Tag Archive for Hardware

My last goofy hardware purchase of the week — StickNFind

So I bought a 4-pack of StickNFind BLE stickers. I’m not quite sure why. My hope was I guess that you could use these things for very fine-grained local resolution. Like maybe you could stick them onto game tokens and be able to track game tokens around a board.

Well, not happening. The spatial resolution of these things is pretty gross. At best you can say “hey something is within 5 feet of me”. And there is great variation across stickers. For instance if you line them up at distances of 1, 2, 3, and 4 feet from your phone, you will detect them all, but the apparent ordering of them per the phone will not correlate to their physical distance at all. Not sure why — differences in battery strength, in sticker orientation, in phone orientation, or in manufacturing? Whatever, not happening.

Overall packaging was good, easy to get these started, the app is fine tho they need to take some of the anti-skeumorphic vaccine that is going around. No complaints about quality or ease of use, but these are just very limited devices. I’m honestly not sure what I will do with them. The examples on the box don’t compel me:

  • find your keys, phone, remote. OK the phone one is stupid since i need the phone app to find the phone. The remote, maybe, but this just isn’t that exciting. My keys are always in my pocket.
  • find your wallet, purse, briefcase. The few times I have misplaced my wallet at a store, I have wished that I had some magic solution, but this wouldn’t help, since my problem is not “my wallet is someplace 30 feet around me” but is “my wallet is at one of N distant stores I visited”.
  • find your pets? We are dog people and our dog is overly needy, no problem finding the dog.
  • find your tablets and tools and toys and cameras. Again not a huge problem
  • find your kids. We’ve aged out of that problem. Well we may still have the problem but again it is “where in some distant city is my child”, not “is my child within 100 ft of here”

It would be nice maybe if I could put these on some super valuable things in the house and automatically be alerted if they move. I’m not sure what those things are tho.

Maybe I will put them in my cars and quit worrying about remembering where I park.

SimpleTV, Aereo miss the mark

Some early reviews of the original Kindle were very dismissive, wondering why anyone would want to carry around a limited device with a goofy display. These tech-savvy reviewers predicted failure for Amazon, saying that people would prefer general purpose phones or tablets for reading. A lot of these reviewers were not actually heavy book readers tho.

Amazon has done just fine with Kindles. They focused on people who actually bought and read a lot of books. For book enthusiasts, the Kindle has been just fine, and heavy readers have no issue carrying around a device focused just on reading — it saves carrying around 4-5 books. And book enthusiasts spend a lot of money on books and can justify the expense easily. Long term, general purpose tablets may displace the hardware Kindle, but Amazon has played this well, and I suspect focused devices targeting enthusiasts will always have a place.

Two recent TV products are interesting — Simple.TV is a slick looking little box to receive and record OTA programming, won all kinds of kudos at CES. Aereo lets you watch OTA TV anywhere on any device, with no antenna or fuss. Aereo is getting a ton of press, less about the product, more about Barry Diller and tussles with broadcasters.

Neither of these products focus on people who spend money on TV — TV enthusiasts. People who like TV spend lots of money on cable subs, on TV sets, on premium channels, etc. Enthusiasts don’t want to spend less, they just want it all to work well and to be a great experience. SimpleTV and Aereo both focus on people who don’t want to spend any money on TV programming, who just want OTA content, which seems strange. Like creating an ebook reader for people who don’t want to actually buy books, who only want to download public domain free books — that strategy has been tried and it has failed. At least SimpleTV lets you watch TV programming on a TV. Aereo doesn’t even connect to a TV set unless you buy something from Roku or Apple or someone else. So Aereo is for people who want to watch TV, but not on a TV, and who don’t value TV programming enough to pay for it.

OK that is a little snarky, obviously there is demand for cord-cutting and these products will find some success. But you’d think someone would create a product aimed at people who like TV, who spend a lot on TV, who want TV on TV sets, and who also want some of the other features of Simple and Aereo — watch anywhere on any device. NimbleTV seems like it could be more interesting.

Dorking around with an intel atom home theatre system

“Rich”:www.tongfamily.com asked me what setup I am using — here is what I have so far

* Zotac IONITX-S motherboard with Intel Atom D525 proc Nivida ION 512MB GPU. You can pick up at “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/ZOTAC-Dual-Core-Intel-Wi-Fi-Motherboard/dp/B004V3X9D2 if you want it fast or there are cheaper slower options.

* 4G of DDR3 800Mhz FSB RAM. This is available many places, is super cheap due to modest speed of FSB.

* For a case I like the “open air techstations”:http://www.highspeedpc.com/ so I can get in and out easily. But these things are completely open, so not a great choice if you have an inquisitive cat or a toddler. Another open air case option might be the “Antec Skeleton”:http://store.antec.com/Product/enclosure-skeleton_series/mini-skeleton-90/0-761345-15127-6.aspx but whoa, a 90W power supply seems seriously minimalist

* I can find no clear doc on what kind of power supply these need (ie watts). I picked up a “20+4 pin mini itx supply”:http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817148044 because that seems to be the right thing but I am a little concerned about being underpowered. UPDATE: in email with Zotac support, they suggested 112W for the board, sans hard disk. So throwing in the SSD and Ceton card, 250W seems like it should be fine.

* and the “ceton card”:http://www.amazon.com/Ceton-InfiniTV-Digital-Cable-Quad-tuner/dp/B003B4VLJQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1338408276&sr=1-1 for cable feed

* oh yeah I need an SSD, I am using the “Samsung 256G unit”:http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820147164 but I’d really like a 1T SSD. But those are crazy expensive.

Starting to dabble with Arduino

A few years ago when I was very active in Halloween decorating, I used the “Basic Stamp”:http://www.parallax.com/ for prop control. This is still a solid product and you can still buy a lot of stamp-based kits and products.

I’m starting to work on some new projects and it seems like all the cool kids have moved onto “Arduino-based”:http://www.arduino.cc/ designs, probably because of the open nature of Arduino.

So I’ve ordered a handful of test kits from “Adafruit”:http://adafruit.com/, “Sparkfun”:http://www.sparkfun.com/ and “Maker Shed”:http://www.makershed.com/Arduinos_Accessories_s/43 seem to have a lot of nice products too.

“Arduino programming”:http://arduino.cc/en/Reference/HomePage is C-like which seems like a bit of a step back, I wish I could use something more like Python.

Ninjablocks look kind of cool

“Ninjablocks”:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ninja/ninja-blocks-connect-your-world-with-the-web — looking back at my article on “MSFT and the hardware ecosystem”:http://theludwigs.com/2012/02/msft-and-the-decline-of-the-pc-hardware-ecosystem/, this is the kind of innovation and brainpower MSFT needs around the PC platform.

MSFT and the decline of the PC hardware ecosystem

In the late 80s, IBM attempted to reassert control over the PC hardware platform with the introduction of the PS/2 and its proprietary “MicroChannel”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Channel_architecture architecture. The cloners fought back, customers voted with their feet, the PS/2 initiative failed, and the era of open PC hardware continued and flourished. This was hugely beneficial for MSFT as a thousand PC OEMs bloomed, PC-based innovation surged and costs dropped, and MSFT software rode the wave of market expansion.

And it was great for end users. Not only because it drove system costs down, but it also created a rich market of add-on products — everyone could mix and match hardware to create their optimal system, whether they cared about cost or performance or maintainability or upgradability or whatever. Corporations could spec out and build standard low cost machines, enthusiasts could build super-tweaked machines, verticals could build out specialty machines, all on the same open hardware platform.

In the last 15 years, though, the market has shifted dramatically towards the laptop form factor. This shift has been a relative disaster for MSFT. The industry has moved away from an open hardware chassis with mix-and-match components, to closed tightly-engineered all-in-one machines. This shift has played to Apple’s strengths in design and integration and has negated many of the benefits of the PC ecosystem. The PC industry is still struggling to figure out how to regain design and profit momentum — Intel’s “Ultrabook”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultrabook effort being the latest scheme. But the Ultrabook is just a direct response to the MacBook, it does nothing to recapture the open hardware experience of the 90s.

The open hardware community still exists in various forms, but is no longer focused on the PC platform and is not much of an asset for MSFT. Enthusiasts still build PCs, mostly for gaming — “Maximum PC”:http://www.maximumpc.com/best-of-the-best for instance has a good guide to components, “Newegg”:http://www.newegg.com is the place to buy. But this isn’t mainstream any more. The “maker” community is vibrant but is focused on other platforms largely — “Arduino”:http://www.arduino.cc/, the “Kickstarter”:http://www.kickstarter.com community, etc. The vibe and energy around open hardware is great, but it is no longer tied to the PC experience and is no longer an asset for MSFT.

MSFT has always been great at chasing taillights and is hard at work supporting the Ultrabook, competing with the Apple stores at retail, pushing Windows Phone, etc. But chasing Apple’s taillights results in products that are more and more like Apple’s — fully integrated hardware/software/services, a captive retail experience. MSFT has to do all this, the mainstream of the market is here, but there is nothing distinctive about the resultant products and experience. The Ultrabook/Windows/Microsoft Store products may equal the Apple experience, and may offer users a few more choices of hardware brands (does anyone care?), but the experience won’t stand out. Necessary work but not sufficient to recapture thought leadership in the market — at the end of the day, MSFT will be able to claim parity but no more than that.

If I was in a leadership role at MSFT, I’d invest in strategies to recreate the open hardware platform dynamic around the Windows platform. It is not obvious how to do so with the laptop and tablet as the mainstream platform, but I would spend $100s of millions trying. MSFT clearly has the cash to spend on new frontiers and new adventures, a couple hundred million on an effort to change the basis of competition in the PC market seems like a wise bet, even if it fails.

How about putting a “maker’s corner” in every retail store with modified cases and modified machines, maybe even workshops? Get the energy of the PC gaming community into the store, let people see this energy. How can the laptop design be modified to support add on hardware — super high speed optical expansion busses, wireless high speed expansion busses, novel expansion chassis ideas? Sifteo cubes are kind of cool, can this idea be used to provide hardware extensions to laptops? Are there other ways to “snap on” hardware to extend the laptop or tablet, using bluetooth or induction or other mechanisms? Can MSFT seed the maker community with funds or tools? Can MSFT embrace Arduino somehow, or Kickstarter? Could the PC be the hub for thousands of Arduino-based sensors and actuators and gadgets? These ideas are all admittedly poorly thought out, and I am not sure any one idea is right, or if any will work.

But I would spend a lot of money chasing after any idea that would move away from closed all-in-one hardware designs, and I would experiment with many ways to reinject open hardware dynamics back into the PC/tablet market. Ultrabook is not this — it is a fine and adequate taillight chaser, but it won’t shift competitive balance back in MSFT’s favor.

This is not the only reason for MSFT’s stagnation in the last decade, there are many other aspects to consider, but the dwindling of the open hardware ecosystem has been a loss of MSFT. For another take on Apple’s success against MSFT in the last decade, check out “Rich’s analysis”:http://www.themarketingplaybook.com/2012/02/stocks-bonds-commodities-and-apple/ — the observations about vertical vs horizontal integration ring true.

The size of our gadgets

Some smart guys have noticed that “internally, the iPad looks more like a battery with a computer than a computer with a battery”:http://daringfireball.net/2010/04/the_ipad. This is a pretty fundamental point.

I remember back in my first job, working on automotive electronics strategies, someone asked me “how small can a CD player be” and to me it was clear — size would be dominated by the media and the controls, not by the internal electronics.

When we started buying PCs and TVs and cellphones and other gadgets, their sizes were dominated by internal considerations — tubes and motherboards and drives and power supplies and electronics and antennas and all kinds of crud. And we are still in the last stages of this — desktop computers are still big boxy things, many laptops are big chunky things. But thanks to Moore’s law, the electronics are in the last stages of disappearing, and with them the big clunky power supplies, and awkward big antennas, spinning disks, etc. The gadgets we carry will have their sizes driven by human interaction needs, and those damn batteries (getting batteries down in size/weight is a hard problem).

Which is why I think questions like “Which will win, the Kindle or iPad”, or “Will the iPad replace notebooks” are ultimately not very interesting. When gadgets all are lightweight and no bigger than they have to be, and electronics are basically free, and connectivity is ubiquitous, you’ll carry all kinds of these things around or have them in your house and not worry about it, just like we never worried about books vs magazines vs newspapers.

iPad preorder day arrives

Ok well the day arrived. I can’t quite figure out what the ipad is for. I still need to carry my iPhone for phone calls. I still need to carry my MacBook Pro for real software — Matlab, Mathematica, Aperture, LaTEX-heavy docs. I’ll still carry the Kindle for its awesome battery life. Would I carry the iPad as well??? Or are there occasional trips where I’d carry instead of the MacBook Pro?

Or maybe it is for the couch at home. But usually I again need to run real software. So what is this thing for?

So I only ordered one.

Tech toys I want but don’t need

* Lifebook MH380. Japan only right now. For some reason this netbook just looks cool to me.
* “Netgear 200mb powerline ethernet”:http://www.netgear.com/Products/PowerlineNetworking/PowerlineEthernetAdapters/xavb2501.aspx — I might actually need this, one spot in the house where I would really like a wired solution and running cat5 is inconvenient.
* “Moxi DVRs”:http://moxi.com/us/home.html intrigue me, especially the moxi mate for additional rooms. Wonder if I should flip away from Tivo…
* “Ambient WIFI harvester”:http://www.ohgizmo.com/2010/01/09/ces2010-rca-airnergy-charger-harvests-electricity-from-wifi/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Ohgizmo+%28OhGizmo%21%29&utm_content=Google+Reader. Wonder why just wifi. Curious what the power spectrum of EM energy around us looks like.
* “80 Port USB charging hub”:http://www.adafruit.com/blog/2010/02/04/80-port-usb-charger-board/. I wish it could charge my iphone 80x as fast.
* These “Micro 4/3rds cameras”:http://www.coolhunting.com/archives/2010/02/olympus_pen_epl.php?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ch+%28Cool+Hunting%29&utm_content=Google+Reader are just screaming my name. I know I will be disappointed in shutter lag time. But man I am pulled.

The iPad

Well of course I will buy one because I am a geek. That said I am unconvinced.

* I still have to carry my iPhone around because I need to make calls. Actually the iPad could free me to switch to a better phone/carrier without having to lose my apps…
* I still have to carry my MacBook around. I use real software, Aperture and MatLab and Mathematica and Photoshop and Word. With big datasets, complicated docs, etc. The limited iPad apps don’t cut it.
* So am I really going to carry around another largish device? Hmm.
* I do carry the Kindle2 around but it is a lot smaller and I get 2-3 weeks of battery life. That is the beauty of a point device.

So I am not really sure what the iPad does for me. But I am sure I will try.

All the “Amazon is dead” talk I find misguided. A, if you are a heavy book reader, the iPad is not superior — battery life, library size, readability are all Kindle advantages. B, Amazon is not stupid, you can read Kindle books on the iPad. C, the Amazon store may not be as cute as Apple’s book thing but it is way more functional. Amazon will be fine even if the Kindle hardware fades away.

Holiday PC Builds

Time for our biennial system build exercise. We built two systems over the last two weeks. While I still use my MacBook Pro for 95% of my productivity work, the Mac game market is moribund, and there is some joy in building a machine from components. So for the fun of building, and for gaming use as well as other general use, we built out two different systems:

* Cases. Very different choices. Air cooling for both, we’ve had 3-4 liquid-cooled systems. Liquid cooling looks awesome with the right fluids and lights, but — another maintenance hassle; sometimes catastrophic failures; and they just aren’t any quieter really.
** First system is an Antec 1200. Classic full tower case, tons of drive bays, tons of fans, full complement of front panel ports. Nice clear sides, some cool interior lighting. Nice looking final system, but a little time consuming to pull together — particularly all the cable connections for fans and front panel connectors. But looks nice complete.
** Second system is built around a High Speed PC Tech Station. An open, “caseless” system, super easy and quick to assemble, and gives nice open access to all elements of the system. The finished product looks messy but that is part of the appeal. No protection from the elements either. Massively faster to assemble tho.
* Motherboards. The Antec has an ASUS P6X58D and this is a great board — USB3, SATA3, designed for overclockers. Probably should have gotten this board for both systems. The second has an ASRock X58 which is fine and a little cheaper but lacks the USB3 and SATA3 support. For the price-difference, probably should have goen with the more future-proof board. Both boards seem pretty equivalent otherwise.
* Processors. Intel i7-920 2.66Ghz quad-core on both. Not the most expensive but overclockable. On the first PC with the Antec case, we installed a higher capacity cooler for overclocking support — a noname generic cooler but something like this one that we picked up at a the local parts store.
* RAM. 6GB of Corsair Dominator Triple Channel ram (3x2GIG) on both systems. Pretty easy to install, tho absolutely no documentation on the fan, but there was really only one way to try to install it and it seemed to work.
* Power supplies. The Antec has an OCZ 1000W. This is a solid supply with tons of connectors, certainly good enough for nearly any system. But the Enermax Galaxy 1250W is super nice because of the modular cable system — you only attach the power connectors you actually need. Cuts down massively on cable clutter, particularly helpful for the caseless system. I’d go with modular supplies every time in the future.
* Hard drives. Both machines have 2 1.5TB WD Caviar drives, 7200 RPM. Nothing fancy, amazing how cheap drives have become. Considered faster drives but they contribute to noise and, based on past experience with 10K rpm drives, not clear they add that much performance.
* DVD/Blue Ray drives. Not having strong opinions on drive vendors (partly because I’ve had bad drives from every vendor in the past), we scattered out purchases around here. Both systems have the same bluray drive — an LG drive. One system then has a Samsung DVD burner, the other a Pioneer.
* Removeable media. Both systems have a 17-in-1 Sony memory card reader. Neither has a floppy, thank goodness Windows install doesn’t need that anymore.
* Video cards. OK we really wanted Radeon 5970s but these are mythical. The 5870s are near-mythical, almost like unicorns. But they are findable on ebay for near MSRP and that is the route we went. Expect to pay $500 or so. Standard ebay warnings apply — look for vendors with long selling histories, flawless reputations, US-based, etc. We had no problems. The caseless system also has a second card, a 5770, the goal is to be able to run directx games on one display while running other apps on the other card, I’m not convinced this is actually possible.
* Software. Win7 ultimate, from MS Company Store for $50. Worth renewing my alumni membership for this. Installed easily, 64bit on both. Unlike vista, this version really seems to work and driver software seems plentiful. The experience isn’t flawless — IE hung when downloading the latest ATI drivers and we had to use opera/chrome/firefox; and the homegroup network UI is ill-considered at best, the networking UI is basically awful. Inventing funky abstractions like homegroups and libraries isn’t that helpful, lipstick on a pig. I just want to see the machines and devices on my network as a first step, is that so hard?
* Other software. Opera, Chrome, Firefox, Acrobat, Steam (with COD4, L4D2), Zune, Office10Beta, FileZilla, Tunebite all installed fairly quickly.

Machines both running well and seem to be happy so far. What do we still want?

* SSD drives. Also near mythical, impossible to find. Will have to add these post holidays.
* 5970 video cards.
* A desktop power switch for the caseless system. With no case, there is no obvious power and reset button, just little switches on the motherboard. One idea is to switch to a PS2 keyboard and enable powerup from keyboard in the BIOS.

Replacing a PC Power Supply

Beautiful day here yesterday but I spent part of it wrestling a new power supply into a desktop pc. The PC wouldn’t turn on this morning — didn’t respond at all to the power switch and there were no lights on in the case. Power supply seemed like a good bet as the culprit.

So the steps to replace and my tips:

* Unplug the PC! You don’t want to mess with live power or the residual power that may be lurking in your supply.
* Disconnect all the LAN, monitor, USB, SATA, Fireware, speaker, mike, etc cables. Remember what goes where! Sometimes I label the cables so I can remember. Oh and this guide to soundcard ports will help you down the line.
* Remove the side panels or case housing from the pc. You are going to end up with lots of loose screws — make sure you have a plastic bag or something to keep them in, and that you can remember what screw went where. For my PC case I had to remove the side panels and the top panel and I ended up with 4 big thumb screws for the side panels and 4 small machine screws for the top panel.
* Now that your case is open, you might as well vacuum it, you probably have accumulated a lot of dust. Make sure to get around the fans and all case seams. Oh and hopefully you followed the guidance in the previous step and bagged all your screws — there is nothing more annoying than vacuuming up all your loose screws accidentally.
* Unscrew the power supply. In my case I had to remove screws holding a decorative plate onto the rear of the supply, and remove the screws holding this plate to the case. Then the plate could be removed and the power supply could be easily slid around.
* Without disconnecting all the power cables in the case, lift out the power supply. Examine it to determine what wattage it is. In my case it was a 500W supply which seemed a little tiny for a tower machine with a good graphics card. Additionally, trace all the power cables leaving the supply and make an inventory of all the connectors you are using. This is probably overly anal, but you want to make sure your replacement supply has all the right connector types in the right quantity. Unless you have really maxed out your machine, you will probably not have a problem.
* OK this step is not necessary at all. But I wanted to confirm that my power supply was indeed the culprit. So i located the four small machine screws on the bottom and opened it up (voiding the warranty per the label). On examination of the interior, sure enough there was a charred capacitor that had scorched the board it was mounted on. Pretty obviously blown. Perhaps a braver soul than me would just try to replace the capacitor but this doesn’t seem smart to me.
* You know now the minimum connectors you need and the minimum wattage supply you need. Go to your local PC supply store (in my case Fry‘s) and buy a replacement. I went up to 700W and got a thermaltake. No idea if this is the best choice but Fry’s had a ton and the box was very descriptive about connectors supported. I was intrigued by the cable management series of power supplies which seems like to might reduce massively all the excess cabling in my PC but I need to learn more about.
* OK now replace cable by cable — disconnect the cable leading from the old supply to a port, and snake in and connect the cable from the new supply. I do this connection by connection so that I remember them all. And make sure you snake the new cables along the same path as the old, so that everything fits in when you eventually close the case up. And of course seat your connectors well, some of them need a bit of force (though if you have correctly aligned the connector it shouldn’t be that much force)
* Once all the cables are disconnected from the old power supply, put it aside. place the new power supply into the case on the rails where the old supply sat.
* Before reassembling the case, test! Re attach all accessory cables and attach your power cord and power up the system. Does it boot? Do all drives and accessories work? Hooray, ours did on the first try.
* Put the case back together
* Recycle the old supply

OK takes way more time than it should and it is an amazing mess of cables inside a PC case. Man it would be cool if there was a simpler power bus inside the case.