What Are You On?

intel dongleWhat are you on right now?

Helaine uses a laptop. My dad is 100% tablet. I rotate through devices and touch close to a dozen keyboards or screens through the day.

Nearly everything you know about computing is about to change. The size is shrinking again.

If you have a recent iPhone or one of the high end Android devices, you know the brain in that small device of yours works fine for browsing and video. Why do we need anything with bulk?

We don’t.

There is a new class of dongles entering the market which are full fledged PCs. Plug one into an HDMI port on any TV, pair with wireless keyboard and mouse and it’s a computer that can do nearly anything! Browse the web. Stream HD movies. Skype. Whatever.

These dongles are quad core machines special image processing chips. Very low power, they need no fans. They are light on RAM and disk space, but are optimized for the tasks most people normally perform.

They’re not for making content. They’re for consumption.

At the moment (and we’re very early in this game) the Windows version is $150 and the Android $100. Expect those numbers to fall.

This is crazy. How far we’ve come. We’re not slowing down.

Making An Old Computer New

IMG_20140308_235230-w800-h600If it seems like computers get slower over time, you’re right. It’s not because they’re wearing out. It’s because we’re inadvertently adding little helper programs every time we install something new. These are the programs that check to see if your software needs updating or get large applications started faster.

All of this happens at the expense of your computer’s performance.

No matter how hard I try to avoid these little vampires, they accumulate. After a while, a fast computer becomes a slow computer.

That’s the story with this Windows 7 laptop I’m typing on. Photo editing became a painful experience. Other chores too.

The disk light was constantly flashing, a sign I’d used all 4Gb RAM and was manipulating data on the much slower hard drive.

This afternoon I pulled off the data and moved it to an external drive. Next, three DVDs with the restore software had to be burned. Then, with the first disk in the drive I hit the power button.

This is not for the faint of heart. The laptop is returned to its original factory state. Everything has to be reinstalled. Passwords must be remembered.

It will take most of the week before this machine has everything it needs. I have all the disks. It’s just the time.

Right now I’m downloading 500Mb of Windows 7 updates! The computer seems a lot peppier. It would be nice if my effort made a difference.

Linux Installs Are Never Easy

Does my blog have new PC smell tonight? I’m typing on an old laptop running a freshly installed version of Ubuntu Linux.

Quick explanation. Linux serves the same purpose as Windows or Mac OS. It is an operating system. Linux comes in a variety of ‘flavors’ of which Ubuntu is one.

Programs that run on Macs or Windows PCs (mainly) don’t run on Linux and vice versa.

Linux is free and user supported. It is often used in scientific applications or where 24/7/365 reliability is demanded.

Most of the Internet runs on Linux. Google, eBay, Facebook and Wikipedia all run on Linux servers. So does geofffox.com.

My reason for Linux on this laptop is different. I needed a challenging tech problem. My mind has festered aimlessly for the last few months. This would force me to focus and concentrate.

Though Linux is a powerful operating system it has never been an easy install!

There’s a version of Ubuntu called Studio. It comes with programs specifically made for media manipulation. That sounded right for me.

Ubuntu Studio loaded perfectly… except for the systems that controlled WiFi and sound. I fixed the WiFi problem, but could never get the sound working.

There are compromises I’ll make, but sound? Nah.

I tried another version… and then another before finally getting one to install! Even then I had to use an arcane terminal program to manually entre the proper code to install WiFi.

In this regard Linux isn’t ready for prime time. This stuff should have been fixed years ago.

For web browsing and most of the usual Internet pursuits Linux is just fine (after you get it working). Actually it’s better than fine because virus writers leave it alone! There are too few Linux desktops to make it worth the hackers time! Helaine’s laptop has been running an earlier edition of Ubuntu for a few years with few problems.

It’s possible this laptop will end up with its screen off acting as a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack for web development. It’s probably where the next version of this blog will come from. Or it might go back on the shelf waiting for the next time I need a challenge.

Right now it’s the laptop under my fingers. That’s enough.

I Am Obsessed With My Screens

This family room has become “Geoff’s House of Screens!”

There are times my laptop, tablet, smartphone and TV are in use simultaneously. Helaine thinks I’m a little obsessed.

I’m sorry, are you talking to me? I was distracted momentarily.

For the past few months I’ve become a squatter in our family room. I have taken over the larger sofa with the best view of the TV.

In front of me is an inverted trash can. It is my desk. My laptop sits on it, precariously.

This family room has become “Geoff’s House of Screens!”

There are times my laptop, tablet, smartphone and TV are in use simultaneously. Helaine thinks I’m a little obsessed.

I’m sorry, are you talking to me? I was distracted momentarily.

Here’s what I’ve learned. I love having all these screens!

I like having the tablet. The problem is, it’s an early technology. The software and apps aren’t where they need to be yet. On top of that there is a difference between phone and tablet screens not yet recognized by all developers. The New York Times app is an insult when used on a tablet. There is no shortage of poorly designed apps out there.

My Asus Transformer Prime should scream! It packs a quad core processor.

It does not! There are times it just hangs and I have to wait. I keep hoping new firmware will solve the problem. Those in the no says it can be fixed.

Not yet.

The Transformer Prime is a wonderful personal video player. Sometimes, when Helaine wants to watch TV, I’ll plug in earbuds and watch the tablet. Perfect.

Tablets are great for looking and tapping. I can type too, but real keyboards are so much better.

Sunday I used the tablet to chat with my great nephew and California cousins. A tablet with a front facing camera is perfect for video chat.

Typing is where my laptop comes in. I’m a multitasker. My laptop often has ten or more browser tabs plus multiple apps running together. Tablets can do this too, but the laptop does it in a much more elegant and seamless way.

My phone is a Samsung Galaxy S2. I went from an iPhone to this Android model. No regrets. Android is more fun.

The tablet does most of what the phone does (both are Android), but the phone is primarily used as a phone when I’m in the house. It’s a jack of all trades and compares poorly with its larger competition. Out of the house we are inseparable.

The Galaxy S2 has a great camera. I take entirely too many shots with it, especially in the house. Doppler made me write that.

Finally there is the TV. It is a flat panel Vizio. It’s big compared to everything I owned before. There are much, much bigger today. Much!

The Vizio has the best picture of any screen I’ve ever owned, though I constantly complain about my cable company compressing and degrading what I see.

Few of us watch video close to what our screens are capable of delivering. Isn’t that a shame?

“Look at the names,” I asked Helaine while gazing at compression artifacts on a network TV show we were watching. It was driving me nuts. She didn’t see it at all! Cable TV would be in trouble if everyone watching was me.

Too many hours of the day the TV is used as an expensive nightlight, providing visual Muzak as life goes on around it.

If deprived of any individual screen I’d be very sad. Very.

Maybe Helaine’s right. Maybe I am obsessed.

Tales From Tech Support

Here’s my problem. It’s tough to describe that little spinning icon and the subsequent hang up. What’s the spinner’s name?

There’s a laptop on my office floor. It’s a sad laptop. One front panel LED is steady red. That indicates the battery is now there for weight alone! That’s not the real problem.

The computer fires up and operates fine for a while, maybe a few minutes or even an hour. Then it stops… but in a really odd way.

The spinning round Windows Vista icon that says “I’m working” appears on the screen. From that point forward the computer becomes unresponsive.

Here’s my problem. It’s tough to describe that little spinning icon and the subsequent hang up. What’s the spinner’s name? Without it it’s tough to find other people who’ve had this experience and figured out how to fix it!

The real secret of troubleshooting is feeding specifics into Google and going to school. Without a good description there’s no way to get a good answer.

My last resort is to reformat the drive and start from scratch. I can do that. I’d rather not.

Stef’s Laptop Problem Found – Not Solved

I can work with desktop machines, but laptops scare the hell out of me. The HP website says there might be as many as 72 screws on this and similar models.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Stef’s laptop and its spontaneous shutdowns. You were nice enough to make loads of suggestions. I think I now know the cause.

The problem was difficult to diagnose because it came fresh on the heels of a bad infection. The virus likely had nothing to do with the problem, but it added a little fog to what was going on.

Diagnosis: The CPU fan seems dead. Though there are programs which should read fan speed none of them seem to work for me. I don’t hear it whirring when it should. Isn’t that enough evidence?

In stressful situations when the CPU is under heavy load the core temperature quickly goes to 100&#176 Celsius (212&#176 Fahrenheit). I wasn’t going to let it get any hotter. The computer’s BIOS has thermal shutdown limits which is why it would turn powerless for no apparent reason.

With a few of the back panels off and a small room fan blasting the case I can keep the temperature under 80&#176 Celsius. It really should be well under 50&#176.

Unfortunately, opening the case and unsticking the fan (I’ll bet it’s jammed up with dog and/or cat hair) is beyond me. I can work with desktop machines, but laptops scare the hell out of me. The HP website says there might be as many as 72 screws on this and similar models.

I am weighing my options.