Initial Thoughts on the HP G7 and the Toshiba Satellite P855

I found myself with a sudden need for new laptop last week.  Not something I was really looking forward too, as I had a perfectly fine Dell MP4500 in my grasp up until last Friday afternoon.

Initially I thought I might make do with the HP G7 – exactly the same machine I picked up for my mother last month.  17.3″ screen, AMD A6 processor, 4 meg of ram and a nice price tag at $429.00 on special at BestBuy.

I forgot that I’m not like other users.  I do development work and I hit my processor rather hard most of the time.  This isn’t simply a media delivery machine for me, it’s my livelihood. I have a need for speed, and it’s not just so I can dodge zombies in Call of Duty.

So as I started setting the machine up, I was beginning to notice software like Eclipse was REALLY slow.  It became apparent almost immediately that I wasn’t going to be able to live with it.  So I started doing research.  I knew I didn’t have a boatload of drachmas to sweeten the pot with.  I was really going to need 8mb of ram, and the fastest processor I could get.

That processor issue became the central point.  I was really interested in the new AMD A10 which the hardware sites were saying was almost as good as the Intel 3rd gen I7 processor.  Lenovo had a machine in the wild with the thing in it, but I couldn’t find one, and after a little searching I can back to the operative words in the hardware assessment: almost as good as an Intel 3rd Gen I7.

“Almost as good” is kissing your sister – its a euphemism for not good enough.  I started searching for the 3rd Gen I7 and found luckily it had just hit the market and BestBuy had a Toshiba P855 with the beast on sale right in my price range.

I had to give up on the big screen, which comes in handy for members of the bifocal set such as myself.  What I got for my money was an etched aluminum case that is seriously rugged, a nice Harmon Kardon audio system (they bill this thing as a media machine, so audio is de rigeur), and the memory/processor combination I needed.

I haven’t run any hardcore tests on it yet, but I can tell you Eclipse loads at least three times faster than it did on the Dell.

A few general observations:

  • Added bonus, and frankly the biggest surprise: no bloatware.  Not a bit, unless you include the Norton Anti-virus they preloaded, but really, they’ve got to provide some form of anti-virus. The HP would have taken me an hour to uninstall the bloatware – if I hadn’t out of the gate decided on a full clean install of Windows 7.
  • Chiclet keys – not as much of a problem as I was expecting.  I tend to bank the board hard and this was a huge concern.
  • HDMI output to an HD monitor rocks
  • The power brick gets hot.  REALLY hot…to the point that I will most likely replace it someday soon.
  • The machine itself doesn’t seem to throw that much heat.  The Dell was hot enough to make popcorn, and it pump the air out on the left side, which is where I keep my external mouse.  In the winter, nice and warm on the hand.  In the summer, not so much fun.
  • They ship it with the battery in – and the reviews I read attribute this to a number of battery failures in new machines. Seems like a rather foolish mistake.

The lowdown: if you need a media delivery machine, to handle some emails and maybe manage your checkbook, go with the HP G7 (and do a fresh install of Win7).  If you want kick ass processing power and a laptop case you can bang nails with, go with the Toshiba P855-S5200.

 

Home Printers – Box O’Nightmare

Over the time, we expect that technology will improve.  The general notion is that gadgets become cheaper, with richer feature sets, and finely tuned reliability as they mature.  We see this throughout tech, in computers, smartphones, tablets, etc.  Everywhere, except printers.  Let’s face it, home printing technology has become harder to use, less reliable and has generally been on a downward spiral since the invention of the ink jet printer.

Back in the 80’s, I could run thousands of sheets through my tractor feed dot matrix printer  (I think it was an Epson LQ 590 or similar) a day.  The thing might as well have had a hopper into which whole trees could be fed, it was that good at processing paper into printed material. Ribbons for the thing lasted forever,  but at $5-10 you could keep a few extras in your desk drawer, just in case.

Then in the 90’s the laser jet became the thing.  My experience with these was that you either got a good one or a bad one.  I had one I liked a lot, an HP Laserjet 5L, that was capable of printing large manuscripts without jamming, so long as I kept feeding it paper.  I bought the same model for a friend, and it was nothing but problems.

Now we’ve got a Lexmark Pro 205 wireless printer, which is mostly used for the kids homework, and it honestly couldn’t be a bigger piece of crap.  Literally, every time one of the kids needs to print a report, I end up spending a minimum of 2 hours doing tech support trying to get the damned thing to produce a handful of pages.  Fun stuff like:

  • The thing loses it’s ip, and doesn’t get a new one.  So you can’t connect to it via wireless.  Negating that whole “wireless printer” thing…
  • If you don’t use it for a couple weeks, you can count on a trip to the store to replace a cartridge.
  • If you need to replace one cartridge, you’re going to end up replacing them all.  You just don’t know it yet.
  • The cartridges cost something like $25 for the black one, and $50-70 total for the colored ones.  If you need them late at night, because SOMEONE didn’t tell you they needed to print a doc early in the evening, Walmart carries them.
  • I am now replacing cartridges monthly.  Or more…
  • It has an annoying habit of burning through print heads.
  • A bad print head will turn your daughter’s science experiment write up into a Jackson Pollock-like presentation, as if the printer barfed random colors all over the document.
The short version: my experiences with both this printer, and it’s predecessor, a Canon All In One Pixma, are that Ink Jets are seriously bad technology.  Neither one ever gave me even the slightest hint of reliability.  I have a failure rate when I hit the print button of nearly 95% and run through reams of paper, gallons of ink, and too many hours of my time to count before I can cajole either into producing an even slightly passable printed product.
The long and the short of this is that I’ve gone over to requesting my daughters email me anything that needs to be printed before 5pm everyday so I can print it on the office printer. Eventually, I’ll go over to Staples and buy myself a nice, new dot matrix printer.  Maybe there are still a few Epson LQ 590s around somewhere…

Taking Control of Your EVO 4G

Simple Tips for the Cyanogen Mod of the EVO 4G

The problem: My Evo 4g Android phone ran out of space constantly due to the limited “on phone” memory (428 mb total).  Most of this space was eaten up by apps my mobile carrier, Sprint, had added to the phone which couldn’t be moved to my SD card.  Things like “Sprint NFL”, “Sprint NASCAR” and “Sprint TV” as well as a host of apps like Blockbuster, which I’d never, ever use.

With Android, your apps need to first be loaded to the phone, before you can move them to the SD card, so I literally had tons of SD space, but couldn’t move anything there.  Over the past year, this became worse and worse, to the point where it was a real issue.

So, as suggested by David Churbuck and Alexei Vidmich, I decided it was time to root my Evo 4g and take back control.  I was shocked by how easy it was to do.

For Evo 4g users, there are full instructions here. Here are a few tips from my experience (it took about 30 minutes, then about another hour of customizing and installing the apps I wanted).

    • You probably want to disable your screen password and make sure you’re fully charged before you start.
    • I did a full backup with HTC Sync before starting.  I found I had to go to HTC and download the latest version to get it to recognize my phone.  The one on the phone didn’t work with Windows 7.
    • No matter what the doc says, assume you will lose your voicemails and sms messages.
    • First, create a new folder on you computer.  Call it “Cyanogen” or something.
    • In that folder, create a text document and call it “phone info”.  Save the file.  Use this to copy in your phone’s serial number, the hboot version, your revolution beta key, etc.
    • Since you’re going to be pulling your battery out, I suggest it’s a good time to upgrade to the Seido Extended Life Battery (this WILL make your phone much thicker…).
    • I also suggest using the Seido Innocase Extended Rugged Hybrid Case – aside from it’s “Eastern Bloc” style, the thing makes your phone basically bullet proof.  The iPhone crowd may laugh at you, but your phone is utterly protected and infinitely better than theirs are…
    • Instead of using Astro File Manager, use ES File Explorer.  It’s much better.
    • When downloading Revolutionary, be sure to download AND generate your key at the same time.  Otherwise, it won’t work.  If you mess up, you’ll get the infamous “invalid beta key” error.  If this happens, download it again and generate the key at the same time.
    • Definitely install the Google Apps at the same time.  You will need them.  After you have installed Cyanogen, you will need to use Google Voice for your voicemail.
    • In the instructions, there are three different recovery methods.  I used the Clockwork Mod method via Recovery.  It was simple.

Overall, the process is fairly simple.  If you can access the drive on your phone to download pictures and know how to unzip files on a computer, you can probably handle it without issue.  If you’re concerned, call your favorite geek and ask him to help.  Be sure to provide a 12 pack of his favorite barley pops, or perhaps dinner, to ensure future tech support service.

It is VERY important that you re-calibrate your battery.  To do this, go to the Android Market, and download Battery Calibration.  You will need to fully charge your battery, then use this plugin to delete the battery stats file on the phone and then fully discharge your phone and charge again to 100%.  While this seems like a fairly silly step, it is utterly crucial to getting the most out of your battery.

Okay, so now you have your phone rooted.  It looks pretty bland with the default theme, and no apps on it.

    • You can grab themes here that will work with the ADW Theme Launcher that is installed in your system manager.
    • I personally went with the MacOS theme, not because I like the MacOS, but because it was clean and most fit the idea of what I wanted.  Forget about the pink color…I use a background image anyways.
    • In system manager, turn off the animations.  They use up battery and I consider them distracting.
    • In either you own photo albums or on Google Images, find a nice horizontal image at high res you can use as a background.  The phone will scroll it across your screens…so a highwidth to height ration would be much better. I just like fly fishing at Monomoy…
    • Download and install the 3d Digital Weather Clock . Then install it’s widget on your main page.  4 columns by 2 rows is the proper setting.
    • Grab the Battery Indicator App, and the Green Power App (I have the free version, but am still testing battery management apps).
    • Install Elixir – it will give you an app that helps to see what’s really going on with your phone, but also provides a widget that will make it easy to turn on and off major services like Wireless, 4g, GPS, screen brightness (a big battery saver), etc. from your phone screen with a click.
    • Before you start pulling your apps onto your screens, think about how you organize them.  I like to put system stuff all together, information apps like news sites, magazines, etc., and then my social stuff all on screens together.  I also devote on page to work stuff, like my calendar, my Salesforce Chatter app, etc.  I anxiously await the soon to release Rally Agile Development app.

A few apps I strongly suggest

      • Dropbox  – it lets you move files from one machine to another via the cloud.
      • ES File Manager – A great way to manage files on your phone.
      • ES Task Manager – Manage what’s running on your phone.
      • Evernote – Files, pics, spreadsheets, everything on any machine.
      • WordPress for Android – unlike the iPhone app, this one really works well.
      • Currents – Yeah, I’m a fisherman and boater.  Why wouldn’t I want all the Eldridge Tide and Pilot content on my phone?
      • Navionics Marine & Lakes USA – same reason as above, why wouldn’t I want all the marine navigational charts for the US on my phone?  Honestly, this one is better on a tablet though.
      • Weatherbug – my favorite weather app, simple and easy to use.
      • BigOven – Recipes – I’m surprised how much I use this.
      • Google Translate – you may not need it, but if you do, it’s a life saver.
      • Google Goggles – lots of promise for visual search.  I haven’t really had cause to use it much, but this is the app to watch.
      • Google Maps – with this, you have no need of a traditional GPS for your car again.  Find anything and get directions, with turn by turn nav.

Social Media Apps (if you’re into it, you’ve already got your favorite apps, but here are mine):

      • Tweetdeck – The app I love to hate.  Nothing comes close, but it’s got some truly annoying issues.  Such as it’s need to load everything chronologically, esp. when I haven’t used it in a fewdays.  Why would I want to view 3 days worth of tweets?
      • Facebook for Android – a former weak sister of Facebook apps, but lately it’s become as good or better than the iPhone counterpart.
      • Foursquare – Enabling my cyberstalkers, one latte at a time…
      • Google + – Meh, a decent-ish app, but you absolutely must turn off auto-image upload, lest every picture you take end up in the clutches of Google.

Apps I haven’t yet installed but need:

      • A podcast player that works.  I’ve tried a few and been less than thrilled.  Suggestions welcome here.
      • Audible – I spend a lot of time in the truck and need to catch up on my reading.
      • Flickr, Picasa, or some decent cloud based image service.

Okay, let’s hear your suggestions in the comments.

 

Widgets – The Special Sauce for Android

Since January I’ve been rockin’ the HTC Evo 4g after being a long term iPhone user thanks to a ludicrous encounter with AT&T’s braindead customer service team.  In that time, I’ve found the Android experience to be a great one, and in many ways, it’s an improvement over the old iPhone.  I finally pinned down the primary reason the other day:  widgets.

You see widgets on the Android phone allow me to put the information I want to see right there on my phone’s display.  I don’t need to load an app to get at the info.  I can get a feed of what’s happening with my friends on Facebook, or from Twitter, or from all my social media.  Or perhaps I want to see, at a glance, what’s happening with the Red Sox.  My MLB At Bat app has a widget that lets me see the score of the game without loading the app.

That’s it: the information I want where I want it, vs. having to load an app to get at it.  Instead of looking like every other phone, my phone now has the information I want, where I want it, vs. having it locked up inside an app.  The information comes to me rather than me having to go and get it…

Strange that Apple hasn’t seen fit to provide this level of customization for it’s users…

The Forgotten 404 Page

There’s a page on your site that never gets any love.  You don’t really spend time thinking about it, your readers hate it when they see it and Google dings you for search if you don’t have it set up correctly.  The lowly 404 page…

Admit it, you probably don’t even know what yours looks like.  Why should you?  You setup everything right on the site, then no one should ever see it.

Wrong…no matter how well you run your site, someone will end up seeing your 404 page.  At that point, you can either give them a fighting chance to find what they want, or you can annoy them and send them running for the hinterlands, never to return.

Some serious 404 sins:

  • ‘We don’t need no 404’ – Redirect to another page on your site, but don’t tell the user it’s a 404.  Leave them wondering what the heck happened. This tells the customer you think you know better than they do.  Users love that…
  • ‘Show them the laundry’ – give them some error code and tell them to email it to the system adminstrator, who will promptly ignore it.  Nothing says ‘we’re clueless’ better than asking your users to forward 600 lines of “stack trace message” to the “admin”.
  • You have reached the end of the Internet‘ – give them a cute, funny error, but no other option.  They’ll laugh, while they’re typing in the url for your competitor.
  • Nah Nah Nah, you can’t find it‘ – Tell them the paqe they aren’t looking for isn’t there, and nothing else.  Give them no options and they’ll find one…that doesn’t involve you.

It gets better.  Google has serious issues with sites that implement their 404 pages incorrectly.  Here are their guidelines…

So what should your 404 page be?  Think of it as an intermediate stop for the wayward traveler.  You need to be there, with something warm and inviting to help them find their way.  Think of the it as the “Chamber of Commerce” page for your site.

  • Provide a clear message – “Sorry, the page you are looking for doesn’t exist.  Maybe we moved it…”
  • Provide a solution – “You might find what you need in our search engine, or possibly in the other links we’ve provided below.”
  • If all else fails, let them contact you – Perhaps I’m old school, but I believe their should always be an email address associated with a website.  If you’re really worried about getting spammed, have them send to you via a contact us form that has anti-spam measures in place.

WordPress gets it…their latest default theme has most of this built in.  Take a look at my 404 page, by going here.  It is the stock page, with the exception of the gremlin image I added courtesy of our friends at TheOatmeal.com.So what am I missing…what else would the perfect 404 page have?  You know where the comments form is…

WordPress Scalability

I know why I turn off many of the “tech experts” and “internet celebrities” – they’re wrong so often it makes my head spin.  Take Chris Pirillo today on Google + pitching Tiki as a CMS, as an alternative to WordPress or MediaWiki.

The statement as to why he doesn’t like WordPress was very plain: “it doesn’t scale”.

Bullshit on that I say!  It most certainly does scale and I’ve proven that over the years.  Geek.com alone used to withstand regular slashdottings, trips to the Digg homepage, etc.   The site regularly took massive traffic, although it was a long learning process to get there.

Here is what you need to know to make WordPress scale:

  • To truly scale on epic levels, you’ll need to have the ability to cluster webservers, cluster databases, etc.  Few sites really need that level of hardware, but some will.  If you do, you’ll need to drop your uploads on a common mounted drive, then use a CDN to distribute the images so you don’t really create a single point of failure.
  • You need to install and use the Super Cache plugin.
  • For massive sites, with lots of commenting, use HyperDB to separate your reads and writes.
  • Plugins: for the love of screaming monkeys, stick to only a handful of known, scalable, plugins.  Avoid anything that’s going to hit your DB every single time someone loads a page.  Also make sure the plugin obeys Super Cache.
  • Actually turn on Super Cache…really.
  • If you’re getting hammered by a traffic spike, turn on Super Cache lock down mode.
  • The real truth about WordPress scalability is this: most people don’t have hosting accounts that allow them to get traffic on this level.  Often the host will shut them down for bandwidth abuse, or simply throttle them, making it seem the system isn’t scaling.
So let’s review – scalability issue in WordPress come down to three things usually:
  • Issues with the host
  • Poor server setup
  • WordPress plugins
If you need more specifics, catch me on G+ or email me and I’ll be happy to help.

How to know your Web Designer Isn’t…

I’ve had the opportunity over the years to work with some real first class web designers. People like Mark Hentschel, Jill Cole and Bill Hall, just to name a few.  Unfortunately, there have also been a bunch on the other side who’ve billed themselves as web designers and weren’t…so here’s a list off the warning signs that you’re dealing with a web designer who isn’t a web designer.

  • The design arrives as a flat jpg image that looks like it’s covered in Vaseline.
  • Colors are specified using the Pantone chart.
  • Sizes are specified as Picas.
  • Better yet, there’s no sizes, font info, color info or anything.  They just keep saying “make it look like the picture.”
Every print designer in the world will tell you they can design for the web.  The truth is, the two are vastly different. I’ve vowed that I will never again accept a job where I have to work with a non-professional web designer.  Life is too short to play “swap the pixel” with a moron who’s learning on the job at my expense.
If you are a designer, and you want to get the best result, you should really consider providing at the very least:
Better yet, at this point, a web designer should really be able to deliver a fully functional html/javascript front end with css to which I can hook my stuff up to. That way you’re sure to get what you envisioned.
I swear, the next time I hear “maybe if we made the font a couple picas larger” I will go postal.

Thoughts on Google + After Limited Use

Okay, I’ve used Google + for a couple days now which makes me utterly qualified to render summary judgement on it.

I like it.  At least enough that I’ll keep using it for the short term.  I think it quite possibly will bridge the gaps between the public stream which I use Twitter for, meatspace friends who I keep on Facebook and the working world which I avoid on LinkedIn.  Here I can have them all and keep them segregated in circles, allowing me to keep the Tech Gurus from filling my steam with their daily flood of posts (looking at you, Om…) but still allowing me to essentially aggregate their stuff for casual reading later.

What I like:

  • Posts can be edited.  Wow, welcome to the 21st century…but this is one of those things Facebook sorely lacks.
  • Simple interface that given a little time anyone will be able to use.  Things are right where you would expect them to be.  Unlike on Facebook…
  • Sparks gives me an easy way to find content on topics I am interested in.  Totally lacking in Facebook, with it’s silos.
  • I can finally create a group for sports teams so I only send my stuff when I’m game tweeting to them.  That ought to please Matt B.
What I don’t like:
  • When G+ makes friend suggestions, it’s merely listing anyone I followed on Buzz or showing me anyone I ever emailed from my gmail account.  That’s lame.  I mean, suggesting I friend the complaint department at Sears?How about analyzing my circles and finding the commonality and making suggestions based on that?
  •  It’s yet another place to connect with the same people.  Time will tell if the real folks make it over.  I’m hoping they will.
  • I’d like to be able to change my default stream circle from all my friends to just my friends circle.  My tech circle will turn the stream into a cesspool if I let it…
Give it a try and let me know what you think.

WordPress 3.2 – Good, But Wait!

I’m really just posting to test that everything is working in WP 3.2 – I’ve just done the upgrade here as a test.  So far it’s looking good, but you should be aware this is a major level upgrade and also is the point at which WP leaves behind legacy support for older versions of PHP and MySQL – you should have:

  • PHP version 5.2.4 or greater
  • MySQL version 5.0 or greater
This upgrade means that not all hosts are ready (although, if your host isn’t supporting this level, you should change hosts).  It’s also a problem for some dependencies in plugins like FeedWordpress, Tweet This and Facebook Comments.  Fixes are available, but you’ll be cracking open a code editor if you want them right away.
Otherwise, lots of admin changes, promises of speedier performance (I see it…) and a new theme with all the features (I have it turned on, but will be constructing one of my own soon).  Full feature list here…and here is a summary:
  • Refreshed Administrative UI – Admin redesign
  • New Default Theme “Twenty Eleven” – Uses the latest Theme Features
  • Full Screen Editor – Distraction free writing experience
  • Extended Admin Bar – More useful links to control the site
My advice, as always, with this major level release is this: if you aren’t technical, have someone who is do the upgrade just in case.  If you are, do your backups and make sure you meet the minimum requirements for the upgrade.  In general, I suggest you wait a couple weeks and let the plugin makers get caught up, and let the bugs get sorted out by the community.

Thoughts on Completing a 15 Month Long Project

Team, it’s been a long project, it’s been a tough project. You’ve developed bravely, proudly for your company. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond, that exists only in engineering, among brothers. You’ve coded for long hours, debugged each others work in dire moments. You’ve seen error messages and suffered through full regression tests together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

Paraphrased from Band of Brothers

15 months upgrading from Php 4 and Mysql4 to the latest versions.  This was a project previous engineers had been tasked with.  Some ran screaming out of the building.  None seriously attempted it. For us it only happened because our Senior Architect Brian Kirsten was smart enough to know it was possible, and because I was too dumb to say “no way.”

The key to this upgrade was that we couldn’t just shut down and do the upgrade.  Our steady flow of enhancements, bug fixes and general day to day operational tasks had to be maintained.  In fact we were able to release several major projects while this was ongoing.

I could go through the details, but they’re way too “inside baseball” to be of interest.  Let me just say this:  my Ukranian development team, Irina, Andriy and Artem are absolutely the best.

Over the past month it’s been a lot of long hours.  Obviously that left no time for blogging.  Now that it’s wrapped up, you’ll see more.

As far as projects, I’ve still got a little clean up.  I realize some of you are waiting for my help on some stuff, and I can promise I’ll be catching up quickly.  For now, I rest.