HP Stream Mini Desktop 200-010

HP Stream Mini Desktop 200-010

Sometimes, technology actually solves a problem. In this case, we have the HP Stream Mini Desktop 200-010, a $179 computer with the footprint that’s smaller than the average carryout box, yet delivers the goods as promised.

I made my switch to being a full-time Mac user over 10 years ago, yet I still have a few PC applications that either haven’t been migrated to OS X, or for which there’s no Mac-native equivalent. For that reason, I kept a Windows machine around as long as I could. My last “official” Windows machine, a Fujitsu LifeBook, was removed from service about a year ago when I got tired of its wheezing. Since then, I’d been using a Windows 7 BootCamp partition on my MacBook Pro Retina to run the remaining few apps on that platform.

Two of those applications, PlayOn and TotalRecorder, require a running PC for an extended amount of time, e.g., the amount of time you plan on using them. PlayOn is a media-streaming service that will send all kinds of internet-based and network-local media to a WDTV Live or Roku (or Chromecast, phone or tablet). TotalRecorder is a program that captures internet streaming audio, and I use it to record longer-format shows like Those Were The Days, the four-hour old time radio show out of Chicago. Having to lock my Mac into Windows mode for hours while running these programs was an intrusion.

(And yes, I know there are many streaming-audio capture programs available for the Mac– I am a huge fan of Audio Hijack– but it still does not solve the challenge of having to leave my Mac on for hours.)

When I saw a review of the new, tiny HP desktops in Ars Technica, I realized I may have found a solution to my Windows challenges. HP has just introduced a line of inexpensive, lower-powered computers that run Windows 8.1, and the cheaper desktop looked like it could be put on a shelf, loaded with my software, and left to run happily.

It turns out I was right.

I bought the HP Stream Mini Desktop 200-010 at Amazon for $179 during the last week of February, 2015. It’s a good thing I did, too, since within a week they were out of stock everywhere, including HP’s site. (As of this writing, other sellers are gouging for the device at $250.) Based on the recommendation of one of the Amazon customer reviewers, I also bought a stick of 4 GB memory to bring the total memory to 6 GB and the price to $212.  I later replaced the stock drive with a 128GB SATA M.2 SSD for about $60, providing me with a little more storage overhead; but more about that later.

The computer showed up in a box about the size of a laser toner cartridge.  The biggest thing in the box was the full-sized USB keyboard, which HP provides along with a USB mouse and external power supply.  The keyboard and mouse are average-quality, certainly enough to get the job done.   The main unit will easily fit in your hand, and the included setup guide is easy to follow for setting the computer up.

Once connected (I used my Vizio HDTV as the display, and plugged in an Ethernet cable to get it on my network), the computer booted quickly into a guided setup screen.  Not having ever dealt with Windows 8, I was actually impressed with the way the software walks a new user through initial configuration.   Within 5 minutes, the computer was up and running on my network, ready for me to start loading my software.

Right out of the box, I saw I had about 12GB of disk space available.  This was not a big issue, as my plan was to only load a couple program on the computer, and any data would be put on Dropbox or OneDrive and deleted soon after.    I also went through and deleted software that I knew I wouldn’t use:  as pointed out in other reviews, HP was very conservative with loading this machine with the usual “bloatware” given the small amount of storage they provide.

My cable provider gives its subscribers free antivirus, so after loading that and Dropbox, Google Chrome, and Firefox, I was ready to install my programs.   Given the local space available, I had to choose “Selective Sync” on Dropbox because I have a ton of stuff out there:  I only chose the directories I knew I’d want to access from this computer.

PlayOn installed just fine.  The HP Stream’s specifications are well within the requirements for the program, so there was no problem serving up stutter-free video over my network to my TV-connected devices.  I added an external 1 TB drive to the HP to serve up my library of media using the MyMedia feature of PlayOn.

TotalRecorder installed with only one bump:  in order for streaming audio to work on the computer, it has to know there is an audio output device connected since it has no internal speaker.  If I went to a site with streaming audio, it would simply not play it at all, which means TotalRecorder could not capture anything.  I resolved this by plugging in a cheap pair of headphones and leaving them on the shelf with the computer.   From there, it worked perfectly.

The only thing remaining was to figure out how to remotely access the computer, as I did not want to leave it connected to a monitor or the TV.  Since the Stream comes with a version of Windows 8.1 that does not include Remote Desktop, I had to think of another solution.  I am a big fan of TeamViewer, which allows a user to gain control over a remote computer as long as it’s connected to the internet.  (I use this when troubleshooting my daughter’s computer while she is at school.)  I loaded TeamViewer and set it up for “Unattended Access” which involves setting up a free account at TeamViewer’s site.  After entering the codes provided, I was able to fully control the Stream from my MacBook.  The only challenge with this setup, however, is that the remote computer has to think it has a monitor connected in order to have a display to “share,” otherwise it will display a blank screen.  I solved this by buying a Compulab fit-Headless HDMI adapter, which acts as a display emulator (the radio geek in me calls it a “dummy load”) and plugs right into the computer.  I unplugged my monitor from the Stream, plugged the adapter in, and remotely accessed it again from my Mac.  Success!

It’s worth pointing out that HP does not provide Recovery Disks with the computer: there is a Recovery Partition on the built in hard drive, but they recommend you create media with the recovery software as well.   Following these instructions I created a Recovery USB key, which is a good thing to have in the event of a hard drive failure.  If a system crash occurred, I’d have the tools to rebuild the system.

After a couple weeks of the Stream’s providing solid service, I realized I was constantly running at about 5GB of disk space to spare.   This would have been okay, but I figured SSDs are pretty cheap so I may as well give myself a little overhead.   As mentioned above, I bought a Transcend 128GB M.2 SSD which would provide plenty of space going forward.

The physical installation was very easy.  This video shows how to disassemble the Stream and where the memory and hard drive go.  (It also shows the impressive compact design of the computer.)  I was able to remove the old drive and install the new one in a couple minutes.  I did not format the new drive or anything– it was plain “vanilla” right out of the package.

Once reassembled, I inserted the USB Recovery Key I described above and powered the computer up.

I booted the PC, and since it could not find an OS on the internal drive, it proceeded to boot from the USB. The menu that came up gave several options for diagnosing and rebuilding the computer. I chose the option to “Reset my computer” which destroys everything that’s on the internal hard drive by reformatting and repartitioning to the factory defaults. It then loaded the factory system image, rebooted, and I was presented with a system that looked exactly like it was when I took it out of the box.

I had to re-register and reload my programs, but most importantly, I discovered the “reset” program had repartitioned the new internal drive with an appropriately-set recovery partition (as I expected) and a C: partition that took up the remainder of the drive’s space. The “reset” process running from USB took less than 30 minutes to complete. I reloaded my programs and configured everything the way I wanted, which added about another 30 minutes to the process.

I came to this solution after searching on the internet for ways to reload the computer’s current image on a new drive, but none of what I found was particularly helpful or easy to follow.   That’s when I decided to go after the “slash-and-burn” approach, knowing that HP must have provided some sort of tool to restore the factory image.

One thing to point out about the “Reset” option:  when you follow this path, the installer creates the main C: and Recovery partitions as described above, but instead of “hiding” the Recovery partition as it comes from the factory, the Reset mounts the Recovery partition as drive D:.   Since the partition is loaded to just about its 6.7GB capacity, Windows will consistently throw “Disk Almost Full” errors.   The best thing to do is to use the Control Panel option for changing Notifications, and turn off the warnings for Low Disk Space.

Overall, I am very pleased with this computer, and I am looking forward to seeing what else it can do.  Bravo to HP for  coming out with such a great little piece of equipment!

OSX Mavericks Rebuild GuideI recently bought a brand-new MacBook Pro Retina 13″ to replace my five-year-old 15″ MacBook Pro. When I turned on the new computer I dutifully ran Migration Assistant and copied all my old stuff over to the new computer.

That migration included stuff that went back to my first Mac, the iBook I bought in 2005, as well as my iTunes library that was originally migrated from the PC I owned before I had the iBook.

Over the years I’ve done “clean installs” and removed old apps that I didn’t use or weren’t supported, but in all the time I’ve owned a Mac I’ve only done a true rebuild a couple of times.

In the old days of Windows98/XP it used to be a common practice to completely wipe your system and reload everything to give yourself a fresh start. The idea was that reformatting and reloading would get rid of all the old files and applications that cluttered up your hard drive and system performance would improve. It might have been a case of wishful thinking, but my computer always seemed to run better after a “slash and burn.” With the Mac, it never seemed necessary to do this as its internal maintenance processes always seemed to take care of performance issues.

After about a week with the new computer I decided I would do the “slash and burn” on my new Macbook Pro. I had a bunch of questions before and during the rebuild, and I decided to document my experience so all the answers could be in one place if anyone decides to do this on their own. If this guide helps you, please let me know!

1. Before You Start: Back Up Your Data and Take Inventory

Your user data:

The most important step before starting any rebuild is to make sure your data is backed up. I am religious about using SuperDuper to keep an updated, bootable image of my computer’s hard drive at the ready in case of a crash. Every file on my computer is always available on an external hard drive in the event I need it.

Most users’ data on the Mac will be found in the /Users/{username} directory on the Mac, so you should make sure at the very least that you back up that directory to an external drive, simply by copying them with the Finder. I store all my data files (except for photos and music) on Dropbox, which means that there is always a synced copy of all my data available in the cloud.

For iTunes music and iPhoto images I keep a smaller set of songs and pictures on my computer with my “full” libraries on external drives. I manage these libraries with two excellent programs from Fat Cat Software: iPhoto Library Manager and PowerTunes. These programs allow you to copy only the music and photos that you want to keep on your computer, while allowing you to keep everything else on another drive. These applications have come in very handy in recent years, as we all switch to lower-capacity SSD drives.

For iTunes music stored on my Mac, I created a single playlist with all my songs in it and then copied that playlist to my “main” library kept on an external drive. The music was already on the external drive, so the playlist merely organized those songs into a playlist that would be easily copied back once the rebuild was complete. For iPhone apps, podcasts, and other items, FatCat provided an excellent user guide to walk you through the steps to back those up.

For iPhoto pictures stored on my Mac, I simply make sure that the external library (managed by iPhoto Library Manager) is organized similarly to the one on my Mac. This means remembering to update the external library when I load pics from my devices to iPhoto on the computer. Apple’s iCloud will accomplish some of this, but I prefer to manually copy the pictures into the external iPhoto library once a month. Dropbox has a feature that will automatically download new pictures from a camera, iPhone, etc. when it’s connected to your computer, so I always have copies of my pictures in the cloud,and it’s that Dropbox directory that acts as the source when I import pictures into my main iPhoto library.

You should also remember to back up any other data that may not be in your own user directory on the Mac. In my case, I have several email accounts and several years of saved email that I wanted to keep on the new computer. The instructions found on this site will show you what needs to be backed up (it’s all in your ~/Library folder) and how to restore it to the new computer.

If you are an iCloud user, know that your data for contacts, calendars, Safari bookmarks, Notes, iMessages, and Keychain entries are all synced for you. When you login to the computer after the rebuild, all those applications will be repopulated automatically. (If you are not an iCloud user, this would be the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the free space you’re granted, just to get the backup of this important data.)

Your Application Inventory:

This step is empowering because you get to decide what gets installed after the upgrade and what’s left behind. Start a list and go through your Applications (and maybe even your Utilities) folder, writing down the programs you want to reinstall. Some are going to be obvious keepers, like Microsoft Office, while others will be relegated to the “maybe” or “no” parts of the list. My list was about 35 apps long: about 7 applications didn’t make the list.

You should take the time to locate any license keys and download links for the programs you want to keep: or, if you are like me, you do it old-school and copy the program installation files to CDs and keep them somewhere safe, along with the license key information.

Note that any application you downloaded from the Mac App Store will show up in your App Store list. Open the App Store application on your Mac and look at “Purchases” to see what’s there. When you rebuild the computer, you will be able to download these applications again, so no need to worry about download links for those programs.

Okay: your data is backed up, you know what apps you’re going to reinstall. Let’s get ready to pull the trigger.

2. Restore Your Computer

With the introduction of OSX 10.9 Mavericks, a bootable recovery partition is placed on your hard drive that allows you to reload the operating system as well as run maintenance programs like Disk Utility. In other words, you do not need a DVD or flash drive to reload Mavericks. (If you are upgrading from a previous version of OSX to Mavericks, you can follow these instructions to create a bootable USB installer.)

To execute the installer, reboot your Mac while holding down the Option key. This will bring you to a screen where you can choose to boot OSX or the recovery partition (in the photo you also see my BootCamp partition: note that running the installer does not touch an already-installed BootCamp environment, which I was very happy to learn).

Bootscreen

Once you’re booted, you’ll see this screen:

Utility Screen

If you want to be thorough, go into Disk Utility and erase your boot drive. After formatting, you can exit back into the main screen where you select “Reinstall OSX” and let it run.

The installation process runs for about 30 minutes, loading a base version of the operating system. A key difference with this installation is that it does not load any of the iLife applications like iPhoto or GarageBand– more on that later.

When the installation process finishes, you choose your language, enter your Apple ID, and choose login information just like any other installation. The computer will ask if you want to run Migration Assistant, and at this point you’ll just say “no” and move on. A few more clicks and you’ll be in the main OSX screen.

The Mac App Store should launch automatically and present you with a list of software that you have purchased that you can download again. Here’s where you get to go through the list and choose what you want to download. My selections took about 45 minutes to download and install. This is what the screen looked like after the installations:

App Store Purchased Items

This process actually makes a lot more sense than loading an older version on the computer from a disk and then dealing with downloading updates. By downloading the latest version upfront there’s no endless back-and-forth with updating versions.

Note that if you purchased your Mac after October 1, 2013 your download selections will include the Pages, Keynote, and Numbers iWork apps. Details are found on this page. If your Mac is older, you’ll have to pay for those apps.

Now we have the more tedious interactive part of the process: downloading each of the apps (or loading them from CD/DVD) and installing them. This is where you’ll need your downloaded license keys if you have any paid applications.

To restore Mail to the way it was before, refer to this guide again.

During your iCloud login you synced your iCloud Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Bookmarks, etc., so you should be all set with those core applications.

For iTunes, refer to the PowerTunes guide linked above to copy the playlist you created (and all its songs) back to your new library. You can also follow the guide to return the iPhone/iPod/iPad apps to your new iTunes library. Note that when you sync your i-Device to the computer for the first time it will tell you it’s synced to another library. You’ll want to back up the device to the computer, and then do an Erase and Sync to bring the i-Device back in sync with the newly-setup Mac.

For iPhoto, follow the instructions in the iPhoto Library Manager guide to copy over only the events/photos you wish. I only keep a couple years’ worth of photos on the computer, leaving the rest on the “big” library on the external drive.

And that’s basically it! You now have as clean a system as you can get without starting completely from scratch.

3. What if Something Goes Terribly Wrong?

Remember at the very beginning when I recommended taking an image backup of your hard drive before starting? If for some reason you want to go back to the computer exactly as it was before you started, just attach the external drive where you saved that image with SuperDuper, boot from that drive (by holding down the “Option” key and selecting the backup drive), then copy the external drive right on top of the internal one. Depending on how much data you have, this may take a while but at the end you will have your computer back to its previous state.

I am happy to report that this process, while it took about 6 hours start-to-finish, resulted in a very happy MacBook. It seems to be running a little better, my iTunes library is now cleaned up, and I regained about 11 GB of space by getting rid of things I didn’t need.

I really hope this guide helps, and I will be sure to update this guide with any suggestions that any of you may have.

Good luck!

We recently found this hifi in a local thrift shop, and after a little cleanup it now sits in our living room.

It definitely has the Mad Men-era design, which we think is a pretty cool look.

Click here to read more about it at joesradiopage.com.

This is the Revere Eight 8mm movie camera my dad used since the 1950s to capture our family events. It’s because of this that all my childhood memories look like The Wonder Years.

He gave me this camera a few years ago, and I hope to one day get it working again.

Feb 212012

I take my MacBook Pro pretty much everywhere. And by that I mean it comes with me to the office every day as well as the occasional trip to a WiFi spot, and it contains most of my important data, photos, music, etc.

The mobility is great, but I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the fact that there’s a set of spinning platters inside the computer holding all this important information. There are also the questions of heat, battery life, and speed, all of which all led me to the decision to replace the stock 250 GB hard drive in the MBP with a Crucial M4 128 GB Solid State Drive from NewEgg. It was well worth it.

The prices on solid state drives have come down significantly in recent months, so after a bit of brand research and online price comparison I decided to go with the Crucial from NewEgg.

I won’t go into the details here of how I performed the upgrade– many people have done this and have posted their success stories, plus there are the excellent iFixit guides that walk you through the process step-by-step. I’ve written before about how I’m a big fan of SuperDuper! which was my disk duplication tool of choice in this operation.

The only other prep work I had to do was to get my hard drive usage down to something that would fit on the new SSD. I had about 160 GB of data on the drive, and most of that was in my iPhoto library, which went back 7 years. I used an excellent product called iPhoto Library Manager to archive my entire iPhoto library to an external hard drive, and then I felt safe deleting what I had on the computer’s drive. I also had to get rid of VirtualBox and its related files, which wasn’t a huge deal since it’s been a while since I had to run Windows on my Mac. (Lisa always felt this was an abomination anyway. :)

Everyone who has an SSD will talk about the lightning-fast boot-up times they have– that’s great, but how many times do I actually boot my computer? I’m happy to report that not only does my MacBook boot as quickly as Lisa’s 11-inch MacBook Air, but applications load and run a lot faster. On top of this, the computer’s fans have not turned on at all in the past couple days, the unit is much cooler, and I get an average of about 5-6 hours on a single battery charge. All great results that make me glad I did the upgrade.

Next up: upgrading the MBP from Snow Leopard to Lion. I intentionally waited this long to see the bugs in the OS worked out, so it seems a logical next step.

…has been disconnected.

For the first time in my life, I do not have a home phone number.  

Last week, we decided to drop our landline telephone service.  We did an informal-yet-enlightening analysis of our home phone usage, and here’s what led to our decision:

  1. Of all the inbound calls we get in a week (according to caller ID, it’s between 25-30),  less than one is usually from someone with a legitimate reason to call us.   The rest of the calls are telemarketers, political robo-dialers, and/or survey-takers.
  2. People who really need to contact us already use our mobile numbers.
  3. The only outbound calls we make are to the local pizza shop or the occasional business phone call when T-Mobile or US Cellular can’t get a signal to our house. 

Based on the first point alone, our decision was made.  Once we looked at the cost, it made the choice that much easier: we were paying $85 per month for basic phone service and 8 Mbit internet. 15 Mbit internet-only service from our provider costs $52, which means we were paying $33 per month for the “convenience” of being hassled by people (and machines) we didn’t want to hear from.

I made the call Friday morning and by Monday afternoon the phone line was turned off.  Oh, and this little bit of joy took only minutes to go into effect:

Before…

..and After:

We did not put a forwarding number on the account because the people who need to contact us know how to do so.  So all you robo-dialing, political-office-running, lawn care-selling, survey-taking entities will have to find another tree to bark up.  Or whatever it is that you do.

For the people and places with whom we wish to stay in contact but we’d rather they didn’t have our mobile numbers, we’re sharing our Google Voice number. This has the advantages of (a) not ringing a phone in our house (or pockets), and (b) providing a spiffy and occasionally accurate transcription of the voice mail that the caller can leave when they dial our number.  And if, for some reason, we need to have the Google Voice forwarded to a “real” phone, it’s just a few keystrokes to make that happen.

Yes, we’ll have to keep our mobile phones charged and have a spare standing by in case one of them takes a dive into the Chicago River.  We’ll also have to make sure the numbers for our local Police and Fire Departments are programmed into our mobiles.   Done and done.

One more step at simplifying our lives is complete.

Photobucket

We got rid of cable TV in November of 2009. Since then, we’ve been watching over-the-air TV and zipping through our Netflix queue, as well as spending a lot more time participating in non-passive entertainment. This means we’re a lot healthier and less zombie-like. Of course, we still have internet connectivity so the cable company still gets a check from us every month– it’s just not as large as it used to be.

I’ll say again that we don’t miss cable TV one bit: this was one of the smartest decisions we’ve made.

For a long time, our primary media source was the Sony BDP-S370 Blu-Ray player, which has connectivity to Netflix, Amazon, and a few other online services. The player has generally served us well, but it comes up deficient in a couple areas, specifically its inability to talk to other devices on my home network, where I have other media files stored on a FreeNAS device.

(Aside: FreeNAS is an open-source file server program that essentially turned my old Windows XP box into a giant file storage device where I store movie and music files as well as back up the data on all the Macs in our house. It’s free, and it works beautifully.)

Sony claims the Blu-Ray player supports the DLNA standard, as does FreeNAS. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an absolute “standard” protocol so these two pieces of equipment don’t talk to each other, which I find aggravating and a nuisance.

A few months ago, I read a review of the Western Digital WDTV Live Plus, a device that’s about the size of a McD’s Quarter Pounder box that plugs into your network and TV and, as you will learn if you Google it, will “play just about anything you can throw at it.” I picked one of these up through Newegg when a sweet coupon came through that made the deal irresistible.   You can usually find this device for just under $100.

In short, the WDTV Live Plus delivers exactly what it promises: not only does have access to several online media services, including Netflix and Amazon as well as a couple others including Blockbuster, but it immediately found my FreeNAS server on my network and all the files I have stored there– and it played most of them flawlessly. It can play movies, audio, and photos on your TV screen as long as they’re formatted in a way the box can understand, which is a pretty long list.  Here’s a list of the online services currently supported on the device, and here are the complete specs showing the formats it can read.

I typically use Handbrake to make iPod Touch-compatible movie files from the DVDs in my collection: this way I can watch movies on my commute without having to break out my computer on the train and running down my MacBook’s battery. Over the years I’ve ripped much of my collection and stored the files on my FreeNAS server.   I also have a PC running SnapStream’s BeyondTV acting as a DVR to record over-the-air programming, which I store on the FreeNAS server:  the WD Live plays these all files on my TV just fine.

The device also understands VIDEO_TS files: this means I can use a program like RipIt on DVDs that I own to pull the DVD contents to my computer, then copy those files to my server. When I want to watch the movie, I go to the file on the server and click– and the entire DVD’s contents, including special features, commentaries, etc., are all available to me as if I put a DVD in the player.

This came in really handy recently when I was recovering from surgery and wasn’t supposed to move a lot: I hooked the WDTV to the bedroom TV and ripped a bunch of movies from my collection that I’d been meaning to watch. Those, along with what was available from Netflix and Amazon kept me entertained for those few days.

I should also mention that two other features I enjoy are a page that’s connected to AccuWeather that gives the current conditions and 5-day forecast, and an interface to TuneIn Radio, which happens to be my favorite streaming-radio web site and iPod Touch app. This latter feature allowed me to get the latest news from WBBM and WBEZ as well as checking in on Kermode and Mayo on BBC 5 Live, right from my TV.

In addition to accessing media on the Internet and a local network, you can also attach a flash key or portable hard drive to the unit’s USB port: this not only allows access to the media, but it turns your WDTV device into a media server for your network, meaning you can play movies and music from the WDTV on your computer.

When playing music or photos, it doesn’t use as elegant an interface as Apple’s iTunes or iPhoto: you have to navigate to the appropriate directory to play or show the media you want. This is where something like an AppleTV has an advantage, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

Some people who know I’m an Apple fan asked why I didn’t just go for an AppleTV. While the AppleTV interface is nice and intuitive, the main reason is that I wanted to break out of the Apple/iTunes ecosystem: with the AppleTV you can only watch or listen to what you have in your iTunes library. This means that if I wanted to watch something that’s not available in the iTunes Store or on Netflix– I’ll use Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful 1991 movie Night on Earth as an example- I would still have to get the DVD off the shelf and put it in the player. This in itself is not a big deal, but if my goal is to simplify how I access my media, it seems more directionally correct to have a media player that is flexible, which the AppleTV doesn’t seem to be.

I recently looked at some of the newer boxes by Roku, but it seems they’re lacking in the ability to use a local network for source material as well. There are several other, cheaper boxes out there that seem to come close, but none of them have the feature set of the WDTV Live Plus.

For now, I’m very happy with the WDTV Live Plus as an internet media hub– and I’m hoping for its continued success to keep the competition trying to come up with something even better, since we’ll all win!

Here’s an interesting little video clip: an instructional video that came with the Grundig Satellit 500 shortwave receiver.

This radio was produced in the late 1980s and was a very popular piece of equipment with shortwave radio hobbyists. Grundig’s US distributor produced this video to help the user get started quickly, as the radio had quite a large set of features.

Grundig is a German company whose products shipped worldwide, so when you bought one of these radios you got a couple pounds’ worth of manuals, all in different languages. This video sums up most of the features nicely, and saved the user from scanning the manuals to do something simple such as, say, turning the unit on.

I ran across this video in a box of old VHS tapes, so I figured I’d get it up on YouTube and link to it from my radio collection page, with the hope that some radio hobbyists will find this interesting. I have to say that I find the video very quaint, especially the comments about “staying up-to-date by tuning into shortwave radio.” So much has changed in 20 years.

It’s a curiosity, but I know some of you are into that. Enjoy!

I recently read an article in the New York Times Magazine called Cyberspace When You’re Dead by Rob Walker. The piece raises the question of what happens with all that stuff that makes up our digital legacy when we pass away: not only the fate of the digital assets themselves, but also how we’ll be perceived by what we leave behind.

This made me wonder about the digital footprints following me right now: in addition to this blog, I have a couple other websites, a Facebook page, a LinkedIn page, a couple podcasts, a couple Twitter accounts, and a bunch of accounts on sites that I rarely use any more, some of which were The Hottest Thing for about 10 minutes in 2006. I also have accounts on numerous forum sites, mostly with the same username and avatar, but I’ll be darned if I can remember all the sites themselves.

There’s another 175 words that just got appended to my legacy.

With all that stuff splattered all over the internet, it’s no wonder the more internet-conscious people I know don’t bother at all with Facebook or Twitter, and if you saw their blogs– which are entirely dedicated to their professional lives– you’d think these were pretty dry people, and not the sort who would try to climb the Mastodon at the Field Museum during a company party (true story, but for another time).

I have a family member who refuses to get on Facebook because, as she puts it, “there’s a reason some people are in the past, and it’s best they stay there.” I certainly respect that. In my case, some of the people who came out of the shadows via LinkedIn and Facebook now fit into a new category of “online casual” friends, where I may or may not choose to read their updates or regularly communicate: it’s kind of like when you send Christmas cards to someone you haven’t spoken with since Johnny Carson left the Tonight Show.

Fortunately, I learned very early on that anything you put “out there”– when the internet was mostly Usenet newsgroups– could last forever and be read by anyone who wants to see it, including your grandparents and grandchildren. I’ve mentioned my very first Usenet posting here before, which still lives almost 22 years after I typed it. Yeah, in internet terms 22 years is almost “forever.”

It’s interesting that in the future people might find a newspaper article about me or other pieces I’ve written or even recordings of presentations or panels on which I’ve appeared, but they could also dig up the banalities that wind up under my name on Twitter and Facebook. Maybe I’ll be thought of as a dashing, talented raconteur with a penchant for wine… or maybe just that “Cheap Date Guy.”

In any event, I don’t see a memorial library being built for me that houses my top 250 Status Updates or videos of my cat Clark trying to chew through a 2-liter bottle. (Okay, I lied: there is no such video.) Maybe I should get some new cartridges for my fountain pen and start committing some of my wisdom to paper.

Occasionally, I’ll run across someone who decides one day to attempt to erase their digital legacy. All I can say is… good luck. Just take a stroll through the archive.org “Wayback Machine“- they’ve kept all kinds of stuff around, long after the sites and companies that made them disappeared.

I guess I’ll just have to remember who could be reading this years from now. And as long as I’m at it: Shouldn’t you kids be doing your homework instead of reading your great-great-granddad’s ramblings?

Nov 092010

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When Virgin Mobile introduced its $40/month unlimited mobile broadband service a couple months ago, I was pretty excited.

I’ve been looking for a more convenient way to access my personal email and doing the occasional net surfing without using my company’s internet connection or computers. I’ve accomplished this over the years by taking my notebook or iPod Touch to the Starbucks down the street and using their free WiFi while on a break.

I had a trial period with mobile internet on my cellphone through US Cellular, but it was horribly lame and slow. With USCC, you don’t get a browser– for $20 per month you get a menu with content that they choose for you; after the trial period I dropped the service. The options from the other mobile carriers were simply expensive and unattractive (a line that’s just begging for a punchline, but I’ll leave it to you).

The Virgin Mobile plan costs $40 for 30 days with unlimited data and no contract. Finally, a truly tempting offer. With no contract requirement, I had 30 days to try out the service and if I didn’t like it I could return the internet device and I wouldn’t have to pay a cancellation fee. Count me in.

Since I want to connect more than one device to the internet at a time, I figured the Novatel MiFi 2200 device offering would do the job: it allows up to 5 devices to share the same broadband connection. The unit was on sale at Walmart.com for under $100, so I ordered one and a $40 broadband “top up” card to load up the service.

Configuring the device was very easy: the brief instruction card and menu options got me up and running on my MacBook Pro in just minutes. The first time out, you need to register for an account, but that’s not complicated at all: the system walks you through each step. The MiFi device has a preprogrammed SSID and password, which you can change if you wish, and getting your devices talking to the MiFi is no more involved than connecting to any other WiFi router.

Now for the interesting stuff: performance.

I had high expectations for the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service, and my first experience was very disappointing. The service– at least what reaches my dining room– was very slow. A speed test told me I was getting on average 200-300 kbits a second, which is better than dial-up but nowhere near the 600 to 1400 kbits Virgin Mobile promises in their marketing material. Subsequent tests around the house and neighborhood over the next several weeks frequently put me in the sub-100 kbit/sec range, which is getting close to dial-up speeds.

Virgin uses the Sprint broadband network, so I used antennasearch.com to find the nearest Sprint tower. It turns out there’s one about a mile away, so I drove there with the MiFi unit and my iPod Touch: when parked within several hundred feet of the tower my service speeds jumped to over 1 Mbit/sec.

According to Virgin Mobile’s support staff and what I’ve read on the forums at DSL Reports, Virgin had a huge wave of new customers once they introduced the unlimited plan, and they admitted their infrastructure couldn’t handle all the new traffic. Over several weeks in September they said they were upgrading their network and customers should see improvment: as I write this in early November, the speeds have only become marginally better.

Real World Performance:

I live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and I work downtown in the city. I’ve used the device at my home and office, and all throughout my commute, including the train line that leads to the city. I tried out the service on longer trips on interstates, including I-57 in Illinois and I-65 in Indiana. I also brought the unit along to see how it performed in a rural area of Indiana and in downtown Seattle. Here’s what I discovered:

Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go’s performance in all these locations was pretty much the same: download speeds in the 300-500 kbit range are the norm, with the occasional burst to almost 1 Mbit. Even in the rural areas the service held to the high end of these numbers, presumably because there was less traffic on the network.

This speed range works fine for checking e-mail, surfing the web, chatting via text over Skype, and doing other low-bandwidth things with your computer or portable device. If you’re lucky to have a solid signal, you may be able to do streaming audio. Anything beyond this will tax the connection and your patience.

It does an acceptable job with iPhone apps that use Location Services (e.g. Maps): around Chicago and in Seattle it reported our location accurately within a half-block, but in the rural areas it would sometimes put us over 10 miles from where we actually were. In one case, we were in Kankakee, Illinois and we registered as being in Boston.

The service fails when it comes to higher-bandwidth applications. Skype video and voice chat won’t work at all, and Netflix streaming is essentially unusable– you’ll get 10 seconds of video for every 5 minutes of loading and buffering.

VirginMobile’s customer service is easy enough to contact, but the staff seems to work only from their scripts. I entered a detailed trouble report through their e-mail system, and it took them three weeks to get back to me to say my trouble ticket was being closed because I should have called their help line. When I called the help line the person on the phone said to wait two hours while they “reprovisioned” my device: I saw no improvement in performance.

They also have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, but my experiences with both of these have been very disappointing: the Facebook page seems to be focused entirely on marketing, and while the Twitter person would respond to my requests and say she’d get back to me, she never did unless I pinged her again– her last response to me was addressed to “Gordon” which tells me I wasn’t going to get anywhere anyway.

All that said, I’m still using the service because it’s better than not having it at all. I don’t think it’s really worth the $40– it’s more of a $20-level service– and I’m on the fence, ready to jump if a competitor introduces a better product. And the good thing is that if I do jump, I won’t have to pay to get out of a contract.

My recommendation: if you want broadband access where you can’t normally get it, this may be a solution for you. My only advice is to have realistic expectations of its performance.

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