Amazon Updates Consumer Cloud Services

Amazon Cloud Drive Logo

Amazon Cloud Drive Logo

Amazon joined the update parade by updating their Cloud Music offering and separating it out from their Cloud Files offering. Now Cloud Files and Cloud Player are different products with their own pricing, although existing subscribers still get combined and discounted pricing for some plans. Amazon purchased music doesn’t count against the the space quota, although it appears that the deal where all music was free, regardless of source, is over.

I installed the updated uploader and had problems immediately. In short, the uploader screen was blank except for the Amazon logo and the help link, Since provide feedback was all I could do, I did. I didn’t expect a response as this wasn’t a trouble report but I did get an email response rather quick. I provided the log file but as I told the Amazon rep, this isn’t important enough to me for it to be worth my time. The Amazon Music offering has been finicky at best for me, and downright unusable at other times. I have to admit, the DRM has yet to get in the way for me.

Scan and Match along with quality upgrades bring iTunes Match type functionality.The press release is here.

More exciting, at least for me, was Amazon’s release of a video player for the iPad. Amazon is the one service where I’ve been willing to “buy” DRM’d video. It still has all the negatives of DRM – it’s more a rental than a purchase and DRM is just one more thing to break (like a down DRM server). Amazon minimizes the impact by making the video playable many places, taking the hint from Netflix.

The Player’s UI is better than the other Amazon UI’s and it’s usable. The sorting is still weird, seems to be based upon purchase date which makes sense in a way, but it would be nice to have an alpha-sort option. Streaming over wireless was smooth and there’s an option to download the video for offline viewing, Wireless is required for online streaming, no streaming over LTE.

Maybe it’s me, but Amazon Cloud Player doesn’t seem usable for anything beyond a storage locker for the Amazon music I purchase. On the other hand, Amazon Video (including Prime) has become my primary online video source.

Anyone having a better Cloud Player experience than I am? Using Amazon Instant Video on the iPad?

Microsoft Outlook.com

Outlook Icons

Microsoft is expanding is Outlook email branding to the web, with plans to replace Hotmail with Outlook.com. According to Microsoft’s blog post it’s a complete rework of email, rather than just a rebranding. I rarely use it but I do have a Hotmail (actually live.com) account so I took a look.  I like the new look. Others have said it’s metro-like, I’ll take their word for it since I’ve only seen pictures. Like GMail, there’s adds but they’re unobtrusive on the right, all text so far.

Outlook.com also allows up to 5 aliases so I claimed a few that I use for other email. It was also a nice touch that when the aliases were created I was given the option to create a folder for those emails and create a rule to put them there upon receipt. Also, I could use either the new @outlook.com or the old hotmail.com or live.com in the addresses. I could then change the default email for the account to the @outlook.com address.

Outlook.com doesn’t support IMAP but I was able to set up the account on my iPhone using Exchange Active Sync. I used the Hotmail server and account info but I see the folders I created on Outlook.com and could @Outlook.com as my sending & reply addresses. So it appears to work, at least until the band-aids come loose.

I’m firmly entrenched in GMail so it wouldn’t be easy for me to leave, although Microsoft does highlight configuring your Outlook.com mailbox to pull email from other services such as GMail. They do emphasize the social features which is a bit of a turn-off for me (so I turned them off). I’m set in my ways, I just want email to be email.

Microsoft is on a bit of a roll this year with new versions on the horizon for their main desktop and server OS’s along with their flagship Office product.  Lot’s of change which will drive people nuts at times (myself included) but it’s nice to see them thinking about their software and being willing to change it.

Any Hotmail users out there with first impressions of Outlook.com?

Cloud Music: Amazon and Google

Music Jukebox imageI recently wrote about my iTunes Match experience but despite being a long time user of the Apple ecosystem for music I also wanted to give Amazon’s and Google’s offerings a look. Amazon will allow an unlimited number of music files to be stored in their cloud music player, and Google will allow 20,000 to be stored. I have less than 20,000 songs so this makes the cost comparable – free. This compares to $25/year for iTunes Match.

Amazon Cloud Player

Of the two, I’m more likely to use Amazon Cloud Player since I’m a heavy Amazon user, being an Amazon Prime member and Kindle Fire owner. I have purchased about 600 songs from Amazon.

Things did not start off well with Amazon. I had long ago loaded my music to the Amazon Cloud Player, primarily as a backup. I hadn’t kept up with uploading new songs so I wanted to get current. To do this I had it scan my music again. It saw each song as new and wanted to upload it. I could see this for songs that may have been modified by iTunes Match, but it also saw the 600 Amazon purchases as new along with the CD rips I had uploaded long ago and were unchanged (these weren’t in iTunes so couldn’t have been touched by Match).

I decided to delete all my music and start over. Deleting the music was a pain as Amazon only did about 100 at a time (with considerable variation in this number), despite a message saying all had been deleted.

Unfortunately I still had a lot of duplicates after the upload. Since Match had replaced my MP3 files with M4a (iTunes formatted) files within iTunes. Since I scanned my MP3’s along with iTunes both were uploaded. I’m still trying to decide how I want to deal with this. As a backup destination I’d want both. But unless I want to hear every song on an album twice it does screw up playback. But this really isn’t the players fault unless your looking for it to identify songs, rather than files. This isn’t really an Amazon Player issue as long as it’s not expected to recognize actual songs or match meta data, but rather work simply off file names.

Things got better when I concentrated on playback. Amazon doesn’t have the concept of smart or genius playlists and I’m not one to manually create playlists so playback for me is strictly by album, artist or genre. I can do shuffle play but that’s about it.

The iOS app is nice, but suffers from the same limitations as the web player, no smart playlists. It can read in local playlists from iTunes but they are not refreshed when the iTunes playlist changes, they need to be re-imported. The first time I fired it up it needed to sync with the Amazon Cloud Player and performance suffered during this sync After this if was fine.

The iOS player did great over wi-fi, no complaints here. As I test I left the comfort of wi-fi and went for a drive were I’d use 3G, The first song that loaded after I was on 3G has serious stuttering problems at first. But once it got going it was fine. I went for a 60 mile drive, switching among many cell towers during the 60+ mile highway drive. There weren’t any problems or noticeable buffering during the drive.

The Kindle Fire was disappointing, to put it mildly. Despite using the same wi-fi network as the problem free iOS app, the Fire had serious performance problems. While iOS seemed to download basic information from the Cloud Player at initial startup, the Fire seemed to load from the Cloud every time I picked an artist or album causing frustrating delays while browsing. There were frequent messages that the player wasn’t responding and I was offered the option to kill it. I waited instead and eventually got a response. There were also frequent delays between songs while the player loaded the next song. Browsing while playing was unbearable.  I gave up on the Kindle Fire although I can’t help believing there must be some problem as it couldn’t possibly be this bad. I didn’t bother copying files locally since space is limited and I didn’t want to have to manage files on the device level.

Google Music (aka Google Play Music)

I’ve never bought music from Google. I do have a bias against Google. I don’t see them as a consumer focused company, unless there’s an algorithm that can manage those consumers. Android users would benefit the most from Google Music and I’m not an Android user so I expected my evaluation to be quick. There is an unofficial iOS app for Google Music, but I didn’t buy it so can’t comment.

I found Google easy enough to upload too, and they were the only service I tried that allowed me to throttle the upload bandwidth used. Google Music had the same problem as Amazon Cloud Player – it saw both the MP3 and M4a files of the same song as unique and uploaded both. They were grouped in the same album and given the same name since the meta data was the same.

Google provides a few more features than Amazon, Each song can be given a thumbs up or thumbs down as a rating. A playlists of thumbs up songs is automatically created. The also have an “instant mix” feature that will create a playlist based on an initial song you select. Google also as more social features, integrating with Google+. It’s no surprise these features revolve around song purchases.

Overall I liked Google Play Music’s web interface better than Amazon’s. They seem to have put more thought into it. Unfortunately there’s no official iOS support. Music can be played through Safari, but background play stops when the current song finishes. I haven’t tried any of the third party apps. Since the Play account is also my full Google Apps account I don’t want to put the password in any non-Google app or web page.

The Bottom Line

For better or worse I’m neck deep in the Apple ecosystem for playing music so this makes iTunes Match the best choice as my cloud music player, despite its flaws. If I wanted to leave Apple I’d pick Google provided they either came out with an official player or I wanted to create a music only Google account for a 3rd party iOS app.

But as a Music backup destination I’d prefer Amazon. I may upload music yet again. This time using the iTunes files as a source for the player, and uploading my MP3’s and lossless music as regular files, simply for backup purposes. These backups wouldn’t be counted as free music files since they aren’t supported cloud player files. I also need to consider if I really need the MP3’s. In addition to the .M4a iTunes fileI have the original CDs along with FLAC and Apple Lossless encodes should I ever need to re-encode them as MP3. But to be honest, this is more thought than I want to put into my music as this time. I’d rather just backup everything and continue to use iTunes for playing them.

How do you manage and play your music library? Thoughts on Amazon or Google cloud players?

Cloud Music: iTunes Match

iTunes Match Settings

iTunes Match SettingsIn the past I stored my music on Amazon cloud storage more as a backup than as a way to play it “from the cloud”. I purchased much of my music through Amazon and storing it was free (now all music stored there is free). Google also redid their cloud music offering and then there’s iTunes Match. I took a look at all three, this article gives my impression of iTunes Match.

I held off subscribing to iTunes Match until a couple months ago. Then my primary reason was to get the DRM off some old iTunes purchases, a secondary reason being to upgrade some lower quality songs. I never enabled Match on any iDevices until the past week.

iTunes Match PlaylistI started off with enabling it on my iPhone (it’s already enabled on my Mac Mini that has me entire music library). I was warned that it would replace my local music library. Since the local library was just a subset of my Mac Mini’s library I didn’t expect much change. I got a brief scare when my playlists disappeared, but they eventually came back. It looks like match did the right thing and kept the music that was already on the iPhone and marked the rest as being in the cloud. As the picture to the left shows, the first 3 songs are in the cloud while the last 4 are already on the iPhone.

There is no option to exclude unchecked songs, they are all available. I do have the option to only included checked items enabled in all my smart playlists created in iTunes, but this is ignored in Match on the iPhone.

Match will manage what songs are cached locally, using the songs already there as a starting point. I can also have it download all songs in a playlist, for an artist, or on an album (probably other criteria too, but those are the obvious ones) so they would be available when I’m offline or if I want to avoid using cell data. Cell data usage can also be turned off for iTunes Match to avoid eating up a data plan.

There was a noticeable delay in playing a cloud based song when it wasn’t in the queue. For example, when the first song in a playlist was cloud based. But once the songs were queued up it was seamless. Most of my usage was over my home wi-fi but I didn’t have any issues when I ventured off wireless. Admittedly, I didn’t use it much on 3G and most of that was in my house with wi-fi off for testing. The 3G performance will only be as good as the local network. I use Verizon which has been a solid performer for me locally.

I’m not a fan of the iTunes Music player interface on the iPad so I use Diner Jukebox instead. Diner Jukebox ad no problem playing songs using iTunes Match. I played songs that were local on the iPad and those in the cloud.

While I can’t create or edit smart playlists on my iDevice, the playlists are updated as songs move in and out of matching the criteria and these changes are synced across iTunes Match devices (as expected).

As someone who likes iTunes and the iPhone as a music player I find that iTunes Match enhances the experience. Anything that eliminates a reason to fire up iTunes simply to manage a device already starts out on the plus side. It does cost $25 a year which is a minus, but for this first year I got the added bonus of removing DRM from my older iTunes purchases. This was less than I would have paid under Apple’s old upgrade policy.

I would like the ability to create and edit smart playlists on my iPad. I suspect the iPhone screen size would make the UI for that too cumbersome but it should fit fine on the iPad. I don’t add or edit smart playlists much these days so this isn’t a big drawback for me. Since Amazon and Google don’t have a smart playlist concept for their players they probably won’t be much of a contender for iTunes Match. But I’ll be giving them a try.

The other interesting thing I encountered was that iTunes Match seemed to turn itself off in iTunes. My account says the computer is associated with iTunes match, but it’s not available in iTunes and I had to re-enable it. When it was added back it quickly saw it had all but 4 songs, which it uploaded. This was considerably less than when I first enabled iTunes Match. Now I could delete all those unchecked songs from iCloud to get them off my iDevices but I’m not sure I want to do that. While I could keep the physical files they’d be gone from iTunes and iCloud. Even though I don’t play them my packrate nature keeps me from clicking delete. I could create multiple libraries and I may eventually do that, but a first glance it seems like more effort than I’m willing to make.

Do you use iTunes Match as a cloud player? User another cloud player?

Google DNS – Close But No Cigar

image of WWW on goldAmong Google’s recent announcements was their introduction of Google Public DNS. I’ve been using OpenDNS and have no complaints. Well, actually I recently found I had defaulted back to using my ISP’s DNS (Comcast), probably during a router firmware upgrade. When I switched to back OpenDNS I also didn’t notice a different over Comcast. I wouldn’t have noticed unless I was in the router config for another reason and happened to see it.

Comcast and OpenDNS both do typo hijacking and display a search page with ads rather than an error page. I went through the process of opting out of Comcast’s typo hijacking. OpenDNS also allows an opt-out for typo hijacking which I have set. Interestingly enough, the advertising company – Google, doesn’t hijack typos for ads and they display the error page for typos. But this lack of hijacking wasn’t a benefit for me since my opt-outs were already in place and were working fine.

To be honest I didn’t notice any performance difference when I was set to use any of them. When I first switched from Comcast to OpenDNS long ago I did notice imroved performance, but not this time. So I went looking for a way to benchmark performance and came across namebench. It’s simple to use and provides useful information.

Just download namebench and run the executable. You’ll be presented the following screen:

namebench main screen

The “Benchmark Data Source” is a drop down that let’s you pick one of your browsers or the Alexa Top Global Domains as a data source. Picking your most used browser provides results that are specific to the way you browse. Some people have complained that this could send all your browsing history to one person (the Google developer). Since the source code is public it’s easy to confirm it doesn’t. But, if your still concerned, picking Alexa will use generic sites.

Click “Start Benchmark” to get things going. Once the benchmarking is done (took about 10 minutes for me) a page with the results will open in your browser. At the top will be the information yiu really want:

namebenchresults

The above result is from a run after I’d already re-configured for it’s previous recommendations and OpenDNS is the second fastest DNS server according to the benchmark. The right box displays the recommended DNS servers that should be used. In my case the first one is the internal IP of my local router so should be ignored. (I didn’t include it in the screenshot but you’ll get detailed info on the servers tested. See the previously linked namebench page for samples.

The bottom line is Google Public DNS didn’t make the cut. So, while the accuracy of the benchmark may be questioned (as would any benchmark) it’s pretty clear there’s no Google favoritism. M5Net, UltraDNS and Comcast were my recommended DNS servers. Another note, because of caching the first time run of namebench will deliver the most accurate results.

So, I started off by looking at Google Public DNS but by the time I was done I was off of it. But looking into it I considered the following:

  • This gives yet more of my information to Google, which at it’s core is an advertising company. Their privacy policy is pretty good and Google hasn’t monetized DNS yet. Of all the info Google has on me, my DNS info is probably less of a concern. Let’s face it, someone is going to have this data. It’s Google’s recent cavalier comments about privacy and all the other info they have that’s a concern.
  • Google doesn’t have to match the info to me to benefit. The additional information they collect about were people surf and how often is a treasure waiting to be mined. They don’t need to put ads on error pages to profit from DNS.
  • Google does continuously hit on speeding up the web so it’s likely they’ll keep improving performance. They have studies showing that slow response on their search results generates lower revenue.
  • They also promote security and Google certainly has the money and talent to keep DNS as secure as possible.

Like my recent foray into Google’s Picasa/Eye-Fi deal, Google Public DNS is yet another Google offering that sounded good but wasn’t quit right for me. Like Picasa, Google DNS will stay on my radar and I’ll check it out sometime down the road. Anyone else trying Google Public DNS?

Google Wants Our Photos In The Cloud

image of a compact=Google currently has a deal going that offers a free Eye-Fi card when you lease 200GB of storage for them for a year. When I first saw it it seemed like a pretty good deal, and I hate to pass up a good deal. But it’s less of a deal if I don’t really need the space and won’t use the card. So that got me thinking about my options.

The space is split between Gmail and Picasa. I’m not even close to my Gmail limit and I’m not currently a Picasa user. In theory there’s also some unofficial hacks that allow the space to be used for file storage, like gDisk for the Mac. But I’m not willing to trust something Google may break at anytime so it’s not a consideration. What I’d be looking to use the disk for is to back up my photos. Right now I have just under 20GB of photos and it costs me less than $3/mth to keep them backed up offsite. So that’s $36/year, still shy of the $50.

But that assumes I could easily save everything up to Picasa and I found that wouldn’t be possible. The Picasa 3 desktop allows automatic syncing of it’s albums to albums on Picasa web albums. But this proved to be problematic and not a better solution than plain old backup via Jungle Disk. The deal-breakers were:

  • Picasa is limited to 1,000 albums with up to 1,000 photos in each album. This sounds like a lot but the 1,000 album limit is a deal breaker for me. I keep my files in a directory structure and the number of directories already exceed 1,000. I don’t want to do any drag or dropping to create new albums just for syncing since that’s prone to error. Sure, I have plenty of directories with one or two photos, but I don’t want to re-organize everything , I’m set in my ways.
  • Deleting entire albums from Picasa desktop did not delete the album from the web. Photos within albums deleted just fine. Deleting all pictures in a folder automatically deleted the folder so it’s not like I could keep the folder behind until it synced the deletions.
  • RAW image files were synced to the web as jpg’s so it wouldn’t be a true backup.

While a lot of people like Picasa, there was nothing that caught my attention and would compel me to use it. I’ll keep looking at it and may yet find some compelling feature, but for now I’d have a hard time justifying 200GB for Picasa. Realistically I’d be better off with a lower priced plan.

Then there’s the Eye-Fi card. If it was worth the cost then I could consider $50 for the card and the Google storage as the free product. The version offered is the Eye-Fi Home Video which has a list price of $69. I don’t find it online anywhere for a street price. The closest card is the Eye-Fi Share Video which sells for $73 at Amazon. If I had to guess I’d say the “catch” is that that since the Home Video card doesn’t typically include any online component the only online options are Picasa and YouTube. These are the only online services specifically mentioned in the offer. The Share Video allows sharing with more services. Other, more expensive, cards include geo tagging photos which would add a potentially useful feature.

I like the idea of being able to automatically load pictures from my camera to my PC automatically, but the Wi-Fi card doesn’t offer anything else that’s compelling to me.

So while the Google/Wi_fi offer does seem like a good deal I’m not yet convinced it’s worth $50 to me. I’m still intrigued by Picasa and the web album component so I’ll keep considering it.

I also decided to looks at some alternatives:

  • SmugMug offers online albums along with a “SmugVault” that can be used to store any type of file (such as RAW files) but it’s a subscription service and would cost more than what I have now.
  • The old standby Flickr is $25/yr for unlimited storage. Still, it’s not a good solution for backup. There are plenty off Flickr add-ins and plug-ins so I could probably find one to do syncing, but it still wouldn’t be a true backup.
  • I already use Windows Live Photo Gallery to organize my photos and like it. Plus there’s a free 25GB for online photo albums. But like the others, it’s lacking as a backup solution.

So, the bottom line is Jungle Disk remains the way I backup my photos. I’m really not surprised since it’s cheap and easy. Picasa still has my attention if I want to do some online albums and the Eye-Fi card would offer some convenience. But I’d probably want the version that does geo tagging (although I haven’t done any research to see how well it does that). I may spend the $50 bucks in a moment of weakness since it is a good deal, but for now I won’t be clicking the button to upgrade storage and order the card.

Setting Up SPF and Sender ID in Google Apps

I use Google App for Your Domain for my email, both my personal email and as email for the websites I run. I decided it was finally time to set up Sender Policy Framework (SPF) records and Sender ID. For differences between SPF and Sender ID you can read this. While they aren’t the same, the syntax and similarities make the steps for setting up each identical for our purposes.

What is SPF? From the OpenSPF website:

Even more precisely, SPFv1 allows the owner of a domain to specify their mail sending policy, e.g. which mail servers they use to send mail from their domain. The technology requires two sides to play together: (1) the domain owner publishes this information in an SPF record in the domain’s DNS zone, and when someone else’s mail server receives a message claiming to come from that domain, then (2) the receiving server can check whether the message complies with the domain’s stated policy. If, e.g., the message comes from an unknown server, it can be considered a fake.

What is Sender ID? From Microsoft’s Sender ID page:

The Sender ID Framework is an e-mail authentication technology protocol that helps address the problem of spoofing and phishing by verifying the domain name from which e-mail messages are sent

It’s important to note that while I have my own domains none of my servers send email, everything I send is from an email client. I don’t need to configure any other servers, just Google’s. So I can use Google’s instructions as the starting point for setting up the records. The important piece is: v=spf1 include:aspmx.googlemail.com ~all.

Google recommends using ~all which indicates a “soft fail” if the sender doesn’t match the record. This means the receiving service should apply extra scrutiny but not reject the email immediately. It’s up to the receiving service what the extra scrutiny is and some of my reading indicated some services (like Hotmail) are prone to reject soft fails. The most logical reason I read was that is someone isn’t confident enough in their settings to use a hard fail then the receiving service isn’t likely to trust anything other than a pass result. So I’ll be configuring a hard fail which is –all. (hard fail is a dash, soft fail is a tilde) I did use the soft fail during testing and you may want to do the same.

The Sender ID record is the same except for the policy statement at the beginning.

[Update July 14, 2012: As Terry pointed out in a comment, Google’s SPF record has changed to ” v=spf1 include:_spf.google.com -all”.]

My SPF record will be:

v=spf1 include:aspmx.googlemail.com -all

While my Sender ID record will be:

spf2.0/pra include:aspmx.googlemail.com -all

[Update July 14, 2012: It seems Sender ID is rarely used, mainly by Microsoft. The record listed here will be redirected but work, despite being technically wrong. See this.]

All that’s left is to add the records for the domain. The method varies by registrar. The SPF and Sender ID records get added as TXT records. Most of the domains I have in GAFYD use Slicehost DNS and they already have a good write-up on how to setup SPF records at Slicehost. I’ve added the procedures for some other registrars that I have access to.

After the SPF and Sender ID records have been added and allowed time to propagate you can use one of the testing tools to validate the records. I used the tester supplied by Port25 and sent an email to check-auth [at] verifier.port25.com. A response is returned with the results of the tests.

These procedures assume GAFYD is already configured to send and deliver mail for you. Google provides good documentation on how to do this and I wrote up how I setup Google App for My Domain back in August of 2007.

Adding SPF and Sender ID at GoDaddy

  1. Fire up Domain Manager and go to “Total DNS Control” for your domain.
  2. Click the “Add New SPF Record button under the TXT section.
  3. Select “an ISP or other mail provider” and click OK
  4. Click the Outsourced tab
  5. Type aspmx.googlemail.com into the text box for domains. Click the “Exclude all hosts not specified here” for a hard fail (-all). Click OK
  6. You’ll be asked to confirm the record that was generated. It should look like the SPF record I have above. Click OK to save the record.
  7. Now click the “Add New TXT Record” button to begin adding the Sender ID record.
  8. Type “@” (no quotes) into the TXT Name file
  9. Type (or paste) the Sender ID record into the “TXT Value” field.
  10. Change the TTL if you want, keep the value low for testing, you can change it from the default 1hr if you want. Click “OK” to save the record.
  11. Wait for the change to propagate. I my case I could test after a few minutes, but in some cases it can take awhile.

Adding SPF and Sender ID at Bluehost

Bluehost automatically adds SPF records that point to their servers but use the ?all mechanism. From Bluehost help:

We do allow customers to request custom TXT entries in order to help fight against spam.

So it appears you’ll have to open a support ticket and have them add the records. (I did not do this so I can’t confirm they’ll do it or if it works properly.)

Adding SPF and Sender ID at NameCheap and NameCheap FreeDNS

I believe these procedures should work but don’t have an email account that I can test with. FreeDNS is a service provided by NameCheap that allows you to manage DNS for domains registered elsewhere.

  1. Go the “Manage Domains” and either select “Your Domains” or “FreeDNS –> Hosted Domains” depending on which service you use. Then click on the Domain Name in the list. If the Domain is registered at NameCheap you’ll need to select “All Host Records” from the left menu bar. For FreeDNS you already see the All Host Records screen. From this point on the process is the same.
  2. Enter the information as shown below. The record is partially obscured due to its length, but it’s the same SPF and Send ID records we’ve been using.

NameCheapSPF

Once you save the settings you’re done.

Adding SPF and Sender ID at Enom

I believe these procedures should work but don’t have an email account that I can test with.

Enom provides a “Add SRV or SPF Record” button button I found that using this only allows the addition of one TXT record for the @ host. I found that both records could be added by simply typing them on the main screen. Use “@” as the host name (no quotes).

EnomSPF

You’re done once you click Save.

SPF and Sender ID at 1 & 1

It doesn’t appear SPF or Sender ID can be used for domains registered at 1 & 1. The DNS configuration is very limited and I found the following in their FAQ under “What is an SPF record?”

There is currently no implementation of these
policies planned for 1&1 domains.

If you need SPF on a domain registered at 1 & 1 it appears you’ll either need to transfer it or use a third party DNS service.

SPF and Sender ID at Moniker

I believe these procedures should work but don’t have an email account that I can test with.

  1. Log on and go to “My Domains”. Check the box next to the domain you want to manage and click the “IP” tab.
  2. Click on the domain name.
  3. Under “Add Zone Records” select TXT as the record type, enter @ as the host name and put in the spf or sender ID record for the address then click Add. Do this for both the Sender ID and SPF records.

Most hosts should use a process similar to one of the above.

I’d been holding off implementing SPF because I thought it would be a pain and cause problems. While looking into it I saw that Sender ID was easily implemented at the same time. In fact, because Sender ID will use the spf1 record is no spf2 record exists it’s recommended that Sender ID also be implemented at the same time (even if it’s only a record to say it’s not set up) because the spf1 record can cause problems with Sender ID. I previously linked to a detailed description of the differences which includes and explanation of why this is the same.

It’s also recommended that SPF records be added to domains that don’t send email. These records should indicate that the domain doesn’t send email in order to avoid it being spoofed by spammers.

SPF and Sender ID are complicated items but are easy to implement for someone like me who just uses GAFYD with desktop (or web) email clients.

AOL My eAddress Changes

MyeAddress I took a look at AOL’s My eAddress offering over two years ago. While I signed up for the free service I never really used it. The biggest hindrance for me was that AOL controlled the domain. So if AOL decided to discontinue the service there was no guarantee that I would keep the domain. I could be forced into changing my email addresses. While AOL isn’t discontinuing My eAddress they are restructuring it to remove that obstacle. Now they only offer a “Bring your own domain” option where you can use AOL My eAddress for email with a domain you already own. AOL will be releasing any domains that were registered through AOL My eAddress on December 31st. People who have a domain through AOL My eAddress have an opportunity to register the domain in their name before December 31st and maintain uninterrupted AOL My eAddress service. I received my email notification today.

If you want to keep the domain you need to register it with eNom using a link provided by AOL in the email. This link will provide special pricing and allow the email service to continue uninterrupted. According to the e-mail, prices for the transfer are $7.50 for .com and $5.50 for .net domains. I went through the process and transferred my domain. Because this is a company I never dealt with I used a temporary credit card number with a $25 limit which may have been a good call. The intro screen presented the special $5.50 price while the receipt indicated I was charged $10.99. In checking with the bank it appears the charge will be for $5.50 although at this point that’s just the amount held, not the actual charge.  eNom pricing in general seems higher than other providers ($30/yr when it’s time for me to renew). Since the AOL e-mail is unclear whether the special pricing is for the transfer only or for future renewals (seems to be for the transfer only) I’ll probably transfer the domain in a couple of months.

In general AOL seems to be doing the right thing here, letting users keep their domain if they want it. While My eAddress itself is technically still free, the fact that you need to provide a domain means there is a cost involved. I’ve generally used the free Google Apps for Domains if I needed a email address for a domain but this brings along the whole GAFD suite along. AOL My eAddress provides a email only replacement and a web interface that can be used to open multiple mailboxes at the same time in the same logon session. (Although I haven’t tried opening multiple mailboxes across domains since I only have one domain.)

AOL has a FAQ about the change. [Update: eNom also has a FAQ]

I’ll update this post once the domain transfer completes.

[Update Dec 7th] The transfer was completed this morning. Longer than the receipt page told me it would take but in line with other transfers. I also found a eNom faq that specified 5 calendar days for the transfer while the receipt said four. I was also billed the correct $5.50, not the $10.99 the receipt said. And one more problem with the receipt – the URL to check the status of the order was invalid. I had to copy the URL and past it into the browser then add www. to the beginning of the URL. Once I did that the order status status displayed fine. The Whois information also correctly reflects my ownership. The whois expiration date is Nov 25, 2009 which is the same date as when AOL owned the domain. It also correctly matches the eNom expiration date. The domain is set to auto renew.

The DNS settings point to AOL: for e-mail (click for full size):

AOLDNS

While logging onto AOL e-mail the first time I was presented with a captcha request (you know – enter these letters). Every logon so far has also displayed the following error (click for full size):

AOLError

 

When I click “Try Again” I go into the AOL web client just fine. I successfully sent e-mail to and from the AOL My eAddress account. I don’t have POP or anything other than web access set up so I’m unable to test that. I can’t say if the error message is related to the change or an completely unrelated problem.

Again, lot’s of talk about “special” pricing. There does seem to be a difference in what’s displayed when I’m logged on with the account that contains my AOL My eAddress domain and when I’m just a normal public browser. The difference isn’t always cheaper (guess “special” doesn’t have to mean cheaper) when logged on. I can’t say whether this is AOL specific or just because I have an account logged on.

Here’s the top of the eNom price list that I see when not logged onto my account (click for full size):

Public Pricing

And here’s the eNom pricing when I’m logged on…

AccountPricing

 

The common .com, .net and .org domains are cheaper when I’m logged onto my account, but others, such as .me, are more expensive. It’s all rather bizarre and I wonder if it’s due to bad coding or missed updates, such as my receipt displaying the wrong amount and URL. The URL is the same although is an active server page.

Personally, not a confidence builder for me and I won’t be bringing them any additional domains or services. Everything went fine so no complaints there. But their presentation is sloppy.  I plan to transfer the domain before it renews if I don’t decide to dump it completely. From the press section it appears they came under new ownership in November so this may explain some of the discrepancies.

In conclusion, while I’m not recommending eNom, if you want your AOL My eAddress domain they’re your only choice. It’s not a bad choice since my experience was successful and relatively hassle free. Save all e-mails and make screen prints of everything in case you get charged the wrong amount instead of just being displayed the wrong amount.

Mint – Slightly Bitter Taste

When I first heard about Mint I wondered what website analytics software was doing getting into finance. Then I realized it was a different Mint. Then I found they already had established competition and weren’t so unique.

Most info I saw about Mint came from blogs and seemed to be more of the “press release” type. Heavy on adjectives and short on details. There were exceptions. So I decided to give Mint a try.

I had problems from the beginning. I was able to create an ID OK but my account couldn’t be added due to time-out errors. A couple of days later they posted a notice saying they were “overwhelmed” by the response. I went in Saturday and was able to add a couple of accounts but still got errors and things were slow. I went back in Sunday and noticed they had a notice on their homepage that apologized for being overwhelmed and that their site was back to normal. But I still had problems today. The previously added accounts had updated themselves but also had a message that “There was a problem updating your account. Please confirm your logon information.”. Nothing changed since adding the accounts and the bank’s regular online banking was just fine. They seem to still be having performance issues.

The website does have a “beta” label which does give them a bit of an out for performance issues. But they’re asking us to trust them with our financial information so it can’t be used to excuse much else. Still, the performance issues were a cause for concern due to the confidentiality of the data.

Despite the performance issues here’s my impression of Mint.

  • They realize security is a concern of anyone who’ll be providing account information to them. They have all the proper security buzzwords and they seem to take security and privacy seriously. The only information they require is an email address and zip code. They use the zip code to target offers. You do provide online bank account logon information and they import your transactions.
  • The one security related issue I have with them is they use an email address as the logon ID. EMail addresses are fairly public and I see no reason to give away half the logon information.
  • A lot of imported transactions were missing payees and even more had an incorrect category. When transactions are imported the payee is listed along with a budget category. What I found interesting is that even though they had the payee from the bank they didn’t use it directly. Holding the mouse over the payee field did cause the payee information from the bank to be displayed which made it easy to update the transaction.
  • Some payees just had bad names. They seem to pattern match payees in some cases. For example, I used a ATM at a bank branch (same bank that had the account) on “Shunpike Rd”. The payee Mint displayed was “Shunpike Auto Wash” and they use a category for auto service.
  • Updating category and payee information is simple. It’s also possible to check an “always” option which will create a rule and rename a payee or always assign the selected category to the payee.
  • My gut feeling is that about half my transactions needed to have a payee, category or both update.
  • Category changes don’t get incorporated into the spending trends for awhile. I don’t know if this was due to their performance problems or not. But I updated categories around noon on Sunday. The spending trends still didn’t reflect the changes at 1:00PM but they did reflect the changes by 10:00PM. It may have been much sooner as I didn’t check between 1 and 10.
  • I like the way they handle checks. Since checks don’t have a payee listed you can set up a rule to always make a check of the same amount a certain payee. This works well for something like my rent check.
  • There’s no way to do splits when a payee has more than one category. For example, if you pay the cable company for broadband, TV and VOIP you’ll get one bill. You can only pick one category.
  • You have to use the categories they pick. If you’re just starting out the choices are fine. But if, like me, you have categories you already use you’ll have to settle for what they have. For example, I split out computer related expenses into types, but with Mint I have to lump everything under “Electronics and Software”.
  • You can add notes to each transaction.
  • They say they can automatically balance my checkbook but I couldn’t find any way to do that. They just show the current balance and all transactions. This leads to what I see as a big weakness. There’s no way to find bank errors. If you go “all-in” and assume the Mint transactions are right you’ll never catch a bank error. There needs to be some way to reconcile to your non-Mint records. You shouldn’t trust what your bank tell Mint to always be right.
  • The spending trends feature is kind of cool. They show how your spending in a category changes from month to month.
  • Mint makes money by providing offers that save you money. They get a cut if you sign off for an offer they present. I don’t have a problem with this since they are money saving offers. (As with everything else – verify the details)
  • It would be nice to be able to “cancel” or “decline” a money saving offer. In my case it recommends I move to Vonage from AT&T. The problem with that is Mint assumes my AT&T expense is all phone when in reality it’s also the Internet connection needed for Vonage. It be nice if I could just tell the offer to go away. I can drill down into other offers that Mint says will save me less money but in reality may be something I could use (I’ve already dropped AT&T)
  • While bank account information can be easily deleted, I couldn’t find a way to delete the Mint profile. The information they keep is minimal, just an email and zip.

Conclusion

As with most things, their marketing over promises on what they delivered. But still, it was an interesting site. Will I keep Mint? No. Here’s why…

Fast expansion, reacting to unexpected demand, may cause them to get sloppy and compromise security. Considering the type of information they have (online banking logon info) this causes me concern.

But even if I wasn’t concerned about security I’d still leave. Their way of managing money isn’t for me. I’m no fan of Quicken but use it as a transaction register and to generate transaction reports (but not much else) since it’s double-entry, downloads transactions from the bank and I can reconcile accounts.

But if you’re just starting out or don’t have a financial management system that works for you then Mint may be worth looking at. But I’d recommend waiting until the website loses it’s “beta” label before relying on them and trusting your online banking into to them.

But Mint has piqued my interest in this type of website so I’ll probably check out Wesabe, which (on the surface) seems to be a more mature website that’s more appropriate to the way I manage finances.

Google Apps for My Domain – Part 1

the Google Apps LogoThis article is obsolete. Images and broken external links have been removed.

I’ve completed my move to Google Apps and now all my mail goes into my inbox there, one way or the the other. In Part 1 I’ll cover the domain setup and IMAP mail migration using the migration tool, while in part 2 I’ll cover the features that are available to all GMail users.

My reasons for moving to Google Apps were:

  • Sometimes they can be a bit creepy but I trust them as much as I trust any other ISP or mail provider.
  • I want to provide email to family members.
  • My current setup has my mail provided by Bluehost as part of my hosting service. This pretty much puts me in charge of the email server. I just don’t want to have to worry about backups and email problems. It was OK when I was the only one using it, but if I’m going to bring other’s on board it’s just a disaster waiting to happen.
  • EMail is not tied to an ISP.
  • GMail has the best spam filter I’ve ever used.

Google Apps includes Mail (including Talk & Calendar), Docs & Spreadsheets, Personal Start Page and Page Creator. There are two versions, free and Premium. Free allows 2GB for email and is ad supported. Premium allows 10GB for email and allows the ads to be turned off. Premium also has a 99.9% email uptime guarantee, along with mail migration tools and integration tools a business may look for. My only interest in Google Apps is for email.

I started with the free edition but quickly signed up for the 30 day Premium trial so that I can use the IMAP mail migration tools that’s included.

Domain Structure

The domain I use for email is my primary domain with my Bluehost account but there’s no website associated with it. While I *should* be able to use the same domain as the primary domain with Google Apps I decide to be cautious since I’ve never done this before. I registered a new domain with 1&1 and use it as the primary domain with Google Apps. The domains I’ll use are (not the real names):

myfamilyblue.com – this is primary domain with Bluehost and the domain I use with email. I want to use this domain for email addresses.

myfamilyga.com – this is a new domain I’ll register and use as the primary domain for Google Apps. This will be available for email addresses and deliver to the same mailboxes as the other domain, but I won’t hand out the domain name.

In addition, while I can change MX records myself with Bluehost I have to go through tech support to change CName records. With 1&1 I can change both MX and CName records. This means I can make changes myself without having to go through tech support. This will be less annoying to me and less annoying for them if I decide to undo changes.

For the subdomains I’ll want mail.myfamilyga.com to access mail but I’ll use the default URLs for the other tools. You don’t need to use subdomains since Google Apps will give you URLs but I wanted the sub-domain for easy access to the frequently used mail. I can setup redirection for the subdomains of myfamilyblue.com to redirect to the Google App URLs.

There are additional restrictions if you buy the domain from Google, such as not being able to cancel Google Apps for a year. I’ll use my own domain that’s already registered.

Setting Up the Domain

  1. I registered the new domain, myfamilyga.com, at 1&1 and waited for the DNS to replicate.
  2. Then I registered with Google Apps for Domains. I set up the first user during registration and this will is the admin ID.
  3. Google does create a test address so you can test email before changing your MX records. The address is displayed when you first set up Google Apps.
  4. I need to verify the domain with Google before the services will actually start working. Google provides a couple of ways to do this. Either copy a specific html file to the site or create a CName record. I went the CName record route since I wanted one anyway. Google provides instructions for various domain hosts and I used the ones they provided for 1&1. In the case of 1&1 I needed to create a sub-domain then go in and create a CName record for that sub-domain and point it to ghs.google.com. I didn’t have to wait for this to replicate before I could continue, although it does need to replicate before email can be fully used.

    Note: It’s a bit hidden in the help but Google also allows a MX record to verify domain registration. So if your mail system is ready to go you can just create the MX record. Remember, mail deliver will go to Google once the MX record is created so make sure all users are created if they have mailboxes on another server. My domain verification seemed slow so I created an MX record and then verification completed immediately. It may have been a coincidence.

  5. The next step is to set up the users which will also create the mailboxes. I already created a user name for myself while setting up Google Apps. So I set up nicknames for all the other mailboxes and forwarding addresses that I had set up on the old myfamilyblue.com.
  6. The next step is to change the MX records for the domain. As soon as the MX records are changed all the email will start going to GMail so you’ll want all the users set up before making the change. In my case I have a new domain so I changed the MX records immediately so they have time to replicate. The MX record information provided by Google is here. The setup may vary depending on your domain host. Just make sure the entries are in the order listed by Google and that the priorities go from higher to lower. My setup for 1and1 MX records is shown below (click for full screen).
  7. Since I wanted multiple domains reporting into Google Apps I went into the “Domain Settings” section, “Domain Names” tab and added the myfamilyblue.com domain as an alias. Then I went to Bluehost and changed the MX records. Here’s how to set up the MX records at Bluehost.
  8. Test mail delivery to the users that have been set up. It may take time for the MX records to take effect.

You can use this NSLOOKUP(kloth.net) tool to see if the CName and MX records have changed on your DNS server. Enter your domain in the domain field and enter the DNS server (from your hosting/DNS provider) in the server field, then select the record type from the dropdown list. If you registered a new domain in step 1 it may take time for the change to replicate through the internet. For the first 48 hours the query may show your DNS server has the correct information but the rest of the internet may not know that your domain info is on that server.

IMAP Mail Import

I registered for the free-trial of the premium version so I could use the IMAP migration tool. My Bluehost email was in IMAP mailboxes and was the bulk of my EMail.

The IMAP email migration tool is under the “Advanced Tools” tab (premium edition only). I set up the server connection to Bluehost. For server software I picked “Cyrus” (first choice for trial and error) no security and port 143. Some mail systems may require an “IMAP Path” such as “Inbox”. I told the wizard I’d specify a few accounts and then I entered the user id and logon information for the accounts to migrate. I was pulling everything into my one new GMail mailbox.

The migration took some time, about 45 minutes in my case, and is dependent on quantity and size. A progress bar displays the status or you can click into the details and see how many emails have been migrated. As the mail was pulled in the migration tool added two tags, one was the email address of the old mailbox and the other was the full folder path that the email was in. The tagging was an unexpected and nice bonus.

My AOL My eAddress mailboxes are also IMAP mailboxes. I tried the migration tool on them but always received errors soon after the migration began. I only had about 100 emails in those mailboxes and only a couple of folders. So after a few migration failures I went to plan B. The My eAddress mailboxes were already set up in Thunderbird so I created a new IMAP mailbox on Bluehost, added it to Thunderbird and dragged the AOL email to the new account. Then I used the IMAP import utility to pull it into GMail.

Summary

At this point I had GMail working in my own domain. I really don’t have an interest in the other Google App pieces.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • I have two domains. When I set up a user ID it gets one mailbox that is addressable with both domains. So ray -at- myfamilyblue.com and ray -at- myfamilyga.com deliver mail to the same user mailbox.
  • Nicknames can be set up for users. I consolidated all my myfamilyblue.com mailboxes and forwarding addresses into one GMail mailbox by setting up a nickname for each one.

In part 2 I’ll cover importing mail from POP accounts (such as my other GMail accounts) and consolidating all my email in this one mailbox. All things which are available with regular GMail accounts.