SlingBox

Welcome Vista x64

Send to Kindle

I wrote quite a while ago that I had ordered two new laptops for Lois and me, with Vista x64 on them. They took a lot longer to arrive than anyone thought (including the vendor, PowerNotebooks), due to delays in getting the LCD’s from China.

Because of all of the delays, I had to keep updating my shipping address (we’re nomads). Unfortunately, while I communicated the correct address by the time the machine actually shipped, due to human error (which originated at the vendor, but then was replicated at UPS), they shipped to the apartment, even though we were at the house. They arrived at the apartment at 7:45pm last Thursday. Once I verified with the doorman that they were there, Lois and I drove the 2-hour round-trip in the rain to bring them back to the house.

I didn’t boot mine until the morning, knowing that if I turned it on at 10pm, I would have stayed up all night. 😉

I wanted to blog about my first impressions on Saturday, but I’ve been wildly busy (largely with the new toys, but with a number of other things as well) that by now, it’s no longer fair to call it a first impression, since I’ve been using the machine full time for five days now.

First the bottom line, for those who don’t care about details (and are annoyed to have read through the intro already!): I love Windows Vista x64, and I love this particular laptop even more!

OK, on to the details, for those who care.

First, the machine, because it’s the most awesome laptop I’ve ever used. There’s only one thing I am not crazy about on it, and I’ll definitely get used to it (thankfully, I always do!).

Here’s a link to the base model of my machine. I upgraded a number of the features, notably:

4GB low-latency RAM
1920×1200 screen res
Intel P9500 low wattage CPU
4GB Turbo Memory
320GB SATA 7200RPM Disk
Windows Vista Ultimate 64 bit

Most of my friends have Macs, and they swear by them. I made a career on Wall Street deploying NeXT machines, so I full well understand the power of the Mac. There are many reasons why I haven’t been tempted to buy one, but near the top of the list is the fact that you are locked in to their hardware, and you pay a premium for the privilege, in every respect!

This machine is customized and tuned to my exact needs. And even with the above tweaks, it’s cheaper than a high-end MacBook Pro (yes, yes, I know that they look cooler, ooh…).

This machine is a screamer. I simply can’t believe how fast things load, and how fast they run. One example (of many!) is iTunes. On my pretty damn fast Windows XP machine (it had a Desktop Pentium IV running at 3.4GHz!) iTunes took forever to load before even showing the Loading Library message. On this laptop, you better not blink. You never see the Loading Library message, as iTunes is already open a second after you double click the icon. Wow.

But, the additional 4GB of Turbo Memory (the equivalent of built-in Windows Boost) is amazing. I recently wrote about my new favorite program, Digsby. While Digsby runs fast enough (even on the old machine), it actually loads quite slowly. While acceptable on the new machine, it was one of the few apps that wasn’t screaming. I config’ed it to run from the Turbo Memory, and it’s now a screamer too. Other programs that ran nearly instananeously anyway, are now truly instantaneous. Awesome!

One final word on the machine, it’s cool! No, I don’t mean cool, as in design cool like a Mac. I mean it runs cool. After it’s on for 12 straight hours, you can touch the bottom of the machine, and it’s not even warm! Practically every laptop I’ve touched in the past five years (this wasn’t the case 10 years ago!) runs hotter than an oven. You can’t put them on your lap, ever. This one feels like it wasn’t even turned on.

There are two reason why I chose the low-wattage version of the Intel CPU (25 Watts instead of 35). The first was so that it wouldn’t run so hot (man, this was a bigger win than I expected). The second is related, and that is that if it doesn’t run so hot, it would be quieter (Lois’ last machine was louder than a Jet Engine!), because the fans wouldn’t have to work overtime. This machine is whisper quiet, all day, every day!

Now the one thing I don’t like about the machine. The keyboard layout is different enough from my last machine that I keep having to look to hit certain keys (notably, the arrow keys, which are too tightly placed, and the delete key). Also, while there is a full-size shift key on the left, the right hand shift key is chiclet-sized. The enter key is a little small too. The tactile feel is OK, but pressing keys makes a louder noise than I care for, making me self-conscious when I type while Lois is asleep (happens more often than you’d think). I always get used to new keyboards, so this too shall pass, but at the moment, it’s the only annoyance I have with the machine…

I agonized for months about which OS to run on my (eventual) new laptop. I really wanted it to be Linux. I was tired of the Microsoft treadmill. I like Linux, so that wasn’t going to be a problem (I really like administering my own server). However, I knew that I would have to run Windows (any flavor) in a Virtual Machine (VM), for a number of applications that I really don’t want to live without (yes, I can easily live without them). The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was just copping out to not just recommit to another round of Windows on the new laptop.

So, with that, I had to decide whether to stick with XP, which I basically like (I certainly don’t love it), or give Vista a shot, or wait until Windows 7, etc. After helping a friend with a new Vista laptop, I was an instant hater of Vista, and quite vocal about it. I blogged about how stupid Microsoft was for forcing people to take Vista instead of extending the life of XP (which they ended up doing at least twice!). So, I’m not coming at this from a fanboy perspective.

Then I heard from a few friends that after installing Vista SP1 (Service Pack 1), their machines became rock solid. When my friend’s machine was overtaken by spyware, I agreed to clean it for her. It was as painful dealing with it as it was the first time. But, after fighting it for a few hours, I was finally able to force SP1 to install (from a USB key, which I downloaded SP1 onto from my XP laptop!). Once SP1 was on the machine, it became completely stable.

That gave me at least the courage to consider Vista. I started reading as many blogs as I could about people’s actual experiences with it. The more I read, the less nervous I was. People were also raving about Vista x64. I wanted the benefits of extra memory, the Turbo Memory, etc., but I was worried about compatibility. Most people said it simply wasn’t an issue. So, nervously, I chose the x64 flavor.

I am very glad I did. I can’t believe how well the 32-bit emulation/virtualization works. It’s invisible. Everything installs normally (no warnings, just into a separate “Programs (x86)” directory. You can’t feel any difference in the speed (at least not on this class of machine). Programs that I was really afraid would give me a hassle just worked, perfectly, the first time.

In addittion, quite a number of programs are available in native 64 bit versions, including iTunes!

So far, there is a single program that I have that doesn’t fully support Vista x64. Palm Desktop. Even that runs in 32-bit mode, correctly (even though their page doesn’t even make that claim, simply stating that the application isn’t supported on 64 bit operating systems, implying it won’t even install!). The only thing that doesn’t work (and it’s a biggie!) is that they don’t support Hot Syncing over a USB cable (which I really need, regardless of the fact that I have built-in Bluetooth support on the machine and on my Treo 755p).

So, they were too lazy to get a 64-bit USB driver coded? Seriously, that’s all that’s missing. And people wonder why Palm is going out of business as fast they possibly can. Mac is going 64 bit, Vista is, the world is (eventually), but Palm can pretend that it just doesn’t matter to them…

Am I annoyed? A drop, but it will simply accelerate my switch to a non-Palm phone, even though I’m reasonably happy with my Treo (I started with the 650, upgraded to a 700 and then to a 755, so they will be losing a very loyal customer), I will likely get a Google Android phone, whenever the right model becomes available on Verizon (I’m currently a happy Sprint customer, yes, the only one perhaps, but they too will be losing me over issues like this…).

So, that leaves 32 vs 64 bit decisions. For example, there are versions of Firefox (my default browser) that are 64 bit (code name Minefield). After thinking about it a lot, and reading a lot, I decided that I’d rather go for the latest build, supported by Mozilla, with the latest security patches. So, I have gone with 32 bit versions whenever the 64 bit version isn’t natively supported by the vendor. I have had zero regrets. Firefox screams, Thunderbird screams, Google Chrome screams, etc.

I was a tad worried that apps like Sling Box wouldn’t work well. Wrong. Not only is it running nicely, it’s the latest version (which was an upgrade for me) 2.x. It even correctly updated the firmware on my Sling Box at home (300 miles away at the time I did it) over my Verizon FiOS link (which is fast enough for me not to have worried about doing it remotely!). Of course, my Poker software runs too, whew! 😉

So, other than Palm being stupid and lazy, I haven’t found anything that didn’t just work. Any compatibility issues between my favorite XP apps and Vista were theoretical, thankfully. I am not giving Vista the credit for the speed improvements, as I bet that this laptop would have run XP way faster than my old one did, but still, Vista hasn’t slowed me down, or gotten in my way.

Since the machine is fast, I have all of the animations (Aero stuff) turned on. They’re cool, and since they aren’t even slowing me down even slightly, I’ll keep the eye candy on! (They’re off on Lois’ machine, because the motion makes her sick, literally, so it’s not a speed issue there either.)

Finally, one of my favorite features of Vista (it’s also available to be downloaded and installed in XP) is Windows Desktop Search (WDS). I have been a long-time user of X1 (I started when they had a deal with Yahoo!, calling the download Yahoo! Desktop Search). To me, it killed Google Desktop Search (though GDS has had a number of version upgrades, so I’m comparing old versions). X1 indexes everything, including my Thunderbird mail, and I find things instantly.

In addition, I also ran Launchy for keyboard launch services (very happily, it’s a great program). Neither is necessary any longer. WDS is fantastic, and instantaneous as well. There are a number of ways to get at it, but the simplest is to press the Win key (or click the Windows Icon, previously known as the Start Menu). Then just start typing.

I use it to launch programs (rarely do I have to type more than the first two characters, then hit Enter). I use it to search for text in documents, contact info, etc. The only problem for me at the moment is that it doesn’t natively index Thuderbird email (it does a wonderful job of Outlook mail, obviously). There is a years-old plugin for Thunderbird 1.x, and I don’t want to install it. I can index Thuderbird files as if they were just plain text files, but I’ve chose not to as yet.

I’m waiting (patiently) for Thunderbird 3.0, a few more months only (I hope), because it has a plugin for WDS to enable native search. That will be the final icing on this wonderful cake. Not to start a flame war (seroiusly), but I’ve looked over the shoulder of Mac users when they used Spotlight, and it’s a funny joke to me that anyone would consider it usable…

So, from a true hater of Vista, to a true fanboy, in about six months. And, of course, a major fanboy of PowerNotebooks as well.

Amazon Unbox

Send to Kindle

I haven’t had an interest in any of the movie download services (until yesterday). First, we don’t watch that many movies. Second, we have so many DVDs that we own, and probably will never watch. Third, since we only have laptops, disk space can become an issue if the download is purchased and is meant to persist forever.

There are a few TV shows that we really like. A number more that we watch regularly but don’t care about as much. One of our favorites is NCIS (Navy Criminal Investigative Service). We liked it from the very first episode, but not without reservations.

The stories are compelling and extremely well written. The twists and turns are clever without being absurd. On the other hand, for too long (at least 3+ seasons) the banter between the unit (specifically, one of the male characters with any female) was so juvenile as to be completely unbelievable, especially in this type of unit in these types of situations.

It was so maddening that we often discussed dropping NCIS from our regular habits (as we’ve done with CSI, CSI: NY, Cold Case and many others, after watching them for years). We didn’t stop, because the stories themselves were probably the best on TV, week in and week out, with very few exceptions!

Thankfully, at least a season ago, they toned down some of the idiocy, without losing each character’s individuality. It could still be less, and be a better show, but it rarely grates on me too badly.

So, being a must watch show for us, I record it on three separate DVRs each week. It records in HD on my Verizon FiOS DVR, and in standard definition on my DirecTivo and in the apartment (where it could also be HD, but I preserve disk space on that DVR more carefully).

We’ve been away for a few weeks, working and enjoying our godchildren’s graduations. When we got to the house, I saw that the FiOS DVR was 99% full. That’s because it’s the only one that I allow HD recording on. It had three episodes of NCIS on it (4/29, 5/6 and 5/13). It also had three or four episodes of House M.D in HD on it. All of those episodes were duplicated on the DirecTivo.

I knew that the stuff that was scheduled to record that night (this past Monday) would wipe out unprotected older stuff, so I chose to proactively delete shows to make room. I couldn’t decide between NCIS and House. In the end, I decided to delete NCIS because some of the scenes in House can be all the more disgusting in HD. 😉

We then ended up coming to the apartment a few days earlier than expected. When we got here, I was reminded that on occasion, the DVR here (supplied by Time Warner Cable) locks up, and even though there is plenty of disk space, nothing gets recorded until I reboot it. That happened the week of 4/21 and I didn’t get to reboot it until 4/30, which meant that I missed NCIS on 4/29 on the apartment DVR.

No biggie (or so I thought) since I have it up at the house on the DirecTivo. But, it also meant that we wouldn’t watch the remaining NCIS that we have here, until we got back to the house. Being the clever guy that I am, I connected my laptop to the DirecTivo via my Sling Box. I also connected my S-Video cable from my laptop to my TV.

I fired up the DirecTivo, found the correct episode of NCIS and hit play. A second later, it prompted me to save or delete the episode. Huh? After doing that a second time, I went into the episode information screen, and saw that the duration was 0:00. Ugh, for whatever reason, it failed to record.

What to do? Well, cleverly, I went to cbs.com to see if they offered up streaming video of the episode. Indeed, NCIS is one of the shows that they offer full episode streaming for (not all, and I have no idea why!). Unfortunately, they only offered the last three episodes, all of which I have on two DVRs.

I can understand (somewhat) why they don’t offer all episodes for streaming, forever. That said, it seems silly to cut it off at three, and to make the current ones available, which supposedly have more of a premium value to them. Then again, I don’t make these decisions for anyone, including CBS.

Searching the net, I came up with NCIS episodes being available for sale on Amazon Unbox. Like I said in the introduction, I’ve never had an interest in this, or any like service. That said, I’ve been delighted with Amazon’s MP3 Download service, so I at least trusted this brand and believed that the experience wouldn’t annoy me.

We decided to spring for the $1.99 to fill in our missing episode. The application downloaded and installed quickly. The 856MB episode file took a little longer to download (roughly 30-40 minutes). That part would have been a lot quicker if we were at the house, with our FiOS service. 🙂

I still had the video cable in my laptop, connected to the TV. So, once the episode downloaded I was able to fire up their player and watch it on the TV instantly.

The quality was quite good. We thoroughly enjoyed the episode, In The Zone, and were glad to spend the $1.99 to not have a gap in our collective memories of this show.

While each episode easily stands alone, even if it makes reference to past events, character development is always a nice touch. This episode focused on a cast member that rarely gets on air time, Nikki Jardine. If she ever plays a more prominent role in the future, this would have been a really bad episode to miss. Of course, she might never be on again, so who knows. 😉

We’re back to normal now, and can catch up with the rest of the shows on the normal DVR. We also watched the episode of House through the Sling Box, that wasn’t recorded in the city either (due to the reboot problem), so we can now watch the rest of those as well.

A very long post, just to tell you that Amazon Unbox works well, as advertised. While I don’t anticipate using it often, it’s very nice to know that it’s there for any future emergencies, or even desires. 🙂

Hotel TV Victory

Send to Kindle

In this post, I mentioned that it wouldn’t be until January that I got to try out my new low-tech cable solution for watching our own stuff on the hotel TV.

We just had the longest stretch in six years of not being in a hotel. Our last stay ended on November 20th, and tonight is our first night since (we’ve stayed with friends for five nights during that stretch, so they weren’t all at home).

Tonight I pulled out my low-tech cable and connected it to the TV in the hotel. I then put two AAA batteries in my programmable remote and looked up the code for a Philips TV. After a moment of panic, when I noticed that there wasn’t a button labeled Input on the remote, I finally found (by trial and error) that there was a button labeled A->B which did the same thing.

Sure enough, I was able to change the hotel TV to all of the inputs (S-Video, Front RCA, Rear RCA, something else, etc.).

I then connected to my home DVR (the DirecTV Hughes HDVR2 that I’ve recently resuscitated) through my SlingBox, and we watched a two hour show that I had recorded months ago. It worked flawlessly!

I enabled a second monitor and extended my desktop to it. I then ran the Sling window in that second monitor and maximized it (800×600) which was the perfect size for the TV. I was able to play Poker on the main laptop screen, without interfering with the show on the TV (also very cool!).

But, there was one last problem. I like having the sound on for the Poker tourneys, so that if I look away from the screen, and it’s my turn, I hear the beep. But, to get the sound on the TV to work, I really have to crank the sound to the headphone jack on the laptop. That would make the Poker beeps way too loud on the TV.

My solution is almost Rube Goldberg, but it worked! 😉

I have a tiny USB sound adapter (I can never get the Microphone input to work, and the volume on the output is deafeningly loud, but, it works). So, I first connect the Sling when the normal headphone jack is enabled. Then I insert the USB sound device, and set that to be the new default sound device. Poker (and most other apps) immediately switch to the new default device, but the Sling keeps playing through the device that was the default when it was launched.

So, I listened for the Poker beep through earbuds that were connected to the USB sound device, and the low-tech cable was connected to the S-Video port and the headphone jack.

Total Victory! Sweet! 🙂

Low Tech Often Beats High Tech

Send to Kindle

In this post, I discussed traditional video senders, that wirelessly extend a video source to a remote receiver (TV, VCR, DVR, etc.). The 5.8Ghz model that I bought from Amazon.com is still working perfectly.

In addition to that need at home, we travel a lot for business and therefore spend a lot of time in hotels. While we’re not terribly picky about what’s on TV when we’re tired after a long day’s work, sometimes the pickings are pretty slim, and with the current writers strike dragging on, they will likely get slimmer.

I decided that I wanted to find an effective way to display things from my laptop on the hotel TV. This would allow watching DVDs, Internet videos, and my home DVR via the SlingBox.

I mentioned in the past that once I purchased one thing from X10, I got bombarded daily by a giant email newsletter from them. Just at the time that I was considering the above need, their daily newsletter had a special to purchase a wireless VGA to RCA Video extender. I ordered the following package that day (and I paid a lot less than the current price shown on that page).

The device works, for some definition of works, but I am not happy with it. I don’t know if it’s interference from WiFi devices (of which the hotels have many, and so does our house), or if there is some other problem, but, while I an get the video to show up (so it’s not broken), it’s not a satisfactory experience.

Now a diversion. A few weeks back, we were visiting friends in Richmond, VA. Another friend came over with a DVD of photos from their trip to South Africa. After trying a few ways to display the photos on the TV, I looked at the back of my laptop and noticed (for the first time) that I had an S-Video port. Our host happened to have an S-Video cable, and I was able to connect my S-Video out to his S-Video in, and display the photos.

When I got home, I did a search and found the following site (they ask for links, claiming that they don’t advertise!), and specifically, this low tech cable. I got to use the cable for the first time last night (in the apartment), and it worked pretty well. Extremely low tech, but extremely effective.

That said, my problem isn’t quite solved. It turns out that the hotel that we stay at all the time doesn’t include the ability to select alternate input sources (even though the TV has both RCA inputs and S-Video in). The remote control doesn’t have an input button, and the menu doesn’t contain one either.

A little further search on the Internet suggests bringing your own programmable remote to the room, and searching for their TV model, and hopefully being able to control the TV with your remote, including changing the input source. I’ll give that a try in January, when we are next in the hotel. Even if it doesn’t work, this new cable will find occasional use at home, when I want to watch an Internet video on the TV. A lot cheaper than buying something like Apple TV, etc. 😉