The OS Quest Trail Log #67: End of 2011 Edition

Happy New Year 2012Despite the cliche, it is hard to believe 2011 is drawing to a close, probably only a memory by the time you read this. On the other hand, it’s still just one more month gone by so I’ll try to resist the urge for any year end wrap-up. But as usual I’ll recap since the last Trail Log among other things.

When I first wrote about replacing my cable modem I mentioned there didn’t seem to be too much difference in performance. Since then things have changed a bit. Typically CrashPlan would max out it’s upload performance at 2 Mbps. I added another 40 GB to the upload and it uploaded at 4 Mbps. Both speeds where as reported by CrashPlan. So there does seem to have been an improvement.

When I wrote about Cloudberry’s new Continuous Data Protection (CDP) I had decided to use it only for my critical data which had previously been backed up as an hourly basis. Since then there was one failure in that backup plan which caused it to stop and required a manual restart. I also found that email notifications worked in one case for CDP. As it stands now, I don’t have complete confidence in Cloudberry’s CDP, at least in their Windows Home Server 2011 Add-in, so I’ve gone back to an hourly backups for that critical data. I’m no longer using CDP.

I still like my Kindle Fire. I mainly use it for watching video – my own,  Amazon Prime and Amazon purchased. While there isn’t much memory available for local storage I’ve found that the Amazon videos are relatively small (at least the standard def ones). I find the standard def fine for viewing, even on my TV and the smaller size doesn’t needlessly use my capped bandwidth. If the movie deserves high-def I’ll go for a disk. I was able to copy a dozen videos (about 10 hours) locally without a problem and had them during my holiday travels. My own ripped videos are larger so it’s fewer of these. I also do occasional reading but find any LCD screen tiring so it’s usually for less than an hour.

A pet peeve of mine is comparisons between the Kindle and iPad as if it was a buying guide. Here’s my buying guide:  If you’re trying to decide between a Kindle Fire and an iPad then go for a iPad. If you want to watch Amazon video on a tablet, get a Fire. If you meet both criteria then resign yourself to getting both but start with the Fire since it’s cheaper and it might give you what you want in a tablet.

Even though my yearly backup review showed I was in pretty good shape it always gets me thinking about changes but I’m resisting the urge to make a change unless it plugs a gap. There’s a lot of options out there and I’ll probably check out a few. Unless I lose interest first.

Frustrations

My iPhone 4S is giving me problems. The external speaker died on Friday. The headphones work fine. Initially it would come back for short periods but would die soon after I started playing a podcast or song. Luckily it’s now completely dead. I say luckily because it’s much easy to deal with Apple (or any vendor) when they can see the problem themselves. With my luck it probably would have worked when I bring it in for my noon appointment on Saturday. Hopefully it will be quickly resolved.

I’ve been backing up my website to my Mac every night for over 4 years using iCal to schedule a Transmit automator task. Shortly after upgrading to Lion (but not immediately) the schedule task starting crashing, The problem became worse and recently became a daily event. I did the usual stuff like making sure all the software was updated. I also recreated the automator task. The frustrating thing is that if I run the task manually there’s never a problem. But it now consistently fails if it’s triggered by iCal. At this point it’s become part of my nightly routine to trigger the backup. I figure my effort is now better spent getting a backup setup on the web server itself and have it go directly to Amazon S3. So that’s on my project list for the new year although it probably won’t bubble to the top until I get really tired of having to double-click a file each night.

Google Chrome took away side tabs so now they’re back on top. It was never an official feature so I can’t complain too much. Despite that it’s really frustrating to have all those tiny tabs along the tap, differentiated only by their favicon if present. There is a tree tabs add-in i may give a try. I have a similar add-in for Firefox. I’ve considered going back to Firefox but that frustrates me too. The upgrade frequency and the way they do it is annoying. It seems add-ins are always breaking or flagged as not compatible. Add to that the annoying pop-up when there’s an upgrade and it’s drove me away. Google seems to do upgrades right. If I need to restart my browser there’s a little notification in the wrench icon. And after I restart all my tabs are restored, something Firefox doesn’t seem to get right. I really want to like Firefox since Mozilla only cares about a good browser (in theory) and Google and Microsoft consider us the product they sell to advertisers.But Google Chrome has been hard to drop, but the loss of side tabs may help in that area.

Servers and Storage

I’ve had the good fortune of having an Acer Aspire Easystore H342 Home Server pass through my hands. NewEgg has had them at clearance prices and a buddy on mine bought one as a low cost NAS and backup server. It’s Windows Home Server V1 so no doubt Acer is looking to clear them out (hopefully they’ll add a WHS 2011 box to the US market once the V1 is sold out). The price fluctuates but the current $260 is the lowest I’ve seen so far. It’s WHS V1 and not even the latest version of that, so the setup wasn’t straight-forward which is how I got my hands on it. I should have a write-up on it pretty soon. My overall impression is favorable (considering the price). Setting up a version 1 box was both nostalgic and frustrating. The software does feel and look old compared to WHS 2011 but the flashback was fun.

A second server will be staying, at least for awhile. I picked up a Western Digital DX4000 Sentinel Storage Server that runs Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials which has the same heritage as Windows Home Server 2011. I’m still getting to know it but I have to say that Western Digital got the ease of use right. Even when that Acer H342 was the latest software it’s setup wasn’t as easy as the DX4000. The DX4000 is less flexible in some areas (like supported hard drive and configurations) but that’s the price for ease of use.

I’ve also gotten motivated to start going through old hardware and hard drives to see what I have available and can put together. I’ve got 18 hard drives sitting in a cabinet as file storage. These are older smaller drives that were retired as they were replaced with bigger drives. So my current project is to clean up those drives and safely archive the files that are still needed. Then I should have a few good drives to use for various configuration in my MicroServers.

Another Year Ends

I think the most OS related fun I had this year was the short-lived Ubuntu Home Server project that actually began at the end of 2010. I enjoyed setting up the server and then learning about Linux software RAID. But that project ended in March when I returned to Windows Home Server 2011.  I left Ubuntu as things were getting a bit scary with all that data on it. Not that Ubuntu was scary but my maintaining that RAID array was. But that big WHS 2011 box was still more complicated than I wanted and I became obsessed with the HP MicroServers and my WHS 2011 server has been one of those ever since.

I’ll probably do a build or two this year, although mostly taken from parts I already have, But I’m hoping to spend more time diving into different OS’s and doing some web development.

And it will all be starting with a nice three day holiday weekend.

Happy New Year everyone!

Cloudberry Continuous Data Protection

Backup Logo - Laptops connected to backupCloudberry recently added Continuous Data Protection (CDP) to their backup software, including Cloudberry Backup for Windows Home Server 2011. This seems like something I can use to replace my hourly backup so I decided to do some testing. I switched the hourly backup to use a CDP schedule instead. I use the hourly backup to move my most important files offsite (Amazon S3) soon after they’re created. I don’t use RAID so if I lose a disk the data needs to be restored from backup and the hourly backup was my solution. The new CDP option seems like a good fit.

I enabled CDP for my “hourly” backup soon after installing the update. It didn’t work exactly as I expected but the differences didn’t affect the actual backups. I also did some additional stress testing to check out performance and this is what I found.

Using CDP

The CloudBerry blog post said…

Under the hood the changes are captured instantly but the data is uploaded to Cloud storage every 10 minutes.

But I found that the backups occur or are checked for every minute. According to the logs they’re uploaded immediately.  The blog posts also mentions this is configurable although I’ve yet to find where this can be configured in the WHS add-in.

Using CDP takes some getting used to because it changes the way the add-in reports it’s status. It would be less of a problem for someone not used to a regular schedule or is less concerned with checking the status regularly.

The screenshot below shows the status screen for my “hourly” backup several days after CDP was enabled.

Cloudberry CDP status screen

 

Some items of note:

  • The job status is always “running”. The status message uses the term “instant backup” when waiting for files to be backed up.
  • The “files uploaded” only shows the status for the last “instant backup”. If there was nothing to do then the files uploaded is 0. Checking the history shows that file uploads and purges are taking place as required. So while disconcerting, it’s only a cosmetic problem.
  • Since the backup just never ends there’s no email updates for success or errors. I used email to let me know if there was a backup error. The emails only go at the end of a job so even if there are errors (such as an open file) I don’t get an email. In fact, trying to set up an email status report for a CDP backup resulted in a error. This error read more like a bug than a message saying the feature was unavailable.
  • Rather than a 10 minute interval, a 60 second countdown begins when a “instant backup” is completed. Any waiting files are then backed up and uploaded to Amazon S3.
  • If I stop the backup by clicking “Stop Backup” it doesn’t restart. Rebooting the server does restart the CDP backup jobs.
  • Error handling is inconsistent. In my testing the backup would typically ignore errors created by open/locked files. These were valid and when the files where closed they would be backed up. So it was good the job kept running. But there was one instance where a file was moved after being flagged for backup but before it was backed up. This was a valid condition (an iTunes podcast download which downloads to a temp directory and is then moved). The backup job recorded this as an error but then stopped any additional processing. Since CDP backup plans don’t seem to restart on their own this is a problem.

Stress Testing

There wasn’t any noticeable impact changing the my hourly backup to use CDP. The HP MicroServers are relatively low powered and not capable of doing many intense tasks at once. The only add-in I run is the Cloudberry Backup add-in so I was a bit concerned it would impact streaming or other activity. There’s no noticeable load on the server while it’s waiting/looking for updated files. When there’s files to back up the load isn’t any more than the hourly backup and in theory may be less since it spreads the backups out over the hour rather than all at once. Most of the files in this backup plan get updated overnight through automated jobs (website backups, etc…) while the rest of the changes are data file changes. Still I decided to do some load testing.

I copied 121,000 files totaling 60 GB to the same drive I would be streaming a video from. I also copied that set of test files to a second drive. As a control I watched a streaming video while the files were being copied. I RDP’d into the server to do the copies so they were all local drive to drive copies. The streaming worked for awhile until a certain point where it first became slightly annoying until it eventually became unwatchable. At this time there were two file copies going on. One was copying from a directory on the drive (where the files were streaming from) to a second directory on the same drive. Another copy was running from a second drive to the streaming drive.

I have 7 backup plans. A full description can be found in my recent backup review but for purposes of this test I set all backup plans to use CDP. There were three backup plans that matched my test files so they began backing up while the other 4 just watched for files. Each of the test drives had a backup plan dedicated to them and would be doing local backups to eSATA drives so the backup wouldn’t be hindered by network or other limitations. So each drive would be backing up as quickly as the data could be read and written to disk. The third plan included all four drives in the server and backed up to a NAS. So this would be reading from both test drives but only one at a time.

Like the file copies my video stream started off fine and ran for awhile but then it became annoying as it would frequently stop and need to catch up. So no worse than a comparable file copy although still too annoying to be acceptable (while subjective, I doubt anyone would be happy). Not surprising since the backup is not much more than a file copy.

Once the backups were done and the backup plans were just watching I didn’t have a problem streaming and reading files off the server.  Deleting the test files and then letting Cloudberry update their status (I save deleted files for several days so they weren’t actually purged) didn’t affect streaming.

Summary

The good news was that my testing showed that CDP didn’t add any significant overhead above the actual file copies. The bad news is my server isn’t designed to handle a lot of simultaneous activity or file copies. Because of the way I have the shares and rives set up and the way I use the server I may not notice an impact even with CDP set on all plans. Two of the plans go to destinations that aren’t always online so CDP isn’t a good option for them and the other plans rarely have simultaneous changes. Still, CDP is far from a universal solution for me.

I’ve left CDP enabled for what was my hourly backup to Amazon S3 but I’ve returned all the other backup plans to their previous schedule. A lot of times there’s no need for immediate backup and I’d rather wait until all updates are made or a set of files is fully processed. Because of what I send to Amazon S3 I’m less likely to have issues and it’s been fine since being enabled. I do fel I need to monitor it more than I did when I used a hourly backup, if only to make sure it’s still running and that may end up being enough to go back to an hourly schedule if I don’t become more comfortable with CDP’s reliability.

[Update Dec 30, 2011]: I was able to configure email notifications for one CDP plan and it did send a notification when that plan ended with a failure. Unfortunately the CDP plans don’t restart on their own when an error is encountered so I’ve gone back to an hourly schedule for critical backups.

Backup Review

Backup Logo - Laptops connected to backupAs the year draws to a close it’s a good time to review my backup strategy and do a few test restores. My last backup review was in November of 2010. My overall philosophy hasn’t changed from last year – a file needs to exist in three places, two of them geographically separated. In addition, the backup has to be automatic since I’m lazy and forgetful. As for testing the restores it’s fairly simple. I restore some files from the oldest backups, some from the newest backups and some in between and compare them to the live files. I don’t restore everything and don’t do any full system restores. Now on to the strategy and tools used.

All my data is kept on my Windows Home Server so my backup strategy is centered around it. And yea, many would probably consider it a bit overboard since I go way above the three file rule for the important stuff.

Windows Home Server Backups

Cloudberry Backup for Windows Home Server

I’ve been using the Cloudberry WHS add-in for most of the year and it’s served me well. I have 7 backup plans configured and they back up to 6 destinations. In total, I’m currently backing up a tad under 6 TB of data on the Windows Home Server with all of that 6 TB going to at least two different locations.

The important stuff gets backed up every hour to Amazon S3. This currently totals 13.6 GB of data which include versions going back a month. I also keep deleted files for 10 days before they’re purged. I do compress and encrypt the data that goes to S3. I compress because I pay for bandwidth/space and I encrypt since it’s in the cloud. This means I need to use Cloudberry to do any restores. Cloudberry does support server-side encryption in Amazon S3 but I do the encryption using my own key within the Cloudberry software before it leaves my PC. Cloudberry just added Real-time data protection (a.k.a. continuous backup) which I’m currently testing instead of hourly. I haven’t used it enough to decide whether to use it instead of the hourly schedule.

My Windows Home Server has four data drives and also four data backup drives. So there’s a Cloudberry backup plan for each data drive/backup drive pair. I use the drive level backup (rather than share level) option to select the files for backup. For each data drive I select the “Server Folders” directory on the drive and backup everything it contains. This avoids the recycle bin, shadow copies and other non-data files. These run once a night about an hour apart and everything gets backed up. Since alls the drives are local SATA or eSATA the backup is pretty quick. The initial backups did take awhile, especially since the MicroServers aren’t speed demons.

I have a second server in the house that’s currently running Windows Server 2008. The hardware was my original WHS 2011 hardware but at this point I haven’t repurposed it so it runs Windows Server 2008 and serves as a backup destination, I power it up every weekend and manually trigger the backups. There are two backup plans setup but they go to the same file share on the server. There’s one plan for Video and there’s another plan for everything else. The main reason for two plans is a hold over from the days when I was backing up a lot of video. The “Everything Else” backup typically takes longer since it goes through hundreds of thousands of files and backs up tens of thousands although the total data is relatively small.

I don’t compress or encrypt any of the local backups. I can go directly to the file system and pull out the files if I need them although I do need the software if I want to more easily find versions or maintain the file structure.

CrashPlan Backup

I recently began using CrashPlan for additional offsite backup. It’s an economical way to store a lot of data offsite. It doesn’t officially support WHS but it’s been working well. I’ve had a couple occasions where it stopped doing backups and I had to cycle the service on the server. But the test restores have been fine. Now that the initial backups are done I’ve limited the backups to between 2AM and 7AM every day and I’ve throttled the bandwidth. I currently backup everything except video.  I’m currently backing up 288 GB to CrashPlan. The problem with that amount of data is my bandwidth cap of 250 GB. So if I ever need to do a full restore I’ll either need to wait two months or have them send me the data on a drive.

Windows Home Server Native Backup

I have an external drive attached and use the WHS native backup to save the files needed for a OS recovery. My testing doesn’t include a OS restore although it did work way back when I needed it. Worst case is an OS and add-in re-install then restore the data.

Sneakernet Offsite

As part of my offsite backups I have two 2 TB drives that I rotate offsite. Every week I bring one to my office desk drawer and bring the other home. The drive at home is attached to my Windows 7 PC and every night a batch files runs Robocopy to update the drive with everything that’s not a video file. This drive is encrypted (Truecrypt) so I don’t have to worry if it’s stolen from my desk.

Backup Shortcomings

There’s no offsite backup for my videos. I have two backups in the house along with the original source disks but if the worst happens to the house there’s nothing off site. I figure I’d have more to worry about than the videos and that is what insurance is for. I used to keep copies of the ripped videos on drives offsite but that became a hassle to keep updated as the number of drives grew. Especially since I tended to use old, retired 1 TB or smaller drives.

I need the software (CrashPlan or Cloudberry) to do a restore. Being able to pick a file from the local backups can work in a pinch but that would be an exception. In the past I used to keep the same shares on another server and do a share to share robocopy every night. In theory this made it easy to quickly switch to the new server. Now that I have several Micro Servers I’ve approached a hardware failure by already having a duplicate of anything in house and I can swap hardware around and restore any lost files. Actually, I don’t have duplicates of some of hardware used for backups, but as there’s redundancy across the backups I figure I can lose updates to one while I wait for a new part. Of course, the failure will come at the worst time.

Windows PC & Virtual Machine Backups

This is simple. I use Windows Home Server 2011 backup  to backup my Windows 7 PCs and virtual machines. As I said, data is on the Windows Home Server itself so there’s not really much data to back up. To keep backups small I exclude the Virtual Machine disk files from backup. For testing I just went in and pulled a couple files out of the backup, I didn’t do a full restore.

In 2010 I used Jungle Disk for to do some Offsite Windows backups but I no longer use it. I don’t do any backups directly from a Windows PC to any offsite destination. Everything goes to WHS.

Mac Mini Backups

For my Mac Mini (Desktop) I use SuperDuper to clone the hard drive every night. This gives me a disk I can boot from should my Mini’s drive fail. I also use Time Machine to back things up. Time Machine is a hold over from when I kept local data on the Mac. It’s useful should I need to recover an old configuration file so I keep it.

I also run Arc Backup on the Mini to backup files to Amazon S3. I back up my application support folder along with my Documents folder (which is mostly empty). I have Arq Backup limited to $1/mth in Amazon charges which limits it to over 10 GB although it’s still only using 2.9 GB

In 2010 I used Jungle Disk to do my offsite Mac backups but didn’t like the direction the software was taking. Plus it didn’t support Amazon Reduced Redundancy Storage which would increase my costs.

MacBook Air Backups

I have a Seagate Portable drive I attach when I’m home and do a Time Machine backup to it. I’ll also pack it if I’ll be traveling for a few days but it typically stays home for short trips. I do use the encryption feature of time machine in case the drive gets lost.

I also use Arq Backup on the Air and it’s also limited to $1/mth (or 10.75 GB). Because it’s a laptop so does have more files locally, at least at times, there’s currently 3.9 GB stored on Amazon S3. I limit the backups to data files and a few configuration files. This is useful if I’m traveling since it moves the files far from the laptop.

Amazon S3

Amason S3 pricing isn’t the most straightforward because there are charges for bandwidth and other operations in addition to space used. My total Amazon S3 charge for November was $3.52 and this is pretty standard although down a bit from September and October when it was $4. The November charge was $1.81 for the storage and $1.71 for those other charge, I use the Amazon Reduced Redundancy Storage option to keep costs down. I’m saving a total of 19 GB with Amazon S3. Amazon does offer Free Usage Tier which is not included in my prices as it’s only good for a year.

Summary

My Windows Home Server backup software of choice is Cloudberry since it’s so flexible. It’s gotten new features since I started using it and while I don’t use them all it’s nice to see the software gets continual care. CrashPlan is my choice if there’s a requirement to store a lot of files in the cloud. CrashPlan is a bit less flexible when it comes to local sources but it is a better choice if you want more offsite flexibility.

Arq Backup is my choice for Mac backups and replace Jungle Disk. In addition to a feature set I prefer, Arq backup does an excellent job of handling file attributes and file bundles that are common on the Mac platform.

Are you sure your backups work? You do backups, right?

 

Comic Book Fonts New Year’s Sale

Comic Book Fonts (a.k.a. Comicraft) has long been a favorite of mine and their New Year’s Day Sale has become a tradition. During their New Year’s day sale they sell all their fonts for a penny per year, so this time it will be $20.12 per font. The catch here is that even fonts that normally sell for less are also $20.12, So it worth visiting the site or downloading their catalog (pdf link) ahead of time to view the fonts. Since this is their 10th annual New year’s Day sale their offering a deal where if you buy 10 fonts you’ll get an 11th free. See I buy the fonts yearly there’s probably not 11 more that I want but I’m sure I’ll find a couple.

Merry Christmas

Picture of Santa Celebrating with a beer

Picture of Santa Celebrating with a beer

Merry Christmas

Santa’s tipping back a cold one after an exhausting workday.

There are just over 526,000,000 Christian kids under the age of 14 in the world who celebrate Christmas on December 25th. In other words, Santa has to deliver presents to almost 22 million kids an hour, every hour, on the night before Christmas. That’s about 365,000 kids a minute; about 6,100 a second. Totally doable.

Hope your doing the same even if you don’t celebrate Christmas.

Motorola SURFboard SB6121 DOCSIS 3 Cable Modem

Picture of the Motorola Surfboard SB6121 DOCSIS 3 cable modem

Picture of the Motorola Surfboard SB6121 DOCSIS 3 cable modemI’ve had my Motorola SURFboard SB4200 cable modem since signing up with Comcast nearly 10 years ago. I’ve always owned the modem, rather than leasing from Comcast so I’d say I got my money’s worth from it. It was becoming apparent that I’d be needing to replace it soon. Every status light was constantly shining brightly, including the one that said it was in standby mode. Despite this performance was good. Still, I was on the lookout for a good price on a replacement. I checked out Comcast’s compatibility list, concentrating on devices with three stars which should limit problems and other hassles since three stars indicated the highest level of testing. DOCSIS 3 is also a requirement.

IPV6 is nearly a requirement but for a nice low price I might skip it. Comcast has just started piloting IPv6 so it will probably be awhile before it’s even an option. I don’t use IP phones from Comcast so I just needed a straight data modem and wouldn’t need an eMTA.

I eventually ordered a Motorola SURFboard SB6121 Cable Modem which supports DOCSIS 3 and IPv6. It also had the 3 star rating from Comcast. I procrastinated setting it up since it would entail a painful phone call to Comcast. Then Comcast sent me a letter saying I needed to upgrade to get the most benefit from their service. To their credit there wasn’t a pitch to buy or lease from them. The day after I switched the modem I got an automated call from them again telling me I needed a new modem, so I guess their serious. (As an aside, my this has something to do with some new fiber being run in the neighborhood.)

So I ended up hooking it up one afternoon and calling Comcast with the information they needed. It wasn’t as painful as it could have been. Hold times were just a couple minutes. I did get disconnected on the first call and had to call back. They also automated phone system asked if I would be willing to take a customer survey when I was done. I made the mistake of saying yes, thinking it would be automated at the end. No, I was prompted to enter in a phone number for a call back. I was disconnected on the first call shortly after a human picked up and said she could help. Maybe she pressed the wrong button, maybe my cell phone dropped (drops and nearly non-existent in my house). So I called back and said no to the customer survey option. This time there was no disconnection and after about 5 minutes I had a active connection. The customer survey call came was I was on hold waiting for the second tech to do her thing.

The new modem works well. Speed tests return results above my rated speeds (probably due to temporary bursting that Comcast promotes). Longer/larger file copies stay near my rated speeds, at least during the dark of early morning when the neighborhood is asleep. If I had been thinking I would have done some testing just before disconnecting the old modem and then test as soon as the new modem was online. The reality is that in daily use I don’t notice a difference between the modems.

I’ve owned my modem ever since getting cable broadband and never had a problem with Comcast claiming a bad modem was the problem. On the other hand I’ve had very few problems with Comcast broadband so there’s been little opportunity. At $7/mth for a modem rental I’ll make back my investment in less than 10 months. I paid just over $60 from Amazon although I see the modem is now just over $80.

The SB6121 has one more modern feature – an “energy conservation switch”. Us old timers call it a power switch.

The main reason I see given as a reason to lease a modem is to make the ISP responsible for the modem and require them to replace it if they say it’s bad. I’ve never bought into that argument and my own experience backs up my choice. What about you, own or lease?

Oh No! My iPhone 4s Is A Flop

Picture of the Verizon iPhone

Picture of the Verizon iPhoneHaving just gotten my new iPhone 4S I was depressed to see Daring Fireball link to an article listing the iPhone 4S as one of the top 6 tech flops of the year. OK, I wasn’t really depressed and fell for the  linkbait to read the orignal post. The iPhone 4S is listed third and begins…

While it’s no flop when it comes to sales figures the iPhone 4S remains one of 2011’s biggest consumer letdowns.

They go on with some more praise…

…is certainly nothing to sneeze at — it’s still one of the fastest, best-looking smartphones on the block…

The  reason given for being a flop is it didn’t meet the rumors and wasn’t an iPhone 5. They don’t actually define what they mean by flop but a best-selling device doesn’t meet any definition I can think of. Any “flop” would have been the tech blogs/journalists salivating over rumors and wish lists.

So now I’ll defend my purchase of a flop. I had an iPhone 4 but my Verizon contract is up for renewal and I could get the renewal discount plus another $30 rebate. I’ve no idea what the rebate was for (“customer loyalty”) or how long it would last. It’s actually been available for months. I’m happy with Verizon and I’m not looking to switch, having been with them for years. And having been on Android before Verizon got the iPhone I knew I didn’t want to go back to Android.

The main cost of the new phone would be the 2-year contract since I could (and did) sell my iPhone 4 for enough to cover my out of pocket expenses. OK, I didn’t quit cover but I upgraded to the 64 GB phone so it cost me a few dollars, if I stayed with the 32 GB I would have pocketed a few dollars. If I waited until the next iPhone in a year I wouldn’t have been able to sell my phone for much at all since it would be two versions old in addition to the extra year of wear and tear. Since there’s no change in form factor all my accessories can stay. So in effect the upgrade didn’t cost me anything.

So what do I get for my upgrade:

  • A better camera. I didn’t use the iPhone for photos very much at all. Prior to upgrading I made a conscious effort to use it more to get comfortable with it. I’ve been using it more and have liked using it.
  • Faster processor. I have some apps that ran slow on the phone but ran fine on the faster iPad 2. There could be several reasons for this but I have seen an improvement. It was most noticeable to me with apps like OminFocus which synced or loaded data every time I switched to it.
  • More storage. I probably keep too much on my phone but I was out of space. I’d rather add storage instead of trying to juggle what I want on the phone.

There’s also Siri of course. But it wasn’t a factor beyond curiosity and I haven’t been using it very much. I’ve used it so little it’s always ben available when I used it, unlike what I read from others.

Next year’s iPhone will almost certainly be out before I can upgrade at a discount and will almost certainly have significant hardware upgrades (NFC, 4G, higher resolution, better camera) so I’ll have to wait a couple months before I can upgrade at a discount (due to multiple plans I can basically upgrade once a year by transferring the upgrade between plans).

I’d agtree the iPhone 4S isn’t a significant upgrade over the iPhone 4 but it is an upgrade and if you want those features it would be worth it. I wouldn’t have upgraded if selling my current phone didn’t cover the costs or if I had to buy new accessories. Still, it’s certainly doesn’t meet my definition of a flop and it doesn’t disappoint me, but as an iPhone 4S owner I am biased.

One Less Hard Drive Manufacturer

Image of a hard drive platter

Image of a hard drive platterI read today that Seagate finalized it’s purchase of Samsung’s hard drive business. I guess I either missed or forgot the original announcement. While I haven’t bought any hard drives since the flood inspired price hikes the Samsung 3 TB drives had been my recent favorites, with Samsung 2 TB drives before that. They ran cool, performed well enough in my server, and were low priced.

While Seagate obviously doesn’t produce garbage, my own experience with them is less than stellar. The ones that were oem drives in some device I bought have been fine. But when I’ve bought bare drives my personal failure rate is over 75% within the first couple weeks. Some were from that bad batch of 1.5 TB drivesthat required a BIOS upgrade while other were just DOA. So I soured in Seagate and have avoided them.

I’ve also bought some Hitachi drives when they were on sale. Despite having a bad reputation my own experience with them was good, although they tended to run warmer than other drives. Hitachi’s drives are being consumed by Western Digital.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens to prices with fewer manufacturers. On the other hand, magnetic drives are giving way to SSD’s which opens things up again.

Cloudberry Backup For WHS 2.6 Released

CDP Selected

CDP SelectedCloudberry has released version 2.6 (actually 2.6.0.23) of their Cloudberry Backup for Windows Home Server 2011 add-in. The big new feature of this release is Continuous Real-Time Backup. (This feature is in all flavors of their Version 2.6 backup software but I’m using the WHS 2011 add-in.) This is also called Continuous Data Protection (CDP). Changes are detected immediately although by default the uploads occur every 10 minutes. According to this blog post the 10 minute interval is configurable, but so far I’m unable to find where it can be configured in the WHS 2011 add-in.

Setting CDP is done on the schedule tab and can be done on a per-job basis. Click the thumbnail above for a full size screenshot.

I’m still debating exactly how I want to use this feature, but I started off by changing my hourly Amazon S3 backup of my important files to be continuous rather than hourly. But I’m thinking I may want to stick to hourly. With bandwidth caps and such I may not want every single file change sent out. I’ll see how it goes and monitor S3 to see if there’s an increase in the data it receives.

I’m considering changing my nightly local backups to CDP since the destination drives are always powered on. There’s no bandwidth cap considerations since its local, but I’m a little concerned that the disk activity and the relatively low horsepower Micro Server might not like the continuous backup. So I’ll have to do some testing first. “Testing” may be a generous description. I’ll probably turn it on and see if I notice any performance hit during the following days.

Upgrade Woes

I’ve had some problems upgrading the add-in the last couple of times. I upgraded and received a successful message but the new features weren’t there. Checking the logs show the old version is running although the WHS 2011 console has the new version displayed. Re-running the install says it’s already installed. A reboot brought no joy. I suspect I’m paying for doing upgrades since the beta and something is out of whack.

So after backing up the configuration I deactivated the Cloudberry license, searched the registry and removed all reference to Cloudberry (some of which were obviously specific to old versions). Then I uninstalled the add-in via the WHS console which said it was gone. Restarting the console (and then the server) still showed the Cloudberry tab and all my configuration. I ran the add-in install again and this time it worked and I had the new features. Hopefully future upgrades will work fine.

Very First Impression

The backup plan is in a continuous running state which is true but disconcerting since the status is a countdown to the backup and since there’s nothing to backup it’s a loop. CPU usage is 0% when there’s not anything actually being backed up. It was between 1 an d 5% when files were being backed up. I was streaming video at the time of the backup and didn’t see any issue. The video was on a different physical drive than the one being backed up.

Other Recent New Features

Cloudberry has added several new features I’ve found useful and has turned into a complete backup solution. Local backups get all the same features as cloud backups (not too long ago they only had a subset). These features include:

  • Encryption
  • Server Side Encryption for Amazon S3
  • Compression
  • Block Level Backup
  • Volume Shadow Copy Service support
  • Compression
  • GovCloud support for Amazon S3
  • Virtual Disk support for Amazon S3 (mount the Amazon S3 destination as a drive)

I don’t use Server Side Encryption, GovCloud or Virtual Disks but the other options work well, Cloudberry also supports an additional 10 cloud destinations (in addition to Amazon S3 and Local Files) many of which I never heard of so assume they are in Europe or Asia.

 

My Kindle Fire Review

Graphic of Kindle Fire

Graphic of Kindle FireI’ve had my Kindle Fire a few weeks now, having received it in he first shipments. I figure the best way to review it is to recap how it’s settled into my routine (and what parts haven’t settled in). I’ve been rather disappointed in the quality of the reviews I’ve seen. Many have been contrary to my own experience. Maybe the early reviews used an early software version. I got an update right after the first power-on. There was also a number of reviews which mainly complained it wasn’t an iPad. I got the impression those same reviewers would have complained it was a cheap knock-off if Amazon tried to clone the iPad. The Kindle Fire and iPad are different devices. I’ll compare them but only because it’s my only other personal experience with a tablet. I don’t consider one better than the other and won’t be declaring a winner.

Pre-conceived Notions

When I pre-ordered the Kindle I was already deep into Amazon, I dislike the term fanboy but I’d have a hard time denying it if applied to me. I’ve put a lot of my music in the Amazon Cloud although I rarely play it directly. I bought most of my music through Amazon since the days it was DRM free and iTunes wasn’t. I’ve also found Amazon cheaper or equal s used it over iTunes. I also have a Kindle and numerous Kindle books.

What I really wanted from the Kindle Fire was a better way to view video. I never really like iTunes for Video and long ago stopped using it. I’ve gone without all but basic cable (real basic – just over the air stuff to avoid needing an antennae) so Amazon video has helped filled in the gaps when I really wanted to see a TV show. But Amazon video was only available on my TV and computers.

So I wanted a better way to access Amazon video and also be able to play my own videos. If the Kindle Fire failed at that I’d be disappointed. If it worked well I’d overlook a lot of other faults.

I was also curious about the 7″ form factor. I seemed just big enough to stay easily portable. It should fit in jacket or cargo pants pockets.

The Hardware

As others have mentioned, it was heavier than expected when I first picked it up. While it turned out being easy to hold and use, it took a little while getting used to it. The power button sticks out on the bottom edge and is easy to hit accidentally. Actually, any edge can be the bottom as the picture will flip around, but the initial power on screen is only oriented one way and in that orientation the power button is at the bottom.

The Fire does have a plastic feel, after all, it is plastic. But it does feel solid.(But I have no plans to intentionally drop test it. Other than the poorly designed power button there aren’t any other switches or buttons, everything is in the software.

The speaker is fine. Not great, not poor. I definitely want to use the headphones when the sound quality matters That said, I rarely use headphones and pretty much stick to just the built in speaker since it’s mainly a video player for me (more on that later), It’s loud enough for personal use in a fairly quiet setting, but if would be a little software for a noisy environment. By comparison, both my iPhone and iPad built-in speakers are louder than the Fire’s.

Video

So let’s get to the video. I’m using it regularly and I’ve bought a few more videos than I normally would and I am using the Prime videos more. So I think it’s safe to say I like it. It’s also safe to say Amazon’s strategy to position the Kindle Fire as a gateway drug is working. The screen is fine for personal use. I generally avoid any high-def video (or video labelled high-def) for anything but Blu-ray on my TV, so my expectations were relative to that. I find the 7″ tablet easier to use than the iPad when lying in bed, a couch or sitting in a chair. If I want video propped up on a desk I might pick the bigger iPad but I don’t watch video that way.

The 8GB of memory (about 6.5 GB available) is limiting, but I’ve been able to copy my own video to the device easily and they play without a problem. Copying the video is as easy as hooking the Fire to my computer via USB and dragging the files to the video folder. What is strange is I have to play my own video files through the Gallery app, not under Videos. It’s not a problem, now that I know where to get the files.

The bottom line is the Kindle Fire is a perfect video player for my needs.

Video streaming over my 802.11N network has been problem free. There has been one recently developed anomaly. The initial load has always ben quick and the video starts playing within seconds. There’s a progress bar during this initial load. Recently the video started playing when the status bar was 1/2 way across. The in a couple seconds the video hesitates and skip a second or so. After that or restarting and it’s fine. Local videos don’t have the problem and Amazon Videos streamed to my TV or computer don’t have the problem either.

The Amazon Video app/widget is not well designed on my TV, The videos aren’t in any order (and they seem to re-arrange qt will) and navigating is a click-fst with the remote. TV series aren’t grouped together and the multiple seasons aren’t in order. The Video section on the Fire is better. The videos are in alphabetic order (and TV series ordered by season). Plus the touch interface is easier to navigate so it’s much easier to use. That alone has me using the Fire instead of the TV.

Books

It’s a Kindle so naturally it can handle books. I find it to be an adequate reader but my use of it is limited. I’d put my e-books into two categories – the first is leisure reading, the second is reference books.

For leisure reading I much prefer an e-ink display over the backlit display. I can read for about 45 minutes to an hour without my eyes getting tired. Between the Fire and the iPad there’s no difference from that perspective. I find the Fire easier to hold and read for that length of time. So my preference is the e-ink Kindle. But if I want the backlit display, say reading in bed before going to sleep (without having to worry about another light source), I reach for the Fire instead of the iPad.

For reference books the e-ink falls short since it can’t handle pictures, tables or anything beyond basic formatting very well. And the larger iPad screen is usually better. So since it’s usually propped up on my desk the iPad gets the nod for this use. the nod.

So as a reader – I use it but I could live without it and use the e-Ink Kindle and the iPad. But if I could only pick one device I’d pick the Fire. Seems strange, but it’s a compromise that’s adequate for the two ways I use it.

Magazines

The Kindle Fire is a terrible magazine reader, at least until they start formatting them for a 7″ tablet. The magazines I sampled weren’t much more than scanned PDFs. They looked good enough, great even, but scrolling, zooming and moving around is a nightmare. If the magazine could be formatted for the screen it would be fine. But on any 7″ screen it’s going to suck.

Comic Book Reader

Because the Comixology Comic Book App includes a guided view to move panel by panel it’s not as bad as regular magazines but the iPad’s larger screen has its benefits. The Fire is serviceable thanks to guided view, but the iPad is a better experience. Like book reading, the Fire is usable for a quick read before going to sleep, but the iPad is the preferred choice.

Music

I already had much of my music in the Amazon Cloud Player and streaming it with the the Fire was fine. I did stream music for a couple hours without any skips, gaps or hesitations. I like iTunes as a music manager and my iPhone is the preferred player. I’m pretty set in my ways for music so I’m not likely to use the Fire for it a lot. I might use it during the few times I need to preserve the iPhone battery. But those cases are probably ones where I’m traveling and won’t have the Fire.

Docs

I haven’t used any docs on the device.

Web/E-Mail

It’s an acceptable browser but since I typically have other choices I rarely use it.

I haven’t even set up e-mail. The Kindle Fire isn’t something I’ve yet found comfortable creating content on. The 7″ size makes it hard to position comfortably in a way to type on. It is small enough to thumb type on when in portrait mode, but I can’t do that for vary long and it’s not something I can do beyond a quick note.

Apps

Apps I use include Evernote, Audible, IMDB and Plants vs. Zombies (my game of choice over Angry Birds) and they are fine. Amazon doesn’t promote the Fire as an Android tablet and not all Android apps will work on it. The Android Market isn’t available and everything will come from the Amazon App Store (unless I want to side-load). I don’t use the Fire as a full fledged tablet so I don’t have any specific app requirements, so when I say it’s not missing apps I want it’s true, but not a really much of an endorsement.

The Experience

I like the Kindle Fire an use it daily. If I wasn’t into the Amazon eco-system I wouldn’t be such a fan since I mainly use it to tap into that. The $200 price is certainly a big attraction. But the Fire doesn’t come off as cheap. Yes, it doesn’t have every feature of other more expensive tablets, but what it does have works well and is solid. As others have said, Amazon sells the Kindle about the cost of building it in order to get us to big more. For me it’s actually worked. I’ve found the video experience good enough to get me to buy some videos I probably wouldn’t have otherwise purchased.

The Fire itself isn’t a speed demon but I find the operation smooth for the most part. It is a little rough around the edges, I haven’t figured out if the Kindle Fire is ignoring some of my taps or I’m not tapping in exact the right spot although it really doesn’t matter. There are times when I have to re-tap. It’s not enough to be frustrating, just mildly annoying at times. Since it’s all touch it takes a little care to shift around the smaller tablet without accidental taps. Such as accidental page turns then reading or stopping a video. But I’ve gotten used to it and it’s not a problem anymore.

For books and video I’m already in the Amazon ecosystem so the Kindle Fire is a good fit. With the exception of reference material it’s replaced the iPad completely for Video and reading. For music I use Amazon over iTunes if I’m buying but most of my new music comes from neither place these days and I still prefer local songs for playing so the Fire’s not used much for music.

For Magazines and Comic Books the iPad still rules due to it’s larger screen. The Fire is unusable for Magazines but acceptable for Comic Books (at least with Comixology)

I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at Apps for the Kindle Fire because I just don’t see it as app platform. Maybe games, but I’m not a big gamer and am happy with the one I have, I have Evernote for reference and quick note taking and a few apps for reference. For Apps and Web the Fire is something I might use for a quick check or note, but that’s it.

So in the great iPad vs. Fire debate the choice is it’s an invalid comparison. If you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem the iPad is probably worth the extra cost. If your invested in Amazon content then the Fire is a good choice. If you want something with abilities closer to a traditional computer then the iPad is the choice.

Summing It Up

During the day the iPad is on my desk and in use whether it’s for work or a little leisure activity during a break. After work the Kindle comes out for entertainment. It wasn’t a conscience decision, just how it evolved. I’d have to say I need the iPad more than the Kindle Fire, but considering the price difference that’s what I’d expect. For entertainment the Kindle fire is a fine device.

Any other Kindle Fire experiences – agree/disagree?