Why I Love Slicehost

There will probably be a short site outage at 3:30PM UTC time on March 1st. While the outage is due to problems with the server I’m hosted on it’s a good example of why I love Slicehost as a hosting provider. Earlier today my site went dead as I was doing an update. It wasn’t the type of update that would have caused an outage. I checked the Sitehost diagnostics page which told me my slice was not running although the host hardware was up. It suggested I do a hard reboot which I did. The site came back up.

A few minutes late I received an e-mail from Slicehost saying they had monitored an unexpected reboot of the server that hosts my slice and would continue to monitor the server.Then about two hours later I received an e-mail that due to the previous problem they would be moving my slice to a new physical server at 3:30 UTC and there would be a brief period of downtime.

This is the second time I’ve received a message from Slicehost about a host server problem. The first time was back on February 10th. So just two events in one month and their moving me to a new server. This compares to chronic problems I experienced on my Bluehost shared hosting plan which caused me to move to Slicehost a bit ahead of schedule.

It’s a bit unfair to compare Bluehost and Slicehost directly and Bluhost is less than half the cost and Slicehost requires more work on my part. Slicehost is a virtual private server (vps) on a server that’s not oversold. Memory and disk are dedicated to me and I get a guaranteed minimum cpu cycles and will get more if they’re available when I need them.

But that doesn’t make the level of support and customer care any less worthy of praise. These days it’s tough to find truly good customer service. Sure, there was a hardware problem, for the first time since I’ve had the server which is over a year. But Slicehost handled it pro-actively and quickly. If you’re willing able to maintain your own server software from the operating system on up you can’t go wrong with Slicehost.

Windows Home Server Update

Windows Home Server got a small update with the February 2009 update. After installing the update on my Windows Home Server and rebooting the WHS I had to update the connector software on my desktop (I don’t have it set to automatic). The update was also announced on the Windows Home Server Team Blog.

The technote mentions that a problem with restores is fixed although I recall seeing backup fixes in the January update. I had the restore problem previously and saw it mentioned in an update, although it wasn’t fixed. I did a test restore from my first backup (so pre-patch) and it worked fine.

Why Buy an HP EX487 Windows Home Server?

I noticed that Newegg was offering the HP EX487 Windows Home Server as one of their deals. It’s $50 off list (a common promotion these days) with free shipping. This is the 1.5 TB version with two hard drives. With drives being so cheap these days I decided to check out the HP EX485 Windows Home Server which is the 750GB one drive version. Other than the additional drive the servers are the same.

The HP EX485 also has the same $50 discount from Newegg (among other places) and free shipping. But with a $150 price difference that’s a pretty expensive 750GB hard drive. I did find Western Digital’s high-end 750GB drive for $150 but it was the most expensive one. I’m not sure what drives are in the EX487, but I doubt it’s this one. So the bump in price is more than the value of the drive.

Then there’s the convenience of getting a server with two drives and having it ready to go with file duplication. The value of this would vary by person, but with drives so easy to install it shouldn’t be worth very much.

Newegg is offering a combo deal that adds two more drives (to max it out) to the EX487 and takes $89 off the total package. I’m still not sure this makes it worth it, I suppose it helps if you want the 500GB drives it includes.

I have to admit an affinity for the Western Western Digital Green drives in a Windows Home Server. With their low power usage, low heat and quiet operation they’re perfect for an always-on server. Their performance is fine for streaming video and serving files.

Any other reasons to get the EX487 instead of the EX485?  Who’s buying the EX487?

Great PC Case on Sale

I used the Antec New Solution NSK2480 case in my PC build and have been very happy with it so far. It’s quiet and keeps everything nice and cool. It was a bit pricey but NewEgg has it for $40 off which brings it down to $80.

McAfee VirusScan Plus free with VMware Fusion – Overpriced

I’ve recently been casually looking at virus software to see what’s out there. My impression of McAfee overall is negative but I can no longer remember the specific reason why that is. It’s bundled with VMware Fusion so I figured since it was free I’ve give it a try. Now, I expect a few strings but McAfee was so egregious all its products are now dead to me. And since VMware’s branding was incorporated into the McAfee interface itself which implies they approved I’ll view them skeptically in the future.

It wasn’t the links to the full (paid) product to enable additional features that annoyed me. Those were expected.

What puts McAfee into my personal slime pit is that it replaced my browser’s search provider with Yahoo. It did tell me it was doing it but gave me no option to keep my current settings. It also wanted to install the Yahoo toolbar but I was able to cancel it. The site advisor toolbar was installed and includes yet another search box hardcoded to Yahoo.

Needless to say McAfee no longer inhabits my virtual machine and I’ll be ignoring their products in the future.

Amazon Kindle Take 2

Amazon Kindle Amazon announced the Kindle 2 and plans to begin shipping it on Feb. 24th. While there’s no doubt Amazon has run out of Kindles at various times and there’s been estimates of a half million sold, I’m not convinced the Kindle qualifies as “hugely popular”. When using it in public I’ve only been asked about it by one person. And she asked me if it was the one Oprah talked about. I’ve never seen another Kindle in the wild.

Of course, I own the first Kindle and have already pre-ordered the second so I’m a Kindle lover. It does seem to be pricey at $359, especially when considering it’s a device that will be used to buy more stuff. But there’s the always-on “Whispernet” data connection which allows web connections in addition to book delivry. Sites are certainly limited due to the screen and lake of flash and java, but it’s a connection. Thanks to it I’ve never had to connect to a computer.

I also like being able to buy books anywhere and have them delivered in a minute or so. Prices do vary widely when compared to the physical book prices. I supposes the price depends on the publisher more than it depends on Amazon. I also like having all the books in one place and on a device I can take anywhere. When traveling I can just grab the Kindle and not have to worry about what I might like to read sometime in the future.

I also like being able to wake up in the morning and having my morning newspaper waiting on the Kindle, along with any other subscriptions. While the NY Times isn’t one of those subscriptions I read recently that it would be cheaper to give all their subscribers a Kindle than it would be to print and deliver the paper each day. Puts a new perspective on the Kindle costs. (For the record – my subscriptions are the Financial Timesand Time Magazine)

So why am I paying to upgrade to the latest hardware:

1. Number one is the redesigned next page button. I’ve gotten pretty good at not hitting it by accident but there are still times I hit it. And these days its usually multiple times.

2. The improved screen is a big enticement. I’m not looking for a backlit display but the current screen requires me to use a reading light in most cases. I’m hoping the current screen is easier to read in more places. I might actually find a backlit screen more annoying, after all books aren’t backlit.

3. The extended battery life and additional memory are nice to haves if not worth the upgrade cost. The Kindle may become a viable file storage solution with a capacity of about 1.4GB.

4. As I also like Audiobooks (which can be played on the Kindle) I think I might like the “Read To Me” feature. Although I’m not sure the read to me voice is something I’d want to listen to for extended periods of time. With audio books the narrator makes a big difference so I don’t really expect this to be an often-used feature for me. I do find it interesting that one backward focused group considers the feature illegal to use since it violates copyright law. (By extension, reading aloud to you kids is probably considered illegal by them.)

It’s been mentioned that the new Kindle is the same price as the old Kindle, a la Apple – maintaining a price point while increasing features. That’s not exactly true. They dropped the book cover for it and now charge $30 if you want one. (Also like Apple which would remove cases and cables as iPods evolved.) While I haven’t counted there seems to be a lot more covers already available for Kindle 2 than there ever were for Kindle 1. That’s one way to prime an accessories market.

So there you have it. I have no regrets about buying a second one (hopefully I’ll feel the same way once I get it). But, I have to admit it, an upgrade is a hard sell. Amazon’s “offer” was to put us Kindle 1 owners at the head of the queue provided we ordered by the 10th. The offer seemed rather insulting to me (“Be among the first to order and be among the first to receive it”) and I considered at least waiting to order as a hollow protest. Better for them to have offered nothing.

Even a first Kindle is a hard sell. But if you want an e-book reader I’d put it ahead of the others due to the internet connectivity (despite the browser and screen limits).

So, are there a lot of Kindle owners out there and I’ve just missed them?

The OS Quest Trail Log #38: The OS Edition

So far this year I’ve built a couple computers, one with Windows 7 and one with Windows Home Server. I’ve also fought some OS  X patching battles and hardware problems.

The new Windows Home Server is running well and has been nice and stable. With all the disk that’s now in it I was able to turn on file duplication for the video share which has 4.3 TB of data. Eventually I’ll turn off the file duplication but I want to get a feel for performance with it turned on. I’ll do a follow-up post once it’s been running awhile more and I’ve done some more testing.

I’m liking Windows 7 a lot. I still haven’t really banged on it, but its been stable. There’s been a few problems. Every once in a great while the screen will blank and I’ll get a message that the nVidia video drivers crashed and restarted. Since both Windows 7 and the video drivers are beta (I’ve using the Windows 7 beta video drivers from nVidia, not the Vista drivers) problems are expected. It’s nice that the recovery is clean.

I’m in the camp that really likes the Windows 7 taskbar. It is more like the OS X dock  although I’m not a OS X dock fan. In OS X I kept it off to the left and keep it hidden. In Windows 7 I keep it along the bottom and pin my most common applications to it. I like the way it always combines windows of like programs and  displays small versions of each window when mousing over the icon (a behavior that can be changed). I’m keeping most Windows 7 defaults although it’s more out of necessity. I’ve re-installed Windows 7 several times (at least 5) and I don’t want a long customization process each time.

I’m also just catching on to the “libraries” method of consolidating files. So far I like the feature as it lets me link to files of the same type at different locations and access them in one place/window. For example, a photo directory on my Windows Home Server and the one in my DropBox folders are both linked to the Pictures library so I can fine them in one place.

Lately it’s been OS X on my iMac that’s been giving me troubles. It may be time to do some in depth maintenance on the box. This time the problem appears to have been the iDVD and/or the iLife Media Browser upgrade. The reboot when applying the patches worked fine but the computer was locked up the next morning and a reboot stopped on a blank white screen. Starting in Safe Mode worked fine but none of the usual troubleshooting steps would allow booting in regular mode. Finally I downloaded the standalone installers for those two patches and ran them on the iMac. The next reboot worked just fine.

There was an earlier incident on the iMac where every program would fail to start and that was resolved by a reboot. The release of Snow Leopard would be an opportune time to flatten the iMac and reinstall everything from scratch. The question is – will it limp along long enough?

New & Upgraded Software

Path Finder has seen several minor upgrades since the release of version 5. It’s now up to version 5.0.8. The last couple of updates seem to have resolved the minor bugs and stability problems I was having.

ChronoSync was upgraded to version 4 as a free upgrade to current users. For what I use it for there hasn’t been much difference. But all my syncs converted just fine.

I did get the new version of iLife and iWork although I haven’t installed them on anything yet. I couldn’t resist the urge to have the latest and greatest even though the upgrades don’t excite me.

More Builds

I’ve got some more builds planned this month. I’ll be upgrading my just built Windows 7 box and using those parts to build my parents a PC. I’d planned to do it several months from now but the need for the new PC got moved up. So I decided to go ahead and upgrade sooner rather than later so I could make use of the parts. It would have been cheaper up front to just buy the parts for my parents PC since they don’t need much horsepower, but then when I did upgrade what I have now would probably go unused and it would cost more in the long run.

That’s it for this edition of the Trail Log.

Internet Explorer 8 Gets It Right

I’ve forever ignored a problem Internet Explorer had when displaying this site. It displayed correctly (meaning the way the CSS said to) in every browser I used except IE. Now IE 8 gets it right (at least the IE8 I’m running on Windows 7).

The problem was the way IE displayed the picture I put in the top left of many posts. This is how IE 7 and earlier used to display them. Notice the text starting at the bottom of the picture.

IE7 Screenshot

This is the way every other browser and now IE 8 displays it. Notice the text starts at the top of the picture.

IE8 Screenshot

Just don’t switch to the poorly named “compatibility mode: in IE 8. At least MS seems to have decided to turn this regressive mode off by default.

Google Stealth Updater

I’ve been setting up a new Windows 7 PC and I just installed Google Gears for Firefox. I noticed a new task under Windows Scheduler called GoogleUpdateTaskMachine. It’s set to run at every login and when the computer is idle. I have mixed emotions about this. I think it’s good to keep software up top date and for many people or PCs it may be the way to go. Yet, this is the company that recently deemed the entire web to be malware due to human error so it’s clearly not suitable everywhere.

So, the problem I have is that the updater only runs in stealth mode and updates all Google software at the same time (assuming they have updates). There’s no notifications and no options to delay updates. So I went into the scheduler and disabled the task. When I’m willing to take updates I’ll run it on demand. I’ll probably also write some sort of notification wrapper to put around their program so I can schedule it regularly and not have to remember to do it. But ultimately Google should add the notification ability into the updater itself. Microsoft and Apple do it, so can Google.

Here are screen shots of the task is Windows 7 (click for full size):

GoogleUpdater1  GoogleUpdater2  GoogleUpdater3  GoogleUpdater4  GoogleUpdater5

I just clicked “disable” to disable the task in the task scheduler.

GoogleUpdaterService There’s also a service called “Google Updater” that I changed from Automatic to disabled although it wasn’t actually running when I checked it.

Google gears is an add-in to Firefox, which has its own update mechanism (that includes warnings and options to delay) yet they saw the need to install their own updater. No argument from me that Google has a lot of smart people working for it and has been hugely successful selling ads. But, they seem to have this attitude that they know what’s best for everyone and we don’t need to know what they’re doing. Scary thought for a company that collects so much information. Of course, I still use GMail, Google Apps and Google search.

Update: I installed Google Chrome and it installed a second copy of the updater and created a second update take, this one in my user profile rather than under program files (Google Chrome installs in the profile also).

RSS Feed Readers Only

I just moved my Feedburner feeds to a google account. There shouldn’t be any noticeable change, or action required, if you subscribe to one of the rss feeds. If you notice any problems let me know.

Google purchased Feedburner awhile ago and is now making us users move from Feedburner to Google accounts. It needs to be done by the end of this month so hopefully by doing it early I’ve avoided the rush and can avoid any problems that may be caused by that last minute rush.