Posts filed under 'Reviews'
Recently I found myself constrained by the puny 200GB of my Mac Book Pro and I bought a 500GB Seagate drive to replace it (a fast 7200 rpm one).
The Macbook Pro has no easy access for the drive so you have to resort to dismantling the case to access it.
This put me off replacing the drive because I would probably be voiding the warranty and was running the risk of damaging this expensive piece of equipment.
I’ve been filling the drive with pictures from my recent camera purchase and I couldn’t put it off any longer, so I bought the new drive and went online to find some good tutorial on how to crack open the Macbook Pro case.
After a few searches, I noticed that many people were referring to the iFixit.com website.
It was very easy to find the tutorial I was looking for, I didn’t have to register, and each step was made very clear and simple.
It took no time to open the case and replace the drive.
I was very happy with that find.
Now, that’s not the end of the story.
A couple of days before I replaced the drive the left fan of the laptop suddenly became noisy. This would happen a few times a day, at random, and would last 10-20 minutes.
My only solution to get this repaired was to get to the local Apple service shop. Even though I knew exactly which part number was to be replaced, they still wanted me to:
- go across town to visit them so they could see for themselves what the problem was: annoying because the problem was intermittent so I may have to go for nothing.
- wait for the part to arrive a few days later.
- go back to leave the laptop
- go again to collect the repaired laptop the next day or so.
So all in all: about 6h spend travelling back and forth + no laptop for a couple of day + the risk that some indiscreet technician start looking through my personal stuff.
Instead, I went back to the iFixit website:
- identified my machine
- found out the list of spare parts available from their store
- added the fan to my cart
- paid for it.
- found a guide that showed how to replace the part.
That took me all of 10 minutes; I placed my order on Thursday and the next Monday I received the part … halfway across the globe!
I also got a survey request from iFixit and left some comments, from which I got back two nice detailed email follow-ups, one from the CEO saying they were implementing my remarks as part of their site improvement efforts.
Well, I thought I would share this story. It’s not that often that you get excited by an online vendor that not only does its job well but goes beyond expectations.
August 26th, 2009
I’ve just lost 2 days going completely bananas over a performance issue that I could not explain.
I’ve got this Dell R300 rack server that runs Windows Server 2008 that I dedicate to running IIS and SQL Server 2008, mostly for development purposes.
In my previous blog entry, I was trying some benchmark to compare the performance of Access and SQL Server using INT and GUID and getting some strange results.
Here are the results I was getting from inserting large amounts of data in SQL Server:
|Machine||Operating System||Test without Transaction||Test with Transaction|
|MacbookPro||Windows Server 2008 x64||324 ms||22 ms|
|Desktop||Windows XP||172 ms||47 ms|
|Server||Windows Server 2008 x64||8635 ms!!||27 ms|
On the server, not using transactions makes the query run more than 8 seconds, at least an order of magnitude slower than it should!
I initially thought there was something wrong with my server setup but since I couldn’t find anything, I just spend the day re-installing the OS and SQL server, applying all patches and updates so the server is basically brand new, nothing else on the box, no other services, basically all the power is left for SQL Server…
When I saw the results for the first time after spending my Easter Sunday rebuilding the machine I felt dread and despair.
The gods were being unfair, it had to be a hardware issue and it had to be related to either memory or hard disk, although I couldn’t understand really why but these were the only things that I could see have such an impact on performance.
I started to look in the hardware settings:
And then I noticed this in the Policies tab of the Disk Device Properties :
Just for the lulz of it, I ticked the box, close the properties
And then tried my query again:
|Machine||Operating System||Test without Transaction||Test with Transaction||Server||Windows Server 2008 x64||254 ms!!||27 ms|
A nearly 35 fold increase in performance!
Moral of the story
If you are getting strange and inconsistent performance results from SQL Server, make sure you check that Enable advanced performance option.
Even if you’re not getting strange results, you may not be aware of the issue, only that some operations may be much slower than they should.
Before taking your machine apart and re-installing everything on it, check your hardware settings, there may be options made available by the manufacturer or the OS that you’re not aware of…
April 12th, 2009
I like buying technical books.
Unfortunately, here in Hong Kong, we have less choice: there are not that many technical bookstores that cater for English-language books and the selection is rather limited.
So whenever a book isn’t available here, I buy it online as a PDF.
It’s cheaper, saves postage and I can keep them handy on my desktop computer at work and my laptop.
I love Safari and being able to access such a large library of books online in such a flexible way is great, but if you’re not in the US, the experience is not always that pleasant, with the site sometimes becoming a bit too slow for comfort.
The publishers I regularly buy ebooks from are O’Reilly, when they make the PDF available, and Apress.
O’Reilly’s PDF may have your subscribtion details embedded at the bottom of each page.
It’s perfectly reasonable and doesn’t ruin the experience: I can still search, copy snippets to the clipboard and print the book if I need to keep an annotated copy.
Apress encrypt the PDF with your account email. Again, that’s fine by me, they don’t prevent me from using the book and it’s not a great annoyance to have to type the password to unlock the book.
Now comes Wrox (Wiley): they publish fine books and even have some available as ebooks.
The biggest issue I have though is that they assume that people who buy their books are all potential criminals:
- The book is as expensive in paper as it is in ebook format. That can’t be right: ebooks have zero reproduction cost while paper books have huge material costs.
- The ebook version needs to be registered with Adobe Digital Editions that locks it to a particular machine.
- You’re only allowed to download the ebook to 4 different PCs and you’ve got 2 weeks to do so.
This seems fair, but it’s not: if I change OS or PC, I’ve already burnt 2 licenses.
- You can’t copy/paste more than a page at a time, up to 10 pages every week… that’s just a bit silly.
- Can’t copy any of the artwork, diagrams, etc.
- Doesn’t say anything about what happens if Adobe drops their particular DRM software or if I need to use the book on the next laptop I’ll buy a year from now.
- Adobe Digital Edition only supports Windows and Mac and a Sony reader. So using Linux (even though Wrox plublishes books about it) or a Kindle or any other mobile device is out of the question.
So the net advantage of buying an eBook from Wrox (Wiley) is: your guess is as good as mine.
Yeah, you can buy each chapter as a PDF: great value, at US$4.99 per chapter, the book is costing you nearly US$100. You can get the fully printed version for half the cost…
Still, I’ll concede that being able to download a particular chapter can be useful.
The bottom line is: if your book gets printed, it’s going to be pirated and distributed for free in ebook format within a couple of weeks of being published.
While thinking they are protecting their copyright, Wiley is in fact punishing people who buy their books.
I’ll stick with Apress and O’Reilly I think. At least I don’t feel treated like a thief.
12FEB2010 Update: Wrox is now trying DRM-free PDF ebooks. We can only applaud this decision. While the offering is still limited at the moment, most or all of their books will eventually be available DRM-free.
Bookshelf by Charles Kalpakian
March 11th, 2009
Over the years I’ve struggled to keep my folder data synchronised between my various desktop and laptops.
Here I present the tools I’ve tried and what I’ve finally settled on as possibly the ultimate answer to the problem of synchronising files and folders across multiple computers:
I’ve tried rsync, which is a great Open Source tool to securely synchronise data either one-way or both-ways.
It’s very efficient with bandwidth as it only transfer blocks of data that have actually changed in a file instead of the whole file. It can tunnel traffic across SSH and I’ve got a few cronjobs set up between various servers to back-up files daily.
It’s only weaknesses are that:
- Every time it runs, it needs to inspect all files on both sides to determine the
changes, which is quite an expensive operation.
- Setting up synchronisation between multiple copies of the data can be tricky:
you need to sync your computers in pairs multiple times, which quickly becomes
expensive and risky if you have the same copy across multiple computers.
- It doesn’t necessarily detect that files are in use at the time of the sync, which
could corrupt them.
It a folder synchronisation tool whose specific purpose is to address some of the shortcomings of
rsync when synchronising folders between computers.
It’s also a cross-platform Open Source tool that works on Linux, OS/X, Windows, etc.
Unison uses the efficient file transfer capabilities of
rsync but it is better at detecting conflicts and it will give you a chance to decide which copy you want when a conflict is detected.
The issue though is that, like
rsync, it needs to inspect all files to detect changes which prevents it from detecting and propagating updates as they happen.
The biggest issue with these synchronisation tools is that they tend to increase the risk of conflict because changes are only detected infrequently.
WinSCP Is an Open Source Windows GUI FTP utility that also allows you to synchonise folders between a local copy and a remote one on the FTP server.
It has conflict resolution and allows you to decide which copy to keep.
It’s great for what it does and allows you to keep a repository of your data in sync with your local copies but here again, WinSCP needs to go through each file to detect the differences and you need to sync manually each computer against the server, which is cumbersome and time consuming.
General Backup tools
There are lot more tools that fall into that category of backup utilities: they all keep a copy of your current data in an archive, on a separate disk or online.
Some are great in that they allow you to access that data on the web (I use the excellent JungleDisk myself) but file synchronisation is not their purpose.
Now for some Captain Obvious recommendation: remember that file synchronisation is not a backup plan: you must have a separate process to keep read-only copies of your important data.
File synchronisation will update and delete files you modify across all your machines, clearly not what you want if you need to be able to recover them!
Revision Control Systems
Revision control software like cvs, subversion, git, etc are generally used to keep track of changes of source code files; however, they have also been used successfully to keep multiple copies of the same data in sync.
It’s actually exactly what I use for all my source code and associated files: I have a subversion server and I check-out copies of my software project folders on various computers.
After making changes on one computer, I commit the changes back to the server and update these changes on all other computers manually.
While great at keeping track of each version of your files and ideally suited to pure text documents like source code, using revision control systems have drawbacks that make them cumbersome for general data synchronisation:
- you need to manually commit and update your local copies against the server.
- not all of them are well suited to deal with binary files
- when they work with binary files, they just copy the whole file when it changed, which is wasteful and inefficient.
Revision Control System are great for synchronising source code and configuration files but using them beyond that is rather cumbersome.
All of the above solutions also have a major drawback: getting them to work across the Internet requires complex setup involving firewall configurations, security logins, exchange of public encryption keys in some cases, etc.
All these are workable but don’t make for friendly and piece-of-mind setup.
What we want from data synchronisation
I don’t know about you but what I’m looking for in a synchronisation tool is pretty straightforward:
- Being able to point to a folder on one computer and make it synchronise across one or multiple computers.
- Detect and update the changed files transparently in the background without my intervention, as the changes happen.
- Be smart about conflict detection and only ask me to make a decision if the case isn’t obvious to resolve.
Live Mesh folders
Enters Microsoft Live Mesh Folders, now in beta and available to the public.
Live Mesh is meant to be Microsoft answer’s to synchronising information (note, I’m not saying data here) across computers, devices and the Internet.
While Live Mesh wants to be something a lot bigger than just synchronising folders, let’s just concentrate on that aspect of it.
Installing Live Mesh is pretty easy: you will need a Windows Live account to log-in but once this is done, it’s a small download and a short installation.
Once you’ve added your computer to your “Mesh” and are logged in you are ready to use Live Mesh:
- You decide how the data is synchronised for each computer participating in your Mesh:
you’re in charge of what gets copied where, so it’s easy to make large folders pair between say your laptop and work desktop and not your online Live Desktop (which has a 5GB limit) or your computer at home. You’re in control.
- Files are automatically synchronised as they change across all computers that share the particular folder you’re working in.
If the file is currently used, it won’t be synced before it is closed.
- If the other computers are not available, the sync will automatically happen as they are up again.
- There is no firewall setup: each computer knows how to contact the others and automatically -and uses- the appropriate network: transfers are local if the computers are on the same LAN or done across the Internet otherwise.
All that without user intervention at all.
- Whenever possible, data is exchanged in a P2P fashion where each device gets data from all the other devices it can see, making transfers quite efficient.
- File transfers are encrypted so they should be pretty safe even when using unsafe public connections.
- If you don’t want to allow sync, say you’re on a low-bandwidth dialup, you can work offline.
- The Mesh Operating Environment (MOE) is pretty efficient at detecting changes to files. Unlike other systems, in most cases it doesn’t need to scan all files to find out which ones have been updated or deleted.
- It’s not a final product, so there are some quirks and not all expected functionalities are there yet.
- The Mesh Operating Environment (MOE) services can be pretty resource hungry, although, in fairness, it’s not too bad except that it slows down your computer’s responsiveness while it loads at boot time.
- You can’t define patterns of files to exclude in your folder hierarchy.
That can be a bit annoying if the software you use is often creating large backup files automatically (like CorelDraw does) or if there are sub folders you don’t need to take everywhere.
- The initial sync process can take a long time if you have lots of files.
A solution if you have large folders to sync is to copy them first manually on each computer and then force Live Mesh to use these specific folders: the folders will be merged together and the initial sync process will be a lot faster as very little data needs to be exchanged between computers.
Bear in mind that Live Mesh is currently early beta and that most of these drawback will surely be addressed in the next months.
I currently have more than 18GB representing about 20,000 files synchronised between 3 computers (work desktop, laptop and home desktop) using Live Mesh.
While not 100% there, Live Mesh Folder synchronisation is really close to the real thing: it’s transparent, efficient, easy to use and it just works as you would
Now that Microsoft has released the Sync Framework to developers, I’m sure that other products will come on the market to further enhance data synchronisation in a more capable way.
In the meantime, Live Mesh has answered my needs so far.
January 19th, 2009
I’ve been using the MacBook Pro I introduced in my previous blog entry for a few weeks now.
Between love and frustration I hang…
Here is a review of our relationship so far.
Whether running OS/X or Windows 2008 I’ve got no major complaint about the performance of the machine.
It’s fast, stable (except sometimes it’s not waking up from sleep or it does but the screen remains black). The screen is nice and vibrant, I just love the magnetic power connector and the small size of the power adapter.
I have a few complaints though, see below.
OSX battery Power usage
For such a large and powerful laptop I’m pleasantly surprised with the duration of the battery under OSX: I’ve been able to watch videos for 3h, full screen, without trouble and overheating (although I would lower the screen brightness to reduce consumption).
I haven’t had such luck under Windows 2008 where I’ve been struggling to find the right power settings balance, but remember that’s a server OS and it’s not really meant to be run on a laptop.
You wonder why Apple, in all its hardware expertise could design the mighty-mouse with a single big button that can still do right-clicking but can’t give us the same thing with the enormous single-button of the trackpad.
Now the new models -just released this week- have done away with the button entirely, which may be just as well although I’m curious about how well the drivers will work under Windows.
Mouse acceleration in OSX is pretty frustrating to me.
When you’ve got a large screen, you’re endlessly shuffling the mouse to get that pointer in the right place. It feels slow, inaccurate and is extremely irritating after a while.
The problem is even worse when you’re working in OSX under VMware Fusion: while it might still be usable under OSX, the difference is really severe and unnatural in Windows.
This does not happen under bootcamp though where mouse acceleration behaves as you would expect (for windows).
I’ve tried a number of utilities (iMouse , SteerMouse and others) but none gave me what I needed.
The keyboard feels great to type on, with a nice spring and softness.
There are a few issues though:
Why is the Return key so small compared to the right Shift?
The rule is that the more a key is used, the bigger it is, yet the Enter is rather small, it’s the same size as the caps lock which serves almost no useful purpose in comparison.
The arrow keys are also minuscule, another probable example of Apple choosing form over function.
The lack of delete key forces you to type both the
backspace keys instead, which is an unnecessary pain, it’s not like understanding the difference between
backspace is that confusing to people using a complex machine like a computer.
I love the way the hooks for the lid come out just when you close it. It makes for a neat screen without protruding bits of metal or plastic.
My main issue with the lid is with its limited opening angle: if you’re just a little tall and you place your laptop on your lap then there is no way to open the screen enough to have it properly face you.
This is also an issue if you place your Macbook Pro on a cooling pad or a riser that’ll put the laptop too vertical (for instance to free some space around it when using an external keyboard): you just can’t use these devices.
That one really makes me mad: the MacBook Pro has audio issues that you won’t even find in a US$15 MP3 player and it’s totally unacceptable.
When idle, I can hear hissing sounds that vary in power and frequency if I slide the volume control; when playing music, there is a lot of noise and “cutting” sounds between songs.
These are not noticeable when using the integrated speakers but,they become really annoying once you use earphones.
I am sorely disappointed with sound quality to say the least.
On top of the annoying sounds from the sound chipset, the LCD inverter also makes a hissing sound that increases in volume when I lower the LCD brightness…
Coupled with that, the processor also makes a hissing noise when it gets into its C4 power saving state…
The noise is probably not high enough to get the laptop fixed but it might be great as a mosquito repellent.
Apple knows best and they know that your only aim in life is to become a poster boy for the brand.
When booting/rebooting your mac, it likes to play its welcome song that says “hey, over here, I’m a mac and I’m telling the world I’m booting up. Everyone listen how awesome I am!”.
The perverse thing is that even if you have earphones plugged in (as in: you don’t want to disturb people around you) the boot song will be played on the speakers…
Of course, there is no option anywhere to disable it.
Apple knows best.
After much trials, I found that booting under OSX, lowering the volume to zero, then rebooting under windows and changing the volume there would be OK: no more booting song -at least for now- and I can still change the volume in OSX and Windows.
Would I buy a Mac again knowing what I know now?
Mmmm, probably not.
I find the annoyances a bit too much relative to my expectations and my usage scenario.
To be fair, it’s not all bad and most of the time I’m happy with my mac but I find myself trying to avoid the things that infuriate me and it’s not really what I want from a laptop; it’s supposed to liberate me and give me the freedom I need to get things done, not get in the way.
Re-adapting to a strangely layout keyboard, having to deal with Apple’s brand awareness arrogance, battling with stuff that you just normally take for granted, all this is a bit too much of a price to pay for what is essentially for me a Windows development machine.
I prefer to waste my time actually getting things done rather than searching forums on how to keep Windows and OSX time in sync or bring back my machine for repair if a CD stays stuck in the CD Drive.
So, let’s say that our relationship is more ambivalent than needed to be.
Other links to pages of interest.
October 19th, 2008