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Solid State Hard Drives – It is time

I have been a big fan of Solid State Drives (SSD’s) for laptops ever since I saw one in action (yes even when they were expensive!). My first one was a 64 GB Samsung that turned up in a Dell laptop bought for a song on Grays Online. I was immediately impressed by the boot speed improvements and responsiveness of the system which made the relatively small storage capacity easy to live with. Now, I would not consider anything else for my own use. The lower power consumption, less heat generation, high shock resistance and no need to de-fragment all make them a compelling option.

SSD Experience Index
Solid State Drives may not be for everyone, users with a large media collection on their laptop for example, and they are more expensive but with recent leaps in technology making other components much faster, now the traditional hard drive has become the performance bottleneck for many systems, especially laptops. With SSD performance easily able to sustain 2-3 times the read and write speed of a traditional hard drive, the performance benefits are noticable. The Windows 7 experience index is generally around 5-5.9 for a traditional laptop drive, an SSD laptop drive will easily run up around 7.2-7.5 (see my laptop experience index on the right). While the actual relationship of performance to these numbers is a bit subjective, my experience with SSD upgrades is that it definitely feels 50% quicker at least.

My current preferred SSD is the OCZ Vertex range, either the SATA 2 Vertex II or the SATA 3 Vertex III. I only prefer these as they are readily available from one of my suppliers at good prices and they are fast and, so far, reliable. There are a couple of issues though. The main issue I have had is that the OCZ 2.5″ drives are slightly larger (a fraction of a millimetre but enough to be noticable) than a traditional drive which is strange. I have had some fitting issues in some laptops where the slightly larger width makes it a very snug fit, especially where there is a carrier screwed to the drive (2-3 yr old Lenovo T-Series laptops seem particularly difficult to get the OCZ SSD’s into). I have also had some compatibility issues with some brands and the newer SATA 3 Vertex III drives. An HP 6560b Probook for example just could not recognise the drive at all but had no problems with the SATA 2 Vertex II drive (they are supposed to be backwards compatible). Even a firmware update to the drive and a BIOS update to the laptop made no difference. The same drive worked without issue in my Dell Precision M4500 laptop so it can be a bit hit and miss at the moment. If in doubt, go with the SATA II option, they are pretty quick anyway!

Long term performance and reliability should be pretty good, the chip technology is good these days and always improving but as always, make sure you back up regularly regardless. I carry an external USB drive for bulk storage as my 128GB capacity is a bit light on, I also have a 32GB SD card (encrypted just in case it falls out and I lose it) permanently plugged into my laptop for a bit of extra space. 128GB does seem to be the pricing sweet spot at the moment but the 256GB and 512GB drives are getting cheaper as they become more popular and production increases.

I wont be going back to the old drives myself. You may not want the extra expense but it is definitely worth it in my opinion.

UPDATE: February 5th 2012
I have had a couple of client SSD’s fail recently, anecdotal evidence suggests that they may not be as reliable as we had hoped. The other downside is that when they fail, they fail, game over. It is relatively rare for a mechanical drive to fail without warning with no way of recovering any data. That said, I still use and recommend then. To me, the performance gains far outweigh the reliabilty issues. Make sure you have good regular backups and decide if you want the Toyota Corolla or the McLaren F1 racecar.

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Small and Silent, the Intel Atom

I recently decided to re-visit my Home Theatre PC system and my always on home PC. Recent electricity cost increases have made the $140 per quarter it costs to run my IT systems start to look a bit much. I decided to retire my main PC to more of an “as needed” role with an always on PC being ultra low power consumption. The plan was an Intel Atom D525 PC with 4GB RAM and a solid state hard drive running 24/7 along with my NAS. It was all fine in theory.

The system I built used an ASUS mini iTX motherboard with nVidia ION graphics. Only a handful of the iTX Atom motherboards supported dual digital screens, a non-negotiable requirement. It had a 4GB RAM limitation in the chipset but this was fine for my needs. Two 2GB SODIMM chips fitted in quite neatly and the ultra small Aywun case with external 65W PSU seemed pretty good. It supposedly could accommodate a single 2.5″ hard drive and a slim optical drive. The hard drive mount was fine but the slim optical drive was a tight fit and seemed to distort the drive slightly which made it either vibrate badly or not eject depending on its exact location.

With the system up and running, the meter attached to its power supply was indicating a power consumption of 27W which, based on current prices of $0.21/KWh, equates to around $13AU/quarter, not bad. It was also completely silent with no moving parts and all passive cooling.

UbuntuTake 1: After removing the slim optical drive and reverting to a USB one for the install, Ubuntu 11.04 desktop was installed. It installed and ran fine and could easily do most of what was asked of it until video playback. HD up to 720p was perfect but 1080p was jerky and not watchable.

Windows 7Take 2: After Ubuntu not being able to play 1080p, I decided to install Windows 7 instead so I could directly compare the Atom performance against my existing PC. I was not expecting it to play 1080p either and I was right. All other general use was fine although zipping or unzipping large files was, as expected due to a slow CPU, very slow. I was impressed by how fast the Windows shell was, general use was perfectly acceptable, probably due to the speed of the SSD.

I still was not happy due to the lack of 1080p which meant that my experiment could not form the basis of a Media Centre PC which I had hoped it would. I took a step back and decided to rebuild with a fan. I had a brand new model CPU, the bottom of the line Intel Pentium G620 and another iTX motherboard (also with dual digital video) and case from a cancelled order. The Aywun case was too small for the heat sink and fan so I used a slightly larger iTX case with an internal 150W power supply. Unfortunately this also means a power supply fan, a small one, and small fans are noisy. I simply swapped the hard drive across and thankfully it just worked so I didnt need a rebuild. Now I have a much faster (Windows experience CPU index 5.2 up from 3.5 for the atom) small PC, albeit a noisier one that will happily play 1080p. It draws slightly more power at around 32W at rest and the components were actually marginally cheaper than the Atom (full size DIMM RAM chips are faster as well as cheaper too). Graphics performance is actually a bit worse (based on the Windows experience index), the nVidia ION has more grunt than the Intel HD graphics chipset. This is not an issue given that it is not for gaming and video playback is more CPU dependent. The next step will be to remove the tiny power supply fan and try to mount and duct a larger quieter fan instead. Perhaps I can lose the CPU fan as well and simply vent the entire case with a top mounted 120mm Noctua silent fan, it should move more than enough air and be much quieter. Maybe then it will compare to the Mac Mini….but then again, maybe not. The larger case can take a low profile PCIe TV Tuner card though.

Now my home office draws around 130-180W (with screens on) for the NAS, switch, DSL modem, VOIP box, PC and fish tank (yes its on my office UPS) down from the 250-300W it was drawing previously. This is saving around $60/quarter in electricity. Break even will be in less than a year. I get all my equipment wholesale and can claim it as a deduction but can only claim 10% of the home power bill as a business expense. The only other downside is that I now may need heating in the office in winter….

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iPad, what is it good for?

By now, if you dont know what an iPad is, you have been living under a rock. If you are thinking of getting one or you already have one, you may still be wondering what it is good for and why you should or should not buy one.

Please note this is my experience with an iPad 1. Since writing this, the iPad 2 is out, marginally thinner and lighter with a (not great) camera, it is also a bit faster with dual core processor but functionality is pretty much the same.

Here is my take on it after 4 months with an iPad. It has a place, but exactly what that place is is still a bit of a mystery. If you have a specific use in mind, it may be exactly what you need but if you dont have a use in mind, you may struggle to use it as anything but an expensive toy. There are plenty of other technical and non-technical iPad reviews out there, read around. Go to an Apple store and play with one but dont believe everything the “Genius’s” tell you. I started with IOS 3 but now have the latest IOS 4.3

iPad Good bits:

  • It is very quick to start, you can be online or reading email with your ipad in a fraction of the time of waiting for a desktop or laptop to start.
  • Long battery life (days instead of hours)
  • Quite well built, it is pretty robust and sturdy.
  • Out of the box, its email and internet is pretty good and ready to go.
  • Convenient easy email via 3G from pretty much anywhere
  • Built in GPS (on 3G model) *
  • My 3 year old can use it (perhaps not always a good thing).
  • On screen keyboard is very good

iPad not so good bits:

  • You need iTunes to do anything with it.
  • You need to buy a lot to make it even remotely useful, there is precious little good free software.
  • *Built in GPS not as accurate and reliable as I had hoped (when I needed it to be, ie I was relaying coordinates to marine rescue to come and get us after breaking down in a boat and it put us 1 nautical mile away from our actual position). It seems better on land with more mobile phone towers available to assist the satellites
  • The aluminium casing scratches incredibly easily (invisible shield a necessity, not a luxury), especially when it gets turned on a table with something hard like a salt or sugar crystal underneath.
  • It gets covered in fingerprints (again, get an Invisible Shield)
  • It is heavy (ok 730 grams is not particularly heavy but its weight means it is not useful for some things you would expect it to be good for)

Email: Email on the iPad is good and if you are looking for an email device with a decent screen, an iPad should be high on your list of suitable devices. Adding 3G means it goes anywhere and while it is not as small and convenient as a phone, it is not massive and will slip into bags and backpacks easily. Functionality is pretty much the same as an iPhone and integration with POP, IMAP, MS Exchange or GMail is simple and reliable.

Web: Web on the iPad is pretty good. I dont miss the lack of Flash, I hate Flash websites anyway. It is quick and easy, useful in the car when trying to find a phone number or address at the lights and there are rarely any compromises with the touch screen.

eBook reader: The iPad basically sucks for this. There are plenty of free books available and the usability is fine but the screen is not great to read on and your eyes get tired. The glossy screen reflects too much light and it is just too heavy. After holding it like a book for a while, your wrists and fingers ache.

Movie player: Out of the box, the iPad sucks for this too. Unless it is in iTunes, it doesnt play anything. I dont have anything in iTunes. VLC is available for free for the iPad but after a recent update it is too unstable to use (locks up every 5-10 mins). I bought CineXPlayer and have been pretty happy with it, it plays pretty much anything and is good for offline viewing. Unfortunately the only way to transfer files to it is via iTunes. I have since found a few limitations with CineXPlayer and have also installed “Azul” to play media that CineXPlayer can’t play (especially when playing HD). For media at home, I bought the Plex app for iPad which streams any content from my Mac mini Home Theatre PC (HTPC) over the wireless, and it does it very well. The Plex app can control the HTPC and any media played on the iPad can be transferred to the TV while playing. A Touchpad remote app allows me to control the Mac Mini as well although a lack of screen sharing makes it a bit less useful. The weight is also an issue, try holding it for two hours to watch a movie. The screen rotation lock is also no longer a physical switch, double click the button to find it. Needed for reading or watching movies in bed or it goes all over the place.

Business Software: The “Genius” at the Apple store told me that “Numbers” was the spreadsheet app required and that it was fully compatible with MS Excel spreadsheets. Rubbish, Numbers is basically useless unless you want to view simple one page spreadsheets. “Pages” is marginally better as a document editor but dont think you can ditch the laptop and use these apps, you just can’t. VPN connectivity is not great, especially with newer SSL VPN connectivity (could not get the Junos Pulse VPN client to work), there are some reasonably functional Remote Desktop clients available (I use one from Wyse) but they are no replacement for a laptop. Printing support is limited to 6 HP printers with “airPrint”. I experimented with a number of WebDAV clients to improve access to file shares with some success but the success was largely one way, I could open some things but trying to save them back to the network was painful. The best app for getting remote documents is the Dropbox iPad app which is how I now get pdf’s onto my iPad from my Windows laptop (without iTunes). The MS Powerpoint functionality is also poor, you may struggle to use it as a presentation device.

Games: the iPad is very good for games, there are lots around, some good, some not so good. The kids love it, and some of the games are very addictive, dont install “Angry Birds” unless you have plenty of spare time. There are lots of educational games available as well and many easy to use online games that are also good.

Photo’s: It is nice to show photos but they have to be sync’ed with iTunes and if you have large amounts, they may need a bit of work to be sorted in some form of usable navigation.

Overall, if you have some spare cash and want a nice toy, go for it. If you want it as a business tool and think it will replace your laptop, it wont. Get a netbook instead if you need light portability. There are definitely some good uses for it (all of which have custom development required) such as restaurant menus but these are neither free nor cheap. Personally I am looking forward to the Android Honeycomb tablets getting a foot in the door, lets see what the developers can do with an open platform. Not sure if I will buy one though, I dont really “need” a pure tablet form factor and really dont need two of them (although it would stop the kids fighting over one device….)

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Business I.T. for a small startup .

If you want to start up a home based small business or work from home, you may be wondering what IT you need to get going and how far you need to go.

What does your business need to work?

1: internet
2: computer
3: telephony
4: Printing

What do you need to make it work?

1: Network
2: Electricity

What do you need to keep working?

1: Backups.

This may not apply completely to you but for me (and many other people I know in small business), this is what you need, both at home and out on the road. You may have some other requirements as well but these few things will cover most of your needs.

There are many ways to get these things, many options based on needs, location and resources. If you think about them before signing up to anything, you will be better off in the long run.

This is what I have for my business. I can (and do) work from home (home office, kitchen, living room etc), from my car, from other people’s offices and even from a boat while fishing (if I am really lucky).

Internet: A good internet connection is vital in this day and age, especially for an IT consultant. At home I have an ADSL 2+ connection with Annex M (faster upload speed) and about 14mbps of bandwidth. I have a static IP address on the internet so I can always get back into my home PC from outside. There are advantages to having a static IP as well as disadvantages, most users wont need one. When on the road, I have a 3G SIM card built into my laptop for internet access from anywhere with mobile coverage as well as a 3G USB stick with a different carrier as a backup (I can also use my mobile phone as a modem via bluetooth if required). I dont recommend using 3G cards all the time, if you need internet at home, a permanent ADSL or cable connection will be much cheaper, faster and more reliable. If you want service, support and the best stability, sign up for a business plan (usually a bit more expensive), business support tends to be much better. Run your email in the cloud, eg start with free Gmail and use the free 2GB version of Dropbox as a centralised repository for files.

Computer: Get whatever you need, laptops are portable but less upgradable, fixable and powerful. I have a desktop at home that is permanently on as well as a laptop that is my primary workstation. If you are at a desk a lot, get a docking station for your laptop and get a large screen to go with it, even two if you have the space (dual screens is great), and full size keyboard and mouse. Dont cramp yourself in close to a laptop if you dont need to. Business grade laptops will have docking station options, consumer grade laptops dont. If you are using it for business (ie long periods of time), get a business grade laptop (eg HP Probook/Elitebook, Dell Latitude, Lenovo T Series etc), they have better warranties and are designed to run for long periods without overheating. Mac laptops do not have docking stations available.

Telephony: Obviously start with a mobile phone, get one that does email well (proper smartphone). If you use it a lot, either get a car charger for it and/or carry a second battery. A heavily utilised smartphone can struggle to make it through a day on a charge. Get yourself a bluetooth headset for use in the car or while at a computer. I have a Nokia E72 with a BlueAnt headset which both work very well. When at my desk, I have a standard desk phone to make calls on rather than use my mobile. I dont recommend getting extra phone lines, just get a VoIP service and handset and plug it into your internet connection. I am paying around $200/yr for two VoIP lines and two numbers with 100 untimed calls to fixed lines and 100 minutes of calls to mobiles per month. Any voicemails to my VoIP landlines are forwarded to me via email (and received on my mobile phone).

Printing: Some people need printing more than others. Dont waste time and money on inkjets for business use, get a cheap black and white laser printer. I got mine on Graysonline for about $50 and 3×8000 page toner cartridges for about $100 and 3 drum cartridges for $60. Enough for my printing needs for well over 12 months.

Network: Spend a little bit extra and get a Gigabit network. A small network may just be an ADSL router with 4 network ports. This is all you need to get going, they come with wireless as well. If you use wireless, make sure you set the security up. Gigabit is very fast and will make all the difference if you have a network attached storage device (NAS) for backups.

Electricity: Get a UPS to protect your IT investment and also to keep you able to work if the power goes out (for a while). The more you need to run the bigger the UPS needs to be, I have a 1500VA UPS tht can run my desktop, phones, internet and network for nearly two hours.

Backups: You cannot have too much. I operate my business files and email in the cloud but regularly backup copies locally. All local file are backed up to a NAS regularly and anything on the NAS only (it serves media to my Home Theatre PC as well) is backed up to a dedicated 2000GB drive in my desktop. Vital items such as photos of the kids are regularly burn to DVD as well as having a copy on a portable hard drive that stays with me when I am out on the road. Important sensitive or personal information on portable media should be encrypted with TrueCrypt.

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