The constantly obsolete computer

December 22, 2010

In cleaning our house for an upcoming Christmas Eve dinner with the relatives, my wife came across an old 3.5″ Floppy Disk with some jpg pictures. She asked if I could transfer the picture files from the floppy disk to a USB flash drive, and I had to think a minute… do I even have a floppy drive anymore? My iMac certainly doesn’t have one, nor does my previous Quad-Core Windows 7 machine. My Dell 11z Netbook doesn’t have one, and my older Dell D620 laptop neither. In fact, none of the computers in my house have an ancient “Floppy” drive at all!

Fortunately, I did have an old PC carcass in my garage that did have a 3.5″ floppy drive but it wasn’t connected to the motherboard. I then began the search through my closet and attic for a Floppy Drive ribbon cable so that I could connect the floppy drive to the motherboard of the old PC, fire it up, and then copy the data from the floppy over to the USB drive. Luckily after searching through tons of cables, connectors, hard drives, etc. I found a floppy ribbon cable and completed my mission.

After all of this, I decided to do a little housecleaning and get rid of all the obsolete computer parts and cables I had collected over the years. With how fast computers progress in hardware and capability, most of my spare parts were just junk. I had a dual DVI output video card which worked great when I was using it, but now it is obsolete since the AGP board connector has been replaced in newer motherboards with PCI-Express 2 slots. I also found an old PC-Card slot WiFi Adapter (no doubt, WiFi-b protocol), a few USB 1.0 speed WiFi adapters, several sticks of old RAM memory, an old Parallel Port printer cable, a 300-Baud COM2 portable Modem (remember those?), lots, and lots of USB-A to B, to etc. cables. I also had a few very old NEC laptops that wouldn’t boot up, “Free” Inkjet printers that came with various computer systems, an old VGA Cathode-Ray tube monitor, and a few wired mouses and wired 101 keyboards. Instead of keeping this ancient junk, I through most of it in the trash and took the old computer electronic devices to my local recycle shop.

It’s amazing how quickly hardware goes obsolete in the computer world. Since switching to an iMac (which is a fully integrated system where all the components are inside the monitor display), I don’t think I’ll be collecting so many spare parts in the future. I sort of miss tinkering with the hardware on my past desktop systems, but then again I’m giving up on all the headaches of dealing with bad drivers, wrong components, etc.


Horrible malware virus rears its ugly head

November 27, 2010

A few months ago the hinge holding my niece’s laptop lid broke off rendering her laptop totally unusable. So out of the kindness of her heart, my wife lent our niece her seldom-used Dell laptop (running Windows 7) so she can continue to do her homework, etc. while her mother figures out what to do (i.e., fix the broken laptop, buy a new one, etc). So as teenagers will do, my niece happily loaded iTunes, Skype, as well as numerous other programs and apps that teenagers cannot live without and went on her merry way. Unfortunately, during that process she inadvertently loaded a malware virus that pretended to be an anti-virus program which found a virus that can only be removed if she paid for the full version of the anti-virus software. A giant scam, of course.

This malware virus is called Thinkpoint and will display the following screen when you boot up your computer:

If you unknowingly click the “Save Startup” button, the program will appear to be scanning for a virus and will finally proclaim it found some very dangerous viruses that can only be removed if you buy their software. What’s bad about this virus is that you can’t easily remove it. There is no way of exiting from this Thinkpoint application, and when I tried to do a CTRL-ALT-DEL to access Task Manager it wouldn’t come up. So this infected laptop would just reboot and reboot with the same Thinkpoint screen as you see above.

So after some Googling, I found my solution. I needed to boot up the laptop from an external USB flashdrive and run a “real” antivirus program to eradicate the Thinkpoint virus. I found this web site that explained how to create the USB flashdrive for booting (into Linux) and then run the antivirus app called AntiVir. Following these directions I was able to have the laptop boot up from the Flash Drive and run the AntiVir software which identified the Thinkpoint virus files. Note, that the AntiVir application by default only identifies the virus files and doesn’t do anything with them. I needed to use the configuration screen for the app to have it rename the virus files. Once I did that, I removed the Flash Drive and was able to reboot the laptop to the Windows 7 user desktop.

I then followed instructions from several other web sites that explained which files to remove and which entry in the system’s registry file to remove to get rid of the Thinkpoint virus. I followed all this up with a full system scan using the freeware antivirus app called Avast! as well as McAfee antivirus. After doing all this, I think the laptop is now virus free.

My niece doesn’t remember what she did to infect the laptop with this horrible virus, but I did find evidence that she (or some application) installed a Peer-to-Peer software called Limewire that I suspect was the culprit. Limewire is a file-sharing application much like Napster, Guntella, etc. which are know to be laced with files containing viruses. As such, I’ve never used such P2P applications and I warned my niece to never install such apps again.

We are very lucky that I was able to remove this bad malware virus, otherwise, I would have needed to wipe the disk clean and go through a clean install of Windows 7 on the laptop followed by hours of trying to find the right drivers from the Dell web site…. ugh.

 


My Dead Quiet Office

November 14, 2010

I normally work from home in a small but well appointed home office. As a computer professional (and geek) I’ve got numerous computer systems activated at any given moment. I have my big 27″ iMac which handles my personal business, my Dell 17″ laptop for use with my primary job (checking emails, running simulations, etc.), a Dell Netbook for occasionally running PC-based applications (e.g., Microsoft Visual Studio 2005), and my old Quad-Core Desktop PC which I fire up sometimes to do some heavy video processing in batch mode.

Before I purchased my iMac, I used my Quad-Core Desktop PC as my main workhorse computer system. Being a desktop it can become quite loud in my office, but I tried to minimize that by installing a power supply with an oversized fan (quieter) and a variable CPU fan which I can turn down to also minimize the noise. Nevertheless, there was a constant humming in my office that just became the normal background noise as I worked throughout the day.

Since switching from my Quad-Core machine to my iMac desktop, my office has been dead quiet. I’m not sure how Apple did it, but the Quad-Core CPU in my iMac Desktop doesn’t seem to need the same airflow as my PC desktop machine. I don’t hear a thing while I’m working with my iMac. Only on some rare occasion I’ll hear my iMac hum as the internal fans are cooling the CPU during some intensive video processing action, but this happens rarely. The only sound I hear is the hard drive whirling every so briefly when I’m saving a file to the drive.

This is so unlike my Windows PC where the hard drive will thrash away constantly and for no apparent reason. I could never figure out why was my system’s disk drive thrashing away so much. What was it doing that required so much disk reading and/or writing? It just didn’t make any sense to me. On my iMac, I don’t have any of that crazy nonsenseical disk thrashing. None.

My Dell work laptop, however, is the biggest noise maker in my home office. I can hear the internal fan spinning constantly with Microsoft Outlook being the only application open and the disk drive thrashing fiercly whenever I do any activity. So whenever possible (like on the weekends) I’ll turn off my laptop and just have my wonderful iMac Desktop running silently in my office, allowing me to work in peace and quiet…

 


Command + Delete is my friend

November 14, 2010

When I switched from a Microsoft PC over to an Apple iMac, it took a bit of “relearning” to become totally productive with the new environment. Here are a few glaring differences I found:

With an Apple keyboard you don’t have a HOME, DEL, or END key. It is amazing how much I relied on those keys without knowing it. So if I’m coding and I want to move to the beginning or end of a line, I don’t have a HOME or END key to help me out. The Mac has a DELETE key (which is equivalent to the BACKSPACE key on a PC keyboard), but it doesn’t have an equivalent DEL key (which removes characters behind the cursor). That’s another thing I sorely miss.

On my PC I was able to delete a selected file or folder by just pressing the BACKSPACE key. If you try to do the same thing on a Mac, nothing happens. What I discovered is that you need to press the Command key + Delete key to delete a selected folder or file. At first I thought this was a pain, but in hindsight it seems to be a good thing as it minimizing unintentional deletions by just pressing the Delete key alone.

Also, pressing the RETURN key after highlighting a file will not open that file in the Mac OS (nothing happens).

And finally one big one: When you click the small red “X” ball in the upper left corner of a Mac application window the program appears to exit but it is actually still running in the background. The only way to fully exit the application is to do a “Force Quit” which can be done a few ways:

  1. Select “Quit” or “Force Quit” from the application’s menu bar.
  2. Press COMMAND + Q keys to quit the application (when the app’s title bar is active at the top of the screen)
  3. Right-click on the app in the Dock (at the bottom of the screen) and select “Quit” from the popup context menu.

I usually do option (2) as it seems the fastest for me. So there are a few differences between Microsoft Windows and the iMac OS, but I’ve adapted very quickly and am actually more productive with the addition of Applescript for the Mac!


Dealing with two different calendars in life

October 28, 2010

For my day job I use Microsoft Outlook running on my Windows XP laptop for all my work-related appointments. Since my calendar is “shared” among my colleagues, I don’t put any personal appointments in it. Sure, I could always mark my personal appointments as “private” so only I can see the title and details, but I’m so paranoid that I would forget and thus have my private life displayed for all my co-workers to see.

Thus, I keep my personal calendar on my home machine (Apple iMac) using the provided iCal calendar application. The big challenge for me, is to be able to see both calendars on my home iMac, my work laptop, and on my Palm Pixi smartphone. So here’s what I did to make that happen:

First, my Palm Pixi can display multiple calendars provided by a single handful of sources. One is Microsoft Exchange and the other is Google Calendar. Since my work email through Outlook uses MS Exchange, that was a no brainer. So I have my work calendar on my Palm Pixi already figured out. Since my Palm Pixi can handle the Google Calendar, I needed to get my personal appointments synced or entered into Google Calendar in the cloud. I discovered the best way to do this is to subscribe to Google Calendar in Apple iCal and use it as my main personal calendar. I can make entries to Google Calendar in iCal and they will automatically be pushed up to Google Calendar in the Cloud. This way, my Palm Pixi can display both my personal (Google) calendar and work (Exchange) calendar.

With my personal calendar already in the cloud in Google Calendar, All I needed to do was subscribe to it in MS Outlook on my work laptop. Now I can view my personal appointments and work appointments on my work laptop using Outlook (albeit, I can only view my personal appointments, which is ok with me).

Finally, I needed to somehow get my work appointments from Outlook to be visible in Apple iCal on my Mac. I accomplished this, by publishing my Outlook appointments to a WebDav server in the cloud, specifically to a free file storage service called http://www.box.net. Basically, Outlook will periodically upload a single file (.ics) to the http://www.box.net file server and thus store my work appointments in the cloud in a simple text file. Next, I have Apple iCal subscribe to this WebDav server to download the calendar information in the .ics file every 15 minutes or so.

Now, I have a system that will allow me to view both my work and personal appointments on my home iMac, work laptop, and Palm Pixi smartphone without me having to copy and paste appointments between two separate calendars. Here’s what I can do for making changes:

1) My Palm Pixi can make updates to both my Personal and work calendars

2) Personal appointment changes are made on my home iMac.

3) Work appointment changes are made on my work laptop in Outlook.

I know that this all sounds like a pain, but I really needed to keep my personal and work appointments separate and have both viewable on different computers and devices.

Now, some might ask, “Why don’t you just have two separate calendars in Google Calendar and keep everything in one place, in the cloud?” That’s a good question. The biggest reason I’ve found, is that when I get a meeting invite in an email message, if I double-click on the attached .ics file my computer will try to open the .ics file using a stand-alone application on my system. So it will either try to use Apple iCal or Outlook or some other specified application. I don’t have the ability to have my web browser open and process the .ics file for entering it into Google Calendar. That just won’t work. Thus, I’m stuck with using an actual computer calendar application to easily process meeting invitations.

What I really would need, is a small application that can open the .ics file and place it in Google Calendar in the cloud. That, would be a really handy app!

 


Using VMWare Fusion for Windows 7 on a Mac

September 20, 2010

My recent conversion from a Windows 7 Professional Desktop PC to an Apple iMac has been a painless transition, where I’m close to shutting down my PC for good. There are only two PC-based applications which I currently still need to run on my desktop: (1) Password Manager Application, (2) Paint.net graphics application.

Fortunately, there exists a product called CrossOver which allows me to run certain Microsoft Windows applications inside of Mac OS X. CrossOver is based on the WINE WIN32 emulation and basically emulates the Windows calls for most of the Microsoft Windows system functions. So you aren’t running the full-blown Windows OS but still can run Windows applications. As such, running such apps with CrossOver is fairly quick on the Mac. CrossOver is a commercial product that normally sells for $40 US, but after the trial period ends they sent me an email offering the product for $20 US which I thought was a deal, so I purchased it.

Now, CrossOver worked fine for running my Password Manager application, as it was based on standard WIN32 calls and control libraries. So, I can start up my Password app very easily by just selecting the app’s icon from the Mac Applications Folder. I have to note that the buttons, and other various Windows controls look very Windows XP-ish (not Vista or Windows 7), and some of the fonts used in the app are a bit off, but neverthless the app runs quite well.

Unfortunately, I can’t run the Paint.net application using CrossOver since this application heavily uses Microsoft’s .NET technology. Apparently, CrossOver doesn’t have a way of emulating the latest .NET libraries so I’m out-of-luck with running my favorite graphics application on the Mac.

After searching through all the available native Mac graphics apps, I still can’t find anything that can do everything I need to do easily as with Paint.net. So, I tend to run back to my Windows 7 Desktop PC (using a Remote Desktop Connection from my Mac) whenever I need to do some graphics image editing. Since at some point I want to turn off my Desktop PC forever, I need to find a solution to this issue.

So, I decided to explore using Virtualization Software which will emulate the x86 hardware virtually, basically simulating a Desktop PC. I can then install Windows 7 in that environment and run Windows and Windows-based applications through this emulation.

There seems to be three big players in this field to choose from: (1) Parallels, (2) VMWare Fusion, and (3) VirtualBox. Both Parallels and VMWare Fusion are commercial products that go head-to-head for this application, and both cost around $80 US. VirtualBox is freeware offered by Sun Microsystems which has similar virtualization technology. I’ve used VirtualBox for my Palm WebOS development (the Palm Emulator runs inside of it) and it seems to work fairly well. I’ve also used VirtualBox with Windows 7 and it also worked fine, but seemed a little slow when starting up the applications.

Both Parallels and VMWare Fusion are designed for a smoother and transparent operation running on the Mac when compared to VirtualBox, in my opinion. Both of these products offer the ability to run a Windows App on the Mac such that it appears to be a Mac application. So if I run my Paint.net application it will popup in a window on my Mac and operate just as it would on my PC in it’s own window.

So, I decided to download the VMWare Fusion software and use their 30-day trial period to test it out. After jumping through their hoops to get a temporary activation code, the installation of VMWare Fusion and the Windows 7 OS was a piece of cake. Very easy to install, as I simply inserted my Windows 7 OS install CD when asked for it from VMFusion, and away I went.

I used the default settings for the virtual environment of 40 GB of simulated disk drive space, along with 1 GB of RAM. This should be sufficient for running Windows 7 and my Paint.net application. After the Win 7 installation and the various Microsoft Updates, I was all ready to do. No need to fuss with internet connections, etc.

I then installed Paint.net in this virtual world and was able to run it using VMWare’s “Unity” mode which makes the app appear to be a Mac application (running in it’s own window). So I don’t see the Windows 7 Desktop, just my Paint.net app running in a window on my Mac’s desktop screen. Sweet!

I was surprised at the responsiveness of Windows 7 running in this environment, as it appears just as snappy as running it on my Desktop PC. I especially like the Unity-mode, which allows me to run a single app on my Mac. In fact, there’s a drop-down menu from my Mac’s menu bar which allows me access to all the installed apps in the VMWare Fusion’s Windows environment, so I can effectively run any installed app very easily. Note, that Parallels has a similar feature called “Coherence”, so you can probably do something similar with that product.

Another cool thing is that I can configure VMWare to share my Mac’s desktop, and as such all the files currently on my Mac’s desktop appear on the Window’s desktop as well. I can also place an icon of a Windows application on my Mac’s Dock bar so I can launch it very easily.

Now the real test, is how quickly can I start up VMWare Fusion on my Mac when I want to run Paint.net? It would be a real drag if it took 5 minutes for the entire system to boot up for me to run a single application. So I did a quick test on my iMac quad-core i7 machine to see how fast I can bring up the Paint.net application with VMWare Fusion not running in the background.

So clicking on my Paint.net icon on the Mac dock launches VMWare Fusion (which started up the VMFusion virtualization software and booted up Windows 7 inside of it) and my Paint.net application appeared in a self-contained window on my Mac in 30 seconds. That time is actually pretty good, since VMFusion is booting up Windows 7 from a cold start!

Another feature with VMWare Fusion is that you can save a Windows session as “Suspended”, which stores the current Windows environment in a file for faster startup. So I initiated the suspend mode and then Quit the VMFusion application. Next, when I clicked on the Paint.net icon in my Mac’s Dock bar the Paint.net application appeared in 10 seconds! That was astounding, and perfectly acceptable for my needs of running a few specific Windows applications on my Mac. Who knows if VMWare is achieving this because it’s using the multiple core processors on my i7 iMac, but in any case I’m really liking this!

The only downside to all of this, is that you need a Windows 7 license for your virtual world. That shouldn’t be a problem for me, as I can always decommission one of my retired PCs and use that license. Also, you’re tying up a certain amount of system memory (in my case, 1 GB) and a small amount of disk space on your Mac system, but I think that is perfectly acceptable for what I’m getting in return.

So there you have it. A perfect solution for running much-needed Windows Apps on your Mac. VMWare Fusion seems to run fast and allows easy and convenient access to my Windows Apps. I just need to fork over $80 and get a full license. 😉


Week 4: Apple Mac Update

September 14, 2010

It’s been over 3 weeks now since I purchased my Apple iMac, and I’m still loving it. The system is running strong and fast, I haven’t had the need to reboot it for any reason (except for an OS update), and it just works. I still have my Windows 7 Quad-Core Desktop PC running in my home office, but I only use it for recording my TV shows and converting them for my Zune HD media player.

Surprisingly, it was relatively easy for me to make the switch from Windows to the Mac. I’m finding the “muscle memory” of doing an CTRL+C to copy has been replaced by CMD+C rather easily. In fact, I catch myself now trying to find the CMD key on my Dell Win 7 netbook! The one thing I miss on my Apple Bluetooth keyboard is the equivalent of the DELETE key and the HOME/END keys. Otherwise, I seemed to have adapted well to the Mac OS X environment.

What’s still a big bummer for me, is finding a replacement for my Paint.net graphics application. I absolutely love that app, and I can’t find an adequate replacement for OS X.  I’ve tried Pixelmator, Pinta, Seashore, Gimp, and a few other obscure apps and nothing is as easy to use as Paint.net. Unfortunately, Paint.net will never be ported to the Mac so I’m out of luck. The Pinta app was developed to mimic Paint.net, but it seems to have some glaring bugs when I use it and also doesn’t have all the features that I require from Paint.net. Gimp has been around a long time and has a lot of features, but it is not a native OS X app and requires the old Unix X11 overlay to run it. Pixelmator is the obvious replacement choice, but in using that app I had some unexpected crashes and some difficulty doing basic graphics editing (e.g., making rectangular boxes, etc.). So, nothing is perfect I guess.

I think what’s helped in my transition is the fact that so much of what I do is on the Internet and is web-based. Most of my activities involve a web browser, whether it’s doing online banking, searching for infomation, reading news and articles, checking email messages, creating a map with driving directions, etc. As such, I’m less reliant on having dedicated applications installed on my personal computer to do these activities. So, moving to a different computer platform isn’t such a shocking transition.

I’m certainly glad I made the switch, and over the course of the upcoming months and years I’ll probably continue my migration towards using Apple products. First an Apple iPod Touch to replace my Microsoft Zune HD, then maybe a 13″ Macbook Pro to replace my Dell 11z Notebook, followed by an iPad, and from there who knows?