.5 Gbps
  • Cable access up to 30 Mbps

[source]

The lowest internet access plan in Romania is 2 Mbps. Cellular modems are advertised at speeds up to 3 Mbps. Meanwhile, in the US, you can still find 512 Kbps plans at prices twice or three times as much as the 2 Mbps plans in Romania. That’s the price of complacency and excessive lobbyism.

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How To

Finally, an update for Apple's Bluetooth problems

Updated 8/26/09: It turns out the firmware update didn’t fix the Bluetooth issues. But OS X 10.5.8, which also came out recently, seems to have mostly fixed the problems. I still get the occasional Bluetooth connection error, but it’s nowhere near as often as before.

A software update noticed popped up on my MBP today, telling me Bluetooth Firmware Update 2.0 was available for download and install.

bluetooth-update-1

The update explanation says the following:

“This update provides bug fixes and better compatibility with the Apple Wireless Mighty Mouse and Apple Wireless Keyboard. It installs on all Macintosh systems with Bluetooth based on the Broadcom chipset.”

Finally! If you’re unfamiliar with the Bluetooth crashing problems on Mac computers, then you’re one of the few lucky ones. But the rest of us with late generation laptops like the MacBook Pro have had this issue for at least a few months now. This, for example, is just one of the many threads in the Apple Forums dealing with this persistent Bluetooth issue. On June 9, I’d had enough and vented on FriendFeed about it.

Basically, Bluetooth communications stopped working after a Mac was woken up from sleep mode, necessitating either a turn off/on cycle of the Bluetooth hardware, or another quick sleep/wake cycle. I for one didn’t have too many problems with the keyboard and mouse not working, but I did have a serious issue maintaining connectivity with my Nokia N95 via Bluetooth. My MBP kept refusing to connect to it, and I can’t remember how many times I removed and re-added it from my preferred Bluetooth devices. I even thought my N95 was to blame, until I tried turning Bluetooth off/on and realized my MBP could connect to it just fine after that.

From the looks of things, Apple’s been at work on a fix for the problem, and it’s now available for general install. So, by all means, download away and see if it helps you. I for one will be on the lookout for any more Bluetooth issues, to see if this firmware update has truly fixed the bug.

Before I close, I’d like to point out that even though a restart is not announced for the firmware update, you will most certainly need to restart your Mac. Once the Safari update installs, and your Mac restarts, the following dialog box pops up on the screen, informing you that the Bluetooth update will now begin, and your machine will restart once it’s finished. Just FYI.

bluetooth-update-2

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How To

Connect two Drobo units to your computer at the same time?

Updated 1/14/19: I have revised my opinion of Drobo devices. After experiencing multiple, serious data loss events on multiple Drobo models, even recent ones, I no longer consider them safe for my data.

One of my readers asked me a little more than a month ago if I could post some screenshots of the Drobo Dashboard with two Drobos connected at the same time. Sure, no problem. It’s easily doable, and the Dashboard software automatically differentiates between each of them and displays the proper stats for each, even if they’re name the same. I haven’t tried it yet, but you could probably connect three Drobos at the same time if you wanted to.

Here’s what the drive icons look like on my MBP’s desktop.

mbp-drive-icons

The main screen inside the Drobo Dashboard software will display buttons for each connected Drobo, allowing you to switch between them as needed.

drobo-dashboard-drobo

drobo-dashboard-backup

As you can see, I need to either free up some space on my main Drobo or get some new drives. Using the Drobolator, it turns out I’d need to get two new drives (either 1.5TB or 2TB each) in order to see any increase in the available space.

The Advanced Controls screens inside the Drobo Dashboard show the drive layouts inside each Drobo.

advanced-controls-drobo

advanced-controls-backup

I’d like to point out a possible bug in the Drobo Dashboard software while I’m at this. As you can see on the following screenshot, when I click on the Check for Updates button to see if there’s a firmware upgrade for my Backup Drobo, which is a USB-only unit, I get a message which tells me both the Dashboard and the firmware are up to date, when I know that the firmware is out of date, as you can see from the firmware version itself. I’ve often had to perform manual firmware upgrades to my Drobos, because I keep getting this message in error. I hope this bug can be resolved at some point.

drobo-dashboard-check-for-updates-error

Other than that, the Drobo Dashboard software works as expected, and can work with multiple Drobo units as well. No problems there.

Update: After doing a manual upgrade to firmware version 1.2.4, the automatic check for updates from within the Drobo Dashboard worked, and when my Drobo rebooted, I was prompted to upgrade to 1.3.0. After an initial unsuccesful attempt, I was able to upgrade just fine. One less item on my to-do list. Good.

drobo-dashboard-new-firmware-notice

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Thoughts

The iMac: not so great long, long after

I received an email from Apple a couple of days ago, advertising the new iMac. The title of the ad was: “Amazing right out of the box. And long, long after.”

imac-ad

I disagree with that characterization. Perhaps it’s true of the new iMac, but it’s not true of our iMac. First, let me get something out of the way. I’m a Mac guy. I love Macs, I use a Mac all day long, I love their design and performance, and I love OS X. Unfortunately, my long-term experience with the Mac hardware, particularly when it comes to our iMac, isn’t so positive.

You see, we purchased an iMac G5 in late 2006, with an Apple Care plan. Thank goodness we did that, because we had problems with it from the get-go. A year after owning it, I wrote a post where I detailed the problems I’d been having. At the advice of some of the readers, I took it into an Apple Store to have it checked out. They replaced the motherboard and did a couple of other things. The repair experience was problematic in itself. Then, a short while afterward, the computer died again. This time we took it into a different store, where they replaced the motherboard again and did some other repairs.

Although that second repair experience was more positive, I had to take it into the store once more in 2008, for related issues. I can’t find the repair receipt at the moment, so I don’t know the date and I don’t know what they fixed, but yeah, that was the third time I had related repairs done to it, very likely for the same problems.

Then, inconveniently, about two months after the Apple Care plan expired in September 2009, our iMac died, just as it had died a couple of times before. It refused to boot up altogether. When I’d plug it in and press the power button on the back, nothing would happen. But, if I was extremely lucky, every once in a while, some noises would be heard in the back of the machine, as the cooling fans and hard drive started rotating, only to die a second or so later.

When this last hardware failure occurred, we were packing for an extended stay in Romania. I took the iMac along, since we had data on its hard drive that we needed. Once here, I was able to open it and retrieve the data from the hard disk. Unfortunately, the computer itself is still dead. What’s worse, I’m nowhere near an Apple Store. There are no official Apple stores in Romania. None at all. Where do I take it for service? And will I have to pay for the repair? A logic board replacement on an iMac G5 is somewhere around $900, and that’s only for the parts. It hardly seems fair to pay for a lemon repair, because that’s basically what I have — a lemon. Our iMac G5 has had repeated hardware failures of the same parts (at least three failures) while the Apple Care contract was still valid. The right thing for Apple to do would have been to replace it with an equivalent model, or to offer me a significant rebate on a newer model, allowing me to upgrade as painlessly as possible to more stable hardware. But none of that happened, and now I’m stuck with dead hardware.

So yeah, I don’t think the iMac is so great, long, long after. I’m sorry I spent our money on it, actually, and sorry it never worked as it should have, from the get-go.

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Thoughts

You simply can't depend on computers

Take it from someone with 15 years of experience in Information Technology — me. You cannot depend on computers.

Every single time in my life when I’ve had to depend on a computer to help me do something under a tight deadline, some glitch intervened. Something inevitably went wrong. Something didn’t work. I wasn’t able to get things done.

Generally speaking, it’s Windows computers that are more problematic, particularly when it comes to peripherals like printers or drives or USB sticks or webcams or whatever. Apple computers are slightly less unreliable, but I’d still say the same rule applies: you cannot depend on any computer for anything critical.

Need to print something in a hurry? The printer will inevitably not work, or the computer will slow up all of a sudden, or it won’t recognize the printer, or it’ll clam up, or the editing software will start acting up. Need to get to a document on a USB stick? Somehow, the stick will become unreadable. Or maybe it’ll work, but all of the apps on your machine will become so slow that you won’t be able to make the changes in time for the deadline. Need to edit something online? Your Internet connection will go down; if you’re on WiFi, that’ll go down or start cutting out. Or the remote servers will become unavailable even though other websites work just fine. Need to install an app in a hurry? Something will go wrong. Either you won’t have the right version for your OS, or the installer will freeze mid-install, or the site where you need to get the installer will stop working. Have to do a video chat? Guess what, if it’s an emergency, your webcam won’t work, or the chat will cut out mid-speech, or the sound will become garbled. Something will go wrong. It’s a given.

I don’t care if your computer is squeaky clean. I keep my machines that way, and yet I still have problems. There are no viruses, no spyware, no bloatware on my machines, and yet something always goes wrong when there’s a tight deadline involved.

The only way you can circumvent this rule is to have entire server rooms with IT staff standing by at your disposal. Even then, you can be sure that the weakest link in that chain will give, and right at crunch time, something will go wrong.

Take my word for it. I’ve worked in all levels of IT, from help desk up to the director position, and have put together computers and servers and server rooms. It pains me to say this, but after so many years in IT, I have to face the facts. You cannot depend on computers when you’re in an emergency. Don’t count on it. Computers are for entertainment purposes. They’re nice and they wow you when you’re playing around or doing normal stuff. But when it comes time for them to deliver under pressure, somehow they fail. It’s just the way things are. When they fail, and they will fail, deal with it. Try not to get a headache like the one I have right now. Go outside. Take a walk. Breathe deeply. Remember, it will pass.

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Reviews

A look at the Samsung T260HD HDTV widescreen monitor

I tried, unsuccessfully, to use an HDTV as my main computer display in the past. Although the specs of that Sony HDTV were superb, its brightness and contrast levels were made for a TV, not a computer display, and it gave me headaches when I stood close to it, as I would when I’d work at my computer. Things have a way of working out though. One of the commenters on my HDTV post, Adam Juntunen, pointed me to something that might just work for my needs.

Samsung has come up with a product that is made to work as both a display and an HDTV. It’s the first such product that I’ve heard of: the T260HD, a 26″ widescreen computer display and HDTV. The T260HD is part of a line-up of four monitors which includes the T200HD (20″), T220HD (22″) and the T240HD (24″).

What sets the T260HD apart for me is the fact that it was made to fulfill both functions from the factory. Although I haven’t used it (yet), my hope is that the Samsung engineers accounted for the difference in display characteristics that is needed when one uses it as a computer display vs. a TV. What is heartening for me is that it’s listed among the computer displays, not the HDTVs, on the Samsung website, which means it’s really more of a computer display than an HDTV, which is just what I need.

The design makes this display stand out. The enclosure is made of glossy black plastic, and it looks as if there’s a clear panel of glass set over the front of the display, which should make it easy to clean. A hint of maroon color marks the bottom of the enclosure, right below the logo, giving it a distinctive look. I do hope though that the glossy black plastic doesn’t scuff easily. Other Samsung TVs do scuff over time, which means that as you dust them, small hair-width scratches appear on the plastic, marring its glow.

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The specs listed on the Samsung website are thin on the details, and I can’t make out whether its color depth is 8-bit, 10-bit or 12-bit. My guess, given its price, is that it’s 8-bit or 10-bit — probably the former, not the latter. Color depth in a display is a very important specification, because if you work with photos, like I do, and your DSLR captures 12-bit or 14-bit color images, you won’t be able to edit them competently on a display whose color depth capabilities are much lower. A 6-bit display, for example, like many laptops have, would be fairly useless to you, because it just won’t reproduce the color tones faithfully.

Let’s have a look at some of the salient features of this display:

  • Full HDTV monitor: that’s good, and also to be expected since it’s a computer display as well, and its resolution is 1900 x 1200 pixels.
  • Dolby Digital Surround sound: it has invisible speakers built in, and they’re rated at 3 W each; I’ve heard these types of speakers on other Samsung products, and they’re pretty good — certainly a lot better than most monitor speakers.
  • Dual HDMI, DVI and VGA inputs: that’s impressive for a 26″ display. I see that Samsung didn’t skimp and even included a SCART connector for the European countries. I love that.
  • Low power consumption: one spec says it uses 0.3W in Standby mode, yet another says it uses < 2W in that same mode. At any rate, it only uses 70 W max, and that’s great for a 26″ display.
  • 10,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio: I think this spec is trumped up, as I see it on a lot of other, cheaper displays and TVs. I have no idea what it means. Supposedly, the increased contrast between light and dark helps you see things better. I’ll be the judge of that when I try it in person. I see that the Apple Cinema Displays are listed at a 700:1 contrast ratio, which I think is a much more reasonable figure.
  • 5 ms response time: this is a little sluggish given that most displays in that size are at 3 ms. Still, it’s better than the Apple Cinema Displays, which are still listed at 14 ms. I think 5 ms is sufficient for most movies and video games, but then I’m not into the violent, fast-paced video games.
  • 300 cd/m² brightness: this isn’t as bright as other displays in the same sizes, which are at 400-700 cd/m², but you know what, I’d rather not have headaches caused by too much brightness, so this should be fine for me.

What I’ve seen so far of this monitor has certainly whet my appetite, and I’d love to try it out for myself. If and when I do, I’ll let you know how it works out.

The Samsung T260HD is available from Amazon and B&H Photo.

Photos used courtesy of Samsung.

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Thoughts

Predictions about computer drives in the future

72GB SanDisk SSD SATA 1.8"

On 1/16/09, Computer World published an article where the author paints a future full of SSDs. He puts forth the idea that drives will not only be replaced by memory chips, but that these memory chips will be integrated into the motherboard, doing away with the SATA interface. There are a number of things I don’t agree with in that article, and I’m not the only one who’s annoyed. Others have called out the author for his statements as well.

For one thing, let’s remember that computer memory once relied on chips integrated into the central circuits. Going back to that sort of approach would be like going back in time. Weren’t we supposed to progress, not regress? The advantages have to be truly worthwhile, and I’m not convinced.

A claim made in the article is that of increased speed: “By making the drive part of a system’s core architecture — instead of a peripheral device — data I/O performance could initially double, quadruple or more.” I love these nebulous claims, don’t you? It could double, quadruple or more. Hey, why not 8x faster? Maybe 16x faster? Let’s just inflate the numbers, it looks great on paper…

From my experience, I noticed that transfer speeds to flash memory vary tremendously — based on how much used space there is on the memory itself, or the file size. Larger files transfer much faster than smaller ones. Sure, in my experience, there was a SATA or USB interface in the way, but that doesn’t change what happens with the flash memory itself.

We should also keep in mind that flash memory is limited in the number of write operations it can take before it expires. On the other hand, regular hard drives have a much longer life span. I for one don’t want to be in a situation where I have to replace an expensive SSD on my laptop because I’ve saved one too many files and it has just gone belly up.

That brings to mind another issue: will these SSDs be soldered onto the motherboard, or can I pull them out and replace them as needed, like I do with RAM modules? I think you can readily imagine how inconvenient it would be to have to service your computer if its SSD is soldered onto the motherboard.

How about space on the SSD? What do I do if I want to increase the space on my drive? Do I have to buy another full SSD? I’d much prefer we had SSD bays, like RAM bays, where I could stick additional SSD modules to automatically increase the space, just like it works with RAM. A partitioning tool integrated within the OS should then allow me to resize my existing partitions and spread them over the newly available space, or to create another partition out of that space.

I keep hearing people say that 250GB or 160GB is plenty of space for your laptop. That’s nonsense. I’m always maxing out my laptop’s hard drive when I go on trips, because I fill it with photographs and videos which I then unload to my external storage when I get home.

I find that for my needs, a 500GB or 1TB laptop hard drive is what I need right now. At some point in the future, I may need more. I haven’t started working with HD video for example. I know that’s a tremendous space hog. I think a 1TB drive would be the minimum I would need if I started to work in that arena.

With SSDs, price is still an issue, and so is space, at least for now. I just don’t find it practical to spend money on SSDs at the moment, and I don’t think my opinion will change unless their prices and storage specs start to match those of regular hard drives.While we’re on the subject of price, where in the world did Gartner get their figure of 38 cents per gigabyte? That’s the figure quoted in the article. I’m sorry, Gartner, but you folks need to check your math. I came up with 9 cents per gigabyte recently.

On the other hand, I do understand that the additional interface between the motherboard and the hard drive is a bottleneck. If we can do something to speed that up, I’m all for it. But you’ve got to prove to me (and to other consumers out there) that your technology is affordable and reliable and offers tangible benefits other than tech media hype.

I’m also excited about the possibility of increasing drive space on a modular basis, where I simply put in more SSD modules in expansion bays on the motherboard, like I do with RAM. But there’s no indication that we’re heading in that direction from the article itself. Until we get to that point, I’ll still continue to think that SSDs are aimed at the wrong market segment. Not everyone is a MacBook Air-toting management type. The bulk of computer users out there need affordable technology with plenty of storage, well made, and reliable over 3-4 years or more. SSDs just aren’t there yet.

Image used courtesy of SanDisk Corporation.

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