Recently in Technology Category

I've recently started using a second PC at work which has proven useful. In order to simplify using two PCs simultaneously, I'm using some software called RemoteD in order to share the mouse and keyboard across both machines. RemoteD appears to have been written internally at the company I work for so isn't on the web, but it's similar to Synergy in that you are able to drag the mouse off the edge of the screen on your main PC and it will appear instantly on the other screen and behave as though it were connected to that machine. Drag it back and the mouse focus is back on the main machine. The keyboard focus will also change to the PC that the mouse is active on (though you still need a keyboard plugged into the second machine in order to get through the Windows Login screen). Some software of this kind even supports copying the clipboard from one machine to another.

I'm finding this way of working is very handy to get work done on one machine whilst the other is crunching away on something that'll take a long time, but it has got me thinking that this kind of machine sharing could be done in a better way. If there was a single (virtual?) instance of the OS shared across both machines you would be able to simply drag entire applications from one machine to the other just as you can across multiple screens on one machine and it would use up CPU/memory on the machine you drag it to.

I believe this kind of thing is already somewhat possible using virtual machines for each application and using a system that allows the images to be migrated live (as used in data centre replication), but I've never heard of the system being so closely integrated with the desktop in such a way. I'm not claiming for a second this would be trivial to implement, but it would be rather cool - especially if you can add/remove machines from the array at will. For example you could bring your laptop to your desktop PC, connect them up and drag your IDE from one to the other in an instant (or however long it takes to copy the memory space of the app + related files across a wireless connection), then take the laptop off somewhere else.

In the meantime, if anyone can evangelise their favourite Synergy-type software I'm open to recommendations.

In my previous post, I explained that I'd decided to dump the NVIDIA nForce 680i chipset due to the frustrating reliability problems I had been experiencing. I purchased a new Intel X48 Express based board instead - a Gigabyte GA-X48-DQ6 to be precise.

The motherboard change went fairly smoothly. The only hardware issue is that I had to bend one of the aluminium fins on my Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro CPU heatsink/fan in order for it to fit around the motherboard's own heatsink over the chipset. Also, the cooler now slightly blocks one of the memory slots, but this isn't a problem at the moment as I can use slots 2 and 4 and still get dual channel interleaved memory speed. I may have to modify the fan a little more if I add more memory in future, but 4 GiB is plenty for the time being.

After the hardware setup the machine booted fine and I had my Windows 7 RC DVD ready to reinstall (backing everything up before starting any of this of course). Just for kicks, I decided to let the existing Windows 7 RC install try to boot to see how far it got. Rather than crash and burn as I expected, it instead booted into VGA mode, spent a minute or so installing drivers, rebooted and then the machine was fully functional (aside from the damned Abit AirPace wireless card I had to install manually AGAIN - I'll write a how-to post about this in future as quite a few people are arriving at my site via searches for this). I've used the machine in this state for a few days now and it seems to be rock steady.

I don't know quite how Windows 7 managed this trick - Windows Vista 64 certainly didn't do it when I changed motherboards last time (from one 680i to another very similar board) and I had to reinstall from scratch. Is there anything Windows 7 cannot do? Assuming I don't run into problems with this, I'm planning on leaving this install in place until Windows 7 final is released.

My home PC has been using an nForce 680i SLI motherboard since I built it in 2007. In fact it has used two due to reliability issues.

The first board, an abit IN9 32X-MAX Wi-Fi (which incidentally was the source of the Airpace wireless card I've had driver trouble with) was rock solid until we went on holiday to Australia last October and on return it simply refused to power up at all. A little light on the motherboard claimed that the power supply for the CPU wasn't connected, but trying two different power supplies didn't bring it back to life. I sent it back to Scan for a warranty replacement (after spending ages trying to persuade them that the board was actually broken and I wasn't just being stupid), who then spent several weeks before sending me a replacement.

The abit board wasn't available so instead I received an EVGA nForce 680i SLI (this board is no longer produced now so I can't provide a direct link on their site).

This board has utterly infuriated me. I'm convinced it wasn't new when they sent it to me as there was dust build up on the chipset heatsink, but mostly what's annoying me is that it has been a fairly unstable board. I've tried two different BIOS updates, all kinds of different settings and drivers for various components and every trick I can find on the internet, but nothing seems to make this board settle down. It's utterly inconsistent too, sometimes it will work fine for hours, other times it will last only a few minutes before a BSOD, random reboot or a lock up. Looking at the minidumps that Windows saves when it endures a BSOD show no recurring pattern, so I can only assume it is a hardware problem.

So, I've decided to dump the nForce for the time being and buy a cheap Intel X48 Express based board which hopefully will be rock steady. I bought it from eBuyer rather than Scan after the way they treated me over the RMA of the first board. I was half tempted to upgrade to a Core i7 processor, but buying a new CPU and DDR 3 memory as well as a top of the line motherboard was going to cost silly money that I can't afford at the moment.

Here's hoping I finally get a stable PC at the end of this - it's 'pooter building time tomorrow evening!

I've had my G1 for a few weeks now. I first wrote about it just after I got it and now I've had some time to get used to it.

Also, it was recently updated to Android 1.5 and I've had a few days to play with the new features and UI improvements therein.

The Good

  • Google Sky Map - This is similar to the Google Sky website, except it uses the compass built into the phone to adjust the view in real time depending on where you point it. If you want to know where a particular star, planet, constellation, galaxy or other stellar object is, you simply search for it and it'll show you which direction to look in. Beautifully simple and wonderfully executed. It's also a cool thing to show off to people, especially jealous iPhone owners.
  • Video Recording - another thing the iPhone can't do. It works, but it's not particularly great quality. I haven't tried the integrated YouTube uploading, but then I don't upload videos to YouTube regardless.
  • UI Improvements in Android 1.5 - The contact and email updates are very welcome and certainly streamline things, making the phone that little bit more usable.

The Bad

  • Battery life - This phone chews through a battery charge quite quickly. At first I had auto sync turned on, but quickly turned it off when it ran the battery down from full charge overnight (it apparently checks email every five minutes, which is a bit excessive for a mobile device). Now I sync email manually, have wi-fi off and the screen brightness as low as it will go, though the battery still only lasts three days or so.
  • Contact syncing - This seems to be totally broken. I synced my contacts, thinking it would back them up online, but actually it deleted lots of contacts and reverted my phone's contact files to a much earlier state. Grrrr!!! That's the last time I do that!

HTC Google G1

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For ages now, I've been suffering from a poor to non-existent Orange phone signal in the office. A couple of days ago I'd missed one call too many and snapped, so I'm now the owner of a shiny new HTC Google G1 on T-Mobile.

I decided to keep my old Orange phone anyway as Orange Wednesday 2-for-1 cinema tickets are not worth sacrificing, and the phone was on Pay as you Go so it won't cost me anything to keep. However, this does mean my new phone is on a different number. Contact me directly if you want the new number.

As with any new piece of technology there are good and bad things about it. Here's the good, in no particular order...

  • A consistent phone signal in work!
  • Hardware keyboard - The lack of a hardware keyboard is one of the thing that has put me off buying an iPhone for a long time, despite the phone being a great piece of technology otherwise (the overpriced, fashion item, DRM riddled status of the iPhone is another reason I don't own one). The G1's hardware keyboard works well, even with my fat thumbs (you end up holding the phone at each end with your fingers and typing with your thumbs). This is why I wasn't tempted to wait for the G2 which has moved to a touch sensitive soft keyboard.
  • Big screen - This seems obvious (big photos, video, web pages etc), but it also allows some nice user interface improvements over my old phone. It treats SMS like an IM conversation, so you can read the history of messages to a person on screen which is a lovely touch. Also, any notifications (new text messages, missed calls etc) can be seen instantly by dragging the top of the screen down.
  • Wireless - 3G sucks for proper internet browsing, so it's lovely to have a decent wireless connection on a mobile device, either through the open guest connection at work or at home through my secured wireless router.
  • Open source - I can do what I like with it, I don't have to use iTunes or any other proprietary sync software. If I want to download a piece of music, I simply do so (legally of course) from whatever site I fancy, directly on the phone. I haven't installed the SDK yet, but when I do I'm sure I'll be writing a blog post or two about it.
  • Web Browser - A lovely web browser that seems to work well with pretty much any site I point it at. It's based on WebKit (the same tech as Chrome and Safari) so it's not really a surprise that it works well. My old phone did a good job too using Opera Mobile, but the screen was far too small to make this particularly useful, plus data charges prevented me using it much (data is free on the new contract).
  • Soft case - It was nice to find a fabric case in the box with the phone. It's a bit cheap looking, but it'll stop the phone getting scratched in my coat pocket or bag.
  • Everything works - Unlike my last phone which took a day and a half and several phone calls to customer services people who didn't seem to believe me when I told them it hadn't activated. This new phone was activated within seconds.

Unfortunately, there are a few bad points...

  • GMail - There's nothing wrong with GMail as such, but I really hate being forced into something. I've already got a Google account (registered with my Hotmail address which gives me a little perverse pleasure). I can login to Google Reader and other services using this address, but I don't see why the phone insisted I create a new GMail account as well. In fact I was in such a rush to get this step over with that I mistyped my email alias, so now instead of having an extra email account I probably won't use, I've got one I definitely won't use. Just to rub salt in the wound, there's no way to correct the spelling in the email alias, and it has promoted itself to being the primary email address for my Google account, meaning it sits there taunting me at the top of Google Reader. No other Google service I use forces me to have a GMail address, so why does this phone?
  • Size - While the big screen is lovely, the phone itself is a bit big in my pocket, though I suppose that's the sacrifice you make for buying a smart phone (they all seem to be of similar dimensions).
  • Proprietary headphone socket - Nuff said. There was a set of compatible headphones in the box though, so at least it isn't going to cost me any extra money to listen to a few tunes on the walk to work.
  • It's locked to T-Mobile - But so what? Unless you spend a fortune on an unlocked model, pretty much any phone in the UK is locked to the network you bought it through.

It's only just occurred to me that I should have written this blog post using the phone as a good test for the web browser and keyboard, but I've written it on the PC. Never mind, I guess it's a bit of a mindset change to get used to.

Lent 2009 - Facebook

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In the last few years I've given up a variety of things for Lent - chocolate, caffeine (which was really hard), and so on. I've been 100% successful in resisting temptation too, which is a small thing to be proud of. None of it has been for religious reasons, mostly just to see if I could last it out. This year I decided to try something different. I've lost a fair amount of weight in recent months, so giving up a food type wasn't really worth the bother, so I decided to go with a friend's suggestion of giving up facebook for forty days and forty nights.

Hopefully, it'll prove to be an interesting experiment. My current thinking is that in the end I'll have a few messages from people in the first few days, which will peter out as I won't be actively replying, posting or commenting on anything. I'll also get a few pokes from people I regularly swap pokes with (though I'm not expecting any new ones), and a few spam application and group invites spread throughout the period (which I almost universally block anyway). Hopefully I won't get any interesting event invites and miss out on a good party! I might possibly get one or two friend invites too. I guess I'll find out on 12th April. I'll post here with the results of the experiment.

Interestingly (to me), although I won't be logging into my account, I'll still have an influence on it. This blog post and any others I make in the fasting period will be imported into my profile, along with any Xbox Live achievements I gain in the meantime. It just goes to show how connected our online lives are these days.

Spotify

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I've been flirting with music streaming systems for a while now, most notably Pandora, but none have really been what I'm looking for. Pandora runs in your web browser and attempts to create a radio station of music that is similar to a song or artist that you like. It's an interesting project, but lacks the control I would prefer - I sometimes want to listen to particular tracks, not a random selection of similar tunes. The nail in the coffin with Pandora for me though, is that it isn't available outside the US any more. I can use a US based proxy server to get around the restriction, but that's another barrier to entry.

I was recently introduced to Spotify, a free, legal music streaming system. You simply register at the website, download and install the application, then you can search for and listen to pretty much anything you like. It's incredibly responsive, finding tracks very quickly and seems to have nearly everything I've tried searching for (apart from the bands that don't appear anywhere else - The Beatles, etc). The user interface is minimal and simple to use too. I've been using it for a few days now and haven't noticed any dropped connections whilst streaming music.

On the downside, sound quality is average, though it's good enough for the light headphones I use in work. Also you have to listen to a short audio advert every few tracks (one every half an hour or so I reckon), with an option to pay a subscription (GBP 9.99 per month) if you don't want this. The ads are distracting if you're trying to listen to an album in full, but it's a price I'm willing to pay given the value of the service.

Overall, this is a great service. I hope their business model is profitable enough to survive.

Dual Screen Hitch

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I've been working for years now with two screens connected to my computer (though so far haven't made the change at home as there are other drains on my money). It makes coding easier as you don't need to switch back and forth between applications. I'm not the only one who agrees with this, my friend OJ wrote a good post about dual screen development back in 2006.

However, I've recently hit on a minor annoyance with using more than one screen, which became apparent to me when I upgraded one of my monitors in work for a higher resolution one. I'm running with one monitor at 1920x1200 and the other at 1280x1024. The problem comes from the difference in height between these resolutions as it creates a "step" at the bottom of the desktop where the two screens meet. If I move the mouse from the bigger monitor to the small one along the bottom, it gets stuck on this edge, where I would prefer Windows to simply move the mouse up a bit to compensate and still allow it to move across to the smaller screen.

I could remove this problem by setting my bigger monitor to a resolution with a height of 1024, but that would lose me some valuable desktop space and also would result in fuzziness due to running an LCD monitor at a non-native resolution. This really isn't a solution.

I know I can drag the monitors around in the display properties dialog, but this would just move the step to the top of the screen, or cause a smaller steps at both the top and bottom. This isn't a solution either.

I don't know whether Windows Vista/7 or Linux would handle this case differently as I don't have it installed here and don't have enough monitors to test at home. Does anyone know of a nice workaround for this in Windows XP?

Windows 7 Beta

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Long ago, I did a quick review of Windows Vista which was a mixture of positive and negative.  It performed a lot better on my current PC than the one I had at the time, but still had some annoyances which won it one of my Wooden Spoon Awards for 2008.

So, bringing us up to date I installed the beta version of Windows 7 the other day and here are my initial thoughts.

  • Speed - it's an absolute speed demon. Boot up time is a good chunk quicker than it was on Vista (I believe this is mostly because it enumerates devices and loads drivers in parallel rather than one at a time). The desktop feels a lot more responsive too - dwm.exe is taking 0% CPU nearly all the time according to the task manager, rather than the 1-3% it always did under Vista. Kudos to Microsoft's OS optimisation engineers.
  • Drivers - On first install it was able to find drivers for everything on my system, with one exception which we'll get to later. It even automatically set up my desktop to 1600x1200 (the native resolution of my monitor) without any prompting from me which makes a great change from living in VGA land after an OS install.
  • Wireless - I don't know why, but every OS I seem to install has a problem with my Abit Airpace wireless card, and Windows 7 was no exception. It refused to automatically find a driver for it simply labelling it as an "Ethernet Device" in device manager. I tried installing the Vista 64 driver, but it refused to identify the card. Anyway, the Abit Airpace is basically a repackaged Atheros 5007, so I manually installed that driver from the list and all was well.
  • The new task bar is rather spanking. Hover the mouse over an icon and it shows all instances of that application above so you can quickly switch to it. It even manages to show each tab in Internet Explorer so you can quickly jump to the right tab in one click, though I'm not sure how well this works if you have more than half a dozen or so tabs open. Another nice innovation is that there's conceptually no difference between launching an application and switching to it, so the quick launch bar is gone and instead you have tabs on the task bar which perform both functions (reminds me of RISC OS 3 from 1992!). The only bad part about this is it takes up more screenspace by default, though I believe you can set the size of the icons - I just haven't tried this yet.
Yesterday I noticed something very strange when I booted my PC.  The DVD drive wasn't visible in My Computer.  I quickly looked in the Device Manager to see that it was listed with the yellow icon showing something was wrong.  Upon further inspection it told me that it was unable to start the drive because of a "Code 10".  Helpful.

Rebooting the PC showed that the drive was visible from the BIOS and I was successfully able to boot from it.  Also the drive was working fine from my Linux partition, so I was convinced there was no hardware problem.  Why on earth was Vista having a problem with it?

A brief web search revealed I wasn't alone in this problem and that it's been there since XP and hasn't been properly fixed.  The suggestion repeated over and over was to delete a few registry keys and reboot.  I won't repeat the exact details here as it's well documented elsewhere, but if you're interested, see this Microsoft support page.

However, this fix didn't work for me.  I tried uninstalling the drive in Device Manager and letting it try to redetect it - it didn't.  I tried scanning for new hardware, updating the motherboard drivers for my PC (turns out I'd missed one of Nvidia's rare Nforce driver updates back in March).  All the usual stuff you would do to fix this kind of problem, but didn't get anywhere.

Eventually I stumbled upon a fix on the web which involved deleting INFCACHE.1 from C:\windows\inf and rebooting, letting Windows rebuild the file.  You'll need to set the security properties for the file so you have full control to delete it, but it did the trick.  One reboot later and the DVD drive was back in working order.

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