Computer setups Archive

Asus’s latest USB laptop expansion module satisfies current expectations

Articles

Asus Launches the New USB 3.0 HZ-1 Docking Station | Tom’s Hardware

ASUS Launches the New USB 3.0 HZ-1 Docking Station Based on DisplayLink’s Leading SuperSpeed™ Graphics Technology | BusinessWire

My comments

I have covered the concept of expansion modules a.k.a docking stations that connect to laptops via USB 3.0, Thunderbolt or other similar connectivity as a must-have accessory. This is to allow people who use smaller or less-equipped laptops like Ultrabooks to use other equipment like optical drives or larger displays at their normal workspaces yet be able to maintain the portability of these machines. I cited this kind of device when I reviewed the Sony VAIO Z Series ultraportable which came with one of these modules that housed a slot-load Blu-Ray optical drive.

Lenovo issued one of these USB 3.0 modules as the ThinkPad USB 3.0 Dock. This unit had a Gigabit Ethernet connection as well as an external sound module and self-powered USB 3.0 hub for five devices.

Now ASUS have issued an improved USB 3.0 variant of a USB docking station that they previously released. The previous iteration had USB 2.0 connectivity therefore having access to 10/100 Ethernet, VGA and DVI video as well as an audio module and USB self-powered-hub connectivity for four devices. The video is supplied to the module using the DisplayLink video-over-USB technology to transfer the video to the VGA and DVI ports.

Now this improved version satisfies the current expectations by being equipped with a Gigabit Ethernet port as well as an HDMI port for current displays. This has the audio module and the USB 3.0 hub but uses the latest iteration of the DisplayLink technology to exploit the high throughput of USB 3.0 for high-resolution displays and stereo or surround-sound audio via HDMI. It is infact the first USB 3.0 docking station or expansion module that I have heard of that implements this DisplayLink setup.

Personally, I would like to see this device and the previous version equipped with an SP/DIF optical output using the same 3.5mm optical-electrical jack that Sony used with some of their CD Walkmans in the mid-90s to facilitate digital CD-MiniDisc recording with their MD Walkmans. Here this connection could be used provide a high-quality PCM stereo or bitstream surround digital signal to amplifiers that have built-in digital-analogue conversion circuitry.

As long as these are kept to common standards, it could then be feasible to supply the expansion modules to work with extra peripherals at one’s main work locations.

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Is your mouse acting too “hair-trigger”? Check the Mouse settings in your operating system

On Saturday, I had been asked by a friend to help her out with her laptop computer and there were problems with her Outlook email client. After a bit of troubleshooting, I had found that I was single-clicking to open emails rather than doublie-clicking. She also mentioned that she was having similar problems with other applications on the same computer.

But what I had done was to check what is happening every time one double-clicks with the mouse by visiting the Mouse item in Windows XP’s Control Panel. The setup was a laptop which was also being used with a wireless mouse. So I selected the “Other Hardware” option which would pertain to the wireless mouse and adjusted the “double-click” speed for that mouse.

This is a problem that can happen with some mice and trackballs especially as they implement switches that have an increased rate of “contact bounce”, thus causing this false “double-click” behaviour.

Adjusting the double-click speed

Windows users should go to the Mouse option in the Control Panel then try double-clicking on the folder icon in that dialog box. MacOS users should go to {Apple]-System Preferences, then click on “Mouse“. Then try double-clicking on the display image in that dialog box.

Windows mouse control panel

Mouse Control Panel dialog – Windows 7

Adjust the slider towards “Fast” if the folder opens and closes in one click and towards “Slow” if double-clicking doesn’t cause it to open. Then click OK or Apply to confirm the setting.

This may be a trial-and-error routine as you get the mouse or other pointing device working properly for you. In some cases, you may have to select the device you are using or use its software if you are maintaining two or more devices on the same computer. A common example of this may be when most of you use an external mouse with your laptop computer; or some of you may use two different pointing devices for different purposes such as a trackball and a mouse.

The best practice to do is to play around with this dialog box for your pointing device when you install a new device or acquire a new computer and revisit it to make sure that the double-click speed matches your needs properly.

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Troubleshooting a network printer that you can’t print to

Dell 1130n compact monochrome laser printerYou may find that you cannot use your printer or multifunction from your computer via the network yet find that it can perform standalone tasks such as copying and faxing for example. It is even though the printer used to print from the computer via the same network connection just before the problem surfaced.

In the case of multifunction printers, you may not be able to start a scanning job destined for your computer from the machine’s control surface or, at worst, scan to your computer at all. This is although you previously were able to scan that way before. It can also affect computer-based faxing for fax-equipped multifunction printers.

This is a situation I have ran in to myself with my computer and my inkjet multifunction printer on many occasions. But I have also assisted a small company whom I deal with regularly that faced similar problems with two of their colour laser printers that are connected to their business’s network.

There are two main problems that can cause you not to print to your network printer even though you could previously print to the same machine.

Driver software and operating-system problems

If the fault occurs with one particular computer rather than all computers and devices that use the same printer driver software, the driver software or its configuration may be balky.

This may happen if you have continuously added and removed many printers from the same computer, something I have encountered as I install and remove many different review-sample printers from my desktop PC through the course of adding content to this Website.

Check and reinstall the driver software

In some cases, this problem can be caused by faulty driver software and you may have to download the latest driver software from the manufacturer’s Website. It is infact a process I encourage people to do when installing new hardware because the software supplied on the CD in the device’s carton may he “rushed out” in a bid to get the device to market quickly.

Check the state of the operating system’s print functionality

Similarly, it may be worth rebooting the computer because the print spooler (the software that manages the printing function) in the operating system may have stalled. On the other hand, you may have to manually start the print spooler. In Windows 7, this would be found by searching for “Services” in the Start Menu’s Search option, whereupon you look in the list for “Print Spooler” and make sure that’s started.

Network interface not working

If this happens with all of the computers in the network, it may be due to the printer itself losing connection with the network. This may also affect other network functions like IP-based faxing, HP ePrint or other Web-based features.

Check for faults with the network

Check for obvious faults with the network connection like faulty Ethernet leads, infrastructure equipment like a router, switch or HomePlug bridge turned off or not functioning or, in the case of Wi-Fi setups, the quality of the wireless signal.

In some cases, you may have to turn the network-infrastructure device off at the AC power for a few seconds because it may have “frozen” due to something like a power surge. Use the network-status option on the printer’s control panel menu to check that it can “see” the network after you check these factors.

Reset the printer’s network connection

Sometimes, you may have to force a network reset on the printer. This can be done through an option that is, again, found on the same setup menu on the printer’s control panel. On the other hand, you may have to simply unplug the machine from the AC power, waiting a few minutes, then plug it back in.

Conclusion

Once you know how to tackle these printer problems, you may then be able to see longer service life from your equipment.

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How can the Occupy campaigns and cloud computing help the small or midsize business

Article

HP Blogs – How can Occupy Wall Street and Cloud Computing hel… – The HP Blog Hub

My Comments

The recent “Occupy” movements, which were assisted by the Social Web to create the critical mass, had an intended effort to highlight the resource disparity caused by big business to ordinary people, and small and midsize businesses.

This occurred at the same time that consumers and small-to-medium business were made heavily aware of the concept of “cloud-computing” and computing-as-a-service. In some ways, this can assist in making certain computing services that would be out of the reach of the 99% accessible to this group rather than the 1% which represents the “big end of town”.

When I visited the “Big Picture Experience” computing conference that was hosted by Microsoft in Melbourne this past Wednesday (AEDT), there was a lot of emphasis on this kind of cloud-computing and computing-as-a-service to effectively make a flexible workforce. Applications that were promoted included shared-document management and unified communications; with these applications linking to the business via Internet connections.

They even proposed that small and medium business who can’t afford their own servers have this functionality by renting these services from other companies in a similar way that we can rent disk space for our Web sites from Web-hosting companies like GoDaddy. It is also in a similar way to how some small business operators can work out of a garage yet are able to rent a self-storage lockup from Fort Knox or Big Yellow for storage of extra goods or hire a competent truck form Budget or U-Haul when they need extra trucks.

These concepts can open the door to the feasibility of smaller operations expanding without costing them an arm and a leg. It is because it could allow concepts like telecommuting or shared-desk business, which could lead to reducing the physical size of the business’s premises.

Cloud computing and computing-as-a-service can open up “big-business” paths to smaller operations. Examples of this may include hosted archiving-for-compliance or access to sophisticated business systems and practices like multi-tier loyalty programs for independent business.

This kind of computing can then become the big tide that lifts many boats up and yield flexibility across business sizes. In some ways, it could allow “big-business” hopes from small and medium business owners.

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A suggestion to make Black Friday the day to update the software on your parents’ computer

Article

Forget Shopping, Friday Is Update Your Parents’ Browser Day! – Alexis Madrigal – Technology – The Atlantic

My comments

You are celebrating Thanksgiving at your parents house but you notice that the old desktop computer that is their computer (and ending up as the family computer) is running Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6. But they see it as their “comfort zone” even though newer versions of Windows and Internet Explorer have been released.

This newspaper article has been suggesting that you update your parents’ computer with the latest version of the Web browser they are using for their operating system. This is because most of the Web sites are being re-engineered to work with newer Web browsers rather than the likes of Internet Explorer 6.

It could be done as part of keeping the computer in good order by doing other software and driver updates. You may even think of updating their computer to Windows 7 if it is running relatively-new hardware and use this package as a Christmas gift idea.

But the main issue with this kind of software update is that you may need to spend a lot of time teaching them the ropes of the new software with the new user interface elements. This may involve long telephone calls or regular house visits to walk them through parts of the user interface that they may find very difficult, as I have experienced with teaching people different computer skills.

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Is it worth it to put full broadband in the “family house”?

What is the “Family House”?

The “Family house” is typically a  house, that is usually resided in by one or two older parents where the children have “left the nest”. The adult children and their grandchildren regularly visit this house to see the parents and, in most cases, they stay in this house on a temporary basis. In a lot of situations, family friends will end up visiting or staying over at this house in the company of the family members.

Such situations typically include the children who normally are out of town coming in to town for business, leisure or to attend family events; the children seeking temporary accommodation while their house is being built or renovated, or are between houses. It may also include the “family house” being close to a place of study which a grandchild is enrolled at and the grandchild stays there while completing a course of study. As well, the parents typically end up caring for the very young grandchildren in this house while their children work or undertake other activities.

This concept may also extend to any occasional-use accommodation that the family shares responsibility in maintaining, like city apartments or holiday / seasonal houses. In the latter situation, a household or the whole family ends up staying in this accommodation.

Common practice with IT at these locations

Compaq Presario CQ42

Compaq Presario CQ42 entry-level laptop

In these places, there may not be an intention to have full Internet service at these houses because the main householder may not be a regular Internet user. But what can happen is that other people in the house make regular use of the Internet. This would typically be achieved through each device that other people bring in using its 3G or similar wireless-broadband service for their Internet.

A significant cost difference

But this may only work best with one rarely-used device on the premises. This is because most of the wireless-broadband services work on bandwidth that is narrower than wireline broadband services like cable-modem or ADSL services.

As well, the tariff charts for these services are typically more expensive than most of the wireline broadband services. Here, you end up paying more for the same bandwidth allowance and usage quota than you would for a cable or ADSL broadband service of equivalent standard or, for the same money you pay for a wireless-broadband service, you would obtain more bandwidth and usage quota.

Should I establish the full home network here?

It would be worth it to establish the full home network with a cable or ADSL broadband service if there is at least one Internet terminal that is used regularly by at least one of the parents, a relative or another regular houseguest. The Internet terminal, which can be a desktop, “all-in-one” or laptop / notebook computer or a tablet MID like the iPad, can be either owned by the parent or a regular houseguest like the grandchild who is staying regularly at that location.

The Internet deals commonly available

The common marketing practices amongst most wireline broadband Internet providers who run a voice telephony or multichannel pay-TV service is to offer a sweet deal where the customer benefits from reduced service costs if they have their telephony or TV service provisioned by this Internet provider. Some of these deals are provided as “triple-play” packages especially if all services come through the one physical line.

I often suggest that people take advantage of these abovementioned offers when choosing their Internet service for these locations because this may help with saving money on this service. These deals will usually be advertised in brochures that accompany the regular bill for the phone or pay-TV service that they currently are subscribed to.

In some houses where there are older people who don’t use the internet frequently, one or more younger people who make use of the Internet could incite the older people to make increased use of the Internet. This can be done by the younger person sharing their computer with them, demonstrating various Internet and computing skills and assisting the older person with these skills.

As well, you may find that there are new media paths being opened up by a home network associated with a wireline Internet service in the “family house”. Examples of this include use of Internet radios that pick up the Web feeds of overseas and obscure radio stations as well as access to Internet TV through the use of a compatible TV or set-top box and music, pictures or video on-demand through the house with cost-effective equipment.

Who should bear the extra costs

Issues that may come up include whether the houseguests like the children should cover any extra costs associated with use of a full broadband Internet service at the “family house” if the main householder isn’t the one using that service. This may be of little impact to the guests because the wireline broadband services will be relatively cheaper than running a wireless broadband (3G or 4G) service which just services one computer.

Establishing the full home network

The network-Internet “edge”

Netgear DG834G ADSL2 wireless router

Netgear DG834G ADSL2 wireless router

You may have to make sure that you use a wireless router if you have a laptop computer or other portable Internet device on the premises as the network-Internet “edge”. Most of these devices are for sale at very affordable prices and you could get one through your Internet service provider as part of your broadband Internet deal. As well, I have written a buyer’s guide about the entry-level wireless routers. The limitation with most of the units supplied by your Internet service provider is that they may yield average performance and may not offer the functionality as a retail-supplied unit.

Assuring proper wireless coverage

Some houses that have interior walls made out of double-brick or stone may have problems when it comes to operating a wireless network. This is something I have touched on in this Website many times and can be handled with an auxiliary access point installed in the area where wireless-network coverage is below par and connected to the router via an Ethernet or HomePlug wired backbone as explained here.

It is also worth knowing about how to encompass outbuildings like bungalows in to the scope of the home network, a reality which will be of importance for country or outer-urban properties. Here, I have written a good feature article on how to achieve this goal in a manner that is best suited to your particular scenario.

Printers

Canon PIXMA MG-6150 multifunction printer - operation mode

Canon PIXMA MG-6150

As well, when you need to install or upgrade the printer, you may need to go for a unit that has network connectivity of some sort. If the main computer device happens to be a tablet computer, you may have to look at a printer that is supported by an app or the tablet’s operating system. In the case of the Apple iPad, you may have to use an ePrint-enabled HP printer.

You don’t have to have a machine with all the “bells and whistles” if it is not going to be used regularly – here an economy-level network capable printer like the HP Wireless-E B110a may just suffice. Even so, you should prefer a printer that uses separate colour cartridges rather than the tri-colour cartridge because you won’t be wasting colour ink if one colour runs out.

There is an exception if the house has a regularly-used fax machine. Here, you could replace the fax machine with a network-enabled multifunction printer which has integrated fax capabilities. Again, these would be much more cheaper to run than the typical older “thermal-belt-driven” fax machines that some households still consider as fax machines.

Network-attached storage devices

It may be worth considering the purchase of a one-disk network-attached-storage device at a later time as the network is used more. This may allow for pooling of common files like driver files for various peripherals as well as a backup storage for data held on one or more of the computers.

As well, most of these devices provide media-server functionality for Apple iTunes and standards-based DLNA setups so that your pictures, videos and music can be “pulled up” on demand. This may work well as a central media store which can be used as a way of “offloading” the media from a computer’s hard disk or making it available to everyone at all times without the need to have a computer on all the time.

This function will become more relevant as more consumer AV equipment becomes equipped with some form of network connectivity and is able to play or show AV content from the Internet or media servers like these network-attached storage devices. Infact I have covered this topic very heavily on this site and you can look at this article here as it pertains to these devices as media servers.

Conclusion

I would recommend that you look at the value of providing a full home network with wireline broadband service to the “family house” if you notice that there is a strong likelihood of regular Internet use there.

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Understanding the new Thunderbolt peripheral-connection technology

Another of the new technologies that Intel has been promoting alongside its “Sandy Bridge” processor architecture has been the “Thunderbolt” peripheral connector.

Capabilities

This connector has a current raw transfer speed of 10Gbps but could have a theoretical maximum is 40Gbps (20Gbps up and 20Gbps down) when both pairs of wires are used. You can use this same “pipe” to pass a DisplayPort-based audio-video stream for a display as well as PCI-Express-based data stream.

There is the ability to daisy-chain 7 Thunderbolt-connected devices but you can have less than 3 metres between the devices at the moment.

Thunderbolt at the moment

This technology will complement USB and other connection technologies but will be like what happened with USB in the mid-90s. This means that it will be an Apple-only technology and this will appear on the latest run of MacBook Pro laptops.

It will appear on PC-based computers in early next year. As far as retrofit opportunities go, Intel had mentioned that it could be available for new motherboards but there was nothing much said about availability as an add-in expansion card.

The main peripheral applications would be external storage subsystems like the LaCie “Little Big Disk” storage array; as well as displays. Such peripherals that have this connection will typically be marketed as being “Thunderbolt-ready”.

What could it offer

Another storage-expansion connection for computing devices

One key application would be to provide a high-bandwidth direct connection between computer devices and one or more external hard-disk storage subsystems. The reason I use the term “computer devices” is because such devices could encompass PVRs which could benefit from capacity expansion, routers and network devices that convert attached external hard-disk subsystems to network-attached storage; as well as the general-purpose computers.

Multifunction devices that are fit for the new generation of compact high-performance computers

There is the possibility for one to exploit the Thunderbolt concept to design a multifunction desktop console unit. Here, this unit could house a screen, audio subsystem, video camera, removable storage such as an optical drive or SDXC card reader and/or a USB hub. Another variant could house a keyboard instead of a screen and connect to one or more external displays using DisplayPort or regular monitor connectors.

This display unit would be connected to an ultracompact system unit that has only the processor, RAM, graphics-processor, network connectivity and a hard disk, plus some USB sockets for a desktop application. On the other hand, this display could serve as a “desktop display” for a subnotebook or ultraportable computer. The USB hub would come in handy for connecting keyboards, mice, USB memory keys and similar devices.

Here, these multifunction devices can be designed so that they are no “second-class citizen” because they have multiple functions. This means they could render the multiple video streams as well as support the high-capacity removable storage technologies like Blu-Ray Disc or SDXC cards.

This is more so as the Intel Sandy Bridge technology makes it feasible for small computers like book-sized ultracompact desktops and notebooks of the “subnotebook” or “ultraportable” class to “have all the fruit” as far as performance goes.

Issues that may be of concern

One main issue that I would have about the Thunderbolt technology is that Intel could limit it to computer applications that are centred around its chipsets. This would make it harder for competing processor designers like AMD or NVidia to implement the technology in their chipset designs. It would also place the same implementation limits on system designers who want to use chipsets that offer improved performance or better value for money alongside Intel processors on their motherboards.

This is like the Intel Wireless Display technology which allows a special display adaptor to connect to an Intel-based laptop computer via a WiFi wireless network and show the pictures on the attached display device. Here, this functionality could only work with computers that have certain Intel chipsets and couldn’t be retroactively applied to older computers.

Another issue would be to encourage implementation in “embedded” and dedicated-purpuse devices like PVRs and routers as well as the general-purpose computers. For some applications like the previously-mentioned storage-expansion application, this could add value and longer service life to these devices.

Conclusion

Once the Thunderbolt technology is implemented in a competitive manner, it could open up a new class of devices and applications for the computing world by making proper use of the “big fat pipe” that it offers.

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What about having IMAP4 as a standard email protocol

Introduction

Most email services, especially those offered by consumer ISPs, use the old POP3 / SMTP protocols as the backbone for their email services. This works properly when only one computer is working as an email client because there is an expectation for the email to be downloaded off the mail server to that one computer.

Now the reality has changed due to Moore’s Law allowing for the ISP to offer email storage capacity to their customers in the order of gigabytes. As well, the computing paradigm has shifted towards people viewing their email from multiple devices. This has been brought about with small business owners having an office computer and a home computer, as well as the increasing popularity of smartphones, tablet computers and secondary-tier notebook computers like netbooks and 13”-14” ultraportables.

What does IMAP4 offer over POP3?

The IMAP4 technology requires email to be stored on the server and allows a copy of the mail to exist on the client devices. When the email client connects to the IMAP4 server, it simply synchronises all the email between the client and the server. This includes synchronising the client outbox to the server outbox in order to have emails being sent.

There is the ability for an IMAP4 setup to support “header-only” downloading, which would be of importance to people who use portable devices or low-bandwidth connections. As well, an IMAP4 setup can allow the user to operate in “offline” mode where synchronising is done when the user explicitly goes online so that users can prepare their email where Internet access is unavailable but synchronise when it is available.

Compared to POP3 / SMTP, this allows for increased flexibility when it comes to maintaining a mailbox from different email clients. Primarily, the contents of the same mailbox appear in all client devices that can access that mailbox. An example of this benefit would be that the Sent folder contains all messages that are sent from all of the clients rather than from that particular client. Similarly, one could “rough-out” an email using a smartphone or other portable device, then “finish it off” on the desktop because the email will be held in the Drafts mailbox folder.

It also supports the ability to create mailbox folders which will allow you to file the email in a manner that suits you, yet see the same filing arrangement across all your client devices.

It is also worth knowing that IMAP4 is the basic email protocol that OMTP have called as part of their standard for mobile “visual voicemail” services. These services allow a user to manage voicemail that they receive on their mobile phone in a similar manner to how they manage email on their computer or smartphone.

The status quo with IMAP4

IMAP4 is a free open-source technology that is independent of any licensing requirements; and nearly all email clients for desktop and mobile operating environments offer IMAP4 support as standard.

It is even though most of the consumer ISPs don’t offer it as an email protocol to their customers. This is while an increasing number of these providers are now offering mailboxes with gigabyte file capacities to new customers and upsizing existing customers’ mailboxes to these capacities. As well, the current range of data-centre equipment that works as mail servers can handle IMAP4 easily.

Some of these providers would rather offer a “hosted Exchange” service which would require the user to use Microsoft Outlook in Exchange mode. These services are more expensive to provide and may cost more for most personal and small-business users.

What could be done

An Internet service provider could offer IMAP4 mailboxes as a standard option for new customers or customers opening up new mailboxes. As well, they could offer it as a free upgrade option to existing customers, with information on how to convert from POP3 / SMTP to IMAP4.

This kind of setup that IMAP4 offers can allow telcos who offer Internet service and telephony as a bundle or triple-play services to provide a unified messaging environment where customers can manage their voicemail, fax and email from the same terminal. It also opens up ways for these companies to add value to their telephony and Internet services.

It also is a way of supporting the Internet-usage reality which is a reality driven by multiple-computer setups and portable computing.

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What is the “new computing environment” and how to go about it?

When I talk of laptops, wireless routers and network-capable printers, I make frequent references to a “new computing environment” that these devices can enable.

What is the “New Computing Environment”

Sony VAIO E-Series laptopThe “New Computing Environment” is a home computing environment that is based around portability and flexibility. The seed for this environment has been sown with the widely-publicised Intel Centrino campaign and is becoming stronger in a lot of households.

It consists of most of the computers in the house being laptop or notebook computers.It may also include the use of “all-in-one” desktop computers similar to the newer Apple iMacs or HP TouchSmart desktops. The goal is that these computers are able to be moved easily around the house at a whim.

This environment will also encompass the use of smartphones and tablet computers for secondary computing activities like casual Web browsing, email and use of social networks.

There is a Wi-Fi home network in place that is served by at least a wireless router that is the network’s Internet “edge”. The computers may connect to that router via Ethernet if they are close to it but are typically connected to that router using the Wi-Fi network segment.

What does this lead to

Increased flexibility

The key benefit is to increase flexibility when it comes to computer use. The major benefit is that you can relocate the computer as you need it. An example that was portrayed in an Intel Centrino radio ad that was played in the UK was someone who was writing out an email on a laptop being being interrupted by another household member who had come in to do the vacuuming. Then they are able to move somewhere quieter to do the rest of their work.

Netgear DG834G ADSL2 wireless router

Netgear DG834G ADSL2 wireless router

As well, the “New Computing Environment” also leads to increased “casual computing” setups like viewing sites like YouTube or Facebook while lounging around on the sofa; going through one’s email while relaxing in bed or flicking through online news sites while in the kitchen. I even wrote a short article on this site about the trend of young people visiting Websites while watching TV.

Catering to temporary workspaces

Another very common scenario is a household without a dedicated workspace. This is where the kitchen bench or the dining table becomes a temporary office. Some households may have a collapsible table like a card table or trestle table along with one or more folding chairs, set up in a lounge area or landing for use as a temporary workspace; or may have such furniture on hand to set up a temporary workspace as required. The “New Computing Environment” allows the user to shift the computer along with the rest of their work whenever they need to do something like set the table for a meal.

Even if a household has a dedicated workspace, there will always be the need to create another temporary workspace to suit another person’s work or study needs or to suit a different type of work.

Storage flexibility

Similarly, laptop computers are much easier to store when not in use. For example, they can be put in a drawer when not needed, as I have mentioned in an older article regarding use of a laptop as a kitchen PC. This allows the machine to be well out of harm’s way which can be of concern in a busy household or with some children and pets.

As well, the laptop is also more suited to households who have older “davenport” or “roll-top” desks which are capable of being closed up when not in use. Here, these computers can be used at and stored easily in these desks. It also allows these desks to become the elegant piece of furniture that they are known for.

Suitability with “downsized living”

This computing environment is becoming increasingly relevant with people who live in smaller houses and apartments; especially city apartments.

This class of user includes “empty-nest” parents who are moving to smaller premises because their children have left the family home, but still need to be able to look after their grandchildren when they come around.  Here, their computing equipment doesn’t need to cause much space to be taken up in these smaller living quarters.

The “home-business” laptop

This kind of computing environment also suits the use of a “home-business” computer that is used at home but taken to the workplace while you are working. For some small-business operators, a large laptop like the Dell Inspiron 15R or the HP Probook 4520s may be the only computing device that they need to use for all their computing needs and you just pack this machine in the boot (trunk) of your car before you head to or from your workplace.

Implementation notes

Starting out

You will need to use a laptop computer that is commensurate to your computing needs. But it will have to be equipped with an integrated Wi-Fi wireless network interface of at least 802.11g WPA standard. This covers most laptops made over the past five years. I have reviewed plenty of laptops and notebooks on this site and will be reviewing more of them as they come along from different manufacturers. You can have a look at the list of equipment reviewed here on this page.

Compaq Presario CQ42

Compaq Presario CQ42 entry-level laptop

If you are intending to buy a new laptop computer, I would suggest that you look at the buyer’s guides that I have written – “Buying a Laptop or Notebook Computer”. Here, I have suggested the use of the 15” laptop computers as a sole or main computing device for this environment. If you have very basic needs like emailing and basic Web surfing, a unit equipped with a low-end processor and around 2Gb memory, like the Compaq Presario CQ42 that I have reviewed here, can suit your needs here. It is still worth it to spend as much as you can afford on the hard disk capacity because as you use the computer more regularly, you will end up filling the hard disk more quickly.

On the other hand, you may want to use an “all-in-one” desktop computer like one of the Apple iMac, HP TouchSmart Desktop or Sony VAIO J or L Series computers. These have the computing power, secondary storage and the screen integrated in one slim lightweight housing, with a separate keyboard and mouse. They may be useful as a “common” or “family” computer and can be stored or moved easily as long as you know how to reconnect the keyboard and mouse.

Printers

A lot of people who set up for the “new computing environment” typically use a direct-connected printer and bring the laptop closer to it in order to plug it in when they want to print or scan something.

Canon PIXMA MX-350 network multifunction printer

What you need to do for proper implementation is to use a network-enabled printer. Here, these printers connect directly to the network either via Ethernet or Wi-Fi wireless and accept their print jobs through this connection. Multi-function printers can also expose their other functions like the scanner, fax or memory-card slots to the network.

This avoids the need to connect the laptop to the printer every time you want to print something out. With a network printer, you just select that printer from the list of printers when you specify a print job from your laptop and, moments later. you will find your print job in the printer’s output tray. Here, the job is sent via the network to the printer rather than via a cable that you always connect to the printer.

“Easing the gap” towards flexibility

Some users who are used to a regular laptop computer connected by Ethernet to a single-port broadband modem at a regular workspace may still get in to the habit of connecting the laptop to the wireless router using the “old way”. This is more so if they see their computer’s home location as being on the desktop near the router and while at that location they plug it in to the Ethernet socket on the router.

Some operating systems may react in a strange way if the user plugs in the Ethernet connection while the wireless connection is still active. This may be not of concern with newer operating systems that can automatically deactivate the Wi-Fi wireless network interface if the computer is connected to the network via an Ethernet cable.  Here, the user needs to know how to manually enable and disable the Wi-Fi wireless network interface in the laptop.

Some of the computers will use a separate “Wi-Fi” button to turn the Wi-Fi modem on an off whereas more recent examples will require you to press the “Fn” key and a function key with a transmitter symbol to turn the wireless network on and off. This function may also be known as a “flight mode” and in some cases, will turn the Bluetooth function on and off at the same time.

Then what you might end up doing is to forget using the Ethernet cord and just use the laptop wirelessly as you realise you can use the Internet at home without wires.

Network-attached storage devices

If you are considering expanded or secondary data storage space for the “New Computing Environment”, you will be interested in buying a network-attached storage device. This is a dedicated external hard disk that is accessible from computers connected to your network. It is different to the idea of repurposing an old desktop computer as a shared storage server because the device is designed specifically to be a storage device and will end up being quieter, more efficient and more reliable to run than the old desktop computer.

They are relevant as a backup device; to offload rarely-touched data from your computer and/or to works as a standards-compliant media server for your music, digital pictures and videos. I have touched on this latter application in the DLNA Home Media Network series article: “Setting up for PC-free operation”.

An increasing number of wireless routers are offering NAS functionality when a USB hard disk is plugged in to them. This may be good for starting out or a temporary network-storage solution but a dedicated network-attached storage device can do the job much better for long-term use. As well, most of the routers that offer this function are very under-powered when it comes to handling USB hard disks and you would then have to use a self-powered USB hard disk or connect the “power” USB connection on small USB-powered hard disks to a powered USB hub.

Is wired technology relevant to the New Computing Environment

There are some cases where wired-networking technology is relevant to the New Computing Environment. One main case would be to support network printers or networked AV devices that don’t have integrated Wi-Fi functionality. This would be more so as you consider purchasing an Internet-enabled TV or Blu-ray player for your home and a lot of these devices may just have an Ethernet socket rather than Wi-Fi connectivity.

Another case would be to use a secondary access point to extend wireless-network coverage, such as with buildings that use thick walls made of brick, stone or similar materials; large buildings or outbuildings on a property.

Here, you may think that you have to lay Ethernet wiring through the premises and this may be expensive and of poor value if you aren’t renovating, extending or rewiring your building. In most cases, you could use HomePlug AV technology as your wired “no-new-wires” technology because this uses regular AC wiring as a data carrier.

Conclusion

What I am hoping to do with this is to explain the “New Computing Environment” that is becoming a major trend as far as home and small-business computing is concerned. This is where the computing environment is centred around the use of portable computers that connect to a wireless network.

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Another major change for the Intel-based PC platform will shorten the boot-up cycle

News articles

Getting a Windows PC to boot in under 10 seconds | Nanotech – The Circuits Blog (CNET News)

BBC News – Change to ‘Bios’ will make for PCs that boot in seconds

My comments

The PC BIOS legacy

The PC BIOS which was the functional bridge between the time you turn a personal computer on and when the operating system can be booted was defined in 1979 when personal computers of reasonable sophistication came on the scene. At that time the best peripheral mix for a personal computer was a “green-screen” text display,  two to four floppy disk drives, a dot-matrix printer and a keyboard. Rudimentary computers at that time used a cassette recorder rather than the floppy-disk drives as their secondary storage.

Through the 1980s, there was Improved BIOS support for integrated colour graphics chipsets and the ability to address hard disks. In the 1990s, there were some newer changes such as support for networks, mice, higher graphics and alternate storage types but the BIOS wasn’t improved for these newer needs. In some cases, the computer had to have extra “sidecar” ROM chips installed on VGA cards or network cards to permit support for VGA graphics or booting from the network. Similarly, interface cards like SCSI cards or add-on IDE cards couldn’t support “boot disks” unless they had specific “sidecar” ROM chips to tell the BIOS that there were “boot disks” on these cards.

These BIOS setups were only able to boot to one operating environment or, in some cases, could boot to an alternative operating environment such as a BASIC interpreter that used a cassette recorder as secondary storage. If a user wanted to work with a choice of operating environments, the computer had to boot to a multi-choice “bootloader” program which was a miniature operating system in itself and presented a menu of operating environments to boot into. This was extended to lightweight Web browsers, email clients and media players that are used in some of the newer laptops for “there-and-then” computing tasks.

The needs of a current computer, with its newer peripheral types and connection methods, were too demanding on this old code and typically required that the computer take a significant amount of time from switch-on to when the operating system could start. In some cases, there were reliability problems as the BIOS had to get used to existing peripheral types being connected to newer connection methods, such as use of Bluetooth wireless keyboards or keyboards that connect via the USB bus.

The Universal Extensible Firmware Interface improvement

This is a new improvement that will replace the BIOS as the bootstrap software that runs just after you turn on the computer in order to start the operating system. The way this aspect of a computer’s operation is designed has been radically improved with the software being programmed in C rather than machine language.

Optimised for today’s computers rather than yesterday’s computers

All of the computer’s peripherals are identified by function rather than by where they are connected. This will allow for console devices such as the keyboard and the mouse to work properly if they are connected via a link like the USB bus or wireless connectivity. It also allows for different scenarios like “headless” boxes which are managed by a Web front, Remote Desktop Protocol session or similar network-driven remote-management setup. That ability has appealed to businesses who have large racks of servers in a “data room” or wiring closet and the IT staff want to manage these servers from their desk or their home network.

Another, yet more obvious benefit is for computer devices to have a quicker boot time because the new functions that UEFI allows for and that the UEFI code is optimised for today’s computer device rather than the 1979-81-era computer devices. It is also designed to work with future connection methods and peripheral types which means that there won’t be a need for “sidecar” BIOS or bootstrap chips on interface cards.

Other operational advantages

There is support in the UEFI standard for the bootstrap firmware to provide a multi-boot setup for systems that have multiple operating environments thus avoiding the need to provide a “bootloader” menu program on the boot disk to allow the user to select the operating environment. It will also yield the same improvements for those computers that allow the user to boot to a lightweight task-specific operating environment.

When will this be available

This technology has been implemented in some newer laptops and a lot of business-class servers but from 2011 onwards, it will become available in most desktop and laptop computers that appeal to home users and small-business operators. People who have their computers built by an independent reseller or build their own PCs will be likely to have this function integrated in motherboards released from this model year onwards.

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