simonmackay Archive

Feature Article – Repurposing that ex-business laptop computer for home use

Originally published at my previous Windows Live Spaces blog in May 2007
First published on this blog in November 2008. Updated 31 July 2009
 
If you are repurposing an ex-business laptop computer for home use, you need to make sure that it is safe as far as the computer’s former life is concerned and able to perform well in the home. Here, you would need to “detach” the computer from its former business life by removing line-of-business applications and data; and business-specific configurations like network, VPN and terminal-emulation setups used in the business. In some situations like ex-kiosk computers where the computer was heavily locked down, you may have to research the Internet to find out how to reset the BIOS settings so you can boot from the optical drive for example.
 
1. Make sure that you have the original media and licence information for the operating system and any other software to be used in the home context.
2. Visit the computer manufacturer’s Website and obtain the complete driver set for the computer’s current configuration. Copy this driver set to a CD-R or USB memory key. You might find it better to work the computer directly with the operating system’s abilities like Windows Zero Configuration rather than use the software supplied by the system manufacturer.
3 Do any necessary repairs to the computer like replacing damaged keyboards. This could be a good time to track down replacement batteries, AC adaptors or AC cords for the computer. If the computer doesn’t have built-in wireless or isn’t able to have wireless networking retrofitted at a later date, track down a wireless-network PCMCIA card or ExpressCard to suit your home network.
4. Format the primary hard disk and install the operating system and other software from the original media. Activate XP / Vista / Windows 7 and Office as applicable and deploy the driver set from the CD-R or USB memory key that you prepared in Step 2.
5. Register the computer with network services that are part of the home network like the network printer. If the printer is hosted by a Windows box, you may be able to set it up using “Point and Print” where you load the printer drivers from the Windows box.
 
As far as software is concerned, you can use a basic “office” package like Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition as well as Screen Paver (the shareware photo screen-saver that I use) and the latest version of AVG AntiVirus Free Edition or Avast AntiVirus Home Edition for your additional software. Most functionality is catered for by the software that is part of the operating system.
 
If you are working with a Windows-based computer, it may be worth downloading Windws Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Photo Gallery from http://download.live.com . These programs provide the essentials for instant mesaging, desktop POP3 or IMAP mail, RSS-feed management and digital-image management.
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SFR Hubster mobile Internet device

Link to French language review in DegroupNews

My comments on this mobile Internet device after reading the review

This device, provided by SFR for their “triple-play” (Box SFR, NeufBox) subscribers in France, is primarily a mobile Internet device. Primarily it is the “Webby” terminal marketed under SFR’s banner. But it isn’t the typical mobile Internet device that is in the typical handheld form. Instead, it is designed as a tabletop “mini terminal” for use in the kitchen, bedroom or home office. The French-language article even described the unit as a “mini terminal familiale” (family mini terminal).

Hence it is in the form of a small free-standing device that has a footprint similar to a small radio,with a 3.5” touchscreen LCD display that is mounted on its cone-shaped base. It will connect to your home network via WiFi (with WPA2 security and WPS “two-push” setup) or Ethernet.

The unit has IPTV functionality which works in conjunction with SFR’s IPTV service as well as Internet radio and “widget-driven” information services. The widget-based services focus typically on the local weather, financial information (stock portfolio) and your horoscope for your star sign. You can also get it to monitor RSS feeds, including audio / video podcasts and photofeeds. It has an SD card slot and USB host port so you can load digital audio files or JPEG pictures from your digital camera. A subsequent firmware version will provide for video file support. Of course the unit can work as an alarm clock that is always set to the correct time and can wake you to an Internet radio stream, a digital audio file or a buzzer sound.

When you set up the Hubster device, you will need to visit the Hubster Web site (http://hubster.sfr.fr) as part of registering it. This is where you would customise the local weather, financial and horoscope information.

The reviewers reckon that this device needs more capabilities in order to be a full-on auxiliary Internet terminal. It would need to support general Web browsing, be capable of true cordless operation by working with a battery pack and use a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. I would add to this list the support for common video-file formats; and at least UPnP AV / DLNA playback support so it can play media files held on PCs or NAS boxes that exist on the network. The latter functionality would be relevant to SFR “triple-play” subscribers who hook up an USB external hard drive to their “NeufBox 5” or “Box SFR” Internet gateway devices  and use the UPnP AV media server function integrated in these Internet gateway devices to stream out multimedia files held on the external hard drive.

What is this leading to?

The SFR Hubster’s main target was to compete in the nascent “connected information display” market created by WiFi-enabled electronic picture frames, Internet-enabled TVs and similar devices. Here, these devices pull up information of use to the public like news, weather and financial information from selected Web portals and present it on their displays, either as part of a continuously-changing display or on demand when a user selects a particular option on the device’s menu.

These “connected information displays” would thrive on a strong market relationship between companies involved in making or selling these display devices; and the owners of Web portal and information-streaming services as well as their content providers. This could then lead to these displays being considered the “fourth screen” of influence and companies involved in telecommunications and the Internet being considered as of influence as the classic media companies.

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Regular free-to-air TV in the Internet age

There have been many people who have said that regular free-to-air TV, like regular local radio or newspapers would lose out in the Internet age. But it has been able to survive the Internet challenge. This has been achieved through the technology being able to work as an adjunct to the classic media.

The Web page

One way of surviving the Internet challenge is for stations to augment their video content with a Website. This is usually achieved by the station creating a “master” Website with separate links to Websites about the various programmes on offer.

Extension to the news service

The most common beneficiary is the station’s news service where an up-to-date “electronic newspaper” is provided for all of the news that the station reports on. Typically this has been extended with key stories getting the “interactive treatment” such as data mash-ups or interactive diagrams. In most cases, a key story would have its own Web page with all articles, audio, video and interactive content that is relevant to the key story.

Another common practice is to have news stories clustered in to geographic areas local to the station’s operating territory with the user being able to “swing” between the areas. This can allow users to see more than the evening news service.

Some stations provide a moderated comment option on the stories so that they offer citizens the opportunity to speak up about the issues at hand. They also may offer the opportunity for the public to pass on news tips or still/video images for inclusion in the stories being broadcast. This allows for the broadcasters to make the audience relevant to the news broadcast.

Secondary scoreboards / leaderboards

Another common application is to turn a Web page in to a secondary scoreboard or leaderboard for a sportscast, reality TV show or similar show. This usually allows for the broadcaster to provide extra detail on the event. It is typically in the form of users gaining an always-live always-updated leaderboard independent of when the tally is shown on the TV screen, as well as user-selectable detail sheets for the contestants.

Fan sites for TV shows

The other common application is to provide a “fan site” for TV shows that are being produced by the station. This is a way of gaining extra value out of the TV shows through the provision of extra information and collateral about the show or having a sounding board for the show’s fans.

Sometimes the message boards that are part of these Websites may yield information about fan-created Websites for the shows or key personnel in the shows.

Video-on-demand / Catch-up TV

Articles

MasterChef cooks up online storm | Australian IT

Recently, most TV Websites have hosted video-on-demand material such as clips or interviews from the whole show. These may range from extended-version interviews for public-affairs shows to whole episodes of a TV serial. The last application is typically described as “catch-up” TV because of the way that users can view the prior episodes in order to catch up with the current episode.This application has come to the fore in Australia when Channel 10 screened the MasterChef cooking contest series over the last two months.

At the moment the video-on-demand service is primarily provisioned through a Web application hosted by the TV broadcaster or the TV show’s production company; or simply as files or vision that is part of the TV show’s Web page. This typically requires one to view the video material at their home computer, which will typically have a small screen, rather than on their television’s large screen.

There are plans to provide this kind of interactive online TV service in the form of a set-top box, typically as port of an established “personal TV service” platform like Tivo. Such platforms will use the broadcast reception abilities in the “personal TV service” devices to obtain the regular broadcast video that is part of the service and download the extra video to the device’s local hard disk. This service, which may be known as “over-the-top” video, will be an attempt by the TV establishment to bring the video content to the big screen in the living room.

Live IPTV broadcasts

This application is simply like Internet radio in which a live TV broadcast is streamed via the Internet’s infrastructure. It is considered a thorn in the side for the TV establishment because it allows anyone with the necessary computer hardware and software and the necessary Internet connection to broadcast to the Internet. Due to the reduced cost of this hardware, software and connection, it may allow anyone to broadcast a TV service that can be complimentary to the existing broadcasters’ offerings or totally work against the grain that the existing broadcasters have laid out.

For example, the established US TV networks and cable channels may see themselves being threatened by this concept if, for example, an IPTV broadcaster sets itself up to run content services in a similar manner to Australia’s SBS. This situation may draw people who are living in the big cities or the college towns away from the kind of content typically run by these broadcasters.

This same application is also part of “single-pipe triple-play” Internet services where a multi-channel TV service is provided as part of an Internet and VoIP telephony service. These services are already common in some countries like France and are starting to come on the map in countries like the USA where fibre-optic broadband services are being deployed.

The effect and benefits

One effect of this technology I have noticed is that some normally technology-shy friends that I know are using the Internet extras to gain more value out of their favourite TV shows. This has allowed these shows to work as a bridge to them gaining more out of online technology and becoming comfortable with it.

Similarly, the Web pages have encouraged people to bring laptop computers in to the lounge area where the TV is and use these computers to log on to the Web sites associated with the TV shows they are viewing.

Current issues

Most of the online TV content is pitched for viewing on a computer rather than on a regular TV set. This is because the accepted culture is for the content to be seen only as complementary to the existing broadcaster’s offerings.

But some providers are trying to bring the broadband service to the TV through various set-top-box platforms. These platforms would be extensions of any open-standard or proprietary interactive-TV platforms that are in service or being developed like DVB-MHP or Tivo’s proprietary interactive-TV platform. Similarly, the Consumer Electronics Association, a US trade group who represent consumer-electronics manufacturers, distributors and retailers, have established a standard for bringing the Web to the TV.

Similarly, there is the issue of controlling and monetising the video content that passes across the Web. This is typically of concern when high-value content such as sports, movies or headline TV series are concerned. It has also affected the idea of establishing free-to-air or subscription IP-TV services which can complement or compete with existing TV services. It can be typically answered through the provision of software DRM systems but they have to be designed to be robust, secure and less onerous for the customer.

The other key issue is providing an IPTV viewing experience that is akin to viewing regular TV. This usually involves providing a channel list that allows for “up-down” channel-surfing, numeric “direct-entry” selection, as well as selection through a menu. It also will involve providing high quality-of-service so that the viewing experience is akin to watching regular TV where there is good reception. At the moment, this is typically provided through a closed set-top-box environment but there is activity taking place for it to work with devices like television sets and PVRs that are standards-compatible. Similarly, a lot of currently-released routers are supporting quality-of-service management in order to prioritise multimedia data transfer across the network.

Conclusion

At the moment, the online experience provided by most regular TV broadcasters and producers is directed towards the co
mputer screen but, if it is to challenge the status quo, it will need to appear across all of the three screens (TV, computer and mobile / PDA), especially the TV screen.

Once these current issues are overcome, then IPTV can become more prevalent either as a free-to-air or subscription medium.

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DLNA and UPnP AV in the business

Originally posted: 5 January 2009, Updated 6 July 2009

Very often, DLNA and UPnP AV are typically marketed as being for use in the home due to the reduced amount of configuration needed for devices that comply to these standards. But devices based on these standards can appeal to business use, especially to small “mum and dad” shops, community / religious organisations and other similar businesses who don’t have regular access to “big business” IT resources.

The functionality is typically available as low-cost or free software or, in some cases like Windows XP and Vista, available as part of the operating system. There are some “business-grade” network-attached storage boxes that have the functionality for business continuity as well as the ability to work as DLNA-compliant media servers. A good example of this are the Netgear ReadyNAS units and the QNAP units, including the TS-459U Series 4-disk rackmount “pizza-box” NAS server which would be pitched at the office server room.

The main issue that one will have with this kind of setup will be that the network that you intend to connect the equipment on must be on the same subnet or logical network, served by the same DHCP server. This will be fine for most small-business, and SOHO networks, including the “private” segment of networks that provide Internet access to the public such as wireless hotspots and Internet cafes.

If you are concerned about security of business data or the integrity of business systems, you could run a separate server for the DLNA-presented media data rather than use the main server for this purpose. Then you can lock down the main server as tightly as it should be for the data.

Visual Merchandising

DLNA-based setups can come in to their own when it comes to all sorts of visual merchandising applications. This is more so for small businesses who cannot afford to buy business-grade “digital signage” or find the “digital signage” difficult to manage due to complex setup requirements.

You can have images or videos of products that are always kept fresh and up-to-date and can intermingle these images and videos with up-to-date “electronic signage” that you create with programs like Microsoft PowerPoint. The best example of this being used would be the real-estate agent who uses the setup to show pictures of the houses he has currently for sale or a beauty salon showing examples of the most fashionable hairstyles they have done lately.

A DLNA-compliant network electronic picture frame like the Kodak EX1011 or the D-Link DSM-210 can work wonders here as can any DLNA-compliant network media receiver (or games console) hooked up to a large flat-screen TV or monitor. Similarly, a DLNA-compliant flat-screen TV like one of Sony’s recent LCD TVs can fulfil the same needs here, especially now that the cost of these sets in in affordable territory and the sets are available from most electrical retailers.

The media server can be part of the file server’s functions or can be hosted on a separate box such as a network-attached storage unit. You just need to add the media to this server by using a standard network file-transfer protocol like SMB or FTP.

You will need to make sure that the media server presents the files either by keywords (tags) and / or folders of the file system so that you can file the pictures how you want to file them. Windows Media Player and TwonkyMedia do support working by keywords and folders.

If you use a presentation program like Microsoft PowerPoint to create “electronic signage”, you just need to export all of the slides in your presentation as JPEG files in to a folder available to the media server. This is done in PowerPoint by opening the presentation and selecting “File” – “Save As” and selecting “JPEG” as the file type. You then have the option of exporting the current slide as a JPEG or exporting all the slides in the presentation as JPEG files in a folder named after the title of the presentation.

Background Music

If you are sick and tired of the radio or those business-to-business music services, you can use a computer as a music server, with the music playing out through a DLNA-compliant network media player such as one of those Internet radios.

As I have mentioned in my previous DLNA feature articles, it is very easy to do whether you decide to use a computer or a network-attached storage box as a media server. Most of the network-enabled music players support shuffle-play which can be very useful for this application and a lot of them have a line-out connection so you can connect them to a public-address amplifier or music-on-hold interface.

Education – The media library

A DLNA-based media system can work well when it comes to education. It doesn’t matter whether the idea is to show a video to a class or whether a student is viewing a video they saw in class “once more” in the library.

A capable DLNA media server with a properly-indexed media collection can work wonders here, with the users selecting the AV material through the DLNA media player’s user interface. Most such players can connect to existing AV equipment or the DLNA functionality can be part of the equipment’s functionality.

Similarly, if the media server provides it, you could allow Web-based access via any computer connected to the facility’s network. This can allow wireless-linked computers to be used to “pull up” the learning resources.

Other business-based DLNA applications

DLNA is eventually heading in the direction of a common IP-hosted data system for transferring media between portable and fixed devices. A typical application may include uploading images and movies from a digital camera or camcorder to a “base” computer for editing and viewing. Similarly, there may be the application of downloading AV material from a computer to a smartphone so it can be viewed on that phone’s display.

Conclusion

What needs to happen is that DLNA needs to be viewed as not just being for the home but being for business and educational life as well.

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HP Unveils the First Web Connected, TouchSmart Printer for the Digital Home | eHomeUpgrade

HP Unveils the First Web Connected, TouchSmart Printer for the Digital Home | eHomeUpgrade

My Comments on this Web-enabled printer

When I first read about Hewlett-Packard’s Web-connected printer in this article, I thought that the idea may not be real but they have followed the same path as the recent crop of Web-enabled TVs and the smartphones that are part of most currently-running mobile-phone service contracts. This all-in-one printer could be the start of another development arena for these devices, allowing for a new scope of applications that are “printer-based”. These could include “print-on-demand” like the initial offerings from Google (calendars), Web Sudoku (sudoku puzzles) and DreamWorks Animation (colouring-in sheets) and extend to such applications as image-upload interface points for photo-sharing / social-networking sites and online file storage services.

If this idea pulls off for printers and “all-in-one” devices, then it could lead to other devices that are capable of working with the home network being able to work with the Web and the home network in a manner beyond their obvious design. For this to be achievable, the devices would have to work on platforms like the Windows CE / Windows Mobile platform, the Symbian S-series or UIQ platforms or the Android platform and allow an easy yet secure way of installing the software.

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QNAP Intros the First 2.5-inch SATA, 8-bay, Intel Atom-based NAS – QNAP Press Release

QNAP Intros the First 2.5-inch SATA, 8-bay, Intel Atom-based SS-839 Pro Turbo NAS. ( Press Release ) – Quality Network Appliance Provider

HEXUS.Net article, EHomeUpgrade article

My comments on this 2.5” hard-disk NAS

Initially, the use of a 2.5” hard disk in a NAS would have been simply considered as a “toy” but there are more “business-class” multi-disk NAS units like this one come on the scene that use these disks. This QNAP unit – the SS-839 Pro – impressed me because of the fact that there is a NAS fit for the business or “muscle-NAS” market that give respect to this low-power small form factor.

It also can hold 8 of the disks in the same footprint as a typical 5-bay “muscle NAS”, with support for sophisticated RAID and “business server” functionalities available in this class of device. Another benefit that I also like is the ability to have less power consumption than a NAS of this class and can provide for more expandability as one’s data needs grow.

Once the 1 Tb 2.5” hard disk comes on the scene, this will certainly wipe the 3.5” form factor off the map as far as hard disks are concerned and make that size only for certain removeable media.

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Preventing a suicide that is happening on the other side of the world

 Aussie 999 call stops UK suicide | The Sun |News

Suicidal British man saved by online friend in Australia | Daily Telegraph (UK)

My comments about this issue and how it can be done

Recently there have been a few incidents where a person who is taking part in an Internet chat, instant-messaging or social-networking session observed that one of the participants was about to commit suicide and intervened by contacting their local police via the local regular emergency number or contacting a Netizen who is in the same country as the incident.

You may think that the Netizen contacting the police locally to intervene in an emergency on the other side of the world isn’t feasible but it can be feasible. The local police force who works with the local emergency number can connect with your country’s federal police force or gendarmerie and even use your country’s foreign office to connect with the remote country’s national and local police forces. The local or federal police force may also establish contact with other international police forces through the use of Interpol. They can also use the IT knowhow used for handling money-laundering, child-pornography and similar computer-assisted crimes to locate the origin of suicide notes placed on the Internet.

To make this work effectively, you would need to give the local emergency operator any useful information about the origin of the note or its sender, as well as details about the facility that you witnessed the event on. If you have to use contact(s) local to the incident, give the contacts as much information as possible for them to pass on to the local police.

The local police forces, especially those officers involved in answering the local emergency number must know how to respond to emergency calls that have an international dimension such as this Internet suicide note that had just been witnessed in Australia or the earlier Facebook suicide note that was witnessed in America during April.

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The European Commission vs Microsoft anti-trust fiasco – or “Web-browser delete”

Over the last week, Microsoft put up the idea of offering the “E” versions of all of its Windows 7 operating system packages sold in the European Union. This version, which doesn’t include Internet Explorer, is an attempt to appease European-Commission anti-trust action that was instigated at the behest of Opera. This was even though the European Commission may require Windows-based computers to have a “ballot-screen” where the user chooses which Web browser to install when they set up their new computer.

The main issue that I was thinking about with the fiasco is whether a computer supplier will have to do what vehicle builders did before the 1980s with the car radio. That is to offer a “radio-delete” option where you bought the vehicle at a slightly-reduced cost if the radio wasn’t supplied. Most people took advantage of this option to allow the purchase of a better car radio from the retail sector, where as some just saw it as a way of reducing the cost of their vehicle purchase. This kind of packaging was more feasible with vehicles that were to be bought new off the showroom floor because the motorist was in a better position to have the desired package.

Could there then be a requirement for all computer retailers in Europe to provide computer systems with a "Web-browser delete” option where they provide the computer with no Web-browser. Users would then be supplied with a DVD-ROM disc or USB memory key that has the installation packages for four or five different Web browsers. It may appear easier to provide this option for computers that are being sold “to order”, which is practised mainly with small independently-run computer shops; or online computer resellers like Dell. On the other hand, it may not be feasible where computer equipment is sold “off the rack” like in most non-specialist stores like department stores or discount electrical stores. In these locations, users also expect to buy a particular package of equipment for the price quoted on the sticker. They can satisfy these requirements by providing the aforementioned DVD-ROM disc or USB memory key with the Web-browser installation packages.

The main issue for most users, especially those buying their first computer, is that they will go for the browser they are most familiar with, whether the one that is supplied by default with the operating system for their platform or the one that their school or workplace uses.

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Video introduction to DLNA setup

I had come across a video on how to set up a DLNA media network and was amazed by how it went about describing the process. The video is mainly based around TwonkyMedia Manager (review) as a media server and a Sony Bravia DLNA-compliant LCD TV as the media player, but it applies to any network media device or software that follows UPnP AV / DLNA standards.

For further reading, please visit my feature article on establishing a DLNA home media network with your PC.

This will become more relevant to Australian viewers who had watched the Harvey Norman TV commercials advertising a 40″ Sony Bravia LCD TV for AUD$1976 at the time this article was published. The TV that is in this particular promotion is infact DLNA compatible.

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HEXUS.net – News :: Deal of the day: 1TB Hitachi Deskstar hard drive for under £52 : Page – 1/1

Is this a sign of the times with hard disks? Time to keep an eye on the swap meets and the Internet for this special so you can add extra capacity to the PC or NAS. You may even consider running 2 or more of them in a fail-safe RAID array to protect against loss of data

Cited article

HEXUS.net – News :: Deal of the day: 1TB Hitachi Deskstar hard drive for under £52 : Page – 1/1

Hard-disk storage continues to get cheaper by the day, but we’ve yet to see anything as cheap as this:

It’s the Hitachi DeskStar 1TB hard drive, and it’s being offered at bargain-basement prices on various websites. The cheapest we’ve seen, though, is Ebuyer.com who is currently offering the drive for just £51.82 delivered. That’s around 5p per gigabyte, for a 7,200rpm SATA drive with a 16MB cache. It just doesn’t get much cheaper than that, if at all.

Ebuyer’s website reckons the etailer has over 800 in stock, so this could be a good opportunity to max out your PC or NAS.

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