Google Closing Products

March 17th, 2013 by Potato

I’ve been saddened by a rash of product shutdowns by Google. Lately the announcement that Reader was being shut down is making waves, but that’s the third Google product I use that got shut down.

First there was Sync, which was awesome. It was a blackberry app that synced my contacts, some other crap, and importantly, my calendars with my BB. After shutting it off there is still a mechanism to sync the blackberry calendar and contacts list with Google’s — but it is far inferior. In particular, Google Sync was able to figure out that I can have more than one calendar in my account, whereas the crap I’m left with will only sync the main calendar, forcing me to manually sync up with my shared calendars.

Then iGoogle was given the kiss of death. It still operates, but constantly reminds me that it will be “sunsetting” soon. For those that didn’t try it, it was just a way to customize your Google homepage. You’d have your usual search box, and then boxes for RSS feeds or little widgets. It was basically what the Windows 8 start screen was except better and properly encapsulated in a web browser. And now, Reader will be going too.

The thing is, I don’t understand why they’re being killed off. Was Sync really so hard to maintain? Does syncing all my calendars through an app take up much more Google bandwidth than having my BB sync one?

Dell XPS 8500

February 10th, 2013 by Potato

My new computer arrived the other day, but I had to wait until the weekend to have time to set it up. Setting up a new computer has definitely gotten faster from the old days when you practically had to reinstall Windows to get rid of the bloatware. Nonetheless, it still takes hours to track down all the little programs I had installed, transfer files off my old hard drive (which yes, thankfully, was still working), and get going.

Anyway, I’m just about fully up and running again over here, now under Windows 8. So time for a quick review! I’m not going to get too far into Windows 8 just yet as I haven’t had much time to use it. In short, it’s fast yet annoying. In the desktop mode, Windows 8 is pretty much just Windows — it’s only under the tablet mode that it’s gone full retard, but aside from launching less-frequently-used programs, I have no reason to venture there. The default PDF viewer is an “app” and just really really dumb and bad, but there are a number of “desktop” programs that do the trick (including Acrobat). I’ve been hitting the web trying to find solutions to a number of things, only to find that there really isn’t a way to fix some stuff. For example, even with “small” icons, quick launch items will spread out and take up valuable taskbar inches, and it appears as though there is no way to make them cuddle up closer together actually this quick launch work-around does the trick, but still, why isn’t there a spacing option to avoid the work-around? It reminds me of Office 2007 and that idiotic “ribbon” — changing the default UI is fine, but leave me the option to make it work the way I want it to work. Also weird is that instead of “clicking” on something, the tooltips and prompts now suggest “tapping”. Further proof that Win 8 is a tablet product MS kludged onto a desktop.

One point in Win 8’s favour is that the confirmation dialog to delete things has gone away — the recycle bin is there for second-thoughts.

As for the XPS 8500 itself, there are a few things that really annoyed me before I even got to turning it on. The first is the video card: it has a DVI and HDMI connector. And that’s it. It came with a DVI to VGA adaptor (which I threw on the pile of the other 4 I have now), but not a HDMI to DVI adaptor. WTF, Dell? The Dell monitor I bought just a year ago was top-of-the-line, and didn’t have HDMI-in. Of the dozens of monitors in my home and lab, only one aside from the TV had HDMI-in. I can’t run dual monitors until I run out and buy a dongle (or downgrade to my old video card). HDMI is a nice feature if you want to use your computer on your TV (as a gaming system or home theatre PC), but two computer-monitor-friendly outputs should have been standard, with the HDMI as a third, particularly for the XPS line. At the very least, the appropriate HDMI-converting dongle should have been included. [Update: there is a bios option to use the the integrated VGA port to control a second monitor, strange because it beeped at me and refused to start when I tried that out of the box. I’m still going to have to buy the dongle though, as there’s a “wiggle-woggle” of scan lines on grey backgrounds with VGA — it’s not quite meant for 1650×1080 resolution.]

One thing I’ve been impressed with in the XPS line has been that extra bit of care Dell takes to neatly secure most of the wires, so you don’t open up your case to a rat’s nest. Unfortunately, they’ve gone too far this time: there aren’t enough expansion power cables to do much upgrading later on. Though the case has room for up to 5 drives, with 4 SATA heads, there are only two drive power cables. Now, they are the type that has a second SATA power connector located partway along the cable, so in theory you can power 4 drives from the two leads. In reality, the connectors are so close together that you can only power a pair of drives that are in adjacent bays. So if you want to put in a 3rd hard drive (as I was planning to do, and as the specs and reviews indicated I could), you have to put it up in the 5 & 1/4″ bay (somehow), buy an extension, or de-power the DVD drive. I do have a bunch of 4-pin-Molex-to-SATA power converters, but there aren’t even any old-fashioned 4-pin Molex power rails to use. I already thought that the case should have supported more hard drive slots (if I’m going to use 2-3, there’s almost certainly someone out there who wants 4 for a RAID array), but the power set up will really limit expandability, even if you get a PCI-e expansion SATA controller.

The keyboard is a “chicklet” style, which I associate with laptops rather than desktops. Pity, I rather liked the old Dell keyboards, and it was getting time to replace my old one, so I thought that was a benefit of buying vs building my own system. There’s no numlock key, which at first I found a little strange, until I realized that I never used my number pad for anything but entering numbers, and I only ever toggled numlock to make the light turn off. The insert/delete/home keys have been squished to make room for some media keys, including a mute button. Things that are missing and that I find weird in their absence are the little plastic tabs to adjust the angle of the keyboard. Instead, the keyboard features little rubber feet that help keep it from sliding around on my desk. Fortunately the keyboard is at a bit of an angle. That works for me — I always have the little feet fully extended — but I know a lot of people prefer a flatter keyboard.

The case itself is a fair bit smaller than I was expecting. It’s not quite a compact form factor, but it’s definitely smaller than my old desktop (which is “standard” ATX, with a total of 10 drive bays). It’s nicely optimized for living on the ground under my desk: the power button is on the top, along with the headphone jack and some USB ports, including one that can be used to charge devices even when the computer is off. There’s a little dip up there to help hold phones or MP3 players in place (and I’m sure one day soon, the cat).

What’s impressing me so far is how quiet it is. I think a lot of work in advancing computer technology in the past few years has gone into making them more power efficient, which reduces the cooling needs. My old system had six fans (plus the one on the video card), this one just two. I haven’t run a game on it yet, but with web surfing and installing programs it’s staying cool — my old system made my room noticeably warmer than the rest of the house.

Anyway, at least I’m up and running without data loss. I’m sure at some point soon I will join the chorus of old fogies ranting about the slew of minor changes in Windows 8 that herald the end of civilization as we know it.

Desktop Died

January 24th, 2013 by Potato

Came home tonight to find my desktop had died :(

No response from pressing the power button: no beeps, no fans, no lights. I can’t remember what the output on the motherboard power connector is supposed to be, but there are 2 pins at 5V which sounds about right, leading me to think that the power supply may be ok but the motherboard is dead.

It’s a real piss-off and bad timing on a number of fronts: I had just done a whole bunch of catching-up on bookkeeping and what-not over Christmas… and haven’t backed up since. I cracked a tooth 2 weeks ago, which is going to cost about $500 out-of-pocket to fix (over $1000 if insurance won’t kick in for it), and my cat racked up hundreds of dollars in vet bills in the late fall, so I just don’t need another major expense like this right now. Work has been crazy busy this lately, and will continue to be for the next two — I just don’t have time to deal with this right now. Plus, it’s frickin cold out, which means it’s static-y and just not the best time to go building a new system.

Anyway, I have some options:

  • I can try to find a motherboard that will take a Phenom (now a ~4 year old processor) and see if I can rebuild it replacing only the motherboard. It’ll likely cost around $100 for the MB (if I can find one). There’s a chance other components were taken down with the MB, leading to either paying a lot to rebuild a computer with 4-year-old parts, or a waste of money on the MB. Even if the MB is the only part I need to replace, I might still have to spend a lot of time on a full reinstall if Windows ends up not liking the replacement.
  • I can build a new computer trying to keep as many likely good parts as possible: new MB, processor, and RAM, but old video card, power supply, case, drives. I think this is a decent compromise between cost and likelihood of success. I’d almost certainly have to reinstall Windows from scratch (maybe finally time to move on from XP), which is another timesink.
  • I can just buy a whole new system, likely pre-built in that case: getting all the parts and assembling it may not be cost effective — it has been in the past, to be sure, but I just priced out a Dell XPS for ~$800, and I don’t know if I can do much better than that piecemeal without waiting for Black Friday or Boxing Day to come around again. The downside (aside from the cost) is that they don’t seem to offer Windows 7 any more, and I’m too old to deal with this Windows 8 start screen app nonsense. Plus, as much as I love my Dell laptop, I find their desktops always end up developing rattles.
  • I can set up my current fairly decent laptop to run the nice monitors and effectively turn it into a desktop. That strands all my data (and I just updated quicken and got all my tax spreadsheets together… without external backups!) and while my 2-year-old laptop is almost as powerful as my 4-year-old desktop, it just seems too weird to me to be on a laptop all the time. Plus it would deprive the cat of her favourite heated napping place. But, it’s free.

Not sure what to do now. I’m also pissed off at the stupid thing: I liked that desktop, and I only built it like 4 years ago. It should last longer than that.

Effectiveness of Ads

June 24th, 2012 by Potato

I’ve always been a little dubious about the effectiveness of advertising: even as a kid without leaving the house, I’d be exposed to hundreds of ads a day just by watching TV. Sure, advertising is needed in some cases, particularly for new products (how else would I have become hooked on Special K cracker chips, or know what’s coming soon to a theatre near me?). But the amount of spending on advertising is something I’ve had trouble wrapping my head around: so very much is ad-supported, especially on the internet, yet how effective can it really be in the end?

It seemed to be one of those perverse arms races where no one really believes advertising is effective, but that they can’t stop advertising as long as their competitors are flooding the airwaves, billboards, and internet banners. So many people had such a vested interest in keeping the advertising dollars flowing that no one stopped to think about it.

I had a chance to try out some internet advertising recently: Google Ads gave me a free credit to give them a whirl. So I picked out some key words, spruced up the landing page for my book, and let the ad campaign rip.

Maybe the problem is I’m too much an educator, and not enough a salesman, so even having the ads drive people to my page wasn’t enough to sell them on the book. A big case of TL;DR. Or maybe all the hits were from bots trying to scam Google and the advertisers of their money so the probloggers can make some “passive” income.

What I know is this: it took only a few days to blow through $100 in free advertising, and I made one $5 sale (and that’s the gross!). That’s not a good return on investment: not even close enough to start down the path of “maybe if I optimized my key words or reconfigured the layout of the landing page or…” That’s just awful.

Security Software: McAfee Sucks

January 22nd, 2012 by Potato

I’ve long been a user of Trend Micro’s Internet Security largely because it worked without eating up an unreasonable amount of system resources, wasn’t too intrusive, and because it was cheap (just $20 a copy as a UWO student, and each license could cover 3 computers). But beyond inertia, I didn’t have any particular devotion to it.

My new laptop came with a subscription to McAfee, and I figured that would be fine: all the big anti-virus programs are pretty competitive in terms of protection offered, since it’s not an area they can afford to fall on their face over. However, the other aspects have just been terrible. A lot of restart-nagging for updates, but worse is the subscription nagging: I once every week or two it pops up asking me to renew now, even though I still have over 6 months left on my subscription! And the pop-ups don’t have little X’s in the corner to quickly dismiss them. You have to click on a drop-down menu and select close to get rid of it. I just got two renewal ads tonight, so I’m thinking of blowing it away and starting over with something else (likely Trend Micro), it’s simply inexcusable to start nagging me about renewal that far in advance.

But there are other issues too:

  • Details are buried 3-4 menu levels deep. Great McAfee, you found a trojan and saved me: but on what file? How do I know it’s not a false positive and something important is about to break?
  • It’s slow. I know full system scans can take a while and slow you down, it’s just a fact of life with antivirus. But usually there’s a bit of a trade-off: a scan will only take an hour or so, or it won’t noticeably slow you down. McAfee’s scans are taking 4+ hours, and I can barely use my computer in the meantime. That’s worse than any other antivirus I’ve used.
  • At a friend’s work a recent McAfee update appears to have upped the firewall sensitivity, and killed the network.

In short, McAfee sucks, and I’m to the point now where even for free with it already installed and running on my computer, I don’t want to use it any more.