Microsoft Surface RT: Day 1

Screen capture of Windows RT Start Screen
The Windows RT Start screen with the settings open

FedEx brought my Microsoft Surface RT to me about 10:30 Friday morning. My first day with a new gadget is generally one of exploration, installing, re-installing. Following a winding path since I don’t have a plan going in. This recaps my first day with my 64GB Microsoft Surface RT with Touch Cover.

I come to the Surface as an iPad user since the first iPad. The Microsoft Surface RT is the first device I’ve come cross that I thought could replace the iPad for me. Not only do I anticipate an iPad replacement, I expect to use it even more than my iPad. While I’m a long time tablet user, I had less than an hour hands on time with Windows 8 and the Surface is my only Windows 8 computer.

The Hardware

As other reviewers have said, the hardware is first rate and solid. It’s clear that the Surface is designed for “Landscape mode first”. So far it has been the primary orientation I’ve used it in. I like the aspect ratio, despite being more familiar with the iPad’s.

Others have complained that the magnetic power adapter is finicky but mine has been fine. It snaps in solid without me having to look at the port of fiddle with it. It’s not as easy as my Macbook Air MagSafe adapter. But if I hadn’t used the MB Air I’d think it was just fine. Although that may change with time. But the bad part is the wall wart for the electrical outlet. It blocks a second plug. These days a slim one-outlet plug should be standard for a device with this quality (not to mention price).

As I mentioned, I have the 64GB model. Out of the box it had 46.16GB free and once all the waiting updates were applied there was 43.9 GB free. This is less than I expected since I had heard that the 32GB model had about 20GB free. So I expected over 50GB free. I did use an existing Microsoft Account so it may have synced things like Mail and SkyDrive, but those are tiny.

Having a USB port is sweet, despite being USB 2. Besides the obvious USB memory stick I’ve also used a USB keyboard, a Logitech Wireless Mouse w/USB transmitter, a USB to SDHC adapter and several USB drives. Add the microSD port and the 64GB may have been unnecessary. I got it because it matched my 64GB iPad, which is consistently using more than 32GB.

I’ve heard that the speakers are quiet. While I wouldn’t call them loud, they are loud enough for me and louder than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire (original model). My iPhone 4S and iPad 3 do seem a bit louder but I like the Surface a bit better for music. But let’s face it, for music on any of these devices I’ll use headphones or a Bluetooth speaker if at all possible.  But sitting here listening to streaming music through the speakers is pleasing. The speakers have been fine when I watched video.

Microsoft has made a big deal out of the keyboard. And I think it justified, I’m not a touch typist and I’m already prone to typos, but I’m doing OK with it and I’m getting more used to it. This article is the first real writing I’ve done with the Surface, and yup, this is being written in Word on the Surface using the Touch keyboard. The one potential keyboard issue is that it sometimes ignores the first character after I’ve been paused. It also seems to skip some keys even though the “key tapped” sound is made. But that might still be me or something else, it doesn’t happen very often.

I’ve also had occasional issues switching between the screen keyboard and physical touch keyboard. While the switch to the glass keyboard is fine, the switch back often fails to see the Touch keyboard until I remove and re-attach it. Let’s face it, this won’t be a common occurrence and happened mainly because I was moving the Surface around and changing its orientation while getting to know it.

The trackpad on the Touch keyboard has been a roadblock for me. It’s rather small and I’m having more trouble with it than the keyboard. For now I have a Bluetooth Microsoft Wedge Mouse attached or use the touch screen. I find I use the touchscreen more than I expected even when the Surface RT is in a laptop configuration.

The screen is great. I love it. I won’t argue that it’s better than a retina display and I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison. But the text on my Surface is crisp and the video has been great. I’m not a pixel-peeper and the screen width and available USB and microSD ports make any unnoticed deficiency worth it. I will admit I will never do a side by side comparison because if I see that the iPad is better to my own yes it will bug me. For now I’m happy knowing I like the Microsoft Surface RT screen and don’t notice any degradation when coming back from my iPad.

The Software

Screenshot of Wireless Networks
I have neighbors

This is the biggest area of criticism, namely the lack of apps and the inability to use legacy Windows Apps. Everything has to be written with Windows RT in mind and has to be distributed through the Windows Store. I knew this going in and I’m not expecting to replace my iPad apps on a one-to-one basis. It’s functionality I’m after. So how functional is it? I go back and forth. I’m having a hard time replicating, old functionality or process in some cases. But if I ignore that and look at achieving the goal things are better.

I suspect I would have the same issues with Windows 8 on Intel if I tried the same apps. But on Intel I’d have more work arounds and available apps.

For example, at a family gathering on Sunday I’d bring my iPad for sharing pictures taken there and for sharing pictures that are back on my NAS at home. That’s not quite possible with the Surface but I can still achieve the goal of sharing the pictures and improve on it. With the iPad I’d use the camera connection kit to get photos to the iPad for viewing and I’d do some posting or email sharing.

The surface will work like this:

  • • I’ll have to copy the photo that I want to share from my NAS to the surface for viewing in the photo app. I haven’t been able to get the photo app to see them even after adding the share to the library. I can also copy them to a USB stick. Not my preferred solution, but OK until I work things out. And the rest makes it all worth it.
  • • A USB to SD card adapter will get the photos from, my camera to the Surface. Also anybody else’s camera that uses an SD card.
  • • But new this time will be a USB to Compact Flash adapter. It didn’t work with the iPad but does work with the Surface. So if anyone still has compact flash they aren’t left out.
  • • I’ve been able to upload files to my Photo Station through the web interface but that is cumbersome. I’ll create the album in advance so I can give people the links and then upload the pictures when I get home. I might get this worked out before the gathering,

I have enough confidence that I’ll be leaving the iPad home.

I did struggle for a while trying to get the Synology Photo Station directories into the Metro Photo app. They are visible in the photo library on the desktop side, but not in the metro app. I’ve given up on that for now so I could move on to other fun. I’m having similar issues with the Metro Music App.

I quickly learned to swipe down from the top and up from the bottom since that’s where the application menus typically are. The settings menu is also context aware when opened with an app active. I also quickly learned to push to select. The UI for the apps are different but logical. So far it’s been easy to find features, unlike some iOS apps which have their own unique UI.

Office is a huge plus for me. There’s no Outlook but that’s OK with me, I’m not a fan. Access would have been nice but too much to ask for. I do use a simple Database on my iPad but didn’t see anything in the app store so it’s still a gap. Excel works for the really simply cases but it’s not enough.

I did download the usual suspects for apps – Kindle, Netflix, Evernote and Remote Desktop but I haven’t explored any of them up yet. Remote Desktop is already on the Surface but as a desktop app, this was a Metro app.

Music – Unfortunately, much of my local music was in unsupported lossless formats. It’s also a bit disorganized as I trying various options to break free of iTunes. Xbox Music had no problem streaming from their service and the Smart DJ did a nice job. But like Photos, the Metro music app had a problem with my Synology NAS based music but the desktop side of things works fines with the NAS files.

Video – So far I’ve only played video from local USB and MicroSD drives. It looked great. They were videos ripped by Handbrake using the “High Profile” defaults. These settings work in all my devices (except the occasional problem on my DVD player). I’m happy to see they play just fine on Surface and I won’t have to re-encode them.

Other Stuff

I was able to set up VPN to my Synology NAS so I’ll be able to use public wi-fi a little more securely. Up until now I’d been using IPSec to VPN into my pfSense router. But I ran into problem with Windows RT. There’s no IPSec client and the other options aren’t support by pfSense. So I enable the PPYP VPN server a=on Synology and I’m able to use that. PPTP isn’t the best choice for security but it should be good enough for me. One drawback of Windows RT is the inability to add 3rd party VPN clients, at least at this time.

I wish there was broadband wireless which I have with my iPad but for now I’ll tether.

Wrapping Up

I was a little depressed when I couldn’t get the Synology photo shares into the photo library. It was especially frustrating that it worked on the desktop side and seemed like it should work on the Metro side. But things looked up when I realized all the additional benefits surface brought to my photo management. I was back to being stoked as I wrapped up my first day with Surface.

I haven’t had any performance issues, but to be honest the most intense thing I did was play video. I did play music and video while editing a document and didn’t have any hiccups. But to be honest I didn’t do that more than a couple minutes as music and video at the same time is very annoying.

What’s your surface experience?

Yikes – Get Those Backups

If the latest forecast is correct and Sandy stays true to the models it will make landfall right around New Jersey. This server is in New Jersey.

  • Backups done – check
  • Offsite backup done – check
  • Second offsite backup done just to be sure – check

Getting the sie back up should it be effected probably won’t be high on my priority list if we get hit, but should be smooth once I get around to it.

Similar precautions around the house for my data. Making sure my offsite backups are working an up to date.

Charging those UPS’s. Not because I expect them to keep the home data center running, but they are great for keeping those portable devices charged during an extended blackout.

Good luck to all in its path and best wishes for those it’s already blown through.

 

Alternative PHP Cache (APC) on Debian 6

APC usage and hit chartAfter spending some time reviewing way to increase WordPress performance in ways beyond simple file caching I decided to give APC (Alternative PHP Cache) and extended try. I use mod_fastcgid on my server, as opposed to mod_fastcgi. Web searches indicated that mod_fastcgi would be a better choice with APC since it could share the same cache between processes. With mod_fastcgid each process has its own cache, which would also mean more memory usage. I have a relatively small server, a 512 MB VPS. But in looking at free memory it appeared I’d be OK as long as I was careful and had some upper limits. Also, I had has some issues getting mod_fastcgi to run in the past so I didn’t want to try that again.

Why APC

APC is an opcode cache. Opcode caches will cache the compiled php script in memory so it does not have to be interpreted each time it is called. WordPress is built with PHP so this should help performance. (Technically “compiled” is probably technically wrong but does get the point across.) Other opcode caches are XCache and eAccelerator.

eAccelerator hasn’t been updated in a couple years so I was hesitant to try it. APC is by the same guys who develop PHP and it’s supposed to be rolled into PHP 6. So I decided to give it a try first. I may give XCache a try after running APC awhile. Although, if I’m honest, I probably won’t bother if APC works OK.  They can’t co-exist so I can only install one at a time.

The one reason not to use APC is memory. I’ll be improving cpu utilization and improving performance at the expense of memory.

Throughout this article the terms cache and caching refer to the opcode caching provided by APC.

Installation

APC is in the Debian 6 repositories so it can be installed from there. I use aptitude, so I run:

aptitude install php-apc

Once it’s installed I reload Apache and APC is running. No admin interface is running so I extract the apc.php file by running:

gzip -dc /usr/share/doc/php-apc/apc.php.gz > /path/to/my/mngmt/website/apc.php

The /path/to/my/mngmt/website is a website I have that’s a catch-all for various server related pages. Access to it is restricted and since it does include some version information and files paths you may want to restrict access. I can open this page and get statistics about APC usage.

When I opened apc.php and did a version check I saw that I was several versions behind. I install 3.1.3p2 from 2009 and the latest stable version was 3.1.9 fro May 2011 and there was a beta version from April 2012. APC was working and limited testing didn’t show any problems but I decided to update.

Update Through PECL

PECL is the PHP Community Extension Library so its installer will be installed along with packages it needs to compile APC. Finally APC will be installed.

sudo aptitude install php-pear php5-dev apache2-dev

Once these are installed I can install (upgrade) apc

sudo pecl install apc

Reloading Apache finishes things off. Because I had first installed apc through aptitude I didn’t have to do any manual edits.

Configuring APC

Configuring APC is where the real work is needed. I did several iterations testing different configurations. At this point I was testing for performance, I was looking to see what worked and what didn’t.

The apc.ini shows the settings I was most interested in and what I’ve currently settled on. Memory is the biggest issue with APC. As I mentioned, each FCGID process creates it’s own cache. I’ve configured my server for a maximum of three processes so I can control memory usage. The easy way to determine how much memory to allocate is to divide my free memory (without caching enabled) by 3 (the max number of FGCID process I’d have) and leave a little for OS buffers and breathing room. For me this worked out to about 100 MB (I had about 350 MB free. But that calculation is a limit, which doesn’t mean it’s a good size.

I’m going to jump ahead and show the configuration I settled on.My /etc/php5/conf.d/apc.ini contains the following entries:

extension=apc.so
apc.enabled=1
apc.cache_by_default=0
apc.filters=”+(osquest.com|stats.rrn.co)/.*”
apc.shm_segments = 1
apc.shm_size=90M
apc.slam_defense=0
apc.stat=1
apc.ttl=0
apc.user_ttl=0

The first two lines tell PHP to load the APC extension and enable caching.

I started off with a 256 MB cache and let it cache all my sites. This was much too large so I’d have to monitor usage in case things started swapping to disk. Cache usage seemed to level off at around 90 MB after a few hours. I did go through a load the home page of all my sites (many are test sites or receive little traffic). This gave me an rough (and lowball) idea of what I’d need to cache everything. So this was right at my 90 MB estimate. In practice a 90 MB cache size resulted in a lot of cache fragmentation and cache reloads which isn’t an optimal situation.

I took the approach of reducing my FCGID processes to 2 and increasing the cache to 128 MB. This provided better cache performance but shortly after midnight I received a series of “[warn] [client 69.164.211.225] mod_fcgid: can’t apply process slot for /home/rayn/public_html/fcgi-bin.d/php5-default/php-fcgi-wrapper” errors. That IP address is my server so some daily maintenance scripts needed more PHP processes than were available. Later in the morning one visitor experienced a timeout error. It may have been unrelated but timeout errors were previously unheard of. So I switched back to three FCGID processes.

At this point it was obvious I had to cache less than everything. There’s only two sites that have enough traffic to benefit from caching so I decided limiting caching to them. I handled this through the next two lines. apc.cache_by_default=0 turns off caching for all sites. It now needs to be turned on explicitly. It’s turned on through the apc.filters line. The + means the filter is to add the matching files to caching. (By default the filter removes matches from caching.) The syntax is a POSIX regular expression and can be comma delimited. I had trouble getting a comma delimited list to work although all indications are that it should. So I ended up combining them into this one expression. Here’s a regular expression cheat sheet. I cache this site and one subdomain on a second site.

Caching doesn’t have to be enabled for a site in order to use it with a WordPress plugin that supports APC. For example, W3 Total Cache will use the cache even if it’s not enabled for the site.

I specified apc.shm_segments = 1 even though 1 is the default setting. I don’t want later version to change the default and start eating more memory. I specify apc.shm_size=90 to create a 90MB cache per FCGID process.

I also specified apc.stat=1 even though that’s the default. There’s debate about whether setting this to 0 will improve performance. A setting of 1 means that APC will check each script on request to see if it’s been modified. If it’s been modified it will be re-cached. A setting of zero disables this feature, The official documentation recommends setting it to 0 on a production server. A setting of 0 can cause problems as PHP changes (such as WordPress plugin updates) would go unnoticed. Once things are solid I may change it to 0 to see if there’s an improvement or any problems. My initial feeling is any improvement would be unnoticeable for my site and wouldn’t be worth the hassle of needing to manually flush the cache when I make changes. I’m also concerned it will cause problems with some plugins.

To make sure memory usage doesn’t get out of control I’ve also limited my FCGID processes to only three and I don’t allow them to spawn any child processes. I also don’t terminate to FCGID processes since this would clear the cache. This could be a potential memory problem so I’ll have to monitor it.  The following settings are specified in my /etc/apache2/conf.d/php-fcgid.conf.

DefaultInitEnv PHP_FCGI_CHILDREN 0
DefaultInitEnv PHP_FCGI_MAX_REQUESTS 0
FcgidMaxProcesses 2

This should keep memory usage below the physical memory in my server. PHP_FCGI_MAX_REQUESTS is set to zero based on this in the Apache mod_fcgid documentation:

By default, PHP FastCGI processes exit after handling 500 requests, and they may exit after this module has already connected to the application and sent the next request. When that occurs, an error will be logged and 500 Internal Server Error will be returned to the client. This PHP behavior can be disabled by setting PHP_FCGI_MAX_REQUESTS to 0, but that can be a problem if the PHP application leaks resources. Alternatively, PHP_FCGI_MAX_REQUESTS can be set to a much higher value than the default to reduce the frequency of this problem. FcgidMaxRequestsPerProcess can be set to a value less than or equal to PHP_FCGI_MAX_REQUESTS to resolve the problem.

I’ll have to monitor this. It’s possible the FCGID memory could keep growing until physical memory is filled.

PHP_FCGI_CHILDREN is set to 0 to prevent children from being spawned. From the Apache documentation:

PHP child process management (PHP_FCGI_CHILDREN) should always be disabled with mod_fcgid, which will only route one request at a time to application processes it has spawned; thus, any child processes created by PHP will not be used effectively. (Additionally, the PHP child processes may not be terminated properly.) By default, and with the environment variable setting PHP_FCGI_CHILDREN=0, PHP child process management is disabled.

Additional Notes

The screenshot below (click to open full size) shows my status (using apc.php) a couple hours after the caching started. The screenshot was done when the cache was still configured for 256 MB. I am running a unique cache for each fdcgid process so refreshing the page moves between the instances (but randomly). The size of the three caches stay pretty close to one another but they are clearly unique caches.

APC Info Page

When running top each of my three fcgid processes levels off at about 25% memory usage. So if my math is right this is 75% of 512 MB. Yet free (and top) show 350 MB still free. If each was allocating the full 256 MB to its own cache then it would be well over 100%, assuming free and top saw the shared memory it was using. So I’m assuming free doesn’t see the shared memory and reports is as available. In my limited memory this makes sense since the shared memory is still available to any application. The actual usage of my three caches never grew about the available free memory.

APC does require some work to configure and optimize it. To start with I’d enabled it for all my sites and PHP. This resulted in a lot of cache fragmentation and a few cache reloads after a few hours.

Benchmarks and timings on a test server are fine for comparisons, but I’ll need to run a configuration for awhile to see how it does, then start tweaking it. Right now my server seems healthy. Using APC did improve performance over no caching of any type, but I’m not sure of it’s benefit once page caching is used, especially if using a preloaded cache.

Right now my main concern is that I have too few FCGID processes, only two. I used some load testing tools and it didn’t cause any errors. I do have page caching enabled to PHP shouldn’t be needed when serving a page from the cache. I’ll be monitoring my error logs.

Anyone else with experience using APC with WordPress?

The OS Quest Trail Log #76: What I Use – October 2012

It’s been 5 months since I last wrote about what I use. Now’s a good time to recap what I currently use since I expect some big changes between now and the year end. Not much has changed with the  iPad apps I use so I’ve updated th original article. Changes are mainly removing apps I no longer use. Likewise, there haven’t been any changes with what keeps this website running other than version upgrades to keep things current. Now it’s time to update the big list. What I use in the home.

Servers/NAS

I continue to be addicted to servers and hard drives. I actually reduced the number of spinning drives from 28 drives spinning 24 X 7 down to fourteen. This doesn’t include a couple SSDs in a NAS.

Windows Home Server 2011

My WHS 2011 has been a solid, steady performer so there haven’t been any changes. My main home server is HP MicroServer running Windows Home Server 2011 is at the center of my home network. It has four 3 TB drives for data (no RAID) and a 160GB drive for the OS. It has an AMD N36L processor with 8 GB of RAM. The only add-in I run is Cloudberry Backup for Windows Home Server 2011 to backup to Amazon S3 and locally. I also use CrashPlan for additional offsite backup.

Synology NAS

There’s been some changes here. I have a Synology 1511+ NAS with two expansion bays. There are fifteen 3 TB Seagate Barracuda ST3000DM001 drives. I’ve done some digital cleanup so one of these expansion bays is kept powered off to save electricity. This NAS is dedicated to various backup functions. My WHS 2011 box backs up to it via an iSCSI drive. It serves as a Time Machine backup destination for my Macs. I also backup this web server to it using Rsync. Finally, it syncs files with my other Synology NAS as a backup for them.

I added a Synology DS212+ NAS back in late May. This has two mirrored (technically Synology Hybrid RAID) 256GB SSD drives in it. This is used as a file sharing and application server. I have an encrypted file share for personal file storage. This is basically anything that isn’t media or old file archives. I also have Synology CloudStation set up on it for syncing files among my devices. PhotoStation is also running as this NAS is now my primary photo storage location. I’ve also just begun testing Audio Station on it.

I still have my original Synology NAS, a DS212J NAS which has been relegated to testing and experimentation.

Small Business Server 2011 Essentials Windows Storage Server

I’ve retired my Western Digital DX4000 which had been running SBS 2011e Windows Storage Server 2008 R2

Desktop & Laptop Computers

No hardware changes here, just a OS upgrade on the Mac side to Mountain Lion.

Mac OS X

Measured by the time I use it, my primary computer would be my mid-2011 MacBook Air with Core i7 processor and 4 GB RAM along with a 256 Gb SSD drive. It runs OS X 10.8 Lion.

My desk has a late 2009 Mac Mini with a 2.66 GHz Core Two Duo, 4 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard drive. It’s connected to a old 20” Apple Cinema Display. I use Synergy to share the mouse/keyboard that’s on my Windows 7 desktop PC. It runs OS X 10.8 Lion.

Windows 7

My home built desktop is a Windows 7 Pro PC with with a AMD Athlon II x6 1090T processor and 16 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD drive. There’s also a 160 GB Velociraptor drive along with two 7200 rpm 1 GB drives. The SSD and Velociraptor are the primary drives while the 1GB drives are used primarily for Virtual Machines. Data is kept on my Windows How Server. For graphics it has a Radeon HD 6870 video card connected to a Acer H213H 21.5” monitor. I’ve been planning a monitor upgrade but never pulled the trigger. With two monitors on my desk going bigger would cramp things on my desk (or require wall mounts or stands) and I use the laptop more these days.

Portable, Mobile & Media Devices

No changes here since May, so to recap…

My phone is a 64GB iPhone 4S on Verizon. I’ve been with Verizon as long as I can remember (my least objectionable telecom) and had an iPhone since there’s been one on Verizon. My iPhone is also my podcast and music player. I also have tethering on this phone.

I have an 64GB iPad 3rd Gen, also on Verizon. I only use the data plan a few months a year, such as when I’m on vacation or on extended business travels. Since tethering is currently free with the data plan I dropped my iPhone tethering for awhile to see if the iPad data was worth it. It wasn’t beneficial enough for me so I dropped the data plan and went back to iPhone tethering. I already covered the iPad apps I use.

I also have a Kindle Fire that’s mainly used for Video and short reading sessions. My Kindle Reader is used for longer, leisure reading sessions.

I have a LG BD670 Blu-ray player connected to my TV. It has built in wireless. I can view Amazon video using an app (bad, bad UI). There are other apps but I don’t use them. I can view video from my Windows Home Server over wireless or plug in a USB stick or drive.

The TV is a Vizio 42” TV that was inexpensive and works great. My only complaint is it’s annoying tendency to reboot when I’m watching something so it can apply a firmware update.

Home Network

Things have been stable since May, so again, no changes here.

My router is pfSense 2 running on an HP MicroServer. It’s reliable and I like it. This is connected to a HP ProCurve J9450A Gigabit switch. The switch supports link aggregation which I can use with my Synology 1511+ in addition to being a managed switch with a lot of features I’ll never need. It was the lowest cost Gigabit switch I found that did link aggregation and I’ve been happy with it’s performance.

For my wireless network I use a Netgear WNDR3700 router. I don’t use it as a router (since switching to pfSense), just a wireless access point. It’s dual band so I have a 2.4 GHz and a 5 GHz network set up. I use the 5 GHz network whenever possible since it’s less common and therefore has less interference from nearby apartments. I also have a D-Link DAP-1522 Wireless Bridge on my workbench so I can plug in non-wireless computers.

My ISP is Comcast. They’ve been reliable and performance is good. I’ve bumped against their data cap a few times thanks to backups but recent news has them finally re-evaluating the caps. It does seem that every time I actually have to talk to a person it causes a problem and an outage (new modem, moving, etc…) but luckily they’ve been reliable so I rarely have to talk to them.

Software

Since I run both OS X and Windows I gravitate to cross-platform apps and web apps. Back in May I was using Wakoopa to track my actual app usage, but that service has been shut down.

Productivity & Communication

I primarily use Google Apps for Domains for my email. I moved one account to Microsoft’s new Outlook.com. I no longer use Mailplane as my mail client, sticking to the web browser now that GAFD does a good job of handling multiple logons.

My primary browser is now Google Chrome. It’s back to being temperamental again so I’m spending more time back in Firefox. LastPass is still my choice to manage passwords and secure notes. I’ve been a LastPass user since the early days and subscribe to their premium service. LastPass works on all my browsers and iOS devices. I no longer use XMarks (or anything else) to sync bookmarks.

I make occasional use of Skype and I do use Twitter.

I moved from Office 2010 to the Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium Preview. I’ll probably subscribe when it goes to production although that depends on pricing.

Windows Live Mesh and Skydrive have been replaced by Synology CloudStation. Skydrive is still around but not used much. Dropbox is also used for those times it’s the only choice. Both my Skydrive and Dropbox accounts are the free subscriptions. I also have a Spideroak account (free subscription level) that I wanted to like for cloud storage but it had problems syncing OS X package files (Bento specifically) so I haven’t trusted it on the Mac side.

My finance/checkbook app has switched from YNAB to Money Dance after a terrible upgrade experience. Money Dance also runs on Windows and OS X.

Backup & Security Software and Services

I use Amazon S3 for critical files. I pay a bit more than I did in May, just under $7/mth now with over 60GB on S3. Amazon is one of the few services I trust to not lose my files. They’ve been doing it awhile and they’re truly “cloud”, with the files stored across multiple data centers.

Cloudberry and CrashPlan remain my backup solutions for Windows Home Server 2011. Cloudberry for local and critical files to Amazon S3 while CrashPlan is for bulk offsite backup.

For Mac backups I use Arq Backup which backs up to Amazon S3 using a Time Machine metaphor. It’s a well thought out, great piece of software. I don’t keep much data on my Macs so this is mainly for settings and when I travel with my latop. I also use Time Machine on my Macs with the Synology NAS as my destination.

I use Microsoft Security Essentials on my Windows PCs and nothing on my Macs. I use the NoScript add-in for Firefox and NotScripts for Chrome to limit what web pages can do. I also have a copy of MalwareBytes but that’s mainly because I’ve needed it for other PCs. For the most part I rely on safe computing habits rather than software for security.

Digital Media & Entertainment

I stopped using iTunes Match shortly after signing up in May due to sync and other issues. I hate iTunes as an application but like it as a music manager. These days I mainly purchase music through Amazon but will still buy through the iTunes Store and even a few albums on sale through Google Play. I don’t use any cloud service for music beyond Amazon and Google for the music I’ve bought from them.

Video is either from my own DVD library or Amazon Online Video. I’m a Prime member so have access to their Prime Video library. For online video I’m generally looking for “something to watch” rather than something specific and Amazon Prime works for this. I only have basic cable (the real basic cable with over the air channels only) so I do buy videos I want through Amazon. I recently re-subscribed to the Netflix DVD service to expand my options. All this is still cheaper than a cable subscription.

VLC Media Player is my player of choice for Windows and Mac. I use Slysoft AnyDVD  along with Handbrake to rip DVDs from my library and encode them for playing on my various devices. I use Slysoft CloneDVD to make backups of my DVDs. I only do this for DVDs I own. This makes them more convenient to watch and protects me when a DVD goes bad (which they frequently do, especially the two-sided ones). It also makes it easier to store them since they can go in boxes and be stored in a closet.

I still organize Photos using a folder structure but I now store them on my Synology DS212+ NAS and use PhotoStation. Other photo management software can still access them since they are just files. I did upgrade to Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 but I’m still trying to get the hang of it. Acorn is still my primary editor.

I’ve been using Aperture for new photos I’ve been taking, I use a reference library that points to the photos on the NAS,

Misc Apps

I use Sumatra PDF rather than Adobe’s Acrobat Reader. I also use Evernote for information capture and storage. I use Instapaper as my read later service and PinBoard as my bookmarking service.

I use LogMeIn for remote access. I have the paid account from my Windows Home Server and free counts everywhere else. I may not renew the paid account when it expires in June.

I use VirtualBox for virtual machines on Windows. I run several on my Windows 7 desktop. I use VMWare for virtual machines on my MacBook Air.

 

Microsoft Windows RT Is Coming–Get Ready

Picture of fireworks

Picture of fireworksWe’re just over a week away from Microsoft’s Windows 8 launch on October 26th. Windows RT and Microsoft Surface RT are part of that launch party. Eventually I’ll get around to a Windows 8 upgrade, but for now it’s Windows RT that I’m excited about and will it’s what I’m preparing for during the next week.

I’ve pre-ordered a surface RT tablet but that’s because I’m a gadget geek and I like new tech to play with. I imagine most people need more than curiosity to justify a Windows RT tablet purchase. If you’re wondering if a Windows RT tablet is right for you, or if your curious but smarter than me and wanting more info before opening the wallet, here are a couple useful resources.

SurfaceGeeks.net is a website, podcast and community for all thing Surface and Surface like. It’s not restricted to Microsoft Surface or even Windows RT. There’s already forum sections for Samsung and Asus hardware along with a sections for Windows Phone 8 hardware and software. You’ll find me in the forums as OSQuest. Head on over, join in and say hello.

WRTQuest.com is a a completely self-serving item on this list. It’s a new website I’ve started for my Windows RT chronicles. This will be more stream of consciousness than planned out articles and topics. I install a new app – I immediately create a post and update it over time. I’ll also be writing about whether or not the Surface RT can replace my iPad. Not whether it can be an iPad replacement, just if it replaces mine and why or why not.

Then there’s the usual suspects. Paul Thurrott’s WinSuperSite.com always has good info.

Digital Media Zone has a chart comparing what’s know about Windows Tablet. That’s just a sample of the links found on the Surface Geeks forum, so now that this article is over, head on over for more info, things are just getting started,

Microsoft Suface RT

Surface with Windows RT graphic
Surface with Windows RT graphic
Graphic from Microsoft.com

Microsoft finally announced pricing for their Surface RT tablets. The base model, sans keyboard cover is $499. It’s $599 if the cover is included. The 64GB model, with a cover is $699. The Type Cover, which is a more traditional keyboard is a $130 add-on. Comparisons to the iPad prices is inevitable, and also pointless (in my opion of course). If you’e trying to decide between them you should look at features and what you want to do with it. The price will probably be comparable when you’re done. I also suspect if you’re trying to decide between Surface and iPad you should probably go with the iPad.

So if that’s my opinion why am I considering the Surface RT? Did I say considering? Let’s face it, my decision to get one is all but finalized despite already having a iPad.

  1. I’m looking for some tech I can get excited about. Windows Home Server is at a dead end. I’ll have mine for a long time, but it will be boring (and hopefully reliable). I’ve no desire to move up to Microsoft’s “real” servers. And that decision was made without even considering cost, it would be too much like work. So I’m looking at Surface RT to be both different and exciting.
  2. The last PC I bought, a Dell laptop, was a lousy out of the box experience thanks to Dell’s “services” and crapware. I vowed if I ever bought another PC that I’d go with Microsoft’s Signature line where they remove the crapware. I’ve already read some oem’s offering their own services with the tablets. I equate that with crapware until proven otherwise. I view the Surface as a clean reference design.

So those are the two reasons I’m considering the Surface RT. How do I think I’ll use it?

  1. Let’s face it. I already mentioned the primary reason – I hope it’s something I can get excited about. This reason alone isn’t going to make it a best seller at these prices.
  2. It has a full office suite (no Outlook) and a attached physical keyboard. There’s potential there. The lack of extended hands-on reviews means the keyboard cover may fail to meet expectations. I currently carry my iPad to work daily, I expect the Surface to replace it.
  3. I’m hoping the Surface is so good that I can sell my iPad but that remains to be seen.

Now that pricing has been announced I’m less optimistic about success assuming success is defined by units sold. The price is definitely a speed bump and I hope the oem’s will step in to market lower price models. But with the oem’s a lower price will mean lower quality. Microsoft had an incentive to sell at cost, the oem’s need to profit on each unit sold. Or maybe Microsoft will offer some sort of promotion to get large quantities into the enterprise. If they offer some sort of oem incentive for consumer sales they’d upset Surface buyers. Then there the apps issue. While the built-in apps are nice and the Office Suite differentiates it from the iPad, there need to be some apps. Sure, maybe the key apps are enough to start with but there needs to be more.

Anyone else have a Surface RT in their future?

Piwik Stats – Email Reports

Piwik Logo

Piwik bannerI use Piwik for my website analytics. I like that I host and control the data and it’s a learning experience. It’s not as full featured as Google Analytics but it’s more than I need for my little website.

I can get an email every morning showing my sites traffic for the day before. This email has always had a problem of often not having the previous day or days stats. I finally determined it was because the archives were only generated when someone (like me) viewed the reports. And the email came from this data. I ignored this problem because there was also an iOS app that I could use to check stats and it was easier than email. So I typically ignored this email even when I hadn’t turned it off.

But then I was ignoring stats for awhile and those “0 visitor” emails didn’t cause any alarm. Unfortunately I had a website problem that went on for longer than it should.  So it was time to get those emailed stats working.

I’m running Piwik on Debian and Apache. Everything is on the latest versions. I figured my solution was to implement their stat archiving script in a cron job. This is recommended for larger sites to limit the impact of compiling the stats.

Their instructions for setting this up are pretty good so I won’t repeat everything here, just add some comments on the issues I had.

Curl is needed. I installed the php5-curl package.

sudo aptitude install php5-curl

Rather than schedule a job through crontab I just added the script file to the /etc/cron.hourly directory.

The script contains three lines, only one of which does anything important:

#!/bin/bash
#Generate Piwik Stats – Everything below is on one line
/usr/bin/php5 /path/to/piwik/misc/cron/archive.php –url=http://example.org/piwik/ –accept-invalid-ssl-certificate > /home/example/piwik-archive.log

Most of the parameters are described in the Piwik documentation. I added this one to deal with my self-signed SSL certificate. This is not the best security choice but I figure the risk is minimal for me.

–accept-invalid-ssl-certificate

Don’t forget,like I did, to make the script executable: chmod +x /etc/cron.hourly/scriptfile

Hourly updates are more than I need but at least I don’t have to worry about coordinating the email and stats generation

iPad/iOS 6 Wireless Sync

Screenshot of my main iPad screen

Screenshot of my main iPad screenEver since upgrading my iPad 3 to iOS 6 I haven’t been able to do a wireless sync with iTunes. My iPhone 4S does a wireless sync just fine. I tried the usual troubleshooting things such as restarts and re-entering settings. I was pretty sure it was my iPad or iTunes that was the problem. The iPad also had a problem where the wireless network would drop every couple of days and I’d have to toggle wireless off then on (on the iPad) to get it to see the network so the iPad was my first choice as the problem source. I don’t use iTunes very much with my iPad so I wasn’t aggressively looking for a fix (my opinion of iTunes is that it’s a big ball of bugs and frustration).

I was listening to the McCast podcast (Oct 5th episode) when Adam mentioned a step I hadn’t tried. While he described a different wireless issue it was close enough. And sure enough, his suggestion to reset the network settings worked.

To reset the settings: Settings -> General -> Reset -> Reset Network Settings

The iPad will restart after confirmation. I did not have to re-enter my wireless network security settings so I expected to still have the problem. But sure enough, I was able to initiate the sync and it completed without a problem. It’s too soon to tell if the problem dropping the wireless network every couple of days is also fixed, but I’m hopeful.

For the record, I run iTunes on a Mac and OS X, iTunes and my iPad are all  on the latest versions.

Makes me glad that the MacCast is the one Apple specific podcast I still listen to on a regular basis.