Reviews

Hardware preview: Drobo FS

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.

As of today, the Drobo product lineup has a shiny new device: a network version of the Drobo S, called Drobo FS — a NAS device. Its performance is up to 4x greater than that of a DroboShare, which is going to be discontinued. The Drobo FS is a natural at shared file storage, network backup and private cloud applications. You’ll be able to manage it through the Drobo Dashboard application, which will detect it automatically once it’s plugged into your network.

New Drobo Line-up

Here’s how the Drobo product line-up is going to look from now on, sorted in ascending order by US list price (at time of writing):

  1. Drobo, 2nd Gen (2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $399
  2. Drobo FS (1 x Gigabit Ethernet, AFP/CIFS/SMB) $699
  3. Drobo S (1 x eSATA, 2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $799
  4. DroboPro (1 x Gigabit iSCSI, 2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $1,499
  5. DroboElite (2 x Gigabit iSCSI, 1 x diagnostics-only USB 2.0) $3,499

If know which model to get and are looking for a great deal, you can find the Drobo for $335, the Drobo S for $699, the DroboPro for $1,199 and the DroboElite for $3,495. The Drobo FS isn’t listed for sale yet at online retailers.

Details and Thoughts

The Drobo FS is an all-in-one file serving solution — hence the FS moniker. It’s a plug-and-play file sharing system that gives you the performance and self-healing data safety of the Drobo S, in a NAS package. It’s a 5-drive unit with a single Gigabit Ethernet port that supports Jumbo Frames, AFP, and CIFS/SMB, so it’s compatible with OS X, Windows and Linux. It runs on a dual-core processor — the same processor used in the DroboPro. In the Drobo FS, one core does the Drobo BeyondRAID stuff and the second core runs Linux and — this is the neat part — whatever DroboApps you decide to install on it.

It’s simple and safe data sharing, because, just like the Drobo S, it protects against two hard drive failures, not just one. It can also be customized through third-party DroboApps, which can turn it into a remote file sharing solution, a cloud storage solution, a media server or pretty much anything you’d want a NAS device to do.

DroboApps available at launch are:

  • Wake-on-LAN
  • NFS
  • iTunes compatible media server
  • UPnP/DLNA media server
  • BitTorrent client
  • Web/HTTP server
  • FTP server
  • rsync server
  • SSH client
  • DroboApps Admin Utility
  • and more, including this next app…

Data Robotics has partnered with a company called Oxygen Cloud, which has written an app that turns the Drobo FS into a “personal cloud”. No matter where you are in the world, you can map your Drobo FS to your laptop and access the files you’ve placed on it over a WAN connection between you and the Drobo, handled by the OxygenCloud app. You can set varying levels of access and give multiple users the ability to access various file sets. The app promises to be intuitive, easy-to-use, and to provide fine-grained controls for data access. It also provides a gateway for cloud backup to either a second Drobo FS or a cloud storage provider like Amazon, Mozy or RackSpace. The app is still in beta, will be released in May, is going to be free for a single user and will have a licensing cost for multiple users.

Keep in mind though that the quality of the WAN connection depends entirely on the quality of the broadband connection you’re using to connect to the Drobo. If, like me, you’re on a 30 Mbps fiber optic connection, you should have very little latency, but if you’re sitting at a crowded hotspot somewhere, tied into a 2 or 3 Mbps asymmetric connection that only gives you 512-768 Kbps upstream, then you’ll experience a fair share of latency. In other words, you’ll double-click on a file that sits on your remote Drobo, which is on another continent, and it’ll take a bit of time until it’s read and opened by your laptop. Just FYI, so plan accordingly.

On the front and sides, the device is identical to the Drobo S. Of course, I think it’s beautiful. Gorgeous, actually. On the inside, it’s got 5 drive bays, once again, same as the Drobo S.

Only the back is different. Whereas the Drobo S has four interface ports on the back (1 x USB 2.0, 2 x FW 800, 1 x eSATA), plus the power supply connection, the Drobo FS has a single Gigabit Ethernet port and the power supply connection.

I am very glad to see that it has a power switch. I would have liked to see one on the regular Drobo as well. Who knows, perhaps at some point in the future, it’ll happen. I do think it’s important to have a less expensive, entry-level Drobo, so I hope the base model stays in the lineup for some time to come. I’m also glad that, as I predicted when I reviewed the Drobo S, the same design language was used for the Drobo FS. I like this maturation of the original language, and I look forward to seeing it translated in the enclosures for the DroboPro and DroboElite in the future.

For reference purposes, I’m including the indicator chart for the Drobo FS here. It’s also available in the Drobo FS Data Sheet. It’s standard stuff if you’re already used to the Drobo S, but it differs a bit from the regular Drobo, as that model only has single-light indicators which don’t light up in half-half colors.

The Drobo FS formats the drives using the EXT3 file system, but you won’t need to worry about that. You won’t be asked to format the drives or to choose what file system you want for it, because it’s a NAS device, and it can talk to your Mac, PC or Linux box without any problems. You simply put drives into it, it’ll format them by itself, and share the volume onto your network. Easy as pie.

You can have up to 16 shares on the Drobo FS, and up to 32 users connected to it at any one time, though Drobo recommends up to 16 users as the optimal number for proper performance. This should be plenty for busy professionals or small businesses and workgroups, which together with consumers are its intended target users.

Since it’ll work over both wired and wireless networks (once you plug it into a router, naturally), I asked Data Robotics what sort of typical uses people can expect out of it. File sharing, such as documents, presentations, spreadsheets would be no problems at all, and that goes without saying. I asked, for example, if movie playback would be a problem. Not at all, they said, with one disclaimer: if you’re on a WiFi network, make sure it’s a WiFi-N network. This is not a limitation of the Drobo FS, which can offer maximum read performance of around 50-55 MB/sec (with Jumbo Frames), but a limitation of the bandwidth of a WiFi-G network. So that’s really neat!

There is one use they don’t recommend for it though: editing movies. Because it’s a network device, and certain video codecs have very particular performance requirements, official word from them is that people should get a Drobo S or a DroboPro for that. They say, and I quote, “unless a person is very, very familiar with video codecs and their performance requirements, they should not use the Drobo FS for video editing”. Furthermore, and this is very important, “if you want to use Apple’s ProRes (any of their family of 5 codecs), DO NOT try to edit video on a Drobo FS”. So please keep that in mind.

Performance-wise, it’s much faster than a Drobo + DroboShare combo (about 4 times faster), with sustained throughput of 30-40 MB/s. Data Robotics recommends that new buyers check for firmware updates, as they’ve made a number of improvements to the Drobo FS firmware since preparing the units for the first shipments. For comparison purposes, the sustained throughput you get from a Drobo S is 70-90 MB/s when using the eSATA connection.

The Drobo FS gives you about 75% of the performance of a DroboPro, which uses iSCSI. The extra 25% performance is eaten up by the overhead of translating everything for the file sharing protocols (AFP and CIFS/SMB). That’s not a Drobo-only limitation. That’s what happens on any device that has to deal with typical file sharing protocols — they slow things down.

Another neat feature of the Drobo FS is that it will give people the chance to choose a range of time after which the drives will spin down. Those who are concerned with energy use can opt for something like 5-10 minutes, while those who need performance can opt to only spin them down after 30 minutes or 1 hour of inactivity, or more. With the DroboShare, this option wasn’t available, but there was a DroboApp you could install that would periodically write and erase a few bits of data to the drives in order to keep them from spinning down.

Specifications

  • Drives: Accommodates from one to five 3.5” SATA I / SATA II hard drives of any manufacturer, capacity, spindle speed, and/or cache. No carriers or tools required.
  • Interface: 10/100/1000 Ethernet Port
  • Supported data transfer protocols: AFP and CIFS/SMB
  • Dimensions: 5.9” wide x 7.3” tall x 10.3” long
  • Weight: 8 lbs. (without power supply, hard drives or packaging)
  • Includes: Drobo FS, CAT 6 Ethernet cable, external power supply (100v-240v) with U.S. 110v power cord, User Guide and Quick Start Card (printed), Drobo Resource CD with Drobo Dashboard application, help files, and electronic documentation.
  • System Requirements: Apple Mac OS X 10.5.6 or greater; Microsoft Windows 2003, 2008, XP, Vista, Windows 7; Unix/Linux client that can connect via CIFS/SMB

Pricing

Suggested retail prices for the Drobo FS are as follows:

  • Drobo FS, base configuration: $699
  • Drobo FS + 4.5 TB bundle (3 x 1.5 TB drives): $999
  • Drobo FS + 7.5 TB bundle (5 x 1.5 TB drives): $1,149
  • Drobo FS + 10 TB bundle (5 x 2 TB drives): $1,449

Images used courtesy of Data Robotics. The Drobo FS will be available from major retailers such as Amazon, B&H Photo, NewEgg, CDW, Synnex, Bell Micro, Ingram Micro and datarobotics.com.

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Reviews

Hardware preview: DroboPro

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.

Updated 11/23/09: The new DroboElite is now available. It differs from the DroboPro because it offers two Gigabit Ethernet ports instead of one, multi-host support, and up to 255 Smart Volumes.

Today, April 7, 2009, Data Robotics launches a new product aimed at professionals and SMBs: the DroboPro. I got a preview of it yesterday. Let me share what I learned with you.

Drobo Pro top

The DroboPro has some really cool features, some of which I, along with others, anticipated and looked forward to seeing. As I wrote in my review of the Firewire Drobo, Data Robotics was looking at making an 8-drive Drobo, possibly rack-mounted. I also thought they might introduce the capability to safeguard against two drive failures. And, as I wrote in this comment on that same review, in response to a reader’s wishlist for the Drobo, I thought they might at some point build networking capabilities right inside the Drobo.

Well, the new DroboPro does all those things and more!

  • 8 (eight) drives
  • 2 form factors: desktop and rackmount
  • Dual drive redundancy
  • Gigabit ethernet
  • iSCSI
  • Smart volumes: create up to 16 different virtual volumes, each of which can grow to 16TB
  • Price is $1,299 for entry level DroboPro or $3,999 for a loaded model with eight 2TB drives
  • Instant $200 rebate with customer loyalty program

Let’s dive into those new features a bit. Keep in mind my knowledge is as yet limited, since I haven’t seen the full specs; I only had a phone briefing.

8 drives

You know how the drives are arranged horizontally in the regular Drobo? They’re arranged vertically in the new DroboPro, which is about the same height, and a little less than twice the width of the original.

Drobo Pro cover off

Two form factors

The DroboPro comes in a desktop form factor which is 12.17″ wide, 5.46″ high and 14.1″ long. The length is about 3″ more than that of the original Drobo. I think the extra space houses the additional circuitry for the network, power supply and other features.

The other form factor is a rackmount with a 3U height. If I understood correctly, the rackmount kit can be attached and detached as needed, so you can interconvert between the two form factors if you like.

DroboPro dimensions

Drobo Pro rackmount kit

Built-in power supply

One thing that’s easy to miss if you look at the back of the DroboPro is that it no longer has a DC adaptor port, but a regular 120-240V connector. Have a look and see. This means the power brick which converts 120-240V AC to 12V DC has been eliminated. You’ll also notice a power switch on the back. That’s new too.

Drobo Pro back

Dual drive redundancy

As it was explained to me, the DroboPro comes standard with single drive redundancy, and the dual drive redundancy is an option that can be turned on at any time. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, this means two of the drives inside the Drobo can fail, and your data will still be safe.

Gigabit ethernet

Business-class networking is now built right into the DroboPro, along with enterprise-class features, like iSCSI with automatic configuration. The ethernet port on the DroboPro does not replicate the functionality of the DroboShare, as I initially thought. It only works through the iSCSI protocol, which means it needs to be mapped directly to a host, like a server or workstation, which can then share it among multiple servers or workstations. In that sense the DroboPro is not a NAS (Network Attached Storage), but a SAN (Storage Area Network).

iSCSI

If you’ve set up iSCSI volumes in the past, then you know how much of a headache they can be, and how bad the performance can be if it’s not set up correctly or if the hardware isn’t working as it should. I know firsthand about this. With the new DroboPro, the iSCSI setup is automatic. It’s as easy as plugging it into the network. The Drobo Dashboard software then finds it and mounts it as a volume on your machine via iSCSI. The work is done behind the scenes so you don’t have to worry.

For Windows, the DroboPro uses the Microsoft iSCSI initiator, and for the Mac, the folks at Data Robotics wrote their own iSCSI initiator. Those of you who work with Xserve and Xsan use Fibre Channel technology to connect to the network volumes, and you may wonder why Data Robotics went with iSCSI. It’s because iSCSI is more utilitarian. It doesn’t require special network hardware to work; it can use the existing ethernet network infrastructure, so there’s a lower cost of entry and maintenance.

I was assured that iSCSI throughput on the DroboPro is very fast. I guess it’s up to us to do some testing once the DroboPro starts to ship, so we can see just how fast it is. See the iSCSI guide on Drobo’s website for more details.

Smart Volumes

With the DroboPro, you can create up to 16 different virtual volumes, each of which can grow to 16TB. This is very important for the enterprise market, where companies want to be able to separate the data onto separate volumes and assign separate access privileges to each. Those of you who are network admins can readily appreciate how useful this is. Those of you who are creatives can also appreciate being able to assign a volume for Time Machine backups, one for videos, one for photos, and so on. Furthermore, each volume can be resized as needed, which is a huge leap forward compared to the difficulty of resizing LUNs set up over RAID volumes.

Price

The entry level DroboPro (enclosure-only) costs $1,299. The high end DroboPro, which includes the rackmount kit, two drive redundancy and is pre-loaded with eight 2TB hard drives for a total of 16TB of space, costs $3,999. There’s also a handy customer loyalty program which will give you an instant $200 rebate if you’ve purchased a Drobo in the past.

Those of you who might balk at the price should compare the features and ease of use of the DroboPro with other comparable products on the market. I’m going to walk you through a different kind of comparison, one that looks at the cost of the original Drobo and the cost of the new DroboPro.

Think of the DroboPro as two regular Drobos in one. The original Drobo is $499 for the enclosure, so that brings the price to $998. The difference between $998 and $1,299 is made up by the additional networking features and the complexity of the circuitry and auto-management algorithms of an 8-drive array. Keep in mind the DroboPro has enterprise-class features like dual drive redundancy, iSCSI and smart virtual volumes. Those features alone warrant charging several hundred dollars to thousands more for it, as other companies who make similar products have already been doing.

Drobo Pro side

Summary

The DroboPro is a fantastic addition to the Drobo line. Its enterprise-class features, its incredible ease of use, and its unmatched storage flexibility make it the perfect external storage solution for busy professionals with serious storage needs or business server rooms. Users will appreciate all of the space it makes available for their work, and system admins will appreciate how easy it is to set up and maintain. From a design point of view, it’s a drool-worthy beauty. Having been a Drobo user for almost 1½ years, I can tell you it is my storage solution of choice, and I look forward to upgrading to a DroboPro some day.

Images used courtesy of Data Robotics.

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How To

Can the WD TV be networkable with firmware upgrade?

The WD TV can be placed on a network via an unofficial firmware upgrade available from B-RAD. The souped-up firmware apparently allows one to plug USB ethernet sticks (I’ve had one of those lying around in my desk drawer for years) into the WD TV and mounts its connected drive(s) onto the network — among other additional features.

I haven’t tried this yet. I found out about it from Tobias Schneble, a reader from Germany who emailed me after seeing my article on upgrading the WD TV to the new official firmware from WDC. Tobias tells me there’s a wiki site where detailed instructions are given.

Updated 4/5/09: I modified the post in accordance with the very helpful comment you see below, provided by the fellow who runs the B-RAD website. It turns out that hacking the WD TV to add it to a network and to enable other extra features is as easy as upgrading it with a normal firmware package. That’s great!

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How To

The fastest way to back up with Time Machine

I wrote about backing up your Mac and PC in January of 2008, and I said Time Machine was a great way to back up your Mac. A year later, I still think so, though I have some reservations.

There are three ways to back up your Mac with Time Machine. There used to be only two, but thanks to Drobo Apps, we now have three. I’ll list them in descending order, sorted by backup speed. Here they are:

To External Hard Drive (USB, Firewire, eSATA)

This one’s easy, and it’s the fastest way. You get a dedicated external hard drive, you connect it to your Mac, and you let Time Machine do its thing. You can leave it connected all the time, or you can disconnect the hard drive and only back up when you want to. Time Machine won’t complain unless you haven’t backed up for a few days.

This is the backup strategy I’ve come to use, and believe me, it’s the one that gives me the least amount of headaches. I have a 500GB LaCie Mini hard drive that connects over USB. I plug it into my laptop, and within minutes, my backup is done.

Keep in mind that I’m a photographer, and I also shoot short videos every once in a while, so it’s pretty much a given that I’m backing up gigabytes of data every time. When the backup’s done, I eject the drive and put it away. This way I’m not bothered by hourly backups, which I don’t need.

To External Hard Drive via Time Tamer

Time Tamer

Go download Time Tamer, a very handy little app created by the folks that make the Drobo, and you can create an image file on your Drobo that is limited to twice the size of your Mac’s hard drive. This is useful because there is no other way to control the size of the Time Machine backup sets. There’s is no way to set a quota via its System Preferences panel, and so it’ll keep balooning until it fills the backup drive. Obviously, when you have a Drobo or another larger drive, that’s a problem.

I for one don’t want to fill up my Drobo with Time Machine backups — I have other more important uses for it. I did, however, want to limit the amount of external drives that sat on my desk, and thought I could eliminate one of them by using Time Tamer with my Firewire Drobo. Did that for a few months, but I can tell you it’s not optimal, at least not for me. It boils down to the amount of data one has to back up, really.

As it turns out, the throughput when writing to the image file just isn’t fast enough when you work with several hundred megabytes or more. Even though writing to the Drobo is usually a fairly fast operation, somehow writing inside the image file isn’t. From my own experience, it would sometimes take a whole hour to do an hourly backup, which meant that as soon as one backup finished, another would start.

To make things more annoying, the throughput to the Drobo itself, and my Mac’s general peppiness, were also affected negatively during backups. Everything churned at a slower pace. Getting at my photos or other files stored on the Drobo was a pain. If I happened to be playing a movie and a backup started, playback would stutter or stop for a few seconds. It just wasn’t a feasible way for me to work, so I stopped doing this and returned to doing my backups directly to a dedicated external hard drive.

To wireless or networked hard drive (such as Time Capsule)

This will usually be the slowest way to back up your Mac via Time Machine. Think about it: you’re going to be pushing your bits via WiFi, and even though your hardware may be “n” specs instead of “b” or “g”, you’re still not going to get above 50 Mbps at best. Realistically, you’re looking at speeds somewhere between 15-45 Mbps, which is less than Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) and nowhere near Gigabit Ethernet (1000 Mbps).

For comparison purposes, I have observed transfer speeds which approached USB 2.0 speeds when using a direct, wired, Gigabit Ethernet connection between two Macs (MacBook Pro and iMac G5). If you have a wired Gigabit network at home, this might be the only way to actually get decent backup speeds with Time Machine without needing to use USB or Firewire hard drives. But if you’re using WiFi, your transfer speeds are going to be anywhere between 15-20 times slower than Gigabit speeds, which means you’ll be sitting there a long time waiting for your backups to finish, should your backup set be anything over 100-200 MB.

When Time Capsule came out, I was tempted to buy it, just like I bought the Apple TV, only to regret that later. I’m glad I didn’t end up spending my money on Time Capsule, because it just isn’t suitable for me, or for anyone with larger backup sets. It certainly looks good, but that’s about all it does and all it’ll do until WiFi speeds approach Gigabit speeds.

Takeaway message

When one of my friends shared an article from Louis Gray via Google Reader, where he complains about how slow it is to back up to Time Capsule, was I surprised? Given all I’ve written above, do you see why I wasn’t?

Do the smart thing: if you’re using Time Machine, get a little portable drive like I did and run your backups that way. They’ll be fast, and you’ll be the one deciding when to back up, not Time Machine. I don’t know when Apple will decide to give us more configuration options for Time Machine, but until they do, those who care about their time should back up directly to an external drive.

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How To

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.

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How To

How to get T-Mobile Total Internet at 42% off

It’s easy: sign up before 11/1/2008. Why? Because the price will apparently go up to $35/month on or around that date, according to T-Mobile Customer Service.

Updated 10/27/08: Please see this comment below for an up-to-date clarification of the planned price increases. It’s not as bad as I originally thought, but a price increase will still take effect [source].

Updated 11/24/08: It looks like the rate hike will take effect on 12/1, not 11/1. And it also looks like G1 users will have to move to the new, more expensive plans, even if they signed up before the rate hike.

T-Mobile’s current Internet/Data plan for smartphones (it’s called T-Mobile Total Internet) costs $19.99/month, and includes either EDGE or 3G speeds, depending on your area. If you live in the Washington, DC area, like me, you’re currently getting EDGE speeds, but should be upgraded automatically to 3G by the end of this year.

Starting around 11/1/2008, T-Mobile will increase the price for the plan to $35/month, probably because of the G1 smartphone they’re launching, and the extra demand that’s going to place on their networks. I’m guessing they have some infrastructure upgrades to pay for. If you get the Internet plan now (which is what I did) the price for it will stay locked at $19.99/month for as long as you’re with T-Mobile. That’s what I was told by T-Mobile Customer Service yesterday afternoon.

That means you’ll be saving $15 (42%) every single month while others are going to pay $35, and you’ll get the same speeds they’re getting.

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How To

A new lease on old hardware

In 2003, I bought an HP OfficeJet 7110 all-in-one, a big, boxy monster that did (and still does) printing, scanning, faxing and copying. I’ve barely ever used it to fax, but the feature is there in case I need it. Now I’m using it over our wireless network with an Apple AirPort Express, and it works great.

HP couldn’t wait to retire this model. A year after I’d bought it, I had a hard time getting support for it, in spite of the fact that I’d bought an extended support plan. Less than two years after I’d bought it, HP had already discontinued it. They stopped developing the drivers for it sometime in 2003 or 2004. The development for Mac drivers stopped at 10.4 (officially) but more likely, at 10.3. I used their drivers on 10.4 and there were serious problems. Switching accounts, for example, disabled printing, and it couldn’t be re-enabled unless one restarted the computer. I complained numerous times to HP, via tech support, via messages to their executives, but no one cared. Basically, HP’s support is horrible, and my experience was no different with the OfficeJet 7110.

Fortunately, I found a way to get more use out of this dinosaur without needing to buy a new printer (yet). Back in 2005, I purchased an Apple AirPort Express, a small device that does quite a few things. One of them is printer sharing. You plug in a USB printer, and it will share it wirelessly.

I’d wanted to do this ever since I’d bout the AirPort Express, but there were no usable Bonjour/network drivers for the 7110. With the introduction of Leopard, however, the story changed. Quite a few CUPS drivers came pre-loaded with the OS, and one of those drivers was built exactly for the 7110.

A couple of weekends ago, I took a half hour to relocate our printer and its stand, plug it into the AirPort Express, and install it on both our Macs via Bonjour. This was after I’d joined the AirPort Express to our existing WiFi network through the AirPort Utility. The whole process is fairly easy to do, except changes to the AirPort Express may require a reset or two before they commit properly. This may only be a bug with the older version that I have (from 2005), and it may not affect the newer versions of this device, like the 802.11n that just came out.

Now our printer is networked reliably and it’s usable immediately from both our Macs, which is something that wasn’t possible before. It’s not tethered via the annoying USB cable, and we don’t have to deal with its bulk next to our desks. Although the drivers are print-only, when we need to scan something, we simply take my laptop over to it, connect it via USB, and scan to my Windows XP virtual machine, which runs on VMware Fusion on top of Leopard. This is because the XP drivers are the only ones that still work reliably for this printer.

What also satisfies me is that I get a new lease on old hardware. I don’t have to go out and buy something new to get the functionality I need. I already spent good money on working hardware, and thanks to Leopard’s built-in printer drivers and AirPort Express, I get to use it years after HP decided to discontinue it and force people to buy new printers.

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Thoughts

A few suggestions for FeedBurner

FeedBurnerI’m a very happy user of FeedBurner, the wonderful feed management service from Google. I’ve been using it since early 2006, and I log on multiple times every day to keep track of my feeds. I’d like to talk about some features and options that I’d love to see on the site.

Ability to splice multiple feeds without having to add them to a network or put them in FAN. I’d love to be able to have a single feed that combines all of my content, without having to go through what I’m going now, which is to create a feed network, add my own feeds to it, and burn that feed to a feed… I know there are other services on the web that do this, but I’d rather be able to do it through FeedBurner.

Ability to splice external feeds (ones not burned at FeedBurner), into a single FeedBurner feed. This would work sort of the way that Jaiku or TwitterFeed work, in the sense that I’d take my feeds with very few subscribers, like my Twitter feed or my Vimeo feed, and add them to my single feed without needing to “burn” them as separate feeds at FeedBurner, and having them show up under My Feeds. I’m not really interested in managing those feeds at this point — I just want to add them to my single feed.

Better revenue reporting from FAN (FeedBurner Ad Network). I never know how much I’m getting, because the figures are just approximations, and the pay is somehow always less than what’s indicated in the control panel. AdSense always reports my revenues correctly, Amazon does it too, but FeedBurner always leaves me wondering how much money I’m going to get. Maybe I just don’t know where to look, but believe me, I’ve looked all over the place. There’s only one place where revenues are reported centrally, and then there are ad revenues for each individual feed in FAN, and still I don’t know how much money I’m making with my feed ads.

Ability to “refresh” feed flares. Old feed flares display with old preferences, so I have a ton of flares showing up for older posts. I understand that they’re cached, and they have to stay cached, because it would be murder on a database if the flares would be constructed dynamically for every feed item, including the older ones… But I’d like to have a manual “refresh” function for the flares, that would let all of the old posts and old feed flares inherit the most recent settings for my feed flares.

Ability to separate feed flares from the ads. I’d like to display the feed flares at the top of my posts, for example, and the ads at the bottom. Right now they’re together and there’s no way to display them but right next to each other.

The SmartCast feature is a bit confusing. Either I’m the one that doesn’t get it, or it doesn’t quite work as advertised. Here’s what it says on the site:

“Makes podcasting easy in feeds that normally cannot support it. Link to MP3s, videos, images, and other digital media in your site content and SmartCast creates enclosures for them automatically. Optionally adds elements required for a richer, more detailed listing in iTunes Podcast Directory and sites using Yahoo Media RSS.”

When I took my podcast feed, which is a simple category feed from my blog, and turned on the SmartCast option, enclosures for the media files linked from each post weren’t turned into enclosures. The iTunes elements were added to the feed, but it still didn’t become a feed that I could subscribe to from iTunes, so I gave up on it.

Now, a little more than a month since my last podcast, I see that I can subscribe to that feed in iTunes, and the podcast downloads just fine. But only the last item shows up instead of every single episode, or at least the last 10 feed items, which is the standard. Why? And why didn’t it work when I first turned on SmartCast for this feed? I can’t help but be confused by this. SmartCast can be a very elegant and easy way to turn a normal feed into a podcast feed, but it looks like it still needs some work.

Photo Splicer only works with the Flickr ID. The Photo Splicer option says I can put in either my Flickr user ID or my screen name, but it really only works with the User ID, which is annoyingly hard to find on Flickr. It would be nice if the User ID would be automatically looked up if I entered my screen name.

I know the FeedBurner folks will read this. They’re very conscientious and follow up on these things. I don’t want special treatment, but it would be very nice if they could consider my feature requests and see what can be done. FeedBurner has my thanks for a wonderful service!

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Thoughts

A look at culture and technology through sound effects

I was listening to the radio one morning, and realized the sound effects they were using to advertise a website were the clicks of a keyboard likely made in the 80’s — you know, long key travel, spring-loaded action, hard clicks. But it worked.

More importantly, it is the only sound that can approximate a keyboard well, and transmit that action to an audience. Think about where keyboards are going today though. Apple is putting out keyboards that barely make any sounds — for example, see the new slim iMac keyboard, or the MacBook or MacBook Pro keyboards. Other hardware manufacturers are following suit, each advertising softer keys, more muffled sounds, etc. How do you record that? It can’t translate well over radio as a sound effect.

Remember how they used to advertise accessing the internet just a few short years ago? Through the sounds of modems. Tell me, could anyone afford to advertise internet access like that any more? No, they’d get laughed out of business, because most everyone is using high-speed access now. But is there a sound that can represent an Internet connection now? How do you represent it or record it?

What about the sound effects for phone calls? They were the simple, old-fashioned ring, right? Everyone knew what it was, and there was no confusion. Not any more. Although people still recognize the old phone ring, children growing up nowadays have so many choices when it comes to ringtones, that soon enough, the old phone ring will no longer be a recognizable sound effect for phone calls.

In some of the older movies or radio commercials, beeps, flashing lights and loud sounds were used as sound effects for computers. The starts and stops of tape reels were well known as well. What about the sounds of the punch cards, rolling through the machines and getting processed? Those are all things of the past. The only sounds computer hardware makes nowadays is the drone-like noise of the hard drives and cooling fans. It may be the representation of an efficient computing machine, but it’s pretty boring as a sound effect. Desktops or laptops (the newer ones anyway) make no sounds at all. We prize them based on how little sound they make, and rightly so, but we’ve lost the sound effects.

Remember the sound of switching TV channels? There was the manual, hard click of the round knob on the TV set (not many of you know about those anymore). If you were using a remote on older televisions, there was a sound pop, followed by a short period of static and the sound of the new channel that accompanied each channel switch. On newer televisions, that’s no longer the case. There’s no pop, click or jarring sound transition during channel switches. It’s all handled smoothly, and on some, the sound is gradually brought up to listening volume so as not to disturb you. But how do you represent a channel switch in a radio ad? You can’t, not anymore, not unless you use a decades-old sound effect.

The point of all these examples is to illustrate how technology is outpacing culture. I wanted to look at this through sound effects, but there are many ways in which it can be done. Just think of social networking sites, their invasion of privacy, and the new expectations of online behavior if you want to look at another aspect of this same issue.

One thing’s for sure — our culture has some catching up to do. While I love technology and embrace it (for the most part), we have to recognize that we’re in uncharted territory nowadays, in many, many areas of technology, particularly at its intersection with people and general culture. The rules aren’t even getting written, because no one is sure just how to grasp the situation. We each understand but a little portion of what’s going on — and that’s both scary and exciting, depending on your point of view.

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ISPs to become IT providers for home users?

Bruce Schneier makes a solid point in his recent post entitled “Home Users: A Public Health Problem?”, where he states that computers and computer security are much too complicated for the regular home user. That’s most certainly true. No matter how much you “educate” the average user, they’re still going to mess up. Even if they’re working in IT, that’s no guarantee of know-how. There are so many things you can do in IT these days that an IT guy might not even know what a hard drive or a RAM module looks like. You really have to like working with computers to get the way they work and to be willing to put in the time to learn how to protect and operate them the right way.

But then Schneier says ISPs should become IT providers for the home user. In other words, provide real Help Desk support for software installations, router and firewall settings, anti-spyware and anti-virus software, etc. This sounds good at first until you realize there’s a very small step between that and choosing to mitigate damage to the network by controlling what software users can install and use on their computers. What’s to stop ISPs from requiring that users register their computers on their domain (or doing it automatically as users run their software CDs), then pushing down group policies that enforce their rules?

What’s the alternative? Make computers easier to use! Operating systems and the gadgets that go along with them have to become really easy to use. A certain number of security options have to be enabled by default, and those settings have to able to propagate from the OS down to the gadgets (firewalls, routers, printers, network drives, WiFi devices, etc.) automatically and where applicable. You set it once and it gets set everywhere else. I talked about this in another post of mine, entitled “It’s got to be automated“. Have a look at that as well.

The starting point should be OS X. It’s not the best OS it could be, but it’s a lot easier to use for most everyday tasks than other systems, but even it is hard to figure out for a normal user when it comes to security and special protocols like site hosting, file sharing or FTP, and privileges between users in places like the Shared folder.

We need to do away with arcane file names for user groups in operating systems. Privileges should be much easier to set for files, folders and entire drives. Systems ought to be smart enough to know when we’re trying to share something with the firewall up, and pop up an on-screen wizard to assist us. They should anticipate certain things and guide us through.

I say we need to make all network devices manageable directly through the computer, instead of having to log onto them separately. This goes especially for routers. The computer should know there’s a router on the network, and allow us to manage its settings from the control panel, as we would manage a printer, but make it even easier. It should auto-configure it with medium-level security by default and only ask us to choose a password and be done with it.

The solution lies in making better software and hardware.

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