Ideal Working Spaces

Given the opportunity to design your ideal working space, what would it look like? This is something I've thought a lot about over the last few years, particularly when employed as a developer, and is a topic that came up quite often during the design phase of the house Reiko and I are having built. In this home I'll have a bit of a dedicated space where it will be possible to set my computer down to do some work and — most importantly — leave the machine where it is at the end of the day. While a lot of people take desks and personal working space as a given, it's something I've not really had for well over a decade. At the end of every day, I need to put everything away so that my working area can be used by other people. This is true both at the day job, where I work inside a seldom-used classroom, and at home.

Given an unlimited budget or a very lenient employer, my ideal working space would be inside a library. One with large windows, row upon row of books, and clean tables where people come and go while respecting everyone else's space. Something along the lines of the image below, which is one of the many reading rooms at the University of Zurich, would suit me quite well.

Reading Room 2 at University of Zurich

What's unfortunate is that this sort of environment is quite difficult to have in one's home without vast reserves of wealth; something I will never possess. So, to keep things a little more realistic, my ideal working space for now would be a wide desk next to a window, where I could have my notebook connected to an external monitor or two, my podcasting equipment out and ready at any time, and a decent chair that would not make my body start to hurt after a few hours. Something like the image below, only in a better-lit room.

A Clean, Decent Working Space

What's great about having a dedicated workspace in the new house, aside from the fact that it's actually dedicated, is that Nozomi's sleeping mat will be right beside the desk. This will make it easier for her to remind me to take regular breaks and to get outside for some fresh air. Wins all around!

Of course, I'll be sure to share some pictures after the house is complete and everything gets set up. Only another few weeks to go!

Comparing Apples to Apples

This morning I awoke to discover that Apple had released the iMac Pro to the world. Product leaks and rumours aplenty let me know generally what would be offered under the hood, but I was more interested in what a decently-configured machine might actually cost. My next machine will most likely be a desktop1 and, while the purchase of a new machine isn't something I can afford right away given the recent mortgage, having a general idea of how much one needs to save is a good idea.

That said, the sticker price was just a bit higher than I was expecting.

Apples to Apples

On the left is a really nice iMac, and on the right is a decently mid-level iMac Pro. Both of these units are way out of my price range, and one just hurts to look at. It's true that the iMac is using consumer-grade notebook components behind the glass compared to the mobile workstation-class hardware that powers the more professional device, but I wonder if I would ever really need that sort of power. All of my notebooks since 2010 have been powered by Core i5 processors aside from a Lenovo supplied by the day job. While these machines are not the fastest, they can typically keep up with me without breaking a sweat … which means I actually have a good idea of what sort of machine I will not be considering for my next computer purchase. And this is a good thing.

The iMac Pro is certainly an exciting bit of kit, and it would likely last a good seven or eight years before feeling long in the tooth. My current MacBook Pro is reaching 3 years2 in its five year expected cycle. A regular iMac should be sufficient. The model in the picture above is certainly nice but, if I'm completely honest with myself, I could be quite content with something simpler.

Something Simpler

Something like this, with it's ample memory and a decent amount of local storage, would give me at least half a decade. Heck, even at the day job I'd be content with a humbler iMac over the Pro. There are likely a lot of other people who could make better use of a Xeon processor and ECC RAM than I.

  1. Yes, I understand that the iMac uses notebook-grade equipment. As I've been using notebooks almost exclusively since 2002, this is not something I'm particularly concerned about.

  2. Time flies …

What's the Alternative?

John Gordon recently wrote a short blog post explaining that he can no longer recommend people make the switch from Windows to macOS when shopping around for a new computer. The reasons he cites are quite valid, from Apple's recent abandoning sprees on software, hardware, and business sense, to the high cost of entry for machines that have arguably mid-range specs. While I can agree that the average person may not be willing to invest a grand or two in hardware before investing even more money in applications that may or may not work as the operating system evolves year over year, it's important to ask one question: what's the alternative?

After months of investigation, I settled on picking up a 2015-era MacBook Pro and replacing OS X — as it was known at the time — with Ubuntu. I've been happy with this decision for the most part and have even gone so far as to contribute updates to drivers that allow people to get better performance out of their Bluetooth radio. I chose the MacBook Pro not because I wanted a quick way to jump back to the safe confines of Apple's ecosystem, but because the alternatives were just not worth the money.

When it comes to buying a computer, a person really needs to consider how they'll be using the machine. Will it be something you're looking at for more than an hour or two a day? Then it simply cannot have a low-resolution screen. Will it be something you'll type on a lot? Then the keyboard needs to match your hands just right. Will it be something you'll carry from place to place? Then it had better have a really good battery, or be light enough that carrying the ridiculously bulky charging adapter is slightly more bearable. Then there's the problem of the hideously awful touchpads that seem to exist on every notebook not designed in Cupertino and manufactured in China. I spent months looking for a good-quality notebook that met these 4 criteria and a few other details and always came away disappointed.

You can have a good keyboard or a good screen, not both. You can have decent expandability or good battery life, not both. You can have a fast processor or a thin formfactor, not both. Buying just about any product will require a person to prioritise certain features, but one expects the decision to be less painful the higher up you go in the product line.

The HP Spectre 13 x360 came very close to what I was looking for in terms of hardware, but was limited by 8GB of RAM and a keyboard that just didn't feel very good. Lenovo's T450s was also close, as it allowed for hardware swapping along with a mostly-acceptable battery life and decently-comfortable keyboard, but was limited by the screen's awful pixellation and colour fade.

As a person who looks at a glowing screen for 10+ hours a day and interacts with the keyboard almost exclusively1, any machine that cannot offer both solid typing and crisp text2 simply cannot become a tool I rely on.

So what are the options?

Dell does have some decent machines, yes. The screen's aren't all that great, and the keyboards feel cheap, but they'll do. The same can be said for HP, Lenovo, Mouse, and System76. Nothing from any Japanese manufacturer is even worth mentioning anymore, as it's all lowest-quality-highest-price plastic crap. Even Sony, once the pinnacle of amazing-screens everywhere, is barely worth a cursory glance at an electronics shop. Try as I might, there just hasn't been a compelling notebook from any manufacturer in the last five years — if not longer — that comes anywhere near what a MacBook Pro can offer in terms of screen quality, keyboard usability, battery longevity, and overall build quality. Yes, a person needs to resign themselves to the fact that the unit is ultimately a non-upgradeable appliance, but it's still the best-made appliance out there. And, if you're willing to go with a store model to save a few hundred dollars, you'll wind up paying the same as you would for a top-of-the-line HP or Dell that comes with an infuriating touchpad that you leave disabled 90% of the time.

When people ask me for advice on what computer they should buy next, I still ask the basic questions. What's the main purpose? How long will it be used for every day3? Who will be the main person using it? And then I make a recommendation. Sometimes it's for a tablet. Sometimes it's for a notebook. And in those instances where somebody is looking for a decent quality notebook, I'll recommend either a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro … which then has its operating system replaced with whatever the buyer is most comfortable with soon after getting it home.

Ideal? Maybe not. But it's better than the alternatives.

  1. I have not used a mouse in over five years, and I have no plans on ever going back to those horrible things.

  2. Crisp Japanese text. Roman characters are tolerable with awful pixellation some of the time, but it's brutal when trying to read complex kanji consisting of 12 or more strokes.

  3. then multiply this number by at least two

I'm Tired of Buying New Computers

HP Envy 15 - Table TopI'm tired of buying new computers every few years.  Seriously.  After using an HP zt3000 for over five years with heavy usage and only minor repairs here and there, I've reached an epiphany: I don't want to maintain the consumerist cycle of buying a computer and then lusting for something newer only six months later.

At the end of 2003 I bought a HP Pavilion notebook and gave it an estimated lifespan of three years.  By that time in my life I was upgrading or replacing computers just about every twelve months.  The notebook was not a top of the line model, but it certainly had all of the bells and whistles I needed and then some.  Last week it was finally retired and delivered to its new owner, who will undoubtedly put it to good use for another few years.  If the computer was so great, why did I get rid of it, you ask? Because I couldn't easily get the replacement parts it desperately needed shipped to Japan.

For the last year that computer has been acting more as a server than a computer, sharing files, running databases, and providing a number of services across multiple networks.  To replace that notebook I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a nice Acer AspireOne netbook.  It would travel with me to and from work, serve as a development computer, and keep me entertained during my lunch breaks when I'd want to watch some American Dad or Family Guy.  All in all, it's been a great little machine.  But now it's replaced the old HP to act as the network server at home.

Which leaves me with a very, very, slow computer provided by my employer.  I've been promised a faster one but, like everything in life, I won't hold my breath for anything exciting.

So … ?

That said, I am still looking at new notebook computers.  They've come down so much in price, and their reliability has skyrocketed when compared to the systems from a decade ago.  I've been reading sites like Engadget for years, and the models that HP plans to release this year look outright exciting.  Fast systems, sleek designs, and relatively decent prices.  I'd be a fool not to take advantage of this, right?

But there's that problem again; I don't want to buy a computer now only to replace it in a year, or two years, or even five years.  I want my next computer to last at least 15 years.  Yes, that's right: fifteen whole years.

My favorite computer was able to keep up with me for over two thousand days and across two continents with only occasional maintenance.  The keyboard was replaced twice, the DVD burner once, and that's about it.  Heck, if it were possible to order a Japanese keyboard for that system, I'd probably still be using it full time today and finding other ways to fix the other problems that have cropped up recently.  So, if a machine developed in 2002 and manufactured in 2003 could perform so well, shouldn't today's systems be able to provide even greater reliability?

Thinking About the Future

HP Envy 15 - UnboxedBut what would a computer that could serve me well the next fifteen years look like?  Well, it would need to have a 64-bit processor to start, so that means using one of the newer Intel or AMD multi-core chips.  On top of that, it would need to have a really good video card.  With the number of high definition video codecs we have, a slower video card would begin to degrade the performance of a system very quickly.  In addition to this, it would need to have the ability to handle what we would think of today as an excessive amount of RAM … somewhere between 6 and 8 gigabytes in total.  I'd only have two or three to start, but it would be nice to upgrade in the future as new operating systems and software packages become available to use it.

Screen size will play an important role, too.  I'm not getting any younger.  As it is, staring at a smaller 12.1" screen is not quite what I'd like to do all day long.  So something around 15.4" would be in order, and it would need to support WSXGA+ resolutions or higher.  None of this WXGA garbage that's permeating the market.  When my eyesight begins to deteriorate, then I'll think about reducing the resolution.  Until then, I want as much screen real estate as possible in a mostly portable package.

Which brings me to the next problem: the battery.

I want a system that can go a long time between charges.  I'm talking about 12 and 14 hour days (under maximum power savings).  Since I rarely use an optical drive, that should be swappable with a secondary (or tertiary) battery or some other future device that we've only read about on the gadget sites.  Sure, the system will be a little on the heavy side, but I'm willing to carry a 4 kg system for a decade if it can provide me the things I need to be productive regardless whether I'm stuffed on an over-crowded Shinkansen or sitting comfortably at a coffee table.


Naturally, every machine needs to have regular maintenance.  Anyone who's known me or read this site for any amount of time will know that I'm big on maintaining computers.  So, if I were to buy a long-lasting computer, I'd want to ensure that I could get parts for it when the time comes to swap defective components.  If this isn't possible, then at the very least I'd want the manufacturer to tell me when they'll stop carrying parts so that I can order some spare keyboards and other common points of failure in advance of a break-down.

When people buy a wrench, they don't expect to replace it every two or three years.  They expect it to last a lifetime and then some.  I know people back in Canada who have toolboxes full of equipment their grandfathers handed down.  So, while it might not be realistic to expect a computer to be useful after a century, isn't it time we begin to ask our electronics to perform a little longer?

What's your take on this?  Would you want to use the same computer for five, ten, or fifteen years?  Considering how the technology world seems to be in flux between ease of use and portability, is this even possible right now?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

What an iSlate Can Do for Education

Is This the iSlate?As anyone who knows me will attest, I have avoided using Apple products since the Apple II was released so many years ago.  Was it because of the interface? Was it because of the fanbois?  Was it because of the arrogant advertising suggesting that a product containing last year's technology is worth twice the price of a better equipped device from a competitor?  Yes and no.  But all that aside, if the excessive rumors about an upcoming tablet computer are even remotely true, then I'll be the first in line for such a device.

I've been using PDAs for over ten years and, with each device update, there was more functionality and reliability brought to the plate.  Initially the small computer was bought as a customer data tracking device.  When I worked in customer service, I'd have people calling all of the time asking for information.  I had initially used a book to track all of the customers, but this proved troublesome if a co-worker took the book somewhere. Once I went digital, not only could I collect information a dozen times faster, but I could easily transmit a copy of the data to co-workers.

Shortly thereafter, I started writing software for the little machines. They were simple applications that made work that much easier and increased the value of the PDA tenfold.  But that wasn't enough to make them truly useful to my employers, who saw the expensive little computers as being unnecessary … right up until the first BlackBerry was released.  That said, they still didn't see PDAs as anything but a distraction from doing real work.

But now this will change.

PDAs have had one major flaw in their design: their diminutive size.  White a 4" screen is plenty for people with sharp eyesight and agile fingers, they are just too small to be useful to people past a certain age.  On top of that, the user interfaces for most PDAs have left a lot to be desired. Apple's UI, however, seems to require no more than 90 seconds to get accustomed to.

Digital Textbooks & Reporting

Thanks to the larger, finger-friendly screen and super-intuitive interfaces, educational institutions can begin to use these tablets in class.  Maybe not for the students, but the teachers would find them incredibly useful.  No longer would they need to carry stacks of books from place to place. No longer would they need to carry a dozen or so CDs and DVDs for various classes.  No longer would they need to carry paper copies of student records.  This can now all be stored, and encrypted, on a tablet computer.

While I can't speak for every organization that educates people, the ability to have teachers with almost every educational resource in the company's roster at their fingertips would be quite indispensable.  In addition to this, the ability to fill out reports with a few finger-swipes would save loads of time and, by extension, money.  Computers will be able to know what materials an instructor is using in a class, what students they're working with, and what resources they'll need.  Everything could be supplied hours, days, or weeks in advance of any class.

A tablet would also be particularly useful for instructors that travel to companies to perform training.

Archos 9 | A 9" Resistive Tablet PCThis is an idea that I had pitched to the head offices of my employer some time ago.  Using 5", 7", or 9" Archos tablets, language instructors would have a wealth of resources available, including a limited subset of customer information at their fingertips.  Never again would they have to worry about having the wrong book, the wrong CD, the wrong anything.  If a student was bored with a particular lesson, a better plan or game could be called up with just a few taps of the finger.

Not only would this benefit the organization's employees and, by extension customers. But it would benefit me by (hopefully) allowing me to return to a full-time programming position.  The software proposal I had written was quite detailed and included database structures, interface designs, and a means of interfacing with the existing corporate software.

Suffice to say, the idea was shot down before the first page of the proposal was even turned.

So why would an iSlate be any different?

The Apple Effect

Whenever Apple does something, people say it's revolutionary and flock to the idea.  Within a month of the iPhone coming to Japan, HQ was busy discussing what kind of app they could have written for the device.  This is despite the fact that Windows Mobile phones had been available in the country for more than five years.  From what I've heard online, other companies reacted much the same way.

With the release of an Apple tablet, companies may be more willing to invest time and money into developing the efficient software tools that will not only save money, but hopefully reduce errors and relieve some of the frustrations that go on every day in the office.

Well … that's my goal for 2010, anyway.

What do you think of this supposed device? Could your company use them and replace some existing paper-based systems?  Do you want one?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

What's the Problem With Netbooks?

Intel Atom LogoSince before the release of Asus’ first EeePC, people have complained about the speed, or lack thereof, experienced on the netbook form factor. Issues such as boot time, lag between clicks, slow application load times, and limited screen resolutions have been the key concerns for many of the people who report on such issues as technology. But, despite these supposedly grave disadvantages, people are enamored with the super cheap, relatively peppy machines. So this begs the question: what’s the problem with netbooks?

The idea behind the netbook is nothing new. Essentially they’re supposed to be functional computers in a size that’s substantially smaller than a regular notebook, with the ability to do things just as easily. For a long time the market was dominated by companies such as Kojinsha, who would often charge a substantial price for something that was poorly designed and truly underpowered. When Intel released their Atom processor, the playing field was changed drastically almost overnight, as it meant that companies could now produce incredibly cheap machines that were half the size of a notebook and could do just as much as the average entry-level machine. Due to the relatively low amount of processing power, the netbooks were first sold using a light form of Linux. However, when Linux-based machines failed to catch on, companies like Asus and Acer began selling the same machines with Windows XP installed. Since a large portion of the population was already familiar with Windows XP, this configuration became an instant success.

Yet, despite this success, reviewers continued to say just how weak these machines were and how Atom-based computers could never replace a Core2Duo-based machine for the regular day-to-day.

But is this statement true for average computer users, or merely an opinion by people who merely review computers?

Should Businesses Be Atom-Powered?

Processors have come a long way since I first started expressing an interest in computers. Back in the good ol’ days of 1995, people would scoff at 133 MHz processors saying that no business person would ever need so much power. Yet now we have cell phones capable of more calculations per second than an entire computer lab could ever hope to achieve fifteen years ago. Looking at how different business processes were in the mid-90s to how they are today, though, reveals that much of the raw processing power sitting under the hood of our desktop computers is completely wasted. Systems sit idle for so much of the day that it’s hardly worth even paying to have a Core2Duo in most businesses.

I examined some of the activities of business people here in Japan perform on a daily basis and, while this is by no means a thorough investigation, it reveals that while computer technology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last decade, the software used in the office has not. Here’s a taste of what I see in most organizations (excluding departments such as R&D and Graphic Design where a computer can actually be thoroughly used):

  • OS: Windows XP, Windows NT 4.0

  • Office Software: Microsoft Office 2000, XP, 2003

  • Company Software: Something written in VB6 or run through a web browser

  • Other Software: Solitaire, iTunes, Adobe Acrobat Reader, MSN Messenger, and Windows Media Player

Avertec's Sexy A1 NettopHmm … nothing on this list aside from the current bloatware of Adobe Acrobat Reader would require anything above a first generation Pentium 4, and those computers would be considered ancient by today’s standards. So why are so many companies spending a ludicrous amount of money every few years to upgrade their computers when a 35,000円 netbook would work just as well? Heck, for the number of places I’ve seen with notebooks chained to the desk, they might as well skip the netbook route and just go with nettops and a cheap 15v or 17v monitor. The total cost of a new system would run less than 50,000円 and would use quite a bit less power than the current run of machines. Depending on the total cost of savings, a company might even use this as a marketing tool saying they’re being more “Eco” than the competition.

But They’re So Weak

I had the rare opportunity of speaking with someone in the IT department of a large organization a few weeks ago and asked them this very question. They responded by saying something along the lines of “we’ve looked at netbooks running at Bic Camera and found them to be too slow for the employees”. I asked a few more questions, trying to probe deeper, but each question was met with the lack-of-speed answer. So, as many have come to expect, I decided to prove once and for all that an Atom-based system would be more than enough for the average business person in Japan.

I pulled out my AspireOne and hit the power button. 22 seconds later the system finished a cold boot, I typed in my password, and the computer was logged in and ready for me to use it. He asked me to load Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all at the same time. I did, and opened some of the bigger files that I had for each. A 390 page Word file full of images, formatting, and everything else that makes Word slow and sluggish. The Excel file was full of VLookups, had two pivot tables, hundreds of calculations, and was spread out over 14 workbooks. The PowerPoint presentation had over 90 slides, embedded video, a special font, hundreds of images, and lots of animations. The Acer continued to purr as though it hadn’t loaded anything to begin with.

“You program, right? Can you show me how fast those IDE's load?”

I laughed inside as I knew what was going to happen next. I fired up Visual Studio 2005, phpDesigner, and MySQL Query Browser. phpDesigner had 8 PHP files open. MySQL Query Browser, a known memory hog, was connected but hadn’t run a query. Visual Studio had a small solution I was working on for Windows Mobile 6. Nothing too extreme.
“Now Alt+Tab through your programs.”

I did as he asked, and he noticed that there was a definite lag as the system went from Visual Studio to phpDesigner, and from Word to Excel. The wait was just over one second. It took less than a half-second for the other applications to cycle.

Kenji’s Wisdom

Kenji: "See. That’s why we can’t use netbooks where we are. It’s not powerful enough."

Me: "Not powerful enough? I’m running seven rather large applications, Adobe Air is running in the background, the loaded files are both big and complex, and the lag when Alt+Tabbing is less than a second for most applications. How can these things not be powerful enough for the average business user?"

Kenji: "Business users don’t like to be kept waiting."

I didn’t even know how to respond to this statement. It’s obvious that business users don’t like to be waiting on their tools, but I’ve yet to meet a non-technical businessman who can tell the difference between an Atom and a Celeron, or even tell me what these words refer to. Sure, my AspireOne required about 20 seconds to load Visual Studio, and another 30 seconds to load the mobile application solution, but this is hardly something that needs to be done in 10 seconds or less. A full-time application developer would more often than not have a more powerful computer to develop on in any case.

Not wanting to miss his chance to show me just how stupid I really am, Kenji took out his Core2Duo-based Let’sNote and proceeded to launch the 2003 versions of Outlook, PowerPoint, Excel, and Word. He then Alt+Tabbed through each of the (empty) applications to show me just how little lag there was, except it would have been unnoticeable to anyone who didn't have an atomic clock embedded into their skull. His (misconfigured) Core2Duo with four times as much RAM, faster graphics card, and every other bell and whistle he (probably) didn’t need was not noticeably faster running empty documents through Microsoft Office than my cheap little AspireOne could when it was displaying big and heavy graphics files.

Kenji: "When a businessman needs something done, I make sure they have all the power they can handle."

Me: "Well, clearly you know more about this than I do."

Kenji went on to berate my intelligence on everything digital for another 20 minutes before putting his Core2Duo back in its bag. I can’t quite remember everything he said during that time, which means it wasn’t useful or thought provoking, but I am fairly confident that he’ll be ordering Atom-based notebooks for new recruits next year to be hailed as a cost-cutting genius by his boss. He may not have wanted to admit that the Atom-based AspireOne was just as capable of performing regular office duties as the more expensive Core2Duo-based machines, but his eyes said it all.

Too Slow To Be Useful?

Tortoise and the HareMaybe I’m just foolish enough to believe that the average person does not need half of the computing power that’s now available for about 70,000円, but if my AspireOne can use something as big as Visual Studio 2005 and something that leaks as much memory as MySQL Query Browser, then the average person should have no troubles so long as the screen size is big enough to be comfortable, no?

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m blind to the reality of what goes on in most offices around the world (I’d honestly be shocked if this wasn’t the case). So are Atom-based or Ion-based systems up to the challenge of being business machines? Does the average person really need a Core2Duo for a web browser and 5 year-old Microsoft Office software? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What Was Your Favorite Computer?

HP Pavilion zt3000Many people who read this site have undoubtedly owned several computers over the last few decades with each new machine bringing a little more power and capability to our lives over the last. A lot of people I’ve worked with have jokingly mentioned that every computer had its own personality, and many others have talked about these digital tools as extensions of their body. But, for all the machines that a person might have owned over the years, which one would be considered a favorite?

This is the question that I was faced with again yesterday as I glanced at one of my older notebooks that now serves as a media server at home, the HP zt3000 lovingly referred to as System-XV.

Since 1996 I have owned sixteen computers, twelve PDAs, 3 servers and two NAS devices. All but two of these electronic tools have played a key role at some point in my various careers, and only three of these machines did I detest. As for which is my favorite, though, the answer is incredibly simple: System-XV.

System Hopping

For years I had bought only desktop units and would fall into an endless cycle of upgrades and peripheral additions. Not only was this insanely costly, but it did little to instill confidence in the stability of the computers. Rarely would a machine go more than 4 weeks without having some sort of major component upgrade and rarer still would the system go more than six months before being replaced completely with a new system. This was, of course, horrendously expensive and something that only a foolish 20-something boy would consider doing. But after moving from Hamilton to Vancouver in 2002, I decided to smarten up a little bit and limit the upgradeability of any computer I might purchase. This meant going with notebooks rather than their more easily upgraded desktop brethren.

After shopping around on eBay and coming up dry on a nice IBM machine, a manufacturer I had trusted for building quality notebooks that were also next-to-impossible to upgrade, I found a simple Hewlett-Packard Pentium 3 machine that looked as though it would fit the bill of what I needed. The machine worked incredibly well far longer than any other computer I had owned up to that point, but in 2004 it was no longer powerful enough to run the games I enjoyed playing or displaying the anime that was now being encoded at higher bit-rates. For that reason, I said goodbye to System-XIV and replaced it with another HP. This time, though, it was going to be a professional machine.

Send In the Clones

In the fall of 2004, I had found a sleek HP zt3000 notebook for sale on eBay selling for about half its current list price. The machine wasn’t super powerful by any stretch of the imagination, coming with a 1.7 GHz Pentium-M processor, a Gig of RAM, an ATI Radeon 9200 Mobile video card with an acceptable amount of memory, and a paltry 40 Gig 4200 RPM hard drive. However, what it may have lacked in raw processing power, it more than made up for in hidden power. What I mean by this is that the HP notebook may have appeared slow, but the tiny 1.7 GHz processor could out-perform any of the 3.2 GHz Pentium 4’s that were used by friends and my employer. Perhaps it was due to configuration or maybe it was due to HPs exceptional build quality, either way, it was something that allowed the computer to function as my primary PC for longer than any other machine.

It was with System-XV that I programmed much of the super-complex software used by previous employers, and it was with the same system that I enjoyed countless episodes of The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and documentaries on subjects ranging from pre-historic civilizations to deep-space phenomena. On top of this, it was with System-XV that I kept in touch with my wonderful wife despite the ocean between us. Sure, these things could have been done with almost any machine, but they weren’t. It was all done with a single HP notebook that rarely ever gave me a reason to become upset.

That said, some of the more common hardware failures did plague this notebook like every other machine I’ve used since the late-90s. Issues like keyboard failures, hard drive problems, and optical drive failures have been a regular problem on my computers as I tend to move a lot of data, type over a million characters a week, as well as burn numerous data archives. So the fact that I’ve had to replace the keyboard three times in four years has hardly been a surprise, or the failure of the DVD burner. That said the zt3000 has consistently surprised me with just how versatile it can be, even in the face of hardware failure.

Unfortunately, after moving to Japan, it became impractical to carry such a heavy notebook from place to place. Despite trying for over six months, my lower back and shoulder just couldn’t handle the constant strain of lugging a heavy notebook along with language textbooks and student files. So when the time came to replace my trusty System-XV with something lighter, it wasn’t a decision I made lightly.

Finding a New Purpose

HP Mini 1000In December of 2008, the Mrs. And I made a trip to the local Eiden to pick up a netbook. I had been researching various offerings and was quite impressed with HPs (then) latest model. Unfortunately, Eiden doesn’t carry anything from Hewlett-Packard, so I opted to pick up one of Acer’s popular AspireOne models. Thanks to the incredible number of points we had with Eiden, we were able to pick up the tiny Acer for half its list price, which also included a 5 year extended warranty to make keyboard replacements in the future a financially painless activity in the future. But there was one little problem; what would be done with System-XV?

Because the machine was getting older, it would not have been realistic to try and sell it for another person to use. The condition of the keyboard and power adapter would have also proven to be a problem as the keyboard is worn down to such an extent that letters have been worn off, and the power adapter is in need of replacement as it’s right now hanging on with twin patches of electrical tape. All in all, it could be restored to “like-new” condition with just 10,000円 in parts and 30 seconds of time, but I opted to hold on to the ageing notebook and find a new purpose for it. To that end, it’s now running the latest version of Ubuntu and acting as the media server for my home network. Considering everything that System-XV and I have been through together, I just couldn’t see myself giving it up when it could be used to solve some other very real network problems.

This isn’t to say that I have some sort of weird hardware delusion where I see computers as being living beings with emotions and souls, but I will admit that it’d be a little difficult to simply hand over such a versatile tool to someone else who would probably not appreciate it as much. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little sentimentality when it’s done in moderation, right?

So, yes, I’m now using an AspireOne predictably named System-XVI on a daily basis for blogging, programming, and just about everything else I enjoy doing (aside from most games). But there will always be a place in my memory for System-XV.

Which computer has been your favorite over the years? Is there anything that makes that computer special? Will you keep the computer for as long as it’s usable? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Do You Check Your Backups?

A Line of DominoesA recurring theme on this site involves an apparent love-affair with excessive amounts of data, and the need to backup that data. Considering the amount of personal and irreplacable information we seem to keep on our digital systems, the idea of not backing up that precious data seems as absurd to me as walking through the Sahara with neither water nor a guide. However, I sometimes feel as through my warnings are falling on deaf ears. When someone asks me to help them recover some data that they've lost, I often ask when they made their last backup. Ninety percent of the time, I'm told that they've never made a backup. For the ten percent that do occasionally burn a CD or DVD with their important information, I ask how often they verify that data. Not surprisingly, very few seem to know what I'm talking about.

Why is this? Does the small percentage of people who backup their data have a false belief that their data is always perfect? Perhaps it has something to do with most backup software's inability to (quickly) verify the recorded information. However, it might have something to do with a much more plausible situation: they've not (yet) had to restore lost data, or explain to their spouse why the last five years of digital photos has irrevocably vanished.

A Painful Lesson

Backup verification is an integral part to any backup plan. Unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way a little over a decade ago when my (then) massive 1 Gigabyte hard drive seized, causing some catastrophic data loss. This was at a time when CD burners started at $700 for a 1x recorder, and blank discs were $25 a piece. As a result, I would use a 100 pack of 1.44 MB high density floppy disks, and create a spanning Zip file that contained all of my important files. This included all of my college assignments, unpublished fiction, personal accounting data, and a few of my scanned artworks.

After replacing the dead hard drive and installing the operating system, I started to restore the data using the spanned floppy disks but, somewhere around disk 45, the system complained that the massive .zip was corrupt! It refused to read anything after the broken disk, and I managed to recover just a fraction of the data I had thought was safe on the floppies.

Suffice to say, I was devastated. It was an incredibly painful lesson, and I have been an avid backup freak ever since. Not only do I back up all of my data in three separate locations, I also do spot checks on the backups by restoring a few random files and performing consistency checks on the data. Is this excessive? Perhaps, but I have never lost a bit of data in all the years since.

I’d be interested to know how many of you regularly backup your systems, and if you ever check the integrity of those files. If you’ve never checked any of your backups, perhaps now would be a good time.

The Best Fictional Computer?

Mini Transporter ControlHow many computers have you owned in your life?  I've owned sixteen x86-based systems, ten PDAs running PalmOS and Windows Mobile, and eight cell phones running everything from the barebones basics to the current TouchWiz OS on title=" | Samsung's Omnia Doesn't Disappoint" href="" target="_self">my new Samsung Omnia.  As luck would have it, I've also had the opportunity to work on several others, from Apple computers to incredibly powerful UltraSparc-based systems.  Each of these machines have been unique in their own way and had their share of positives and negatives.  But this could be said about the software as well as the hardware.

For over half a century, we've had the priveledge to watch computer systems in movies evolve from ENIAC-inspired monstrosities, to powerful-yet-friendly devices seen in Star Trek.  Some have tried to take over our lives, like those in Terminator and The Matrix, while others have tried to help us enjoy more of what life has to offer.  Some have had incredibly visual interfaces, a-la Minority Report, and others have been insanely uninuitive in nature, like we've seen in countless TV shows.  Some we've loved, others we've hated.  Yet, at the end of the day, many of us still love to look at the various computers we see in movies and in real life to see how they're designed and what software they run.

So, rather than just talk about my favourite designs, I'd like to pass the question to you: what is your favourite fictional computer?

The computer can be from a book, a TV show, a movie, or something else entirely.  The only thing I ask is that the system be fictional (well … fictional as of today … who knows what'll be released tomorrow).

Palm’s Imminent Failure?

“Today is the day!” the young enthusiast proclaimed as he made his way to Palm’s website to read about the next series of models to be released.
He had been an avid fan of the super-portable computing devices for well over four years and was looking forward to the next generation PDA that had been promised for so long. The press had been given very few clues about what kinds of machines the 3Com spin-off would be releasing this year but, with the incredible popularity of WiFi on the Windows Mobile-based devices, it was only natural to expect this cutting edge company to release something worthy of rivaling the more expensive and less-responsive portable devices. Although he was quite happy with the Tungsten T2 model that he had been using for eight months, he was looking forward to having the option of checking email and performing simple network tasks on a newer machine.
“What the…?”
The man was confused as he read through the spec sheets. Nothing had wireless connectivity. Nothing had a better screen. Nothing had a better battery. Nothing had more capacity. To top it all off, nothing looked even remotely sexy … a key point of concern when dropping upwards of $600 on a gadget no larger than a poetry book.
Not believing what he was reading, he then checked out some of the press releases that were made available that day. One was with the CEO of Palm who, while presenting the new Tungsten T3, responded to the question about lack of 802.11b capabilities by saying that his customers didn’t want wireless functions because surfing the internet on such a small screen would not be an enjoyable experience. The CEO went on to say that there were no plans in the near future for Palm to have any models support wireless functionality.
“Who the hell are you to tell us what we want?” the angry Palm fanatic asked. “The lack of wireless is the biggest complaint about Palm in every respectable forum online. There isn’t one serious customer that doesn’t want some sort of wireless capability.”
Disgusted with the current offerings, and unhappy with the appearance of the Tungsten T3’s operating system, the mobile computing enthusiast decided to give Windows Mobile a try.

Five years later, he still has no regrets.

I bought my first mobile device almost ten years ago. It was a Palm IIIe with a minuscule 2MB of memory, a 16 MHz processor, and 320x320 monochrome screen. By today’s standards, it was an incredibly under-powered device that offered the very basics of what one should expect from a mobile device. Within just a few weeks of buying the investment, it had already had a huge impact on my daily life. Requiring just two AA-size batteries, the machine could operate for upwards of three days, and it had the storage capacity to contain all of my customer details for (theoretically) sixteen months. I used the machine at work to enhance my productivity, and at home to read books and play the occasional game of Go. Over the next few years, I would continue to buy a new model every March and November, then find new uses for each of the feature upgrades that would come with the newer devices.

Unfortunately, this joy was not meant to last.

Too Little, Too Late

In 2003, after battling yet another dying Palm handheld, I made the decision to buy one of HP’s iPaq models. I had enjoyed superb longevity with HP notebooks and figured that I could expect the same with their handheld devices. I wasn’t disappointed. After nearly five years of use, the very first Windows Mobile device had not only outlived my wildest expectations, but the same lifespan of the eight Palm devices I had owned before it combined. I’m now using HP’s iPaq 211 model, but the now retired HP PDA is still capable of meeting 80% of my portable computing needs.

HP and Windows Mobile could do five years ago what Palm just started doing in 2006: Providing an enjoyable user interface with relatively snappy load times and a respectable amount of freedom when it came to regular people writing decent applications for the platform.

One aspect that didn’t help was Palm’s inability to create attractive looking devices that actually net the needs of the consumers. The ugly Treo’s continued to be ugly while providing the exact same functionality from generation to generation, and the non-cellular models continued to disappoint with uninspiring designs and a lack of focus when it came to making the platform better for the non-savvy technology user. What really signaled the end for the struggling portable computing company was the release of the title=" | Who Are They Kidding?" href="" target="_self">half-assed capable Foleo.

Having always held out hope for the company, even after switching to HP’s Windows Mobile offerings, I have kept an eye on what Palm can offer the world. This was a company that once inspired me to go out and learn new computing languages just so that I could develop software for the market. It was impossible for me to just leave it in the past. So I’ve kept an eye on future products coming out of their development laboratories. Hoping beyond hope that they can provide something that could re-ignite passion for the platform. But there’s been nothing since the Tungsten T2 … and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the next few years that will convince people to invest in the once-great company.

They’ve lost ground to RIM. They’ve lost ground to Sony. They’ve lost ground to Microsoft. They’ve lost ground to Apple. Heck … they’ve lost ground to just about every company that had anything even remotely resembling competition for the Palm platform … be it in the form of hardware, or software.

How Can They Win

That said, I hope that they do have a bright future ahead of them. While the Foleo may have bombed, there is certainly a market for netbooks. So, rather than create an expensive device that needs a Treo to be somewhere nearby in order to be useful, I’d like to see Palm release something that can challenge Asus’ Eee PC or Acer’s Aspire One. Naturally, this would be incredibly difficult as both companies have a rather loyal following but, with the right combination of software and peripherals, it could be an easy sell.

First, I think that Palm will need to release a netbook that has specifications similar to what Dell, Asus and Acer already offer, but with a super comfortable keyboard. On top of this, Palm’s ability to make devices with some pretty good battery life can certainly come into play as a operational life of over four hours is an absolute must in the market, now. For operating systems, I highly doubt that the Palm executives would want to pay any licensing fees to Microsoft, so this means that Windows XP, Vista and Mobile 6 are not going to be options. However, one advantage here is that Palm will have the opportunity to tweak an operating system like Ubuntu or Debian to suit their needs. We already know that the company has some solid *nix programmers, and I’m sure they’re more than willing to get their hands dirty with some of the more popular Linux distributions.

Next, Palm will need to differentiate themselves from the market by offering a netbook with not one, but two monitors. This has been technologically possible for quite some time but, for reasons beyond understanding, nobody has decided to touch on this. Not only are existing netbook screens obscenely small, they make it incredibly difficult for anyone to accomplish very much work on them. While the netbook is not meant to be used heavily, there are a large number of students and business people who would love to leave behind their single-monitored notebooks for something that can display email, a spreadsheet and word processor all at the same time. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, either … just a simple little plug-in that connects to the side of the primary monitor or plugs in to a proprietary port located somewhere on the base to provide both the power and the visual signal.

Heck, make it possible to have upwards of three monitors on this device, and I’ll gladly pay upwards of $1,000 for the chance to own one of these things.

Back In The Real World

All this said, we probably will not see anything unique or worthy of the same level of hype that was once afforded to the Tungsten|T and Tungsten|T2 models. Considering their recent defeats, and habitual patterns of unfortunate product decisions, we’ll likely never see anything of note from this company again. Perhaps this economic slowdown will act as the final nail in the coffin, as buyers will be less likely to drop the cash on existing devices, instead opting to buy something from Apple, HP, or HTC.

It’s a shame, too. Palm could probably make a comeback with one or two well-designed products. All they need to do is take the leash off their designers for a month to see what they come up with.