Quick Look: Picasa 3

Photo of a Conway Scenic Railway locomotive

Having come back from my vacation with a bunch of pictures I decided to give Picasa another look. My camera is a Canon Rebel T2ialt and I kept it set for RAW+JPG when taking pictures. Picasa has the ability to read RAW files and with the latest update it properly reads the files from my T2i. The online web albums also provide the potential to be a nice offline backup solution. Another bonus is the software is cross-platform, with Windows & Mac versions.

By way of background the RAW+JPG setting on the Canon Rebel T2i creates files with the same name, just different extensions. I copy the SD cards, both file types, to a directory on my Windows Home Server so they’re accessible from all my computers.

Picasa met some of it’s promise but is still an incomplete solution for me.

RAW File Handling

I decided not to use Picasa for my RAW files and went into the settings to exclude the RAW files from being imported into Picasa. Like any photo management software the RAW files have some processing applied so they can be displayed. I wasn’t happy with the default processing Picasa applied. The RAW files were all too dark and I liked the looks of the JPG’s better even without additional processing.

In addition, if the RAW files were sent to Picasa Web Albums they were sent as JPG files. While this is fine if the purpose is simply to display them. I wanted to use Web Albums as a way to back them up and backing up a JPG translation of a RAW file isn’t what I was looking for, I already had a JPG file.

As for RAW file editing, Picasa just didn’t feel as “RAW friendly” as the software bundled with the Rebel T2i or Aperture.

So I decided pretty early on the exclude RAW’s from Picasa 3.

Multiple PCs

This is pretty simple, Picasa 3 isn’t aware of multiple PCs. Since I have the files on a Windows Home Server share I can set up the multiple copies of Picasa to read that share. My initial testing showed that Picasa was smart enough to sync changes between PCs if the web album was already set up, but it clearing wouldn’t sync newly created web albums.

To avoid confusion I only mad my Windows desktop PC the one to sync web albums. Since everything was on the WHS share the other PCs would learn of changes from there.

Each Picasa install is a database (so to speak) of its own. While they each load photos from a shared location, file edits are not synced. It looks like Picasa creates an INI file in the same directory as the photo that contains edit information. I thought that might help each Picasa install see the edits, but it doesn’t.  Because of this INI file I thought edits from multiple Picasa installs would cause a problem since they all appear to write to the same file. But my testing didn’t uncover any problems, each PC remembered its own edits and each PC could remove all edits when I told it to.

Photo Editing

Picasa isn’t lacking in photo editing tools. The photo editing is non-destructive to the original file although there is an option to save the changes to the file. If the changes are saved a backup of the original file is made.

The screenshots below show the editing controls:

picasa01 picasa02 picasa03

I just haven’t found myself drawn to Picasa (or Windows Live Photo Gallery as an editor). Because Picasa links to web albums I may begin using it to do quick edits on pictures I want to publish in the web albums. But I still find myself using an external editor for quick edits on pictures and then I usually save them as a second copy.

For the larger photo projects like my vacation photos I find myself preferring Aperture where I can maintain multiple versions based on the same master. In general I don’t do a lot of photo editing and prefer stuff that’s ready to use so I’m not in a good position to evaluate Picasa’s editing abilities.

EXIF Data

Picasa displays plenty of EXIF data for the photos. The screenshots below show the info pane for the photo at the top of this article.

picasa4 picasa5 picasa6

Duplicate Photos

Another nice feature is the ability to find duplicate photos. Since I’d been moving files around over their lifetime, and creating backups (and backups of backups) I had a lot of duplicates. But I was afraid to just delete entire directories without checking each photo. Picasa did a find job of finding the duplicate photos which I could then safely delete.

The Role of Picasa for Me

Because of the RAW file and multiple PC limitations I’ve been using Picasa to fill two roles:

  1. It provides an offsite backup, via web albums, for my pictures. This is limited to the JPG’s, but it can upload the full size JPG. This is more than sufficient as a way to provide an offsite backup of the memories.
  2. It provides a nice photo organization tool. I’m still comparing it against Window Live Photo Gallery but Picasa has the benefit of being cross platform. Tags added to a photo in Picasa appear in Windows Live Photo Gallery (I’m using the latest beta) and visa-versa. Tags also get added to iPhoto if the photo is imported after being tagged. Likewise tags also sync between multiple Picasa installs. Well, not really sync since the tag is added to the file so each install simple re-reads the file. Since the tag is added to the file it does change the file, so any backup or sync will happen again as tags change.
    I’ve had both Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery on my Windows PCs for the last week or so and they’re set to manage the same photos in my Windows Home Server share. While I like WLPG I’m finding myself using Picasa more. I find managing the photos a bit more natural using it.
    I like managing my photos in a directory structure rather than within a program. Even with Aperture or iPhoto I use the setting to manage the photos externally. Picasa handles this easily as it can be set to watch an entire directory tree for changes. I have it watch the entire share on my WHS although I need to map a drive to do this. I get a warning that watching an entire driver may affect performance but it’s been fine for me. It’s not really an entire drive since every file in the share is a photo.
    Unfortunately each of these folders must be set individually to synch to a web album, since that’s what I want. It’s tedious to set 800+ folders to sync but at least all it requires is some mouse scrolling and clicking. Plus when new folders are created I have to remember and set them to sync to the web. Every once in awhile I’ll probably have to scroll down the folder list to make sure they all set to sync. There’s an icon to indicate syncing so this is fairly quick.

Traveling Gadgets

Picture of a Cog Railway Engine

My recent vacation trip was by car so it was fairly easy to bring along the gadgets I wanted. Now, it wasn’t my goal to spend the trip just playing with the same tech I had at home. I was heading to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and planned to enjoy myself. So this is what I brought along and how it contributed to that goal. The list is more or less in the order of importance.

Motorola Droid Phone

This was easily the gadget that got used the most, mainly for two things:

  1. Mapping & Directions (GPS) – I really liked the mapping app built into the Droid. Compared to dedicated GPS gadgets I used in the past it was much more accurate and considerably less annoying.
  2. Audible Books – I’ve installed the Audible Android app and I listened to Audible books while driving around.

The directions were very good. Because I knew much of the route I didn’t want to go the exact way the GPS was sending me. It didn’t freak out when I went past an exit. Instead it recalculated and picked up the route I was taking. No constant messages to turn around.

The downside of using a phone for GPS mapping became apparent in the White Mountains. When there wasn’t any cell service there wasn’t any map.  The Droid would preload any maps needed for my trip in I selected the destination while I had service, but when it needed to recalculate the route I was hosed. The GPS had my location marked in a completely white screen.

There were only two points where the directions let me down and both had some mitigating circumstances. In the White Mountains it wanted to take me down a road that looked questionable (enforced by a warning sign) so I stuck with the paper map. The second was a complicated intersection. It really wasn’t wrong in this last case, I was just used to warnings before I had to make a turn, even to stay on the same route. For this intersection I needed to take a left to stay on the same route, it just indicated straight although the map itself was right and when I went straight it fixed itself, without yelling at me to make a u-turn.

I used the Motorola Droid car dockalt while in the car. It comes with a car power adapter which is a necessity since the phone only last about 2 hours when using the GPS mapping. The Droid senses when it’s in the dock and goes into car mode which makes it easier to use.

The speaker was load enough so I could hear the books while driving. I could have the sunroof open but if I opened the windows all the way the road noise would usually drown out the book.

I also brought along the Multimedia Docking Stationalt which I used to charge the phone overnight. It also made the alarm easier to use so I didn’t have to figure out the hotel clock-radio.

The battery life, or rather lack of it, keeps me from using the Droid for more. I actually need it as a phone. Without the car adapter, or some other recharge during the day I wouldn’t make it through the day unless I abstained from the GPS and kept other activity to a minimum. Also, between the GPS/mapping and Audible book running at the same time the back of the phone got quit hot, another indication of heavy power usage. It was burn my hand hot, but it was uncomfortably warm.

Photo of Conway Scenic Railway Notch train

iPad

The iPadalt was my second most used gadget on the trip. It worked with the free hotel wi-fi so I could using it for browsing through my RSS feed and general web surfing.

The iPad was also perfect for keeping PDF maps of the area along with other travel information. I probably could have done all this on my Droid but I liked the larger screen of the iPad.

I had packed the iPad with video so it was an option on the trip, but the reality was I only watched one video.

For this trip I had the iPad in Apple’s iPad Casealt. Until the trip I hadn’t been using it but the thin case, with good protection, was perfect for this. It didn’t take much space but the hard covering protected the screen from scratching.

I did bring my laptop with me, but except for the disk space I wouldn’t have needed the laptop and stuck with my iPad.

MiFi

My MiFialt provided a broadband connection for my iPad and could have worked with my laptop. I‘m paranoid about public wi-fi so when I wanted to access something with a password I used the MiFi instead of the free hotel wi-fi. I could also use it to connect the iPad when on the road, assuming I had a cell connection.

Laptop

I did bring my new laptop with me but it got very little use. All I used it for was to backup my SD cards after a day of pictures. In theory the iPad could have taken them but they took up too much space for the iPad so I was glad I took the laptop with me.

Camera

I guess my Canon Rebel T2ialt was actually the second most used gadget as I took several hundred pictures. (Lot’s of bracketing and exposure experimentation). Most of the pictures were with the Canon EF-S 10-22mm lensalt that I really like. I like the lens for landscapes. I also took a large number of pictures with the Canon EF 24-105mm lensalt that I like as a all purpose carry lens.

I’ve still got a lot to learn about photography, both the mechanics and the visual, but I was happy with the camera. I’m glad I got in far enough before vacation so I could get used to using it before the trip.

Photo of the Conway Scenic Railway stations

The OS Quest Trail Log #54: Vacation is Over Edition

Mountains and clouds in New HampshireIt had to happen sometime, my vacation is ending and it’s back to corporate America on Monday. This blog was silent for a month with barely a peep the month before that but things picked up recently. Vacation was a trip to the White Mountains followed by a week around the house with a lot of computer time during the last week. As luck would have it the trip was during the bad week of weather.

A New Laptop & Encryption

Prior to vacation my new Dell laptop arrived with just enough time to get it set up. It’s always fun to get a new computer. I’ve been using it quit a bit around the apartment rather than my desktop. I’m sitting on the patio now as I type this up.

I also took a look at TrueCrypt as a way to secure my laptop on its travels. I started off playing it safe, planning to encrypt a USB drive which I would take with me. That went so well I decided to go for broke and encrypt the entire system drive. So far it’s working great and I don’t have any complaints about performance.

In retrospect the one thing I might have wanted to look for in a laptop with a CPU that supported AES hardware acceleration. I hadn’t seriously considered encryption until after I got my laptop and I didn’t even know the feature existed. As it is, a CPU that support hardware accelerated AES doesn’t appear to be an option in the Dell Inspiron line at this point, although some higher level i5 CPUs do support it.

WordPress Changes

I also spent some time looking at my sites and WordPress. I’d gotten sloppy in my testing so while I was busy keeping the site code up to date my WP Super Cache plugin stopped caching and went unnoticed. I spent some time trying to troubleshoot it but finally got frustrated enough to look for an alternative. I found two complementary caching plugins which are running now.

I also finally fixed the plugin I use to announce new posts on Twitter. In this case I knew it was broken due to the change to oAuth authentication. In my quest to keep things lean I wasn’t running the Curl library for PHP. Once I added PHP-Curl the plugin worked fine.

Security and Browsers

I also got around to plugging a month old security vulnerability that Microsoft isn’t fixing in order to avoid breaking any apps. Hopefully Microsoft will fix this on their own. I can kind of see their point, if an app is written properly and doesn’t rely on the default search order there’s no problem. If the app does rely of the default search order then their patch may break it. I haven’t had any problems since installing the patch although it’s only been a day. I suspect they’ll roll out the patch once there’s some history of problem free patching.

I also decided to give the IE 9 beta a spin. I must have some hidden desire to abuse this new laptop. Since IE isn’t my default browser there wasn’t much risk. I’m actually pretty impressed. It seems fast. The bad news is it has the same problem rendering the footer of my website’s home page that earlier IE version have. I long ago stopped caring about IE, as long as it was usable. If the site renders find in Firefox, Safari and Chrome then it’s OK with me.

Still, Internet Explorer 9 is going to be a lot of new code. I suspect it will have a lot of new security holes in that shiny new code. So while the first impression is it doesn’t suck anymore, I don’t see it replacing Chrome for me in the future.

On Deck

There’s a few more things I started looking at or working on while on vacation. History tells me I won’t get to them all, at least not soon.

I downloaded the latest Windows Home Server 2 (Vail) beta software. I’ve yet to install anything but home to do so on my spare test box. I need to look into things some more but I expect I’ll be building a new server for Vail. There’s not going to be any upgrade path on the old server since this is typically sold as an appliance by OEMs. Even if it could be upgraded it’s safer to go to new hardware with all that data. My test box is more powerful than my current WHS so it may actually end up being suitable for my new WHS. At least if I can start testing it I’ll get an idea of the hardware and memory requirements.

Despite the relatively bad weather I did take some pictures in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (like the one at the top of this article). I’m still getting used to the various photo software I have available to see which I like. The stuff that came with my Canon camera is remarkably good for bundled software. I’ve also been looking at Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery although these appear to be better suited for organization and minor editing. I’ve been working on getting familiar with Aperture 3 as it seems best suited as a combination organizer/manager and editor.

So it’s back to work tomorrow. Hopefully after the initial surge of work when I return I’ll have enough time for fun with computers and be able to keep the posts coming.

Security: DLL Search order Vulnerability

Tile for Windows Security Patch articles

This vulenrability is a little old, reported about a month ago, but I’m just getting around to patching it and Microsoft isn’t. The “Insecure Library Loading Could Allow Remote Code Execution” vulnerability was announced by Microsoft back in late August in bulletin 2269637.  Unfortunately Microsoft has not rolled out a patch with their normal patch rollouts. Probably because of the potential to break apps. They did publish knowledge base article 2264107 which has a workaround to the problem.

In short, because the working directory is included in a DLL search path and could be a remote directory it was possible for an attacker to compromise a system with a remote DLL. Applications could avoid this by not relying on the default search order.

I ran through the steps and haven’t had an issue. Since I don’t expect any of my applications to run a remote DLL (WebDAV or SMB file share) I’m not expecting any problems. I’ve installed the patch and changed the settings on Windows 7 64-bit only, but the patch is available for other OS’s and the process seems the same for them.

To patch the PC:

  1. Download and install the appropriate OS patch from the KB article. I needed to reboot and I suspect the other OS’s will also need a reboot.
  2. The patch doesn’t change anything, it just enabled the use of the registry keys described in the article. You can create the registry key(s) manually or do like I did, and click the “Fix It” link in the article.
  3. The Fix It link creates the global registry key with a value of “2” which prevents searching the working directory for DLLs in the location is WebDAV or SMB (remote).

The working directory isn’t the directory the application is installed in (I suppose it can be, but that would be coincidence). This patch also affects the search order (based on the article) so if the app is installed remotely, and properly written to not rely on the remote working directory for a DLL, I would expect the app to continue to work. But, I don’t have any remotely installed apps to test this out.

This is the first time I tried one of those “Fix It” links. It’s a little scary but worked well. I’ll post an update if I have any app issues, but so far so good.

WordPress Caching Plugins

Tile for WordPress Plugin postsWP Super Cache has long been my “go to” plugin for improving performance of WordPress. But that just changed.

There was an update to WP Super Cache recently and I installed it. I had some time and did some testing beyond making sure the site didn’t break and what I found was that the plugin really wasn’t working. Unfortunately I haven’t been completely testing each and every change to the site. If nothing breaks I consider it good although I hadn’t gone so far as to verify pages were being cached. Somewhere in the past it appears the WP Super Cache plugin stopped caching many pages. I can’t say if it was an earlier upgrade to the plugin or if it was something I added/changed that Super Cache couldn’t handle. It wasn’t the latest update as another of my sites that was still on the older plugin had the same problem.

I spent some time troubleshooting over the course of a couple days, doing the usual things. Google searches, uninstall.re-install, checking logs and so on. The strange thing was that testing worked (mostly) and the logs said things were cached. Some pages were in fact cached while most weren’t. Due to the increasing frustration I turned it off and decided to take a break and return with fresh eyes in a week or so.

Instead I looked for alternatives and found two of them that appear to complement one another.

DB Cache Reloaded

First off is DB Cache Reloaded which takes a different approach to caching in that it caches queries rather than pages. Among other benefits this helps with bots. Bots (such as Google’s search crawlers) traverse the pages, hitting each one just once. A typical page cache, such as WP Super Cache or the next plugin I mention, don’t help with the bots. Well, unless the page was already cached before the bot arrived. Since many WordPress pages make the same database calls DB Cache Reloaded will help reduce the CPU load as the bot traverses the pages since they will make many of the same queries.

DB Cache Reloaded is not going to give the same speed boost as Super Cache or Hyper Cache when feeding a page already cached, but it’s going to reduce CPU and memory load on the server when those bots hit. It’s also going to improve performance for the infrequently visited pages.

With Google now saying they include website speed when ranking search results, the performance that the bots receive is also going to help. DB Cache Reloaded avoids the need to cache every page on the site just to help the bots.

Hyper Cache

Hyper Cache provides the same basic functionality as WP Super Cache with the main difference being it’s easier to configure (needing very little). WP Super Cache has gotten easier to configure over time, and now has an “easy setup” but to get the best performance you need to configure it via .htaccess files. Hyper Cache had the added benefit for me in that it worked on my site.

Hyper Cache won’t be active if you’re logged onto WordPress, so for cache testing you’ll need a second browser that’s not logged in. (Or use Google Chrome’s incognito mode – I assume another browser’s private browsing mode would work too, but haven’t tried anything other than incognito.)

Unlike WP Super Cache my testing shows Hype Cache is working across all my pages.

The Dynamic Duo

The two caching plugins seem like the perfect compliment to one another. DB Cache Reloaded caches the queries which reducing CPU and memory load, even for the bots and for infrequently viewed pages. I actually came across my Super Cache problem when trying the “preload” feature to help the bots. DB Cache Reloaded seems like a better solution, at least for me. For one thing, DB Cache Reloaded uses a lot less disk space since it doesn’t cache each and every page.

Hyper Cache works like Super Cache and provides the more mainstream page caching for the pages that are frequently accessed.

I haven’t come across any problems with either plugin or with them working together. I’m using the default settings for each plugin at this time. I am on the latest WordPress version (3.01) and there may be problems with earlier versions. I’m hoping to get some time to do actual benchmarks but the speed seems good to me. Time will tell.

Browser Battles: Firefox–Chrome – IE

image of WWW on gold

I’ve been a longtime fan and user of Mozilla Firefox. It’s been far from perfect but the extensions had me hooked. As for IE, I’ve been a longtime hater. But that’s been changing recently.

The company I work for during the day stipulates Internet Explorer, even worse, until recently it’s be IE 6. I went rogue when IE 7 came out and installed that so I could at least get tabs. The company is finally transitioning so I’ve been in the IE 8 testers group since it’s inception so at least I’ve been using a sanctioned browser. Like many large companies the biggest problem was internal sites or applications that didn’t work with IE 7 or 8. There’s still some isolated problems with IE 8 but those app owners are being forced to get their act together. The point of this is I’ve been using Internet Explorer 8 during the day and it hasn’t sucked.

In my world I keep a wall between work and home so I don’t have a need to share work related bookmarks, add-ins or anything else (not to mention security issues if I try to use an external service) so IE8 can be an island to itself and it’s been fine. But it hasn’t been so fine that I wanted to bring the experience home.

At home it’s been Firefox across all platforms. The add-ins gave me all the features I wanted. Unfortunately they also contributed to some instability and less than great performance. If I didn’t shutdown and restart Firefox regularly I’d eventually be forced to do it. Still, it was better than IE or Safari.

Then about 6 weeks ago I gave Google Chrome another try. I worked it’s way in to be my default browser and then Chrome 6 came out and solidified that position. I don’t do too much web browsing on my Mac so I may not have come across so issues, but it’s been peppy and stable. On Windows it’s been rock solid and has performed nicely.

I like the ability to sync bookmarks, preferences and extensions (plus a couple things I don’t care about). This makes new installations easy. I also like incognito mode since it allows be to open multiple Google Apps for Domains and Google mail accounts at the same time.

And now IE 9 has entered the public beta phase. I installed it on my laptop and have been giving it a spin. I almost ashamed to admit it, but I like it. It’s been fast and gets out of the website’s way. It feels very Chrome-like. The add-ins I want (LastPass, Evernote, and Delicious) all worked fine after the upgrade. They seem to have emphasized performance as during the first startup after the install I was told how much each add-in contributed to the startup time and was given the option to disable them.

Google Chrome will continue to be my default browser due to the cross-platform ability. Internet Explorer 9 will get added to my other Windows boxes (it seems stable despite being a beta) and I won’t hesitate to use it on sites that insist on being IE specific. I also use it for general browsing to get a fee for it. There’s an outside chance IE 9 could replace Google Chrome for me. I wouldn’t have expected to say this 4 months ago, but Mozilla Firefox is the odd browser out. I’ve no reason to use it, at least until Firefox 4 comes out, even though I like it.

TrueCrypt: Full Disk Encryption

After seeing how easy TrueCrypt worked when I used it to encrypt files (or more accurately, create a encrypted container to hold files) I decided to give full disk encryption a try on my new Dell Inspiron laptop. I was planning to take the laptop on my vacation trip and wanted to encrypt the data. The laptop was new and not a critical part of my workflow so if full disk encryption cratered the laptop, requiring a rebuild, it could wait until after my trip without causing any serious problems.

As it turned out, the full disk encryption worked without any problems. While I hadn’t used the new laptop enough to gauge any before/after performance differences, the benchmarks showed a negligible difference.

I’d already installed TrueCrypt on the laptop so all I needed to do was encrypt the system drive. I decide to encrypt the entire system drive (the only drive in the laptop) and I’ll just use normal encryption. I won’t bother with the hidden option since I mainly care about preventing someone who steals my laptop from being able to access the files. The encryption  process is wizard based and the screens are shown below. I don’t have any plans to dual boot this laptop so I can keep it simple with a single boot configuration. I also stick with AES encryption since it benchmarks better than the other options.

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 1 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 2

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 3 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 4

At this point I was presented with a UAC prompt as TrueCrypt looked for hidden sectors in the host protected area. The process was too quick to get a screenshot or even read the entire message. TrueCrypt apparently liked what it found (or didn’t find) and moved on.

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 6 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 7

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 8 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 9

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 10

At this point I’m prompted to create a rescue disk which I do. Should something happen to the hard drive that prevents the PC from booting.  The Rescue Disk can be used to boot the PC and then unencrypt the hard drive so that the data can be copied off the drive.

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 11 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 12

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 13 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 14

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 15

After the detour to create the rescue disk we’re back to work on setting up the full disk encryption. At this point no actual encryption has happened yet.

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 16 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 17

Now things will begin to happen so a couple screens provide instructions on what to do should things go horribly wrong.

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 18a System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 18b

Then the PC reboots and does it’s thing. I’m told the pretest was successful. After clicking the encrypt button there’s more instructions about how to recover if there’s a problem.

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 19 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 20a

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 20b System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 20c

There was another UAC prompt when I clicked “OK” on the message box. As the encryption is going on the status is displayed.

System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 21 System Disk Encryption Wizard Screen 22

My 580 GB Hard Drive with about 75 GB in use (both as reported by Windows) took about 8 hours to encrypt. I didn’t use the PC during this time so the encryption process should have gotten all the available resources.

Conclusion

After the encryption was finished I rebooted the PC to make sure everything was OK. The reboot was fine although things seemed to be slower than before. I hadn’t had the laptop long enough to really get a good feel on the performance so it may have been more perception than reality. I had benchmarked the Dell Inspiron laptop prior to encryption so I did it again now. There was a significant drop in the disk benchmark score.

The pre-TrueCrypt encryption disk results were 21% better than the post encryption score. While I expected some performance hit, this seemed extreme. I rebooted one more time and there was a noticeable improvement. I ran the benchmark again and the disk actually scored about 10% better than the pre-encryption benchmark. (I don’t stop all background tasks to do the benchmarks so some variation is to be expected.) Like I said before, I didn’t have the laptop very long before I encrypted it so I didn’t get a good feel for performance, but I don’t have any complaints and it seems peppy enough. It was interesting that it took two reboots after the encryption finished for things to settle down.

I haven’t had problems running any software and there hasn’t been any instability with the system. My Windows Home Server backup runs just fine. Since the disk is decrypted at boot the WHS backup software sees the file system the same way it did prior to encryption.

Overall I’m happy with TrueCrypt full disk encryption, it’s worked well and I’m happy with the performance. While I certainly don’t want to lose my laptop, I’m happy to know that if I do the data will be protected.

PHP-CURL Library Added to Apache

I’ve previously written about the modules needed to run a WordPress site, or at least my site. It was a pretty basic list as I like to keep things simple. I’ve been using the Twitter Tools add-in to send a tweet whenever I post a new article to this site. Twitter began requiring OAuth authentication for apps like these and the change broke Twitter Tools for me. I finally got around to tackling the problem today.

I was receiving the message

Call to undefined function curl_init()

whenever I tested the connection to twitter. A quick visit to the support page showed I needed the curl library for PHP. The installation was straightforward:

>sudo aptitude install php5-curl

Once it was installed I needed to restart Apache so the library would be used:

>sudo /etc/init.d/apache2 restart

Then everything was just fine.

TrueCrypt 7.0–Install & Encrypt USB Flash Drive

TrueCrypt Logo

With the arrival if my new Dell Inspiron laptop just before some planned vacation travel I decided to try out disk encryption. My plan was to encrypt a USB drive and add an encrypted container for files on my laptop. Using Windows Bitlocker would have required upgrading to a more expensive version of Windows 7 so I went with the free Open Source TrueCrypt. In addition to being Open Source, it’s also cross-platform and runs on Windows, OS X and Linux.

Installation was simple, after downloading the latest version I ran the installation executable and ran through the wizard. There’s only 5 screens during the install. They’re shown below, along with the options I used. They’re pretty self-explanatory and don’t affect the operation of TrueCrypt itself, just how you want to access it. Nothing gets encrypted during the installation.

I decided to do the full install, rather than install in “portable mode”. Portable mode is used when the extract option is picked on the first screen. It allows encrypted containers to be created but can’t encrypt the system drive. I do the full install so that I have the option of full drive encryption should I decide to go that route. It’s a 64-bit application and uses less than 8MB for the installation.
TrueCrypt Install Screen 1 TrueCrypt Install Screen 2

TrueCrypt Install Screen 3 TrueCrypt Install Screen 4

TrueCrypt Install Screen 5

The beginner’s tutorial referred to on the last screen is available on the TrueCrypt website. Starting up TrueCrypt presents the main screen:

MainScreen

Creating A Encrypted Volume

My USB Flash Drive is already in a USB port (as Drive F:) so I click the “Create Volume” button to start the process of creating an encrypted container on the flash drive. The hidden volume (an encrypted volume within a encrypted volume) is more security than I need. So I’ll create a standard volume. The volume location screen is asking for the name of the encrypted container to be created, and not an existing file to be created.

Volume Creation Wizard Screen 1 Volume Creation Wizard Screen 2 Volume Creation Wizard Screen 3

I pick AES encryption since it benchmarks with the best performance. The benchmarks are based on the current computer and will vary from PC to PC (or even on the same PC run at different times). I took the default AES selection.

Volume Creation Wizard Screen 4 Volume Creation Wizard Screen 5

I have the USB Flash drive formatted with the FAT file system (which is also the original format) for maximum compatibility across Windows, OS X and Linux. So I’m limited to a maximum container size of 4GB since the container is one file and FAT has a 4GB limit. I also enter a nice long phrase for the encryption password and accept the default FAT file system and cluster size. I spend some time moving the mouse around to generate some nice random keys. Once I click format the volume is quickly created.

Wizard6 Wizard7 Wizard8 Wizard9

The final screen in the Wizard lets me know all is well.

Wizard10

TrueCrypt Travel Disk

Since TrueCrypt 7 may not be on every PC I will use the USB flash drive in I want to create a Traveler install on the flash drive. This is done by selecting Tools –> Traveler Disk Setup from the menu. For the file location I entered in F: since that’s my USB flash drive. This does not mean the flash drive must always be mounted as F:, it’s simply where to install the TrueCrypt files. I don’t bother with the autorun options since I dislike any autorun.

traveler1 traveler3

The traveler files occupy less than 4MB on the flash drive and get installed into their own directory (F:TrueCrypt in my case).

Finally, when I want to mount the encrypted volume on the USB drive I run TrueCrypt.exe, select a drive letter to mount it on, enter the path to the volume file and click mount.

use

The encrypted files within the volume are now available just like any other drive. Since the file system is FAT, both on the USB stick and within the encrypted volume I can access the files on my Windows or Mac computers. Linux should work too.

Conclusion

TrueCrypt includes several features I’m not using since I want to keep things simple and I’m not concerned about someone making any effort to crack the encryption. But if my USB drive is lost or stolen, it won’t be easy for the thief to get to my files.

Installation was easy and straight-forward while usage is simple. The hardest part is typing in the passphrase. The longer it is, the more secure it is so mine exceeds two dozen characters and considering my lack of typing skills it’s not uncommon to need two tries.

New Laptop Joins the Quest: The Choice

Picture of a Dell Inspiron 15RA little over a month ago I decided I wanted to add a laptop to my PC collection. I haven’t had a capable laptop since my Macbook lost an argument with a cup of coffee over a year ago. I’ve had a Netbook since the coffee mishap and a iPad more recently. Neither one gave me the portable computing power I really want, so I decided to look around.

Even a low cost Macbook would be over a grand, so while I didn’t rule absolutely rule it out, it was never a serious consideration.

I had the iPad for web browsing and media consumption and it filled the role pretty well. (Although web surfing suffers due to the lack of flash support.) But a low-end laptop with a bigger screen and keyboard wouldn’t provide enough additional bang for the buck. I’d be using it for web development, basic photo editing (cropping, minor adjustments and such) and general PC applications. Nothing overly intensive except I wanted to be able to run Virtual Machines for web development and other testing. So I listed out my requirements:

  • While I wanted a laptop for it’s portability, I didn’t need it to be small or especially lite. While I would occasionally travel with it, I’d mainly use it around the house, on the patio or the couch.
  • Minimum 14” screen/1260 X 768 resolution – I wanted to be able to put windows up side-by-side, even if they aren’t large windows.
  • A CPU that has hardware virtualization support. So either a Intel CPU with VT-x support or an AMD CPU with AMD-V support.
  • Minimum 4GB of RAM to support the VMs, but more memory would be better. A laptop with a 4GB hardware limit would be unacceptable, even if I got 4GB to start with I may want to upgrade, so expandability to 8GB would be required.
  • A built-in CD/DVD drive, not external. Since I wasn’t looking for the smallest, lightest laptop I wanted a built-in optical drive. I still had enough use for a optical drive and I wanted everything to be self-contained. I don’t really see a need for a burner but I suspect that’s what I’ll get.
  • 500GB Hard Drive – I want the space to be able to have several virtual machines on the local hard drive and that will take disk space. I don’t want to have to worry about keeping an external hard drive nearby.
  • 802.11N Wireless along with a built-in wired Ethernet port.
  • Built-in SDHC card reader. My camera currently uses SDHC cards and I can foresee taking both on trips.
  • A reasonable expectation that the laptop will provide acceptable performance for 3 years.
  • A maximum price of $1000, including any shipping, taxes and other fees.
  • If a back-lit keyboard is available as an option I would get it but it doesn’t rise to the level of “must have”.

I checked both HP and Dell. Both have Employee Purchase Programs (EPP) with my employer so I figured I may get a better price through the EPP. I also checked out other brands at Newegg. I ended up buying a Dell Inspiron 15R. Unlike the typical Dell purchase process, the Inspiron is sold in various packages, rather than being able to pick a chose each piece of hardware. This resulted in differences between the regular Dell website and the EPP website. I bought through the regular website since the EPP site threw in a Blu-Ray drive once I picked the other hardware I wanted. So while a good price for the drive, it was an extra $50 for something I didn’t want and wouldn’t use.

These days I have no particular loyalty to any brand out there and can probably find horror stories about any of them. I went with the Dell because it had better reviews overall than anything else I considered. I also stopped by Best Buy to take a look at one and liked the screen and keyboard.

What I got was:

  • Intel Core i5-450M 2.66Ghz processor (w/VT-x support)
  • 6GB DDR3 RAM (expandable to 8GB)
  • 15.6” Display (1366 X 768). Also listed as 720p
  • ATI Mobility Radeon™ HD5470 video card, 1GB RAM
  • 640GB 5400rpm hard drive.
  • Media Card Reader (7 in 1) which includes SDHC
  • CD/DVD Burner
  • Four USB ports, one of which is a combo eSata port.
  • Windows 7 Premium 64-bit

The PC arrived just before I was going on vacation so I didn’t flatten the install and was left with the crapware. I uninstalled McAfee right away since it was impossible to ignore. I did want Windows 7 Premium x64 anyway so at this point a complete re-install would be more trouble than it’s worth.

I haven’t used the laptop much while I was traveling, so while I have no complaints yet I still haven’t used the PC enough to recommend it. While I like the keyboard I’m not liking the trackpad. The trackpad isn’t a huge issue since I prefer an external mouse anyway, but I find the trackpad buttons hard to press. They have to be pressed just right, otherwise the click is ignored. I’ll write more about it as I use it, but so far the trackpad is my only complaint and I’m happy with the performance.