Hardware Tech

Times they are a-changin’

I’m getting close to finishing my hard drive upgrade for my desktop at home (ran out of space for ripping CDs) and the amount of storage I now have made me start thinking back to the computers I’ve had over my lifetime and how the storage specs have progressed

  • Apple IIe – No hard drive, just a 360 kB floppy drive (…720 kB thanks to a hole punch)
  • Mac LC – 40 MB (I have picture files large than that)
  • Power Mac 8100 – 250 MB (The drive was huge!  For a while, at least)
  • Mac PPC G3 – 4 GB (OS X has a system requirement of 3 GB, I think I can upgrade)
  • Home-built dual Celeron – 40 GB (Now that’s huge… right?)
  • Home-built P3 server – 120 GB (That is huge, I’m never going to run out of room now)
  • Home-built MCE – .8 TB (Actually it’s 1.6 TB of drives mirrored for data protection)

It’s kind of wild, just a couple of years ago that amount of storage seemed obscene… now it’s just necessary.

Care to take any bets on how long it takes me to be cramped for space?

Hardware Tech

Mechanical procreation

There’s cool, and then there’s geeky cool.  I think this is both.

Robots master reproduction
Andreas von Bubnoff
Modular machine assembles copies of itself in minutes.
Humans do it, bacteria do it, even viruses do it: they make copies of themselves. Now US researchers have built a flexible robot that can perform the same trick.

Cool, right?  What? I’m a geek?  Here, watch this video then tell me if it’s cool.

For the full story, please check out the article at


“Sarah Connor?”

Hardware Reference Sites Useful

S’bout time

I’ve been jealous of my coworkers in Redmond for a while because the Seattle-area has a very cool system for monitoring traffic status.  It now seems that the bay area may finally be catching up. now appears to have real-time traffic reporting for the south bay (read: Silicon Valley).  I honestly don’t know when they started reporting in real time as last time I looked for real-time traffic in the south bay was a year or so ago. offers traffic for a number of metro areas like New York, LA and San Francisco.  If your city is not explicitly listed, don’t despair, look for the closest metro area.  For example, San Jose is grouped in with San Francisco. 


Where’s the beef? gets some of its funding from ads but it is also a marketing tool for Mobility Technologies to help drive adoption of its telematics technologies (you can sign up for news from them on their products when you register for your free access).  Mobility’s travel data program gets federal funding (at $2M for specific metro areas) but they do end up sharing their profits with the government.  Mobility focuses on 3 markets: reselling data to broadcasters, selling real-time equipment to large agencies and finally telematics equipment to consumers.

Mobility‘s Traffic Pulse Networks® are automated systems for radio and tv broadcasters.  The material on their site reads like the brochures you might find on the desk of a tv or radio sales manager.  In short, buy our service and you’ll make money hand-over-fist.

The solutions Mobility sells to businesses and government (and potentially consumers with deep pockets) are focused on delivering the same type of information you get from the web page but in a customizable form.  I could see UPS buying into this type of service to get a leg up on FedEx.

The really cool bit for me is Mobility‘s telematics.  This is where we should have been ages ago, having real time traffic in our cars that link into the GPS navigation to intelligently route us around bad spots.  It’s not explicitly stated on their site but the 2005 Acura RL has technology from Mobility which links GPS with XM-transmitted traffic data.  Dare I say it?  That’s so boss.  Now, if I could only get the service in something a little more sporty.

Sources: Mobility’s web site, and the clever people who keep posting confidential Mobility business presentations in locations where Google can index them.

Gear Hardware TV

Thank the tech gods

I know I could be considered a complete MS lackey (something about MS paying me has a bit of an influence in that) but I must confess… I really love my TiVo (both of them).  I purchased the first TiVo on my wife‘s insistence and never regretted it.  It is simple to use and packed with great features.  I also have a Windows Media Center and love the features of it as well (check out this post by Ed Bott for an superb comparison of the two devices) but was too cheap to buy a new PC and moved it away from the TV (hmm… keep using my 500MHz Celeron or steal the 3.2 GHz MCE form the living room no one is using?).


My fondness for the TiVo, I’ll admit, is partially an over-inflated wish for fair play.  TiVo was the first break the ground for the DVR/PVR market only to see their share of the market slowly be nibbled away by competition and cable/satellite providers offering cheaper (and arguably poorer) solutions.  When Engadget started their TiVo deathwatch my heart sank.  It’s so funny how we love to root for the underdog.


Thankfully Comcast and TiVo have worked out a partnership deal which will have TiVo writing the software for Comcast’s PVR boxes.  This great news will mean I won’t have to worry about replacing my TiVo boxes any time in the immediate future (and the stock market agreed, if only mildly).


Long live TiVo (but please go buy a Windows Media Center PC… it helps put food on my table :)).

Hardware Life Tech

Lost in transition

UPS, FedEX, USPS… take note: if you can do a better job keeping track of packages than DHL I will insist that all shipments to me use your services.

I recently ordered three items from Dell computer… a pair of LCD monitors for me and my wife and a docking station for my wife’s laptop.  All three packages were picked up at identical times from Dell by DHL.  Two of the packages are identically-sized, the third very close in size.  All three packages are being shipped to the same location, my home.  Check out the shipping status table below and tell me if you can spot my frustration?

Date Time Activity/comments Location
Monitor 1 – Current status: Delivered
2/21/2005 2:13PM Shipment delivered.   San Jose South, CA
2/21/2005 2:13PM With delivery courier.    
2/21/2005 7:59AM Arrived at DHL facility.   San Jose South, CA
2/18/2005 3:42PM Picked Up by DHL. Shipper’s Door
Monitor 2 – Current status: Processed at Sort Facility.
2/20/2005 11:23AM Processed at Sort Facility.   Wilmington, OH
2/18/2005 3:42PM Picked Up by DHL. Shipper’s Door
Docking station – Current status: In transit.
2/18/2005 3:42PM Picked Up by DHL. Shipper’s Door

Every item was picked up from Dell by DHL at the exact same time on Friday.  Even though the box for the Dock is going to be a similar size to the monitor boxes, the Dock is 5 lbs and the monitors are 26 lbs… let’s give DHL the benefit of the doubt and expect the monitors will be traveling together.  No?  They’re not?  One arrived yesterday… 3 days ahead of schedule.

Okay, let’s give DHL the benefit of the doubt and expect they’ll get the same level of tracking detail.  Oops, sorry.  One package was tracked through a sorting facility in Ohio… the other simply showed up in San Jose with no intermediate stops. 

What about the dock?  It’s been “in transit” since the day it was picked up… no other detail is available… naturally.  Tracking number?  What’s that for?

“Hey Reeves, you got a package early, you should be happy.”

Well, sure, if I didn’t have a job and my wife wasn’t in school we could sit at home all week waiting for the packages to trickle in.  Heck, I’d be happy with a semi-accurate tracking of the packages so I could plan to be home to receive them.  Having no idea when the boxes will arrive is disconcerting.  Receiving the 3 orders over a random number of days is frustrating.  Knowing I ordered a stack of expensive computer equipment and the shipper is sloppy in tracking and handling it is annoying.  Calling DHL to suggest they be more consistent and getting the attitude of “hey, you got your package early, you should be happy” is infuriating.  DHL, that’s one step away from saying “hey, you got your package, you should be happy.”

DHL: From this day forward I’m going to insist all shippers use UPS, FedEX or USPS… and I will pay extra for the privilege of not using your sloppy service.

Hardware Software

Are you crash-safe?

No one ever wants to believe their computer will fail them.  You can try to make yourself feel safer… your computer is new, it’s under warranty, you take good care of it… but make no mistake, your computer will fail, and probably at a really really bad time.  Here’s something that may help you make up your mind: I received a brand-new laptop at work in July of 2002, by September of 2002 the hard drive had failed completely.  Brand new hard can fail and older drives will fail. You must have a back up solution.

I can hear the whining already: Back ups?  Are you sure?  Making backups is such a pain.  It’s too hard.  I don’t know how!

a) Backing up your data can be easy
b) You aren’t safe

People who have tried back up solutions in the past which require swapping floppies in and out or copying data to CDs will no doubt agree, backing up data can be a long tedious process.  Corporate backups used to be made to tape drives, also time consuming and definitely expensive.  There is good news: the plummeting price of hard drives has made back up much simpler and cheaper.  Couple an inexpensive external drive with some inexpensive software and you have yourself a backup solution.

This past winter vacation I set up a very simple backup solution on both my parents computers.  I used an external hard drive connected via USB (yes, simple plug in, just like a digital camera) and some straight forward software from Symantec called Norton Ghost 9.0.  It took a bit of time to format the hard drive (not difficult, just had to wait, it takes time) and no time at all to set up Ghost.  The software will automatically back up a computer on a schedule you specify.  It couldn’t be more simple.

The best back up systems will protect you from:
1. Hardware failure (the inevitable drive failure)
2. Theft (it happens)
3. Hardware destruction (house fire or clumsy nephew with a can of Coke)

You love your digital camera, don’t you?  You take a whole mess of pictures.  Now… what happens if your hard drive crashes?  The hard drive contains what amounts to negatives for all your digital pictures.  Having your hard drive crash is really like having your digital house burn down.  Eeek!  If your real house burns down you will loose all your pictures and the negatives, but you can easily protect your digital negatives.  Take your external back up hard drive to work with you for added data security.

So, here’s the recipe:
1) Determine the size of the hard drive inside your computer
2) Find an external hard drive equal to or larger than your computer’s drive (try Price Watch for good prices)
3) Select some backup software (list of options at bottom)
4) Install both and set the software to run automatically

Most computers have hard drives smaller than 80 gigabytes, an 80 gigabyte USB drive found on price watch: less than $70.  Backup software can be had for less than $50.  I’m sure the data on your computer is worth more than $120 and an hour of your time.

Here are some possible back up software solutions:

Gear Hardware

Even your camera can be teary eyed now

Imagine a lens for your camera phone that is very small and has no moving parts yet is still able to focus and zoom like the “huge” lens you already have.  French startup Varioptic has come up with a technology that makes zoom lens elements which have been shrunk down to a couple millimeters in size… but they say they’ll go smaller.

The technology is very cool.  They sandwich a couple of liquids of similar density into their element and move the edges of the liquid “bubble” by applying electrostatic pressure.  The surface tension forces the shape to bulge, focusing the element.  Clever.

Now maybe that Dick Tracy watch can really have a video phone!

Get the whole picture on this story at the register.


Happy laptop once more

The nice help desk guy got me up and running once again (and in fairly short order too).  There are a lot of perks to to working at Microsoft, not the least of which is getting questions answered (either from tech support or the people who designed the software in the first place).

The solution to my problem was to use the recovery module on the XP install CD to manually copy a new system file over from the CD’s system folder.  There may have been an automated method but it wasn’t obvious (not to mention the MCE install CD I had wouldn’t do the trick).  There was no way I was going to get it solved on my own except by wiping out Windows and starting fresh.

Now I just need to fix all drivers that managed to break in the repair process… how does replacing that one file cause all the other stuff to break?


The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men…

I was hoping to keep a record of my vacation (more for my sake than for any interest it might have) but my laptop threw a shoe. 

Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt:

Kee-rap!  Wouldn’t you know it, I have CDs of Windows from 98 to XP home but no XP pro cds to attempt a repair (I have MCE CDs but they seem to lock up when attempting to use them).

Oh Joy.  I get to pull my hard drive.


Now These Are Just Plain Cool

Max Displays makes multi-head LCD monitors. Lot’s of screen in an integrated package. For the ultra-cool day-trader look you need the 4-in-one monitor.