The next open relay: VoIP

September 15th, 2009

In the mid to late 90s, the worst thing your organization could do is to have an open SMTP relay on your network. Spammers would use your mail server to send their spam which would lower the reputation of your server and get you black-listed. The next ‘open relay’ is likely to be insecure VoIP servers and unlike SMTP, VoIP is likely to cost you real money.

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About that Zune HD thing

September 15th, 2009

I am a huge Microsoft fan, the Xbox 360 is my favorite console, Windows is my favorite OS, and the Zune has been my music player ever since it was first released (The Dell DJ was my music player before that). On the day a new model of the Zune is released it is somewhat of a tradition that I run out to Best Buy and pick one up. There are currently four Zunes in my household.

In the past the Zune has not been without its problems, it seems to take the development team a incredibly long time to fix issues with the software, it is very easy to lose all of the music you have purchased in the marketplace, the accessories feel very cheaply made, and there is no support for the device in cars or home theater audio systems. Another sore spot for the Zune has been its marketing, in the past there was no way of knowing what the commercial was trying to sell you until the Zune logo popped up at the end as opposed to Apple marketing where the entire commercial centers around the devices.

Although almost any device these days is a ‘music player’ I am more excited about the ZuneHD than I have been about any other Zune device. Built on the Tegra (NVIDIA) platform which offers a great amount of power and including a new OLED screen, a web browser, the Zune 4 software, the application store, and the inclusion of HD radio; this is most likely the largest step the Zune has taken in its progression thus far.

I will be picking up a ZuneHD as soon as the local Best Buy opens up, but if the issues continue this is likely to be the last time Microsoft wins my business. I might have to hold my nose and buy an Apple product, after all.

-Drew


Dell quietly rolls out 1340 and 1640 laptops

January 7th, 2009

Anyone waiting, and waiting for Dell to get their act together on incorporating new technology into laptops can stop waiting. Dell has covertly added the Studio XPS 1340 and Studio XPS 1640 to their line-up. The leather accented cover is going to keep me from getting one, but if you’re into that sort of thing, go for it. Never before seen in Dell laptop options include Nvidia 9xxx graphics options and more.

These notebooks do not seem to be linked on Dell.com (or at least they buried it, in an attempt to sell last years technology.) Hopefully with them failing steadily behind HP in the PC laptop segment (due to HPs amazing price, performance, and style) they will continue to release new versions of their laptops in less than a year this time. I’ll however stick with my XPS 1530 for a little longer, and see what shakes out of Dell and HP in the coming months.

-Drew

Xbox 360 transfer woes…

December 29th, 2008

I admit I am quite the gamer, I have every modern gaming system including a DS Lite. I have had an Xbox 360 since the very day it came out (I even had to buy it on eBay like a good sheep, baaaa). Although mostly useless, with the upgraded “Xbox experience” Microsoft is now allowing gamers to install their games onto their Xbox 360 (possibly to encourage sales of the 120GB HD toting Elite system). As I installed Fallout 3 onto my system and saw the final drop of my disk space dwindle, I decided it was time for an upgrade.

Now, as many of you may know (if you’ve ever read my banter) I am somewhat practical. So spending $400 to simply achieve the simple goal of having more disk space would be, somewhat un-like me. If you read my article about the Best Buy Geek Squad (and my new home theater installation) You can imagine how annoyed I am that my Xbox 360 is currently connected by a measly component video cable and is incapable of delivering full resolution (1080P) output to my delicious new display.

So, to recap $400 for additional hard disk space AND an HDMI port, now that’s more like it! So maybe I am not that practical after all. I suppose there is also a slim chance that my 360 won’t sound like a jet engine taking off anytime I am trying to play a game, or that it will use slightly less power (and of course the Elite comes with a Black controller, and for some reason I find myself collecting the controllers I have the Halo 3 one, the Red/Black “Gears of War II” one, the Blue one, etc etc).

So why, then with all of this gaming goodness at my fingertips am I sitting here writing this tripe? Because, the Xbox 360 Elite is still in it’s box and the sheer amount of grunt work you have to go through to transfer your data from one system to the other is staggering.

Lets examine the process. First, you need a cable and software which you can only get via two places. A) For Free From Microsoft by mailing or Faxing a form or B) By buying a $149 hard drive. This in itself is probably the most silly limitation. The Xbox 360 is a network connected device. One could simply connect one Xbox 360 to the via other via Ethernet (or USB, since Microsoft appears to love USB so much) and use the dashboard to do the transfer.

Assuming you are patient enough to wait for them to send you the free cable (which is totally superfluous, really) you will then be treated to the task of dismantling your new Elite so that you can connect the new disk to your old console and then connecting your old hard disk to the rear USB connector. At this point, if you were silly enough to actually use your $400 Xbox 360 Elite (while waiting 10 days for them to send you the free cable) everything on your Elite is deleted and the data from the old 360 is copied to the new 360).

At this point, the hundreds of songs you purchased for Rock Band and Guitar Hero as well as all of the level packs, and any other licensed content you purchased must re-licensed and re-downloaded. Yes, one by one and manually. This brings up the question, who thought this was a better idea than simply doing a system to system copy over the network?

I realize that they needed a solution that would work for any situation and that most people are going to upgrade their hard drive rather than their entire system but surely someone at Microsoft has to see the pure insanity in this design.

My point here is really that even if you are just upgrading your disk there is a better way than the current method. Why wouldn’t they simply just include the transfer cable with all drive kits why only the 120GB? Why make the people who have a 20GB who only need to upgrade to a 60GB wait what is an eternity in 2009 to use a product they’ve already paid for?

My solution for doing a 360 transfer would similar to this:

Ethernet or USB cable between the two machines, boot the target machine up put it in ‘target mode’ boot the sender machine up go into the settings and hit the transfer option, it auto discovers the machine sitting in target mode, it copies everything over and then puts the sender machine back to factory default settings. Problem solved.

Oh if I ruled the world.

Zune – Why hast thou forsaken me!?

December 18th, 2008

From my article yesterday about Apple, one would think that I am a major Zune thumping Microsoft fan boy. Not so, I take anyone to task on anything that I think is annoying, frustrating, or just plain stupid. As I am preparing for a brief trip I wanted to import some of my newer CDs, yes I said CDs into my Zune. I still go to retail “stores” and “purchase music” with “money” I know, call me old fashioned. I was somewhat surprised at the results I got out of the Zune software.

The first CD I tried to rip into the Zune player is the new album “Day and Age” by The Killers. The Killers rock and this album is no exception, so I loaded the disc into ye olde DVD drive (left-shift held down for old superstitions) and away we went. Zune immediately detected that I had inserted a disc.

The first thing I noticed is that the first three song titles were all “Human”, yes The Killers can be a little, err eccentric.. but I doubt that they named 3 of their songs the same thing. (That may play hell on the CDDB). I then quickly looked up the track list on Amazon.com (the best. site. ever. for information about products, by the way) and determined that in fact all of the song titles were completely wrong.

I then swallowed my “pride” and downloaded and installed the latest version of iTunes (yes, I said it). iTunes had the correct song titles without any difficulty. I shrugged this off and thought well maybe with the thousands of CDs available this one huge release slipped through the cracks. So I manually edited the song titles and ripped the disc.

Then I inserted the newly released Fall Out Boy record FOLIE a DEUX (again with the requisite superstitious left-shift held down) I was a little surprised at what the Zune player did next.

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One of the largest music releases of the year and the database behind the Zune software has absolutely no information about it (Except for the artist, which is a little weird). I realize its not a huge deal that a few of the largest music releases of the year have completely messed up data in whatever database Zune pulls its information from on a large scale, but on an micro-industry scale, the fact that the competition (iTunes) gets it right every time seems like it would put some pressure on Microsoft to get it right at least on huge releases like these.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Zune. The software and hardware has gotten better with each new revision, but in such a competitive (maybe not so much?) market, you need to get the fundamentals correct to stay in the game (WNBA, strong fundamentals..) the other flashy stuff can come after you have the correct information about huge album releases.

Best Buy Geek Squad – Use Them

December 8th, 2008

I consider myself somewhat of a perfectionist – if something isn’t just right, every time I look at that particular thing, it will bug me until eventually I will have to fix it (usually at great expense). That is why when I decided to upgrade my ‘living room theater’ I decided to let the professionals handle it. I am not saying I am incompetent (much), but cabling and mounting things is just about the only part of networking/IT that I am not heavily involved in. With some apprehension (spurred by opinions I read online) I tapped Best Buy’s Geek Squad to perform the installation and I am glad I did.

We had just spent the previous week furiously painting the living room to get everything ready. The Geek Squad and delivery folks arrived simultaneously (5 minutes before my stated 5 hour window), my brand new Panasonic Plasma TV, Peerless mount, and my new Pioneer receiver in tow. They quickly brought everything in and unpacked it. I was amazed at the professionalism and attention to detail displayed by the installers Best Buy sent.

I had what I considered a nightmare of a plan for them to follow. My house is technically a condo, and the builders decided (for some reason) that every one of these homes should have a giant ‘gash’ above the fireplace where one would install their TV. The problem with this theory is that the ‘nook’ or ‘’gash’ (as I call it) is made for a 27” CRT TV (or possibly a 32”). Our plan was that we would install a dual-arm peerless mount in the back of the ‘nook’ and the TV would sort of float in-front of the opening. To me this seemed like a big deal, but the fine folks at the Geek Squad had seemingly done it 1000 times before.

They ran in wall HDMI, CAT5, and COAX from my TV to the various switching components. They installed wall plates and tied everything off and it looks really clean (like something I would do if I could). They up-sold me a wall mounted surge protector to put behind the TV to keep everything safe and clean. They setup my entire laundry list of components to work with the new Pioneer Receiver (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, HD Cable Box) all the while sweeping up any dirt or debris they caused while they were there.

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They installed the dual-arm peerless mount, one of the installers even hung off of it to make sure that it wouldn’t fall under the weight of the behemoth TV that would sit on it. They mounted the TV (which looked like a hell of a job) connected the HDMI and CAT5 (for VieraCast [more on this later]), then they even calibrated my new receiver using the microphone Pioneer provides for this task.

They positioned the TV so that it fits perfectly flush with the wall, it appears to be perfectly centered and they even left enough room for my center channel speaker to sit below the TV on the bottom of the ‘nook’. At that point I was astonished as they began running speaker wire under my carpet (without me asking or paying for it) for my surround speakers. You must understand that previously we had cables running all over our home (down the stairs for CAT5, speaker wire and coax running along the carpet) and to see virtually no wires to trip over was a breathtaking sight.

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All-in-all the Geek Squad unit from Columbus Ohio did a tremendous job and I feel that they went above and beyond what I had expected (and paid for). An installation of this caliber would most likely have cost me thousands from a specialty home theater installation company. Keep in mind that there are different installers and units of the Geek Squad in every area, but if my experience is any indication of the average quality of their work – You will not be disappointed. I will post pictures in a few days once I can pull myself away from the living room for more than 5 minutes to get my digital camera. Updated 12/09/08 – pictures added.

I will also be posting a ‘review’ of Panasonic’s VieraCast once I have had more time to play with it.

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-Drew

Upgrade to Vista Ultimate and fight AIDS

December 8th, 2008

The holidays are a great time to give back to the people you love, your friends, and those whom are less fortunate than ourselves.

The Project (RED) version of Windows Vista Ultimate which has been shipping on Project (RED) versions of some systems will soon be available for purchase separately.

It is available for pre-order currently from Amazon

Project (RED) is an organization which is fights AIDS.

Pre-Order Windows Vista Ultimate with SP1 Upgrade (Project Red Edition)

Microsoft Explorer Mouse – Wireless Nirvana

December 4th, 2008

If you’re like me, (old fashioned and stubborn) you like things wired. You would rather climb into a fiberglass filled attic to run Cat-5 than use wireless Internet (in your bathroom). Recently, with the purchase of my new HP HDX 18t laptop I decided to revisit wireless mice. A technology I have had a long and sometimes sordid affair with over the past 4-5 years.

I’ll admit, even though I am somewhat of a wire-hugger, I am also an early adopter. I had the first Dell Jukebox (and Axim), tend to wait in lines for new video game consoles, and always install the new version of Windows the day it is released. (Tradition, right?) I have gone through several Wireless mice, in both the ‘Mouse/Keyboard bundle’ and the Mouse only variety. In my quest for Wireless Nirvana, something about each different revision just bugged me, that is until now.

Microsoft has done almost everything right with this rendition of the Microsoft Explorer Wireless Mouse. From the sleek (and don’t forget ergonomic, but lets face it, you buy it because its sexy) design to its amazing accuracy and response. I am having a hard time finding anything bad to say about this mouse.

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As you can see above, this is one sexy beast. (and yes, it does glow blue.) It is clear that Microsoft has spent as much time on the design as they did on the functionality (something they have been dinged for not doing in the past).

About that technology, the blue glow is not just a gimmick. Microsoft’s new Bluetrack technology mixes optical and laser tracking technology  to deliver the best of both worlds (and just try to find a surface it won’t track on). The 2.4GHz wireless transmission system has also been refined. When I tried other Bluetooth (and even other 2.4GHz wireless input devices) I found that they couldn’t achieve any degree of accuracy from distances as short as 3-4 ft even though the rated maximum is 30 ft. With the Microsoft Explorer I have achieved accuracy at 10 ft. (Which makes this a good mouse even for home theater purposes).

Keep in mind also that my home has a fairly evil amount of wireless ‘crap’ surrounding it. I live in a condo and if I had to guess I would say every single person on the block has a wireless router pumping out tons of 2.4GHz (and likely 5.8GHz) crap all over my living space. Not to mention that I myself have a wireless LAN as well as several other wireless systems in my home.

Some other cool things about the mouse are that the USB transmitter fits neatly on the bottom of the mouse. Its re-chargeable and has a ridiculously long battery life (charge it overnight, use it for a week). It has handy thumb buttons in all the right places. It feels great in your hand and glides very well across surfaces (the sofa included). Plus it glows blue (what else do you need?)

The Microsoft Explorer Wireless Mouse delivers style, build quality, tremendous tracking, long battery life, and superior wireless technology with a price  and performance that beats most specialty ‘gaming’ mice. If you are in the market for a new wireless mouse, I would look no further.

-Drew

HP HDX 18t – A great gift idea

December 4th, 2008

I will be the first to admit, I was biased against HP. After years of seeing the ‘droning’ masses flock to brick and mortar retailers to plunk down their hard earned dough for machines that (in the past) offered sub-par performance and were loaded with freeware I became jaded. However if the HP HDX 18t is any indication, they have stepped up their game in a big way.

Recently, I needed a new desktop replacement laptop for general use. I have always been a huge supporter of Dell’s products but they have essentially been selling the same laptops for the last 13-14 months with no real advance in technology or design. Being somewhat of a ‘snob’ in that area I went looking for alternatives. Low and behold I stumbled upon the HP HDX 18t.

At first glance this machine is indeed a monster. It is made instantly apparent that HP didn’t really expect anyone to carry this beast around with them on a day-to-day basis, but what it lacks in mobility, it makes up for in performance and value.

The HDX 18t sports all of the latest and greatest technology. The base model includes (standard, no less) the Intel Centrino 2 P8400, an amazing 18.4" display (more on this later), 2GB of RAM (although at the time of writing there was a free upgrade to 3GB), a 512MB NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT, and a blue-ray drive (HDMI Output too!) all for $1399 (before any coupons/discounts). This is a tremendous value, other manufacturers (if they have something similar, ahem Dell) charge anywhere between $1700 – $2000 for the same hardware.

If the 18" screen doesn’t sound familiar to you there is a reason. Up until recently computer LCD displays were fashioned in the 16:10 aspect ratio instead of the standard LCD 16:9. What this meant to you was that the LCD glass manufacturers couldn’t cut as many screens out of the same plate of glass. The benefits of the industry standard 16:9 format are two fold. First, by sharing the same aspect ratio as other LCD displays (HDTVs) Blu-ray, movies streamed from the Internet, and DVDs can be displayed in their full screen glory. Second, since the glass in an LCD is arguably the most expensive part, being able to get more of these screens for less money will in the long run save you money.

Another very nice and often overlooked benefit of a notebook this large is the full-sized keyboard (with number pad!) no worrying about trying to use function keys here. The styling on this machine is also very impressive, with a illuminated HP logo adoring the case and a brushed metal design. On the bottom of the notebook you will find a subwoofer (yes! a subwoofer) which actually does a pretty good job if you’re using the system for gaming or watching movies. Overall the machine feels very well built and solid.

Performance wise, this machine has been able to tackle anything I have thrown at it including World of Warcraft (in its highest resolution), Spiderman 3 in Blu-Ray and day to day surfing/computing tasks. HP pulled out all of the stops for this system and if this is any indication of what is to come in the future from them, I could be an HP customer for life.

The only somewhat negative thing I found is that the trackpad is a little ‘slippery’ I noticed that I had to be aware of what my fingers were doing when trying to use it and it wasn’t always intuitive. Most people who have a desktop replacement will immediately plug a USB wireless mouse such as the outstanding new Microsoft Explorer which I highly recommend for any notebook user.

Out of my current stable (Dell XPS m1530, Dell Inspiron 1420, HP HDX 18t) of notebooks I must say that this HP is the most pleasant to use. It is clear that the designers took their time and listened to the feedback from their customers.

In conclusion I highly recommend the HP HDX 18t, leave all reservations about past experience with HP products in the wind. This is a new HP and I look forward to seeing what is next from HP.

-Drew

Linksys PLK300 – Failed attempt to be lazy

December 2nd, 2008

These days pretty much every home theater device has a wired Ethernet port. In my case there is a Xbox 360, a PS3, and a Panasonic Plasma TV that all need to be connected to the home network. Sure wireless has come a long way but nothing beats Cat6 for that delicious low latency/high throughput satisfaction.

Powerline networking is not a new technology, in fact home automation companies have been using it for years for things like turning lights on and off and security systems. Recently electronics manufacturers along with networking giants such as Cisco have formed an industry alliance "HomePlug", with the goal of pushing this technology out of the ‘obscure home automation catalog’ segment into the mainstream home segment.

HomePlug 1.0 is this alliance’s first "ratified standard" for this new version of an old technology. This technology is sold in kits and separate adapters, and promise different theoretical throughput levels (From 85Mbps to 200Mbps). Devices from Linksys/Cisco, NetGear, and Belkin (among countless others) have begun springing up all over the brick and mortar electronic retailers such as Best Buy within the last few months.

My experience with the Linksys PLK300 was a pleasant one. The Linksys PLK300 is a 200Mbps kit with one single port adapter and one four port adapter. It comes with everything you need to get started including Cat5 cables and stands for the adapters. Installation was a breeze and took less than 5 minutes. I connected the single port adapter to one of the outlets in my home office (cough: video game den…) and the four port adapter to an outlet near my home theater.

Using iperf (which is widely seen as one of the best tools to test throughput) I was able to achieve the following results.

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As you can see the throughput achieved through the PLS 300 installation was actually worse than my current 802.11G Network (I didn’t think that was possible). I never considered it even remotely possible that I would achieve 200Mbps through this system, but less than 18% of the stated max throughput is a little silly. I will note that while the throughput of the connection was considerably lower, the latency was much better on the HomePlug connection versus the Wireless (802.11G) and did not vary as widely.

I contacted Linksys to see if perhaps there was something I was doing wrong. (The system is fairly foolproof but they’re making new fools every day…) I was told that perhaps the wiring in my built in 2003 home was too old or of poor quality and that I should be getting much more than 11.3Mbps (avg). I asked if there was some software or a way that I could see what "rate" the unit is connected at and the technical support representative indicated that this was not possible.

So it says on the outside of the box that the unit will do up to 200Mbps but there is no way of knowing what speed the unit is "linked" at? It seems like either they intentionally omitted including a "speed indicator" on the units themselves so that you won’t know what speed you’re getting unless you’re anal (like me) and test it.

It could also be that there is no sustained connection speed and that it constantly varies (like wireless). Still, it would be nice to know what level of quality the signal between the two devices is.

Ultimately, I decided to return my units as I found that the cost wasn’t worth the performance but I urge anyone who is in a similar situation that I am in to give these units a try. Linksys is one of the best home networking companies around, and it is very possible that the wiring in my McCondo is to blame for the throughput issues.

If you have a similar or different experience with these particular units, please note that in the comments.

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