Archive for December, 2007

W, X, Y, and …?

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

This is a fake “laptop” that was received as a gift for a friend of ours.  Watch how it says the ABCs:

What letter is Zed?

Just think of what this is teaching our children.  You can even hear Craig in the background saying his own “Zed” in response. I love it! :)

Firefox… that’s like a browser or something?

Monday, December 17th, 2007

In the spirit of trying something new, I’ve decided to see what all the hubbub is with this new fangled browser.  Yes, I’m probably the last person on earth that hasn’t installed Firefox (at least out of all my friends).  I usually hesistate installing something new on my machine unless there’s a clear benefit of better productivity.  Here’s why:

- Every program that’s installed on the OS adds to the “cruft.”  This is every little piece of data that’s added to the system that contributes to overall system slowdown.  Paranoid?  Yes.  I keep my systems pretty vanilla…  Usually not even setting a wallpaper, or changing the system colors.

- I typically don’t replace something that’s already built-in to the OS unless there’s a clear reason to do so.  I replace Explorer with Total Commander because Explorer is impossible to navigate with a keyboard (however, I knew someone who did, and it was impressive to see him work).  I replace the default image viewer with Vueprint because I like hitting space bar to view the next image in a directory.  I replace MSN Messenger with Trillian because I only want to use one IM client for all of my contacts.  You get the idea.

- I want a consistent OS experience.   I work on several machines both at home and work.  I want the same browsing experience on each machine.  This would require me to install Firefox on each machine I come in contact with.  Raymond describes the problem here.  Requiring third party components every time you get on a new machine isn’t good.  Not that you’re likely to hear “First install Firefox, then go to this site.”  However, I had that exact experience not too long ago on a beta site I was looking at.

———-

Of course the big feature touted by Firefox everyone immediately mentions is  “TABS!  You just gotta have tabs!”   Unfortunately, as a die-hard keyboarder, tabs just doesn’t work.  Coding Horror explains this much better than I could (The Problem With Tabbed Interfaces).  It essentially boils down to this:  When task switching, I keep the Alt-Tab stack order in my head (order of most recently used).  This way, I know that the last app I used is one Alt-Tab away, and the 2nd to last app is two Alt-Tabs.  When using browser tabs, I now have to maintain multiple stacks in my head.  Most recently used apps, plus most recently use tabs in each opened browser window.  If I’m in Outlook, and I want to switch to my blog, which is buried 3 tabs in, on the 2nd browser window, how do I remember that?  I just have to hunt around for it with the mouse.  Boo. 

So, I can live without tabs. 

Other than that, the other Firefox features don’t really give enough reason to switch.  Faster browsing?  Maybe…  More secure?  Well, it might keep my WoW password more safe, that would be nice.  It’s not a Microsoft app!  Sorry, but I don’t wear a tin foil hat.

Actually, the main reason I decided to try Firefox was rather simple.  I’m a big fan of Homestar Runner.  However, when your screen resolution is 2560×1600, those little flash windows makes it very hard to see.  So I was googling around, and lo and behold, I found a plugin that makes the Homestar Runner cartoons as large as the browser!  However, the plugin is for… Firefox.

So, off I went to install it.  (the plugin worked great btw!)

———–

Here are my thoughts so far, after about a week using it off and on.

My first criteria I judged it on was screen real estate.  How much space do all of those buttons take up.  I’m a real stickler for wasted screen real estate.  Yes my combined resolution is about 4100×1600, but I still obsess over wasted toolbar space.

browser-review-firefox.jpg

Firefox doesn’t dissappoint.  Let’s look at some screen shots.  Here you’ll see my current IE6 browser setup next to my Firefox setup.  Actually, the Firefox bar is a tad smaller than IE6.  Bonus!

While we’re at it, let’s compare both IE7 and Firefox 3 beta as well:

browser-review-firefox-ie7.jpg

IE7 is hideous!  There is no way to get that toolbar any smaller.  Why can’t you embed the address bar into one of the other bars?  The wasted space is mind boggling, especially when maximizing the window on my 30″ monitor.  Sigh.   On the other hand, Firefox 3 is able to squeeze an even smaller footprint.  Yay!   I can’t for the life of me figure out what the designers of IE7 were thinking.

———–

I was afraid that Firefox would throw convention out the window and introduce all new keyboard shortcuts for browsing.  So far, I am happy that all the shortcuts I have been using work just like IE.  Ctrl-D, Alt-Left, Alt-Right, Ctrl-F.  Incremental Ctrl-F is nice.

In terms of rendering speed, I noticed that Firefox doesn’t exactly render any faster, but it feels different.  I think Firefox does a better job of multithreading the rendering so that the text displays first, and the images come in afterward, bit by bit as they download (just like the good old days).  Lately, in IE, most pages seem to pause for a second while the entire page downloads and then displays all at once (cnn.com, for example).  The incremental display is a better user experience.

Also, plugins were a breeze to deal with.  Download and copy it to the right folder, Firefox finds it right away and asks you to install it.  Neat.  Go to a site that requires flash, click the window and the flash plugin page displays and lets you install it.   It just seems more complex with IE.

———–

So, now that the good stuff is out of the way… let’s start nit-picking.  After all, I don’t really want to switch, so I’m trying to find everything wrong with it as I possibly can.  (Actually, I noticed these things right away, and boy do they bug):

- Toolbar buttons.  I think every menu option should have a icon for it.  This isn’t the case with Firefox.  Firefox is missing a Print Preview button and a Font Size button.  These two options I use frequently in IE.  Fortunately, I guess other people do as well, because there are two plugins that offer this capability.  On the one hand, it’s nice that Firefox is extensible, and people are willing to extend it.  On the other hand, I feel this is functionality that should have been added out-of-the-box.

- Scroll speed.  Take the same page in IE and Firefox.  Scroll down the same amount with either the mouse scroll wheel or the arrow keys.  The Firefox page scrolls about half as much as IE.  I much prefer a faster scroll speed.  However, I would prefer them to be consistent.  Why the difference?

- In IE, click the URL in the adrress bar.  Then click and drag in the middle of the URL to select half of the URL.  Notice how you can select part of the text?   Try the same thing in Firefox.  For some reason, it thinks you want to drag the icon somewhere.  In order to select that text, you have to move the pointer out of the address bar, then back in.  Then it will let you select text.  Why build in different behavior from the default Windows text box?  This is the danger of Non-native UI

———–

Well, that’s my Firefox story.  I’m almost convinced.  Actually, if IE7 becomes mandatory (as it is on Vista), then I think the decision has already been made.  When it comes to wasted screen real estate, that usually trumps every other reason.

More Maps

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

I’ve mentioned my addiction to Google Maps before.  Recently, they’ve added 2 new features that are pretty neat.

First, in major downtown cities (for example San Francisco and Los Angeles), they’ve added 3D outlines of the buildings in the area.  It’s really quite neat, and offers a great way to orient yourself with landmarks when the satellite view offers sometimes too much info.

Second is the Terrain view.  I’ve wanted a topographical map for a while, and this one looks pretty sharp.

Love it!

Getting a real File Server

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

I just purchased a file server.  Before I get into the specs, this is why I purchased it.

  • I wanted a backup solution.  Taking a cue from Scott Hanselman (here and more recently here), I needed a Family Backup Strategy.  I really hate the idea of all of my personal information stored on a single hard drive that can fail at any time.  I’ve heard too many horror stories.  This backup server will be in addition to an off-site backup of my most important data (via Mozy).
  • I wanted a central media server.  I’m playing around with Vista Media Center, and I really like it.  It’s every bit as good as Tivo, plus the flexibility of a full PC.  However, it’s currently limited to a single machine.  This is especially bad when I Tivo a show in the bedroom, but want to watch it in the living room.  I want a central server that contains all of my media, and have satellite clients spread throughout the house that can access that content.
  • I wanted more hard drive space.  Nobody can have enough hard drive space.   Pictures, home movies, games, downloads …  it all adds up!  Plus, I wanted it in a centralized location so that everything can be accessed from one machine.

——–

I had a few options to weigh before purchase time.  The most important option had to do with the case:

  • My initial thought was to go whole-hog and buy the rackmount case w/ redundant power supplies (for example here).  This is the ultimate piece-of-mind, both in terms of redundancy, and scalability.  Even if the power supply dies (which usually is the first to go), the second power supply will keep it going.  And with that many drive bays, it can handle upgrading whenever the need arises.
  • I also considered the Dell approach.  Dell’s servers are way too expensive, and their desktop cases don’t have room for a RAID storage solution.  But I did vow to myself that I would never build a PC ever again.  It’s always easier to just get a Dell.
  • My final choice was a regular PC case and build it from scratch.  I had to find a case that had enough drive bays, and not frustrate me completely when it came down to building it  (poorly designed cases usually makes building a PC the worst chore).

I choose building the PC from scratch.  I did this for two reasons.  The server will have to live in our bedroom for some time while I figure out how to make a server closet.  So a relatively quiet PC is preferred.  This rules out the rackmount.  Also, I’d prefer to keep the price down as much as possible.  I definitely don’t want to go cheap since reliability is my #1 concern, however the rackmount prices were starting to get excessive.

——–

How much storage should I buy?

This was an interesting excersize.  How do you balance the price versus how many terabytes do you need?  Notice I say the word “need”.  If it was how much I “want,” that’s a completely different question!  Probably the most important thing to note, is that with a RAID 5 setup, 6 x 500gb drives is both cheaper and offers more storage than 4 x 750gb drives (~$720 vs ~$850, Raid Calculator).  The trade off here is more physical drives equals more noise and more chance for failure.  And at the time of this writing, 1tb drives are just now appearing, and priced way above normal.

——–

Requirements

These were my own requirements for the file server that I created:

  • Intel quad core
  • Gigabit ethernet
  • Dedicated RAID 5 card (no motherboard solutions)
  • At least 4 drives
  • Seperate boot drive

——–

Purchasing

I took a lot of ideas from Jeff Atwood’s series where he custom built Scott Hanselman’s PC.  This post has links to the entire series.  In fact, I really liked the case he chose.  It offered both relatively quiet operation, plus room for all the hard drives I wanted to put in it.  In fact, the main hard drive bay contained room for 4 drives in a little pull out cage.  So everything’s nice and together.  Neat!

For the RAID, I’m fond of 3Ware’s cards, and since the case can hold 4 drives (plus boot), I’m going with the 9650SE-4LPML.  I’ve heard too many horror stories about motherboard or software raid, etc.  I want reliability, and from what I can tell these cards are the ones to get.

——–

Here’s the entire parts list:

  • (amazon) Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 quad-core
  • (newegg) EVGA 122-CK-NF63-TR LGA 775 NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI ATX Intel Motherboard
  • (newegg) Crucial Ballistix 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400)
  • (newegg) BIOSTAR V8402GL26 GeForce 8400GS 256MB
  • (newegg) Antec P182 Gun Metal Black 0.8mm cold rolled steel ATX Mid Tower Computer Case
  • (newegg) Antec True Power Trio TP3-550 ATX12V 550W Power Supply
  • (newegg) Sony NEC Optiarc 18X DVD±R DVD Burner
  • (newegg) Western Digital Raptor WD360ADFD 36GB 10,000 RPM
  • (amazon) 3WARE Pci-e Sataraid  9650SE-4LPML
  • (amazon) 4  x  Seagate Barracuda ST3750640AS 750GB 7200 RPM

——–

Putting it together was fairly easy.  Granted, it’s been years since I actually built my own PC.  Coding Horror’s step-by-step pictures were a lot of help.  It’s always nice to have someone show you how to do it, rather than blazing a trail yourself.  The typical stuff was always a pain …  installing the CPU heatsink, cable lengths that are almost too short, hooking up all the LEDs and USB headers to the motherboard, trying not to lose any motherboard screws underneath the motherboard, etc.  And all without accidently short circuiting or breaking off anything.

——–

Looking back at the purchase, I have a tinge of buyer’s remorse.  In the end, I got a really fast PC, with about 2.5tb of storage for about $2000+.   What’s the alternative here?  Well, the obvious thing is an external hard drive.   Yes, there are 2TB external hard drives available (essentially 2 x 1TB drives mashed together).  But, I wouldn’t trust this solution as a primary back up solution.  The drives themselves are just as reliable as the desktop counterparts.  However, I worry about the cheap controllers and connectors they attach too.  If that connector breaks, access to your data is no longer possible, even if the drive itself is working just fine.

But what about other solutions?  After buying the machine, I was wondering about buying *2* external hard drives.  2 x 2tb external hard drives is still cheaper than the machine I bought.  Wouldn’t the reliability concerns be moot, considering that the data is being copied to both external drives?  I suppose that I wouldn’t get anywhere near the performance throughput out of those external drives, plus I would still need a machine to plug them in to.  But I suppose it is a valid alternative, and probably one I should have considered.

Oh well, I can enjoy my server now.  Now, I just have to find a place to put it!