Author: simonmackay

Nokia Unveils the Nokia Home Music Wi-Fi Radio | eHomeUpgrade

Nokia Unveils the Nokia Home Music Wi-Fi Radio | eHomeUpgrade

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My comments

Before long, it will be that nearly every consumer-electronics manufacturer will be providig a DLNA-compliant Internet radio in the form of a table radio. What will need to eventually happen is that the manufacturers design units that offer something special beyond their competitors.

From this review that I read, I had noticed that Nokia had moved away from the same old monochrome LCD display and headed towards a colour display like on their phones. Other steps of improvement in this class included a digital output which can allow the set to be amplified via a home theatre receiver like some of the Philips and Yamaha “soundbars”. But the way Nokia could improve on this design would be to have a variable output connection for a matching right-channel speaker that can be sold as an option; similar to the Tivoli NetWorks Internet radio.

But with more of these sets coming on the market at prices affordable for most, it may be worth reading my article about establishing a PC-less media network in your home network i.e. to set up a dedicated media server like a NAS box and move your media to that server.

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Sneak Peek: Netgear EVA9000 Digital Entertainer Elite | eHomeUpgrade

Sneak Peek: Netgear EVA9000 Digital Entertainer Elite | eHomeUpgrade

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My comments

Now Netgear is raising the bar as far as these network media receivers is concerned. It is an attempt to provide a UPnP-complint high-end network media receiver for those of us who want to bring the video files held on the NAS unit to the home theatre that has the big plasma screen and surround-sound.

The built-in hard disk option could be improved upon in the form of being able to be a UPnP AV / DLNA media server. This can then lead to the unit being an entry-point media server or supporting the provision of “load ‘n’ show” media being available on other DLNA media devices in the home network. This is if the purpose of the optional hard disk isn’t just for downloading content as part of an rental-based or subscription video-on-demand service. Another ideal function would be to be under the control of another UPnP AV control point, whih can allow it to play audio content without the user needing to have the TV on to choose the content.

It will be interesting to see what the reviews in the computer press and the blogosphere think of this unit and its usability.

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Feature Article – DLNA Network Media Series: Setting up PC-less networked AV

Why set up a PC-less networked AV setup

A PC-less networked AV setup doesn’t need a particular computer to be present and running to provide AV media to DLNA client devices.

The media is provisioned by a box that is designed for providing AV media to client devices 24/7. This avoids situations where the media is not available due to the PC crashing or being infested with malware; both events that can be very common occurrences with most home computers. There is no need to worry about a PC which is being used for playing games or doing other system-intensive activities limiting media availability. Similarly, these setups use less energy than a PC working as a media server.

This setup also suits today’s laptop-based computing environment where laptop computers are more likely to be moved from place to place. It also suits environments like holiday houses where there is no real use in keeping a desktop computer on the premises but there is the desire to have occasional Internet access at such locations.

As well, this kind of setup appeals to computer-shy people who may want to benefit from digitally-hosted media. This is because there is no need to have a noisy ugly computer in the house for this kind of activity to occur.

Another bonus is that when you add more media client devices to the network, a dedicated media server can handle the increased demand more capably. Contrast this with a PC where the odds of failing when serving more devices can increase rapidly.

What kinds of PC-less media server exist?

Dedicated DLNA music server (Philips Streamium WACS-7000, Sony GigaJuke  NAS-S55HDE, etc)

This unit is typically in the form of a hi-fi system or component that is part of such a system. It has a single hard disk that is primarily for storing media, typically music files and have a network interface, either in the Ethernet or 802.11g wireless form.

Such units will have a built-in CD drive and can “rip” audio tracks from CDs loaded in that drive. They will have access to a metadata service like Gracenote so that the tracks are properly indexed by song title, artist (both album and contributing), genre and album title. As well, they could record audio to the hard drive from a device connected to the server’s line-level input or, where applicable, from a built-in radio tuner. This is in a similar manner to recording music to tapes from the radio using that good old cassette deck.

A lot of these systems expose features and functions that only work best with selected client equipment sold by the server’s manufacturer. They may have limitations concerning transferring audio files to and from the unit’s hard disk, which may limit backup or secondary-storage opportunities. Usually they require a computer to run a special utility in order to transfer music files to or from the unit.

Standalone NAS (network-attached storage) box

These devices are simply a dedicated file-storage device that is connected to the home network and handles files according to standard network-based file-handling protocols. They often provide backup file storage and secondary file storage for computers on the network as well as media-server functionality.  Some users may use the hard disks in these units as a “holding bay” for their computer’s hard-disk contents while they are upsizing that computer’s hard disk.

These boxes will typically come either as a single-disk unit which is the size of a book or as a multi-disk unit that is typically the size of a toaster or breadmaker. These units  either uses the hard disks as a huge storage volume or sets aside some of the disks as a “shadow store” for the data should any of the disks fail. This latter technique, which also provides higher data throughput is known as RAID which stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks.

They are available as a unit fitted out with the necessary hard disks to the capacity you pay for or as an enclosure where you install hard disks that you buy separately. Earlier versions of these enclosures required the user to mess around with a screwdriver and end up losing screws in the assembly process, but the newer units just require the user to slide in or “clip in” the hard disks.

This class of device includes “headless” small-scale server platforms like Windows Home Server and some Linux distributions which can be expanded by the user to perform different functions. They may include this kind of software being loaded on an otherwise-redundant PC that is being repurposed as a small-form file server.

This device will be the way to go eventually because of its ability to provide a flexible media-sharing solution for most small networks.

"Ripping" NAS units

There are a class of NAS boxes that are just like a regular NAS box, having the same number of hard disks as these devices and having the same capacity and functionality as these boxes. But these units, such as the RipFactory RipServer, have a built-in optical disk drive and software which “rips” CDs loaded in to the unit’s optical drive, in a similar manner to a dedicated DLNA music server. They will use a music metadata service like Gracenote to index the tracks that are ripped from the CDs loaded in the unit’s optical drive. These units would be considered as a “bridge” between the dedicated DLNA music server and a general-purpose NAS box.

USB hard disk connected to a DLNA-compliant USB file server

Another common method is to use a USB network file server device that is connected to a USB external hard disk. The device can typically be part of another network device like a router or just become a standalone box. These units, again, handle files according to the standard network-based file-transfer protocols.

They work best with one self-powered USB hard disk because most of these server devices usually run on a low-output power supply that typically powers the electronics within. Most of these units also don’t have the logic to properly handle a USB hub or multiple USB hard disks. If you are using a small hard disk that doesn’t have its own power supply, you may need to connect it via a self-powered USB hub. Similarly, you may find that using a self-powered USB hub can assure reliable service with any of the USB file servers that can support USB hubs,

These setups are useful for a temporary media-sharing arrangement where you are providing media to one or two devices or as an auxiliary media server for other media that isn’t always used.

Storing your media on these devices

If you use a dedicated NAS unit without a built-in optical drive, you will need to make sure that you have SMB (Windows, MacOS X, Linux) or NFS (Linux) read/write access to the media share on that NAS unit. As well, make sure that there is a desktop shortcut, mapped drive letter or other mount point to that share on your computer(s) that you are preparing the media on.

Prepare your media as you normally would, with it ending up in your computer’s media directories. Then copy the media directories to the NAS media share using the standard practices that you use for copying files and directories. You may need to set up a “sync” routine to automatically copy new media to the media share so you can be sure that the new media is available on the network.

Avoid the temptation to "rip" a CD directly to the network share because there is the increased likelihood of errors and slow performance due to multiple points of failure existing between the CD and the NAS’s hard disk, being the optical drive, the ripping and encoding processes and the network transfer process.

Increasing and evolving the DLNA networked media system

One media Server, work towards a NAS unit

This is more analogous to a business’s file server where the IT department want to make sure that all company data is seen as one collection to back up and manage and is at one location. This may appeal to you if you want to have only one primary storage point for your media.

The only limitation about this is that if you need to “do anything” with the NAS unit like upsize it or replace a failed hard disk, you will have to have the media library out of action.

Two or more Media Servers serving different content

You may want to have the media on two or more media servers rather than one media server. This may appeal to a household which has young adults or adolescent children living in it. In this situation, they may want to keep their media on an NAS that they have responsibility for and can take with them when they move on. This avoids you having your media server being “clogged up” with their media which you will less likely want to touch whether they are with you or when they have left your place.

Similarly, you may have media to do with your personal activity as well as media to do with your business or community-engagement activity. Here, you can run a separate media server which houses your business media and this one can be managed under business standards and be financially underwritten by your business. This includes Web developers who run a NAS box as a “Web-page workbench” and want to view primary pictures for their Web page on a DLNA media client attached to the big-screen TV.

Here, you create the different media servers but you make sure they have different names so that your DLNA client devices can differentiate between the server devices. You may use different types of server such as a USB hard disk connected to a DLNA-capable USB file server for a small project or a business-class NAS unit for your business data.

An increasing number of NAS devices pitched at the domestic market are starting to support the ability to aggregate multiple DLNA media libraries in to one large media library. This allows the user to point their media client device at one reference point for all the media that exists on the one home network.

Media Servers in different geographical locations

There may be the possibility of running another DLNA-based media network in another geographic location like a business premises or another house.

The main issue about this is keeping both locations in sync with the desired content. You may have to use an Internet-based sync utility which is supported by your media server to synchronise content between locations.

On the other hand, you could set up an IP-based NAS-NAS backup set for incremental or differential (only files that are new or have changed) backup, but the backup jobs could still be large if any metadata is changed.

You would have to make sure that both NAS units are accessible from the Internet. This may involve establishment of a “dynamic DNS” setup through the use of “DynDNS” or similar utilities; or having each location have a fixed IP address. Then there is the issue of setting up a port-forwarding rule in your router, which may be easy if your NAS units implements UPnP-based port forwarding and you are using a UPnP-compliant router in each location. On the other hand, you may have to visit the router’s Web page to set up the port-forward rules.

This situation hasn’t been made easy because typically the concept of using multiple NAS boxes for applications like multi-location file storage hasn’t been defined as a key application.

Conclusion

Once you have moved towards the PC-less DLNA-based media network, you will thank yourself that you have headed down that path. You won’t need to keep a noisy computer on all the time just to enjoy your music over the network.

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Vista SP2 to land in April 2009-ish? – The Register

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/12/01/vista_sp2_april_rtm/

My comments

At least there is some accurate information regarding the arrival of Vista Service Pack 2 and what it will contain. This service pack could draw more people towards Windows Vista and offer something that can avoid the idea of going “back to XP”.

At least there are a few options that may benefit the laptop user and the modern WiFi-driven home computing environment. One would be to work hand in glove with WPS configuration as more routers come with “over-the-air” WPS configuration. As well, the Bluetooth Feature Pack which will offer what is expected of a Bluetooth setup will be available for people who buy Bluetooth functionality independent of the operationg system. This would encompass system builders; and those of us who provide Bluetooth functionality via an aftermarket device such as a USB dongle or move to Vista by buying it through the retail channel. The other desireable feature would be for the operating system to “natively” burn data to Blu-Ray discs; which would definitely come in handy with backing up hard disks or archiving old data.

In my honest opinion, this service pack can “tide us over” until Windows 7 comes on the scene as the next operating system.

Come on “I’m A PC”!

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USBCheck – First Line of Defense Against Bad USB Ports

USBCheck – First Line of Defense Against Bad USB Ports

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My Comments on USBCheck:

This device is one that I would consider important for anyone who is building or repairing computers such as building that dream gaming rig. It allows them to check if each of the USB ports are wired properly, thus making sure that the installation is going to work properly and to plan before they put the side panels back on the computer’s case.

In a similar vein, a person who has taken apart a USB hub to build it in to something else can make sure that it is wired up properly as far as the USB infrastructure is concerned. All that is needed is more USB hubs and 5V 2.1A power-supply circuits (working from 12V – 24V DC or 110V-250V AC) in “short-form” versions for thos of us who want to build custom USB hubs or add USB hub functionality in to existing devices like desk lamps.

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The "netbook" computer – now every manufacturer is selling one of them

A “netbook” computer is a low-cost portable computer the same size as a classic “Day-Planner” or “Filofax” personal organizer but is primarily designed to be used for basic computing tasks like Web browsing, e-mail work or basic word-processing. Typically they will have up to 1Gb on the RAM and up to 80Gb on a solid-state disk or 120Gb on a mechanical hard disk. They will use a processor like the Intel Aero that is pitched at ultra-portable computer work by being designed to offer basic processing power without much energy being used. . The display won’t have the kind of performance that you would expect for intense game play or video editing but would be suitable for most tasks including playing casual games.  Typically, they will have built-in wireless networking support primarily for Internet access. The operating system they will often run with is either a customised Linux build or the latest “out-of-box” build of Windows XP. They usually don’t come with any sort of “load device” like an optical disk drive because you are expected to work with the software that is supplied as part of the unit or download extra software from the Internet to suit your needs. If you do need auxiliary storage or a “load device”, they may come with an SD card drive or you plug in a USB Mass-Storage compliant device like a memory key or external optical drive.

This class of computer was born out of the “One Laptop Per Child” project where the idea was to provide computer and Internet access to children in marginalised Third World countries.  They have also gained appeal in Western countries as a small secondary computer for e-mail and Web use or as an entry-level computer for the likes of students. One area that they can come in handy in the home is as a “Web terminal” that is used in the kitchen or lounge for casual Web browsing. This would be set up in a similar manner to what I have suggested in a previous article about how a secondhand computer could be set up as a kitchen computer.

For most people, it may be preferable to work with Windows XP-based netbooks rather than the scaled-down Linux units. This will provide a lot more operating room through the unit’s working life. If you do a lot of work with Linux, I would suggest that you go for the high-end Linux units and know how to keep their software up to date. This may involve “rolling in” the latest version of a standard distribution like Redhat or OpenSUSE with all its functionality. Some Linux “geeks” may be interested in using a “netbook” for modelling programs that they are developing or building the “perfect” distribution.

I would still certainly say that these “netbooks” still have their place in the computer market in all market conditions.

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Feature Article – Using an ex-business laptop computer as a kitchen PC

When I originally wrote this post on my old blog site in May 2007, a close friend of mine was given a computer by her partner who is in the business-computer trade and the partner had, at that time, inherited a recent-model ex-business laptop which he was going to give to her. Here, I had pointed out a useful article written by Sharon Crawford for the Microsoft Windows XP Expert Zone column about this kind of situation where recent-model secondhand laptop computers can come in to their own as a computer for use in the kitchen. The article, which is located at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/web/learnmore/crawford_kitchenpc.mspx , explained about use of a computer in this situation.
 
There are many reasons why I certainly agree with the use of a laptop for this kind of application. One main reason is that the computer can be quickly and easily stowed away when not in use. This is certainly of importance in this close friend’s kitchen where she had cats that were prone to spraying on anything they could when she is not watching. Similarly, you will have to clear away the computer when you need more space to put those dishes when you are preparing or serving food or cleaning up after the meal. The other main reason that is enhanced by the portability of these laptop computers is that they can be moved around as the user desires.
 
As far as software is concerned, I would deploy Windows XP or, if the computer is capable enough (i.e. made in the last two years), Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows 7, and a basic office suite like Office 2007 Home and Student.
The kind of use that I am likely to see out of these computers would be Web surfing with IE; e-mailing which can be done with Outlook Express, Windows Vista Mail, Windows Live Mail or a Web-mail service like Hotmail, Yahoo or GMail or your ISP’s Web mail front; and instant messaging with Windows Live Messenger for example. Let’s not forget basic word-processing and spreadsheet work which would be used for recording information; as well as access to some casual games ie Solitaire, Spider Solitaire or Mahjongg Titans that are good for whiling away the time during a long cooking process or long phone conversation. Windows Media Player 11 and Windows Live Photo Gallery would come in to their own for music, pictures and video in the kitchen.
 
As far as working out the shortcuts for the Favourites Menu is concerned, I would certainly add the following shortcuts:
* Any Website for any organizations (school, community / faith organization, business or government department)  that you have regular business with
* Transport information websites, including the departures / arrivals information page provided by your local airports
* Online navigation sites and street directories
* The local "White Pages" and "Yellow Pages" websites
* The box offices for your local cinemas or theatres – you can book online for that upcoming show that you want to attend
 
As far as printing is concerned, you don’t need to attach a printer to the machine if you have a reliable network printer on your home network. If you need to use a mouse with your computer rather than the inbuilt joystick or touchpad that is part of the laptop, make sure that it is an optical type because there is less likelihood of the kind of dirt and crumbs that appear on kitchen benches getting in to these mice and affecting their performance. Here, you could get away with a basic 2-button or 2-button + wheel mouse for this application.
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SlotMusic – the Musicassette of the 21st Century

SlotMusic web site

Those of us who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s, will remember the pre-recorded cassettes being another way to sell recorded music. These tapes were typically marketed as “Musicassettes” and were able to be played in any old cassette player or recorder that existed, whether in (or under) the dashboard of a car, a portable unit or a cassette deck attached to the hi-fi system. They were typically considered second-rate to the LP record and people who were serious about music quality typically recorded the LP onto one side of a blank C-90 cassette for in-car or portable use rather than buying these tapes.

This was until the 1980s where there were many high-quality cassette players and recorders being used by the public. This was exemplified by the Walkman personal cassette player and the large “boom boxes” of that era and vehicle builders equipping their premium vehicles with high-quality cassette players. It led to the music industry improving the quality of these tapes by using improved tape stock for the cassettes, implementing an improved signal path and using stringent quality control during the tape replication process. This led to the cassette being respected more as an analogue recorded-music medium alongside the LP record. Some people then ended up not using the turntable function of a music centre or built up a music system with a cassette deck as the system’s only packaged-music source.

Now, SanDisk has implemeted the MicroSD card as a recorded-music distribution medium for use with mobile phones or MP3 players. The medium, market as “SlotMusic”, is sold with an accompanying USB card reader for use with PCs or media players equipped with USB ports, but can be played on equipment that has a MiniSD or standard SD card slot through the use of a MiniSD or standard SD adaptor card. These cards will contain 320kbps MP3 files of all the music that is on the album.

I have read many criticisms to this format, primarily by CD enthusiasts who see it as another poor-quality format for portable use. This is going to be very much the same sentiment that was held regarding the pre-recorded Musicassettes where they were only suitable for playing on a low-quality portable cassette recorder and weren’t fit for use on a hi-fi system.

As far as the home network is concerned, music files on a SlotMusic card can be copied to a DLNA media server which can provide them out to other DLNA music clients. This could be done either by copying the files in to a directory named after the album using the network file-transfer techniques or by “inducting” the SlotMusic card’s contents in to the music collection using the PC jukebox software’s content-import procedures and, if necessary, synchroniing that data to the music server.

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802.11r – the new wireless-networking standard

In August-September 2008, there has been a fair bit of talk in the IT press about the new IEEE 802.11r standard for wireless networks. It isn’t a new waveband or transmission standard for these networks.

Instead it is an improved method of handling the “handover” procedure when a wireless-network client moves between two access points in a multi-access-point network. The idea behind this is to make the handover process hard to notice if you are using a multimedia service which works with streamed audio or video like VoIP or audio / video streaming. The same feature will also benefit multi-machine multi-player gaming such as Internet-hosted online gaming because everything that is part of the game is kept in sync, thus making sure that you can “frag” the opponent there and then. With current technology, if you move between different access points while using a multimedia service, you will notice an obvious “glitch” because of the requirement to re-associate with the network when in the new access point’s area.

The improvement is based on a “work-ahead” procedure where the client will log in with access points of the same “extended service set” while utilising the current access point. Then it will “switch over” to whichever access point has the best signal, thus avoiding unnecessary glitches.

The main issue with this technology, like any new standard being introduced, is how it can work with existing networks and equipment. As well, there is the issue of an upgrade path for existing equipment. In the first situation, would 802.11r-based clients be able to achieve the fast handover with wireless networks that work with current technology and would 802.11r-based access points work with existing WiFi clients. This also includes wireless networks where some access points may be 802.11r-enabled and some may be on existing technology. This would typify operating environments where a gradual roll-out is implemented because there will be an initial price premium for newer equipment being equipped with 802.11r and it would still wouldn’t be cost-effective to replace all access points at the same time. This brings me to what will be discussed in the next paragraph regarding existing equipment.

The second situation would determine what is needed to be done to an existing network to roll out the new technology. Could this be achieved through a firmware or software upgrade on existing equipment or would it require totally-new equipment to be deployed? This issue would be very pertinent when it comes to small wireless networks where one of the access points is built in to a wireless router that is on the network-Internet edge. It also would encompass most outdoor access points and, of course, those HomePlug-based wireless access points like the Netcomm NP-290W / Solwise PL-85PEW which I have mentioned about in this blog.

This issue may not be exposed in the small-network space because the typical small wireless network is based around only one access point — the one built in to the router at the network’s “edge”. But as I have mentioned in this blog about setting up multi-access-point wireless networks which have an Ethernet or HomePlug wired backbone as a way of extending the wireless network or conquering wireless-network reception difficulties, the issue of the 802.11r “fast-handover” technology will have to be exposed to this class of network. This is important if the network is being used for VoIP, streamed IP-based multimedia or online-gaming “frag-fests”.

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Network-Attached Storage Should Feature File Allocation, Searching, and Media Sharing in Addition to Increased Capacity | eHomeUpgrade

Network-Attached Storage Should Feature File Allocation, Searching, and Media Sharing in Addition to Increased Capacity | eHomeUpgrade

My comments on this topic

We are increasingly using our computers to build digital media libraries, whether through taking digital pictures and movies with our digital cameras and digital handycams, copying media that exists in packaged form to the hard disks of our computers or downloading material from various Web sites.
This is definitely leading to us running out of hard-disk space on our computers. The typical home network will end up with an aggregate collection media files in the many gigabytes or even terabytes across all of the machines.
The network-attached storage systems that are on the market are being sold primarily on capacity, the disk arrangement being used and, in the case of multi-disk units, what RAID level they support.
When I check out any NAS box, even units that are for small-business use, I look for units that use UPnP AV MediaServer / DLNA functionality. This function allows them to be effective in searching media files and presenting them to digital media playback devices that conform to UPnP AV / DLNA specifications.  An improvement that I would like to see for NAS-based UPnP media front-ends would be to support all “in-file” metadata systems like ID3, and EXIF (including Windwos Live Photo Gallery’s tags).
If you have a network with many Apple-controlled front-ends, the Apple-controlled front-ends will be primarily running iTunes and an iTunes / “daap”-compatible media front end can provide access to the media files from iTunes.
Software manufacturers could work on ways to differentiate media-handling abilities amongst the network-attached storage devices that they offer for home and small-business use.
A feature that could definitely be an improvement on this could be software that can aggregate media libraries from different storage locations and present it as a “premises-wide” media directory. This can also include automatic synchronisation of new media between computers and network-attached storage units so that media commonly used is always available at all times.
Other features could include Web-based directories so one can see what is on the NAS using a Web browser for example. This could be a useful implementation of Web 2.0 techniques like AJAX for example.

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