Saturday, April 26, 2014

Windows Phone 8.1 first impressions

Even though I told myself I wouldn't, I went ahead and did it. Did what, you ask? Went ahead and installed the Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview on my new Nokia Lumia Icon. I was hesitant at first, since it's basically an unsupported OS and Nokia needs to tweak it to work with their phone, but anyone who knows me well could probably have predicted that I would cave and risk bricking my phone for the allure of new technology.

I just installed it last night, so I haven't had too long to play with it, but I am already impressed. Even before the new release, I was a Windows Phone convert... the live tiles and overall polish of the OS really work well for me, plus the performance, even on mediocre hardware, is great. But I really think that the new release has put the Windows Phone OS up there with the big boys. Here are some of my first impressions of Windows Phone 8.1

My Start Screen

Look and Feel

The Windows Phone 8.1 update enhances the look of Windows Phone by allowing users to set a picture as a start screen background, and having transparent tiles. The image to the right is a screenshot of my current start screen (featuring an extremely good cosmopolitan). Not all apps support transparent tiles, but I've arranged my phone so the initial view of the start screen is mostly see-through. I really enjoy the added customization this allows, and can see myself regularly changing my background image to suit my mood or the time of year.

The start screen still operates as smoothly as it did under Windows Phone 8, which is great. There aren't any hiccoughs when you scroll, and the live tiles still update smoothly.

The addition of a "swype" style keyboard is also nice. My Samsung Stratosphere had one and I got used to it with Android, and the Windows Phone implementation works just as good as the Samsung version did.

Notifications

The addition of the Notification and Activity Center is wonderful. The number one thing I missed after switching to Windows Phone from Android was the ability to see all app notifications in one place, and now it is here. Users can even see notifications when the screen is locked, but there's an option to turn that off so people can't snoop.

Cortana

Probably the biggest thing to come to Windows Phone in this update is Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Siri and Google Now. Cortana has done well with everything I've thrown at it in the past day. I've asked how long it would take to get somewhere, texted people, gotten driving directions, and checked the weather (in both Fahrenheit and Celsius). I've also set a few place-specific reminders, but those won't trigger until Monday, so I'll see how that works then. All in all, I think that Cortana is definitely on par with the Apple and Google services.

Conclusion

I think that Windows Phone 8.1 brings the OS into the same league as Android and iPhone when it comes to the features available. It allows users to have as complete of an experience as they have come to expect from the older platforms, and provides a fresh, new interface style. It will also open the door for "unified"  apps which will allow developers to create devices for Windows PCs, Tablets, and Phones with a single code base. This should increase the number of apps available quickly for all platforms, and give users a unified experience.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Things I have on my list to post about

As I mentioned in my post about blog posts, I am trying to get back into updating my blog on a more regular basis. On that note, I have identified a few things that I want to blog about in the near future, and I'll list them here to (hopefully) inspire myself to follow up. Since I forgot to publish this earlier, I already have a post linked!  Yay for me!

We'll see exactly how well it works...
 anyway, here are the topics I am planning to touch on:
  1. Favorite Windows Phone apps
  2. Windows Phone 8.1
  3. Windows 8.1 Update (as opposed to Update to Windows 8.1)
  4. Windows Small Business Server 2011 Bare Metal Restore (oh the humanity!!)
  5. The Web programming I've been doing lately
  6. An update on Building a Box
I'll update this post with links to the posts as I write them.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Nokia Lumia Icon

As some of you know, I've been using a Windows Phone since early 2013. I had been planning on writing a review of Windows Phone 8 at some point, however, with the impending release of Windows Phone 8.1, I will hold off on that since the new OS is a major change and I'll have a lot more to write about.

Just last week, my HTC Windows Phone 8X decided it didn't want to charge any more. Full disclosure, it was my 3rd HTC 8X because I broke the first 2 (swimming and dropping). In general I liked the phone, however there were some quirky things that it would do. For example, due to a poorly designed SIM card tray, the phone would lose contact with the card and either shut off or not be able to make any calls until I restarted it. This was due to the tray deforming due to the placement under the power button and the plastic case of the phone. The simple fix was to "thicken" the SIM card with two pieces of tape, basically jamming it in the slot. So when the third one died, I decided it would be better to upgrade to a new phone.
My Start Screen

Enter the Lumia Icon. It's Verizon's top of the line Windows phone, and, according to many reviews, one of the best out there. It definitely lives up to the hype. It comes with 32 GB memory, a 5" AMOLED full-HD screen, a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor running at 2.2 GhZ, wireless charging, and a 20 megapixel (!) camera. The folks at WPCentral have written a nice, detailed review of the phone, so I am not going to go into a ton of detail here, but I am going to write about some of the things that I like about my new phone.

Restore process

First, I want to quickly mention the restore process. While this isn't phone-specific, it's something that Windows Phone does really well. When I first got the phone and turned it on, I was asked if I wanted to restore the phone, and presented with a number of options (dates of backups) to restore from. I selected the most recent one, and the phone started working. It downloaded and installed most of my apps (there were certain HTC apps that are not available for the Nokia phone, and a few apps that needed "attention" or wifi to download), my account settings (though I needed to put in my passwords once the settings were downloaded), my text messages, and my call history. Since my contacts are managed through Exchange Server, once I entered the password for that account the contacts synced as did my e-mail. The only thing it didn't do was set up the start screen by pinning the apps I had on the screen on my old phone. Basically, I had a fully functioning phone with all the apps, account settings, and features that were on my old phone within about 20 minutes.

The Phone

The Lumia Icon is a nice looking phone. It's square with slightly round corners, a slightly raised screen and a tapered back. The back is plastic, and the sides are aluminum (black on my phone, silver on the white version). The screen is a basic Windows Phone screen, with the three control buttons at the bottom (back, home, and search) and the phone buttons (power, volume, and camera) are on the right side. It's heavier than my HTC was, but not too heavy. The 5" screen allows for an extra column of tiles compared to the 4.3" screen of my HTC. This allows me to see more live tiles per screen, though the actual tile size is a bit smaller than on the other phone. One disappointment is the lack of an expansion slot, so I am stuck with the 32GB of memory. That isn't bad for me, though, as I hadn't filled my 16 GB on the Windows Phone 8x, but for some people it could be an issue.

I've had the phone for about a week now and I am enjoying the camera. The Nokia Pro Camera app has several advanced options, including the ability to manually focus, select the iso setting, and adjust white balance among other options. The picture quality is great though I should note that the format is a 5MP + 16 MP oversampling shot, which allows for sharing of lower-resolution pictures and the ability to zoom in to see the great detail provided by the 16MP shot. The only issue I have had is that sometimes it has trouble focusing when I am trying to get close to something to scan a QR code, but I am not sure if that is a camera issue or a software issue with the QR code scanner I use.

Call quality is decent - I haven't had any issues. I haven't noticed a real difference from my old phone, but that one had good call quality as well. Battery life is also decent. I can use the phone all day and not need to charge. On a typical work day, it has gone from 100% in the morning to about 30% at bedtime, which is something I can deal with, especially with the wireless charging - I'll keep a charging plate at work, and one at home, so all I have to do is set the phone down to charge.

The Apps

I am planning a blog post on my favorite Windows Phone apps, so I am not going to go into every app I like, but I do want to mention a couple of Nokia apps that come with the phone. First is Nokia Beamer. This app allows users to share their phone screen or the camera view with anyone. They either send a link via e-mail, SMS, or social media (Twitter) or, for local sharing, they can scan a QR code on a Web browser. Then, they can either shake the phone to share the current view (screen or camera), or can set the phone to "auto share" which updates periodically (basically whenever the image changes).

Nokia's map and driving directions apps (Here Maps and Here Drive) are also great additions to the phone.* They provide all the features of Google maps, including turn-by-turn directions with street names, Places (which includes a "street view" feature), etc. There is also a "my commute" feature where you can enter your daily commute location and it will let you know the estimated commute time when you are ready to leave. This last feature needs some improvement, as it is not as nice as Google Now's similar function, but it is nice to be able to glance at a live tile and see about how long it will take me to get home.

Conclusion

I'm happy with my choice of phone, and am enjoying the Windows Phone platform. The Nokia Lumia Icon is a great example of what Windows Phone can do and is a great piece of hardware. The lack of an expansion slot is a minus, but since there is 32GB of memory it's not a show-stopper. If you are looking for a new phone and either currently use Windows Phone or want to switch, I would recommend taking a look at the Lumia Icon.

Blog posts

I know that my posting schedule makes "once in a blue moon" seem like a NASCAR race, but I get busy with work and life in general and can't keep up. I'll get an idea and start an article, but by the time I finish it, the information will either no longer be relevant. Other times, I start something but don't get a full-fledged post out of it.

In any event, I am going to try to be a little more regular in my posting, perhaps even trying for the "once in a blue moon" standard rather than the current schedule.

Happy reading (if I ever do post anything...)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Seagate Central 2TB Network Attached Storage Review

I purchased the Seagate Central 2TB NAS a few months ago to use as a media storage/streaming hub for my home network as my main media PC was being difficult sharing over DLNA. It is doing well in that role, and I thought it was time for a review.

My household has a large number of devices on all platforms (PCs, iPad, Android, Windows RT, Windows Phone, Xbox, PS3) and, once it was set up, the devices all detected and were able to access the NAS. I did have a small issue when I first added it to the network - the first PC didn't connect until I went to the Seagate website and grabbed a piece of software (which is recommended in the setup instructions). Once I connected and set up the NAS, I applied a firmware update and subsequent PCs were able to connect without the software. None of the DLNA devices I used had an issue connecting.

By default, the NAS has a public folder with subfolders for music, photos, and videos that is accessible to all users that connect to the device. Users can create additional folders and add subfolders to the existing ones as well. These folders are accessed as a shared drive from a PC, and are also viewable on any DLNA device.

The Seagate Central works well as a media streaming device. We have had multiple devices streaming various media simultaneously without issues, although trying to stream multiple 1080p HD movies wirelessly sometimes does cause buffering issues, but I think that is due to the wireless router more than the NAS itself. One small point is that when I add new media, oftentimes it doesn't show up in the "by folder" view over DLNA until the unit rescans and updates its database (something that it does nightly). Those items will show up in the "by date" view.

The web interface is simple and allows for the creation of multiple users, so family members can have private folders for their items in addition to having access to the public folder. Other actions include forcing a rescan of the database, updating firmware, and turning on and off services (for example, I don't use iTunes so I was able to turn off that service. The interface also shows a log of recent admin activity, which helps with troubleshooting if there are multiple admins and someone changes a setting.

Seagate Dashboard 2.0 software works with the device and can allow PC users to automatically back up files and folders. I tried this out and didn't like the way the Seagate Dashboard software handled backups, so I do not use it, but it may work for others. It will also work with pretty much any other backup software that can write to network drives. In any event, I would not really recommend using this as a backup device because of the lack of RAID redundancy.

Transfer speed for uploading files varies depending on several factors. Generally, over wireless connections I can upload at about 2.5 - 3.5 MB/s, and I get closer to 12 MB/s when connected through my router's 100 mbps Ethernet connection. In general, a movie file of around 2 GB takes about 15 minutes to transfer. If you have large numbers of files to move (like when you first set up the device), I would recommend using Gigabit Ethernet. I have not been able to do this myself, but I have read other sources that say you get closer to 45 MB/s transfer rates that way. When I did my initial setup, I transferred my files overnight, which worked pretty well for my collection of about 800 GB of movies, pictures, and music files.

In conclusion, the Seagate Central 2TB NAS is a decent storage device for home use, and it does a very good job serving media to a variety of devices. I would not recommend it for business use as it does not have multiple drives in a RAID setup, and it is also a good idea to have a backup of the files kept on the NAS somewhere else in the event of a device failure.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Network Attached Storage (NAS) Comes Home

These days it is not uncommon for home networks to rival the business networks of 10 years ago. Rather than having the family computer that everyone has to share, people may have more than one desktop, a laptop or two, tablets, and smartphones. This  can make finding files hard... they are saved in local folders by default, so if you created, say, an address list for mail merges on your laptop, but then need to refer to it later while on your desktop, it is not available. How can you make this work better?

You could set up a machine to serve as a file server (using something like a Windows HomeGroup, or more basic NTFS or SMB shares) and use it as a repository for your files. This works well, but it can be complicated to set up and maintain, and the files may not be accessible to all your devices. Using a cloud-based service such as SkyDrive also works, but there is still an accessibility question and you can lose access to files if your Internet connection goes down. A better solution may be picking up a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device.

NAS Devices

A NAS device is basically an external hard drive that plugs into your network rather than your computer. It has a small OS and connects directly to the router or main network switch. They have become common for corporate networks over the last several years as they are an inexpensive way to add storage, and now they are starting to enter the home market. Home NAS devices typically have a set of generic shared folders and they allow users to create their own folders (either private or shared). Hard drive space varies, but they typically range from 1 - 4 TB.

Uses

Home users typically use NAS devices for three main things: file sharing, centralized backup, and media streaming. A NAS may also allow for remote access to data.

File sharing

By providing a large amount of storage space available to all computers on the network, NAS devices make a great file sharing solution. Directories on the NAS can be mapped to computers as a network drive, allowing immediate access to files stored on the device.

Centralized backup

Rather than having separate backup storage (such as USB external drives) for each computer on the network, or moving one drive between computers and tying it up while the systems backup, users can set their backup software to use the NAS as the destination.

Media streaming

Most consumer-grade NAS devices incorporate Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) servers that allow them to work with equipment such as game consoles, smart TVs, DVD/Blu-Ray players, and other home entertainment appliances. This allows users to keep all their photos, music, and video files in a central location that can be accessed from multiple devices at the same time, rather than either needing to make copies of the files on each device or physically move an external drive between machines.

Remote Access

Most NAS devices also allow remote access to data. They either use an outside service to provide a web interface, or have apps for tablets and smartphones that can access the device from any Internet connection. In some cases the apps would allow media to stream remotely as well, but the quality would be dependent on the Internet connection on both ends. Depending on the remote access solution, you may also be able to share files with friends or upload files from remote locations so they are available at home.

Conclusion

A NAS device is a great addition to some home networks, especially if there are multiple devices on the network or a large number of media files to share across more than one device. Their device-agnostic nature means that users have access to their media and/or data from any network-aware device with minimal issues. For example, my home network has 3 desktops, 1 web server, 5 laptops (3 in regular use), 2 tablets, 2 DLNA-aware game consoles, and 2 smartphones. We can get to our files and stream media from multiple rooms simultaneously, which makes the NAS a perfect addition to our computer ecosystem.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

OEMs Aren't Always Right...

OK, the title is obvious. Who hasn't grumbled at the default system settings on a new computer, or immediately uninstalled all the clutter placed on a system by the manufacturer? To me, it's another argument for building (or at least designing) your own systems. But I digress... on to the post.

The dumbest thing I have done in a while is trust that the company that sold a server knew what was best when they set it up. By doing so, I decided to not make any changes to the overall system configuration before passing the "point of no return," where I would have to reinstall the entire system to change things.

I was helping a friend set up a server for his small business. Initially, I was thinking about getting a Windows 2008 server and setting it up as a Domain Controller and file server. When we were looking at systems, Microcenter had a server with SBS 2011 and decent specs for less than their basic Windows 2008 server system, so we decided to go with that. I won't get into the relative merits of SBS vs. other server options here, other than to say that I think that SBS can be a decent choice for a small business depending on their needs. But SBS isn't the problem. The problem is that the people at Microcenter seemed to feel that using RAID 5 was the best configuration for the HDD. After using the system for the better part of a year, I beg to differ.

As per Wikipedia (and everywhere else, but that is where I grabbed the short definition from), RAID, or Redundant Array of Independent Disks, is a storage technology that combines multiple disk drive components into a logical unit. RAID has several different configurations, designated by numbers. At the most basic level (RAID 0), it means that you can have, say, two 500 GB disks and set it up so the system sees it as a single 1TB disk. RAID 1 would take those two disks and provide fault tolerance by setting them up so the system sees a single 500 GB disk, with the data being mirrored on both drives, so if one fails, the system keeps operating and nothing is lost.  RAID 5 requires at least 3 drives, and allows the system to see 2/3 of the space (or more, depending on number of drives) as a single entity while providing fault tolerance in the event of a single drive failure.

While RAID 5 sounds great on paper, in practice, it can be painfully slow. This is because writes can  require several operations to calculate the parity bits used for fault tolerance. For small writes, this can use significant amounts of disk activity, reducing system performance. In some instances, this is fine, but with SBS, this lag it can be really noticeable - especially when trying to do things like perform maintenance that involves a lot of writes to the disk.

So now I am stuck as the part-time IT guy for a company that has a server that performs OK for the mundane day-to-day stuff (DNS server, file server, etc.), but takes forever when I actually need to do maintenance. I should have done what I briefly thought about doing during setup  - pull one drive to keep as a replacement in case of failure, and set the other two up in a RAID 1 configuration. Instead I believed that the people at Microcenter knew what they were doing, and that the RAID 5 was the best. And I can't change it unless I want to rebuild the system or try to figure out the best way to clone, shrink, and restore partitions. Since the system works fine for day-to-day, instead I have decided to grin and bear it, with each maintenance period serving as a reminder to do my research and follow my instincts as I move forward.

Do you have any experiences where you trusted the OEM when you shouldn't have? Let me know in the comments.