Mobile phones as desktop and laptop replacements

It’s high time we were able to come home and place our mobile phones in a dock that’s connected to a display, keyboard and mouse, and have it turn into a full-fledged desktop and laptop replacement. Mobile phones have sufficient computing power for most of our needs, they have the apps most of us use on desktops as well, and there are incredible energy savings to be had. Hardware manufacturers need to start making sincere, concerted efforts toward this end.

You may also want to read through this post of mine, where I tried my best to use a tablet (an iPad) as my main computer, only to be frustrated to no end by the lack of common ammenities and functionalities we’ve come to expect on desktops and laptops, simple things such as the use of a mouse, drag-and-drop functionality between folders, a finder/file explorer and the ability to easily access drives and files on the network.

I realize that people who engage in heavy computing on a daily basis, such as 4K video editing, 3D graphics and 3D video rendering, large-scale CAD projects, serious coding that requires powerful compilers and other such tasks, will still need very powerful desktop computers and even small server farms in order to do their jobs and I am in no way suggesting that they start using mobile phones to do their work.

We simply have to acknowledge that the majority of the population that uses computers can do just fine with the computing power of a mobile phone. I’m talking about the people who mostly check their email, use social networking sites and apps for social networking sites, plus some online banking and take casual photos and videos. What if all those people were able to use their mobiles phones as replacement desktops or replacement laptops? Wouldn’t that be a significant cost savings to them?

Looking at the greater picture, if all those people, or at least a significant portion of them did this, wouldn’t that translate into significant energy savings for cities, counties, states and countries? Aren’t we always talking about reducing our carbon footprint? Well, instead of using a laptop that consumes about 60W when plugged in, or a desktop that eats up about 200W, give or take, why not use a mobile phone that consumes 3-5W when plugged in?

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Use a Nokia N95 as a Bluetooth modem on a Mac

One of the reasons I bought a Nokia N95 was the ability to tether it as a Bluetooth modem on my MacBook Pro. I wanted to access the internet via my mobile phone if I’m away from home or from a WiFi spot. While Nokia’s PC Suite of applications includes an option to tether the phone to a Windows machine with just a few clicks of the mouse, it’s not that simple for the Mac.

Fortunately, once you go through a 5-10 minute initial setup process (outlined below), connecting to the net via the N95 becomes a simple matter of two mouse clicks. Keep in mind that this tutorial will help you configure a Nokia N95 phone only for the T-Mobile network; you’re on your own when it comes to other service providers, but the process should be fairly similar.

I’m indebted to this pre-existing tutorial from The Nokia Blog. However, I found the instructions a bit confusing, as the Mac OS X operating system has been updated since and the network preference screens don’t look the same. Consider my post an updated tutorial, with screenshots from the current Mac OS X (10.5.5).

1. Get the 3G modem scripts for Nokia phones from Ross Barkman‘s website.

Look for the section called “Scripts for Nokia 3G (EDGE/UMTS) phones”.

He’s written numerous such scripts and posted them for download on his site. They work fine for countless people, so please, if his script works for you, show your thanks by donating a few dollars to him.

2. Drop the “Nokia 3G” folder containing the modem scripts (yes, the entire folder), in the /Library/Modem Scripts/ directory at the root level of your Mac’s hard drive.

It should look like this once it’s in there:

3. Add your Nokia N95 phone as a paired Bluetooth device.

If you haven’t added your phone as a Bluetooth device yet, click on the plus sign in the lower left corner and go through the wizard to add it. Make sure to check both boxes shown below, and to pair it as well.

If you have already added it as a Bluetooth device, you may want to run through the configuration wizard again, making sure to mark both checkboxes, as seen below. Click on the phone to select it from the list of Bluetooth devices (see screenshot above), then click on the little gear icon in the lower left corner of the dialog box and select “Configure this device”. You will get the following screen. Click on Continue and run through the wizard to the end.

4. Configure the Bluetooth service preferences.

Go to Network preferences. Here’s where you have a choice. If you’re going to want to use multiple mobile phones or Bluetooth devices as modems, you may want to duplicate the existing Bluetooth service and configure each copy separately, naming them accordingly (Nokia N95, iPhone, etc). To do that, select Bluetooth, then click on the little gear in the lower left corner and select “Duplicate Service”.

I’m only going to use the Nokia N95 as a Bluetooth modem, so I chose to work directly with the existing Bluetooth service, as you can see below. To do that, click on the Configuration drop-down menu and choose “Add Configuration”. You’ll be asked for a name. I named it “T-Mobile Internet”. In the Telephone Number field, I put “internet2.voicestream.com”.

Now click on Advanced, and you’ll get a whole series of preference panes. Modem is the first one. Make sure the information matches what you see below.

Now click on DNS. Some say you should pre-fill DNS server addresses, because your mobile service provider may or may not give them to you. Thankfully, T-Mobile will automatically assign you two DNS server addresses when you connect, but just to be on the safe side, grab one or two more DNS addresses from a public DNS server list like this one and add them to the DNS preference pane. If you look below, the two DNS addresses that are grayed out were automatically assigned by T-Mobile after I connected through the phone, and the single address in black was the one I manually added.

Don’t worry about WINS or Proxies, go to PPP, where you’ll have a drop-down menu. The Session options on the PPP preference pane should look like this:

And the Configuration options on the PPP preference pane should look like this:

Some people say you should disable “Send PPP echo packets” and “Use TCP header compression”. I left them enabled, and my connection works just fine. But, if you should have problems connecting and staying on, you may want to disable them. Just uncheck them and hit OK.

5. Apply the changes and click on Connect.

The Bluetooth modem status should change in the menu bar and first say “Connecting…” then “Authorizing…”. After it connects, it should show the time elapsed since the connection started, like this:

There’s one thing I haven’t been able to figure out though, and I would appreciate your help on this. Getting the Mac to connect to the internet reliably through the phone, every single time, is still something that I need to work out.

That first evening after I configured things as outlined above, I was able to connect and disconnect at will. However, the second morning, I got a “Could not authenticate” error. I clicked on the “Set Up Bluetooth Device” (shown above), and re-configured my N95 (as detailed in Step 3). After that, it was okay for the rest of the day, but the same connection issue re-surfaced the next day. I’d read that keeping iSync open while you connect will help, and I tried it, but it didn’t seem to work reliably for me. What has seemed to work is logging in and out of my account on the Mac, and rebooting the phone.

It seems that Nokia would be best equipped here to make things easier and more reliable. I do wish they’d release a tethering app for the Mac, just like they released an iSync plugin that lets the N95 sync with the Address Book and iCal. Until then, you can try any of the following workarounds when you experience connection issues:

  • Re-configure the phone as a Bluetooth device (as outlined in Step 3 above)
  • Disable “Send PPP echo packets” and “Use TCP header compression” in the PPP Configuration preference pane
  • Open iSync before you try to connect to the Internet through the phone
  • Log out of your account on the Mac and reboot the phone

Once the phone is tethered properly, it’s an enjoyable experience. There’s a newfound freedom I feel when I can go online from just about anywhere. There’s something elegant in using my phone as a Bluetooth modem. It can stay in my pocket or on the table next to my laptop, tethered wirelessly, still working fine as a phone while also letting me get on the Internet. Cool stuff indeed.

What's on my desk?

The idea for this post has been sitting among my drafts for a long time. I always thought it’d be a good idea to share how I work and what equipment I use, for the benefit of those of you that want to put together a similar setup. Let me make it clear that I’m not doing this to brag. I realize my equipment is fairly expensive and out of reach for some. Believe me, I’m keenly aware of its cost, and have made certain sacrifices in order to acquire it.

The hardware I have now is the best hardware I’ve had so far, and it allows me to easily develop for my clients, write for my sites, process my photographs and edit my videos and movies. See the photo enclosed below. Each important piece of equipment is marked with a number, and each number is explained in detail.

Here’s what you see above:

  1. 15″ Apple MacBook Pro: I love its dedicated 512 MB video card, and its design and speed. It allows me to focus on my work, not twiddle my thumbs while the computer plays catchup to my commands.
  2. Drobo: I have two of them. I store backups of my photos on one, and my videos on the other. Both of them are shared over my home network, so that my other Mac, a 20″ iMac G5, can access the videos and play them in Front Row.
  3. 2TB WD My Book Studio Edition II drive, running in RAID 0 (striped) mode: WD was kind enough to give me this drive as a gift of sorts, considering the significant problems I had with my 1TB WD MyBook Pro Edition II drive. I think they got tired of my complaining, and sent it to me to shut me up. Well, it worked. This drive has done great so far, and I have no complaints. I plan to write a review for it soon. I’ve been putting it through its paces so far, and it’s held up nicely. I connect it to my MBP through the Firewire 800 port, and I love the transfer speeds.
  4. 250GB WD Passport drive: I bought this last year, and it has been very useful. It’s small, stylish, and it’s powered solely by the USB port. I use it a LOT to transfer big files between computers.
  5. Turbo.264: a nifty little gadget built by the folks at Elgato, it speeds up H.264 conversions significantly. I’ve been putting this through its paces as well, and plan to write a review soon.
  6. mStand laptop stand: I love this stand, and reviewed it recently. It’s the best-designed stand for the MBP.
  7. newerTech miniStack v1: This is the first version of the popular miniStack drive enclosure. It uses PATA drives, and it has built-in FireWire and USB hubs (3 ports each). I use it as a USB hub, and it sits underneath my laptop stand — that’s why it’s not clearly visible in the photo. Both my Drobos are connected into it, and I have a spare USB port that I can use for my CF card reader, etc. If you want to have a better look at this enclosure, you can see it better in my Drobo review, where it appears in both the photos and the video.

As you can see, I aimed for simplicity in my setup. I wanted the most amount of processing power and hard disk space, in the smallest amount of physical space. You’re looking at about 5TB of storage in the photo.

Most of the heavy lifting (in terms of data crunching) happens on the WD Studio drive. I use it as a staging area for video processing, and transfer the finished, edited ones to one of the Drobos. I also use it to store and work with my Lightroom photo libraries. Working with photos in Lightroom from a Drobo is too slow for me, and the WD Studio Drive offers a visible advantage as I process each photo. I then back up my laptop and the WD Studio Drive to the Drobo through Time Machine.

You may recall I initially moved my photo libraries to one of the Drobos because I kept experiencing Lightroom library corruption and thought the WD Studio drive was at fault. As it turns out, Lightroom itself is to blame. Once your photo library reaches tens of thousands of photos (I have over 40,000 photos in one of my libraries), Lightroom will experience library corruption on a fairly regular basis. It’s just an unstable piece of software, and I hope that the next version will be better.

Just a quick note for those of you that noticed it. There’s a wire that runs behind the laptop, along the wall. The photo isn’t crooked, the wire is. I use it to hang small wires or notes to myself on it, and being loaded down with a few toward the center (which is only partially shown in the photo), it appears slanted. Sorry about that. It bothered me, but I wasn’t going to spend an hour or so in Photoshop cloning it out.

Hope this helped give you some ideas! If you have any questions, let me know.

Hardware review: mStand by Rain

The mStand is quite possibly the best stand for the MacBook Pro line of laptops. It raises the laptop to an appropriate height, it does not block any of the MBP ports or buttons, its design is truly distinctive, its cast aluminum build matches the MBP line to a tee, and it is reasonably priced at $50.

I’ve tried out quite a few notebook stands in my time, and I’ve looked at even more of them in detail. I am happiest with the mStand. It suits my needs perfectly. However, it is not without faults, as you’ll see shortly. Its Apple-like design and look isn’t executed to the Apple standards.

First, the good:

  • Functional, simplistic and very elegant design
  • Although it is built of a single piece of aluminum, it will not scratch your laptop because it has little rubber contact points where your laptop rests on it
  • All aluminum build means it will dissipate your laptop’s heat fast.
  • The empty space underneath the stand aids with ventilation and also serves as a great place to store the external keyboard when not in use
  • The wire routing hole at the back of the stand looks very similar to the one on iMacs and Apple Cinema Displays and complements their design nicely
  • It blocks NONE of the MBP ports or buttons, such as the IR remote port, the latch for the top lid, or the SuperDrive slot. Of course, it does not block any of the side ports either, as you can see from the photos.

Now, the bad:

  • The paper (recycled?) packaging leaves terrible scuff marks on the stand, which mar its otherwise beautiful design and matte finish
  • The stand itself was covered in a thick white dust when I unboxed it, which caused significant sneezing. I hope it wasn’t harmful to my health, not sure what it was, and it sure didn’t look like regular dust.
  • The edges of the stand are not properly filed, which means they can be literally sharp enough to tear through one’s skin if you’re not paying attention. I had to use a metal file to finish the job they should have done at the factory.

Still, I think this is the best stand for my needs. As you may know, I already tried out the Logitech Alto and the Rolodex Stand, and had already tried other stands through the years, including the original Griffin Curve. I looked at vertical stands as well, like the Docking Stand from Power Support. But none of the stands offered unfettered access to all of the buttons and ports on the MBP, were as stable, and looked as good as the mStand.

While I loved the idea of the Docking Stand, it blocked access to the IR port, the latch button and the SuperDrive altogether, because the laptop sits top edge down in it. Putting the laptop in that stand the other way would cause some serious overheating to occur, since the venting grille is on the lid hinge side.

At any rate, I’m very happy with my mStand. In spite of its faults, which can be easily fixed through better quality control, it looks great and works great.

Hardware review: Rolodex laptop stand

What I find interesting about this Rolodex laptop stand is its modularity. A few years or so after it launched, it’s still on the market. I’ve been using it for two of those years with my Windows laptop, and while it doesn’t look cool or feel cool, it’s sturdy, and it works just fine.

The stand is made of metal mesh and reinforced with rounded steel frames at the edges. Its tilt level can be adjusted as needed, and — here’s where the modular part comes in — it can be fitted with a wire organizer and a USB hub. The wire organizer comes with the stand and attaches as seen above, and the 4-port USB hub is sold separately. Once purchased, the hub slides into a slot on the back of the stand and is secured there by two metal arms on each side.

It’s best suited for 15-inch laptops like the one you see in my photos. Its design would make a 17-inch laptop feel oversized, and I’m not sure that it could support the weight of some of the heavier 17-inch laptops I see on the market nowadays.

The stand works best with an external keyboard and mouse. Although you can type comfortably on the laptop while it’s positioned on the stand, you’ll get tired pretty soon of the sound that the stand makes as you type on the laptop’s keyboard. Remember, it’s made of metal mesh, and it will resonate with each key click.

Once you position it at your eye level and plug in an external keyboard and mouse set, this stand will perform just fine for your needs, and at an affordable price, too.

Because it holds the laptop in place with the aid of two raised metal lips on each side, you need to make sure it doesn’t block any ports on your laptop. For example, it would definitely not work with any MacBook Pro laptops, which have the CD/DVD slot in the front. The placement of my audio line out/line in ports on my Averatec Windows laptop meant that it blocked those ports with the right support lip, as you can see below.

The USB hub that can be bought along with the stand is not self-powered (it does not have its own power supply cable), and that means it’ll draw power from the laptop’s USB port. This means you’ll likely experience power surges if you should plug in a USB drive that also does not have its own power supply. See my Logitech Alto Connect review for more details on this particular issue.

If interested, you can buy the stand and the USB hub to go along with it from Amazon. There’s even a variation on the hub which has only 2 USB ports but features a grounded, three-prong plug.

Hardware review: Logitech Alto Connect Notebook Stand

I bought two Logitech Alto Connect Notebook Stands (with 4-Port USB Hub). One’s a keeper and the other is going back. I love its design and functionality, but there are a couple of things that you need to know if you intend to buy it.

This innovative stand is shaped like an X and wrapped in glossy, black plastic. Does the shape remind you of anything? How about OS X? Or the X-Men? Or the old saying, “X marks the spot”? Not that Logitech is copying anybody, but that shape looks cool, is very different from any other laptop stand on the market, and supports a larger amount of weight, meaning it can work with heavier laptops.

The stand comes unassembled in the box, and you must put the two pieces together (they dovetail precisely). The assembly time is 1-2 minutes or so. It may take you a try or two until you figure out the right way to join the two pieces together (there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll get it right the first time).

An added benefit of this stand is the addition of a built-in USB hub. The hub is self-powered, meaning that you’ll need to plug in a small adapter (included in the box). One port is located on the left front leg of the stand (visible above), and the other three ports are in the back, as you can see below.

As I said, I love this stand, and I think the design is wonderful. I have a lot of respect for Logitech. I’ve used wireless keyboards made by them, Kensington and Microsoft, and Logitech has consistently stood head and shoulders above its competitors when it came to battery life and ease of connectivity. I have a Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse set right now, have been using it for almost two years, and have nothing but good things to say about it. Last, but not least, I like Logitech because they use ColdFusion on their website, and CF is my favorite programming language. 🙂

I bought the first one of these stands for my father’s MacBook, and it works just great with it. The X-shape allows for greater cooling than the flat stands, and it blocks none of the laptop’s ports. My father uses it happily. I noticed an issue with the built-in USB hub though, as soon as I started using it.

I have a Western Digital Passport drive, which I carry pretty much everywhere. That drive has worked with any computer where I’ve used it. I love it. It’s powered directly by the USB port, and that’s where the issue lies when it comes to the Logitech Stand. Right after I plugged it in on my father’s stand, I got a message on-screen (on the laptop) telling me that the USB port where I’d connected the USB hub had experienced a power surge and was shut off. I had to unplug the port from the laptop, and re-connect it without the drive.

Let me clarify. The USB hub built into the stand is self-powered. It has its own power supply. It should be able to power just about any USB device. Why then did it draw power from the laptop when I plugged in the drive? Obviously the design of the hub is defective in some way if every time you plug in port-powered devices like the WD Passport drive, it causes a power surge in the USB circuitry. The only way I could get the drive to connect to the laptop was to plug it directly into the laptop, which I did, and it had no problems there.

The only time when I’ve had issues with port-powered devices was when I plugged them into USB hubs that had no power supplies of their own. On those occasions, the devices would draw power from the hub, which would then draw too much power from the laptop’s USB port, would cause a small surge, and shut off the port. But when you have a self-powered USB hub, this simply shouldn’t happen.

Just so you’re not confused, let me state outright that USB flash drives, which have no moving parts and thus draw much less current, can be used just fine with the built-in USB hub in this stand. And USB drives which have power supplies of their own (the regular 3.5″ drive enclosures of products like Drobo or LaCie) will work just fine with the hub, too.

Second, although the stand will work with pretty much any laptop on the market, it will not work with the MacBook Pro line. That’s because it blocks the CD/DVD slot on those laptops. I didn’t realize this until I bought the second stand to use with my 15″ MacBook Pro, which I’d just bought as well. I brought the stand home, sat my laptop on it, and this is what I saw.

Oops… While I appreciate the need for a built-in USB hub (even a half-working one) on a laptop that has only 2 USB ports, I’m going to return this second stand. I’m not going to take my laptop off the stand every time I need to burn a CD or play a DVD. Incidentally, on the Logitech website, this stand is recommended for Windows, not Apple computers, but I bought both stands at the Apple Store, so I doubt Logitech intended it only for the PC market.

Otherwise, like I said, I really like this stand’s innovative design. It’s beautiful, functional and sturdy. It even has a built-in wire routing slot, which is a nice touch.

And let’s face it, it complements very nicely the design of just about any laptop.

If you don’t have a MacBook Pro, and you don’t mind the USB surge issue with the built-in USB hub, then give this stand a try, you might like it quite a bit. Have a look at the other photos in the gallery below to get a better idea of its looks.

One more thing… The good thing about the way it raises the laptop is that the height of the front lip is low enough to let you type directly on the laptop without discomfort, but the height of the display is high enough for you to maintain proper posture. Of course, you can also use it with a separate keyboard and mouse if you’d like.

Buy the Logitech Alto

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-07