Monday, October 8, 2012

Adventures in Upgrades

On Apple Upgrades & Refreshes...

I've learned a few things about owning Apple products.  The first and foremost is that you will likely be sinking some cash into them, especially if you want to stay "current". I'm stating the obvious and it's no surprise to anyone, and is an often cited reason as to why one should stick with what the other guys offer. Yes, I am learning by experience. Jason Follas (and most of my Microsoft friends and colleagues) warned me ahead of time, and even made fun of me for going with an iPhone and told me I'd regret it! But I am still glad I took the plunge, so Nyah! But.. while I may be out of some cash, I am also a bit wiser, and certainly not a rampant fanboi. And the reality is that the "other guys" aren't much better off, and are starting to borrow the same tricks from Apple anyway.

Even so, when I contemplate any future Apple purchase, I think about a few things:

1) Is it really worth the extra $$ to stay with Apple (better design, features, etc)?

2) Is Apple still the best option for what I am doing (will a hammer get the job done)?

3) Am I going to get really irritated when a new Apple product comes out and feel like I have to abandon what I have to get the latest thing? Especially in light of compatibility with other devices in the eco-system (eg Apple TV)?

When it comes to the more mainstream consumer devices like iPads and iPhones, I now get a little bothered. When I purchased an "original" iPad, I was quickly told by Apple that I needed to get the latest and greatest one. That message is now being reinforced by the things that I can't do with it (such as share it on my Apple TV).  Apple has stopped rolling out IOS updates for it. My iPhone 4 doesn't get Siri (not that I'd use it anyway, but it's the thought that counts), and after a year of heavy use at work, it requires an external battery case because I can't replace the internal battery like I have with my Android personal phone. And don't even get me started on the new connector for the iPhone 5...  I'm quickly concluding that the sweet spot for hanging on to Apple gadget technology is maybe 1 year, or whenever the "next one" comes out.  This is particularly true on the gadget end of the spectrum (phones, tablets, etc).  I guess it wouldn't be a stretch to say I find the rapid refresh cycle a bit irritating.

However, my rant not withstanding, one should also consider the alternatives. Google gives no incentive for devices to be upgraded.  Need a new OS? Wait for your hardware provider (and possibly carrier) to make it available. That's assuming it will even be made available... most likely not.  Blackberry is no longer relevant. What is left? Microsoft- and I think the market is big enough for them to finally pay attention and get a good product out. Windows Phone 7/7.5 was a flop (less than 1% market share?), but I think Windows Phone 8 may stand a chance (the old saying goes- never buy the first version of a Microsoft product).

Let's get back to the upgrade topic.  Fortunately, the refresh fares a little better for laptops. I know several people that are using machines 3-4 years old and still quite happy with them. However, similar to the gadget end of the market, Apple TV integration is not available on any Macbooks older than the 2011 models. There really isn't any technical reason for this that I'm aware of. Apple takes every chance it can get to "encourage" one to upgrade.

Despite this planned obsolescence, I keep pumping cash into my Macbook Pro because I think it is worth paying a premium to have a good experience for video, photo, etc and a machine that is very solid. Yes, that is worth the price of two mediocre PC laptops. I've had absolutely no problems with my hardware to date, while my wife's old ASUS with Windows 7 has been relegated to my daughter's gaming rig because of malware, virii, and blue screens that lead me to to reformat twice (and, it won't upgrade to Windows 8- it locks up during the install, consistently).  My MBP has never experienced a lock up or "gray screen" (similar to blue screen on PC), especially while I'm in the middle of editing video footage.  In other words, the answers to my first 2 questions above continue to be "Yes" in the context of my laptop. The answer to the third question is a tad bit trickier.  When it comes to the MBP, I would still say that I am happy with what I've got even with the latest models- and a big reason for that is because Apple chose not to release a 17" model.  The retina screens on the latest MBP models are really slick, but I don't feel that it's worth trading the 17" screen for. It also comforts me knowing that if and when I do decide to go to the newest, I should be able to get some nice residual value for my current machine. A colleague has a 3 year old 13" machine and is considering selling it- appears to be going for ~$900 on the used market (I think he paid $1500 for it).

MBP Upgrade

I recently decided to go the SSD route. A big reason for the upgrade was because I happened to win a sizable gift card through Ben's Bargains, which is a deals web site that I frequent. The reasoning for the SSD was mainly due to my video hobby. Video files can get extremely large (and thus time consuming when transferring around), so upgrading to an SSD should have some great impact in terms of getting a faster read/write.  How much faster?  For me, my Seagate Momentus SSD hard drive was getting about 100 MB/s.  (On a side note, the Seagate was the first "upgrade" that I did, as the original drive included with the Apple was around 50 MB/s.  Disk is BY FAR the slowest part of the system, and anything you can do to increase it will not go unnoticed.) The new SSD that I purchased is the 512MB OCZ Vertex 4.  It has a 5 year warranty and claims to have one of the fastest IOPS rates of drives in the market today. It even came with a sticker that said "My ssd is faster than your hdd" so it must be great! :)  In all seriousness, it blew my socks off- I am now getting over 400 MB (yes, that's MB) / second.  That's a 4x increase. Final Cut now opens in less than 5 seconds, whereas before I could grab a cup of coffee, come back, and still see the plugins loading up. Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc all load instantly-- I can click each icon on the doc, and they load as fast as I click.

In addition to the SSD, I put an order in for 16 GB of RAM this past weekend. It wasn't so much because I needed it, it was more since my wife's MBP was choking on 4GB.  Instead of buying 8GB for her, I thought I should spend the additional $30 ($80 total...) to upgrade mine to 16GB, and move my 8GB to her machine. The only reason her machine started choking on the 4GB was because I decided to install Sophos on it.  October is cyber-security month and our IT department recommends anti-virus software even for the Mac's, and the only free one I could find worth it's salt was Sophos.She went from 1.5 GB free to less than 50MB free after installing- what a hog!  To date we've not had any issues with virii, but Mac's are becoming more of a target- I think 20% of PC's sold today are Mac's now. Better safe than sorry.

Notes on the Upgrade Cycles

In conclusion, I am a little wiser than I was a few years ago. I started my adventure blog about a year ago and I am still happy about making the switch, at least for multimedia use. In my mind, the upgrade cycle it's a lot like flying first class:

iPad, iPhone = domestic first class. Nice, but not going to do it every flight (upgrade).
Macbook Pro = international first / business class.  Very nice, very expensive, fortunately I don't have to fly International all that often.

I'll end this Mac Adventure on a final note that might make the late, great Steve Jobs a bit unhappy:  I'm willing to give Microsoft another try, at least for my personal phone. And even if Windows 8 is dead before it arrives, I'll at least be able to play my Zune Pass music on something other than my Zune HD :)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Canon XF100 Plunge

A while back I posted an entry about some upcoming multi-media projects. I wanted to provide a follow up. I shot my last wedding on my JVC GZ-HD7 this past June.  After a few weeks of editing in post (using Final Cut Pro 7) I was pretty happy with the final product and handed it over to the bride, groom and their respsective family. There were some things that I wish could have been better- namely the lighting and audio levels of the actual wedding ceremony. The JVC camera does not have an audio level setting, and the low light has always been an issue.  As I previously mentioned, the camera also decided to blow out a couple of pixels- which is also a known JVC issue. After a little magic in FCP things got cleaned up as good as I could get them.  The important thing is that the bride and groom were happy- and that's what ultimately matters!

A lot of professionals will tell you that it's not the tools that get in your way- and that you can do a lot with them before you buy new equipment.  While that is certainly true (and disclaimer: I am not a professional, but I play one on TV) my experience dictates that gear can help make a decent photographer / videographer a much better one. For the past few years, I was convinced that I just needed to learn how to handle my camera better and that I'd get better results. There was a lot that I had to ramp up on, especially around manual settings, composition, lighting, etc.  But once you are armed with the basics and have a decent base of experience to pull from, a great tool will help you get much better results.  In my experience, both my Digital Rebel and JVC camera were limiting factors. I needed a higher ISO to get usable pictures for indoor photography (which the 7D greatly helped with- 3200 iso with no apparent noise on the 7D, vs. 800 iso on the Rebel with plenty of noise).  Once I did this, my pictures had the professional look I was trying to get indoors. Similarly, the JVC had the aforementioned problems and caused a lot of extra work.

So in early August, I finally decided to pull the trigger and order the Canon XF100.  This is the closest thing to a "professional" level video camera that I've ever owned. From a professional perspective it is considered lower end, but for someone like me who does this semi-pro/ part time it is a huge improvement and offers great functionality that you just can't get in a consumer grade camera. The first day that I got it home and played with it I was able to shoot video like I never had before.  The focus ring was very intuitive and I was able to easily change focus close up / background.  The JVC had this capability but it was difficult to use effectively. Conversely, the lcd screen on the Canon XF100 was good enough to see the focus and manipulate it.  You can view my first shots on my smugmug site.  Perhaps the best thing about this camera is the 4:2:2 color space / chroma sub sampling.  This is a huge pro feature-- and as far as I know, isn't available on consumer cameras. What this means is that the original uncompressed video signal is marginally reduced when it is stored- meaning there is little to no visual difference.  For a good technical explanation, check wikipedia.  Many consumer grade cameras (and even many semi-pro)  are using 4:2:0 which is 1/2 the horizontal resolution, 1/2 the vertical resolution of the original signal. It also tends to result in more artifacts.  4:4:4 is the "ultimate" subsampling, because it's the original signal.  I believe most of the 4:4:4 cameras start around $10,000 and are typically much more (such as the RED Scarlet X). Technical features aside- after using this camera for a few months I feel that it's been worth the investment and have been much happier with the end result.

In the spirit of Mac Adventures, I'd also like to talk about my experience with it on the Mac so far. It has been a good camera and works very well with Final Cut Pro 7.0.3. I've managed a few HD projects so far- including one that was about 25 minutes of footage (our pastor's 25th anniversary). Things went really well and, apart from a few odd things (such as an mp3 having some audio clipping in one spot that I just couldn't get rid of) I was happy.  I blame the issues on my upgrade to OS X Mountain Lion mid-way through the project.  On a related note, I learned that Canon doesn't officially support the XF Utility on Mountain Lion- which is the tool that imports the video from the CF card to your computer. They have been slow in rolling out an updated version, which is due in October. Fortunately, since I did an upgrade and already had the CF utility installed, things still work fine for me.  However, if I were to try and do a fresh install I'd be out of luck, since the software installer doesn't let you continue if you are running Mountain Lion.

I'm looking forward to getting a lot of mileage out of the XF 100. I've got a lot of soccer footage that I'm pulling together of my oldest daughter and her team- plan on surprising everyone at the end of the season with a video. This camera really pushes the limits on my MBP- so I've got some "future upgrades" planned, which I'll be blogging about very soon.

Friday, July 27, 2012

OSX Mountain Lion Upgrade Adventure

If you are closely following Apple, you've certainly heard about the latest OS update released this past week on July 25th - Mountain Lion.  The upgrade was only $20 and there are a lot of new features. I upgraded last evening and wanted to talk a little bit about my experience...

First, I'll give my perspective on the new stuff and reasoning for the upgrade. One of my favorite features is the ability to mirror your Mac to an Apple TV device.  The apple TV's are around $100 or so at most stores. The idea behind Apple TV is that you can easily share videos and multi-media, rent videos from the Apple Store (for a pretty reasonable price), stream Netflix, etc. 

I've been using an Xbox 360 to do this currently and it has done a great job.  However, every time I turn on my Xbox 360 I fear the "red lights of death". I've already had that happen to me with 2 other Xbox consoles (one of which was still under warranty).  Another issue with the Xbox is that you have to pay for your membership just to get on line and use apps like Netflix, which also have an additional cost.  The benefit is that I can use my Zune Pass service for all the music, which gives me basically any song I care to listen to for $15 / month (as well as 10 to keep "permanently").

Now, one of the cool features about Mountain Lion is that with an Apple TV (and a Mac 2011 or newer) you can mirror anything on your screen to your Laptop. This eliminates a lot of the fus with trying to locate media content on a separate device as in the case of the Xbox (it's a real annoyance to try and find what I'm looking for, especially with the amount of content I have).  On the Mac, I can use the familiar navigation of the file system and easily get to the content I want.  I know of other people that put a Windows Media PC in their living room to do something similar on the Microsoft platform, so this isn't necessarily ground breaking... But the nice thing with the Mac is that you can do it without all the clutter and wires that the PC would require.  Nay sayers might argue that you could have a similar experience on Windows using the Media Center, but I find that interface a little clunky / irritating (see point above about file system navigation).

Another great point is that you could use subscription services like Hulu for free, and play that content on your TV.  In the case of Xbox, iPad, or other devices, Hulu charges a monthly fee to use them.  This makes it even more tempting to "unplug" from traditional cable TV and get only the content you want. I'm not quite there yet, but I can see that happening in the next 3-5 years based on all the new content services out there.

There are many other mountain lion features that I think are beneficial, especially since I have an iPad and iPhone.  There is tighter integration and Apple touts "you can go from one device to the other".  For example, if you are browsing on your iPhone, the "Cloud" will allow you to resume on your Mac.  It also claims to make sharing content/links/etc a bit easier with social media sites.  These features are nice but I don't see much value personally.

In the end, I decided to upgrade because I want to be up to date on the latest version.  It was only $20 and that is a one time charge. I can also put it on my wife's Mac for no additional cost.  Given the "200"+ features (many of which I probably won't use), being current, Air Play, and the low cost... it was an easy decision.  Especially when you compare to Microsoft, who charges an arm and a leg for an upgrade (and per PC at that), this was a no brainer. Hopefully Microsoft will take a page out of Apple's book and maybe even turn themselves back to profitability in the near future.  But I am guessing Windows 8 will go for a pretty penny by comparison (which I will probably also do on my PC).

Now for the adventure...  I was harkened back to my PC days a little bit on this particular upgrade.  First I purchased and downloaded it through the App Store.  That was no problem.  Once it downloaded, it asked me which drive to install it on. I was a little puzzled because the last time I did an upgrade, it just went on my main drive.  I mistakingly picked the wrong hard drive because I couldn't remember what the name of my boot drive was.  After the upgrad started processing I realized "woops, that's my video drive, I don't want to install it there" and turned off the Mac to my better judgement. It rebooted and said it could recover the install... but I didn't want to do that. I did have a moment of panic but was ability to use disk utility to set my original main drive as the active boot. I breathed a sigh of relief and cleaned off the install files from my video drive, and then tried again. (Had to re-download, which is slightly over 4gb for the install).

This time I paid closer attention and tried to tell the installer to upgrade the main drive that had Lion installed on it. I got an error something along the lines of "This is a Time Machine Backup drive".  I was a little confused... After about 20 minutes of googling the error, I came across an article that indicated that the installer will not let you upgrade the drive if there is an active time machine backup going on.  I then explored the backup folder and did indeed find that there was a time machine backup that I had started back in September of last year (not long after I got my Mac). I had actually aborted that back up but the files were still hanging around.  The "fix" was to delete the backup.backups folder where the in-process backup was.  I shelled out to terminal and tried doing an rm -rf (a unix command to delete the files) but it told me the files were locked by the system and I couldn't delete them.  I did some more googling and found that I needed to use the tmutil to delete them.  Success!  This was not a very pleasant experience, and it hearkened me back to the PC days. However, in the grand scheme of things it was pretty easy to clean up.  I really don't know why Apple would prevent you from installing if a time machine backup was still in process. I guess they figure better safe than sorry.

After that, things were quite simple. The installer defaulted to my boot drive and I was able to finish up.  It took roughly 30 minutes.  The "last minute" was the longest, taking probably at least 5. After that it rebooted and my wall paper changed to the new and updated Milky Way galaxy image. Had it not been for that, I wouldn't have even noticed that I upgraded.  I later found the notification icon up in the top menu.  Everything else seems to be about the same, so far.

So I'm pretty excited about OSX Mountain Lion, but it doesn't seem to be a major change so far. I would encourage anyone wanting to upgrade to do it just so you are up to date, and especially if you are considering an Apple TV.  I haven't yet purchased the Apple TV but I plan on doing so once my budget recoups from another recent project which I plan on blogging about next.

As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Adventures over the Spring and Summer

Time for another Mac Adventure! It's been a few months and sorry I've slipped on my updates lately. I've had a few things going on that have been higher on the priority scale... Spring soccer with the oldest, busy work schedule, and vacation!  Those things are out of the way now and the summer is on its way in. Granted, June is always a busy month- two birthdays to celebrate, father's day, etc.

Now the Mac Adventure! Forewarning: this is a pretty long post. The content of this section is video / media related where I will be talking about video cameras, dslr's, and software.  Skip down several paragraphs to read about general mac stuff and my opinion on some of the WWDC 2012 news from Apple.

Recently, I filmed a wedding of some friends at our Church. I am now in the process of doing some video editing with Final Cut Pro.  I've known the couple for quite some time (since they were as tall as my waist anyway...) so I wanted to do something "extra special" for them.  I took a little more video footage than normal, including the bridal shower (which normally I do not go to!) as well as the rehearsal.  Got some great footage and also used two different cameras to collect it.

So far there have been a few challenges. Perhaps the biggest one has been with the low light capability on my cameras. I have been a little spoiled lately with my Canon 7D (though for pictures, not using it for run-and-gun video situations).  It has extraordinary capability and can take virtually noiseless pictures at 3200 ISO.  This means that low light, especially when shooting with an f 2.8 or wider aperture is not a problem (I got some great shots from a dance recital end of April).  At any rate, video cameras are not always so great. I usually shoot with my JVC GZ-HD7 which is now a pretty dated camera- but it was one of the first to do "Full" tapeless High Definition video. It has a 3 CCD sensor so the image quality is very good.. but not so in low light.  The auto-gain (in layman's terms, gain is similar to ISO on a camcorder) is very bad and typically saturates the picture with a reddish hue. I tend to shoot video without the gain on because it just doesn't look right, and it's very difficult to correct in post production.

So... I decided to shoot some footage with my "b-cam" (if you can even call it that), which happens to be a Kodak Playsport. The image quality is surprisingly good, and acceptable for something informal like a rehearsal dinner.  Unfortunately, the "scene" during dinner was extremely low light and I ended up with a lot of noise coming out of the Kodak.  The noise was so bad I thought I was going to have unusable footage, but I found a product called "NeatVideo" which has a great noise reduction filter and plugs in to different video camera software including FCP 7.  The filter did a great job and at some point I'll post a before/after (but you can see good examples of this on the site as well).  Problem #1 was solved, and now I'm currently on my way to dealing with Problem #2.

Problem #2 is with my JVC GZ-HD7 video camera. Unfortunately, this problem is due to a design flaw, and exacerbated by age. While my camera was cutting edge when I purchased it 5 years ago, it's getting older and the problem is becoming more pronounced. After the camera is going for a while, the CCD gets pretty hot and eventually, the "dreaded white dot" appears on the picture.  This wasn't so bad a few years ago when it was just one dot and came up after 2-3 hours of use.  However, after reviewing my latest footage, there is more than a few white dots, and one of them happens to be right smack in the middle of the picture!   Fortunately, there is a video filter out there that allows you to replace bad pixels by interpolating the ones bordering them.  Needless to say I am experimenting with this filter.  I found a great article and a sample here, using FXScript.

Given my issues with my video cameras, I think it is finally time for me to replace my trusty JVC. I've been researching the Canon XF100 since October of last year and I think I will be going with it. Apparently, the BBC has it on it's list as an approved camera for doing broadcast quality video. Slashcam (where I frequent) rates it very high, it seems to do very well in low lighting... etc. I think it will be the perfect camera for me.  There is also a JVC successor (the HM 150), but it appears to have the same "dreaded white dot" issue.  I frequently visit and post on which is a GREAT resource for anyone that works with video a lot- coupled with slashcam, it's kind of like the video camera version of dpreview.

So... a lot of multi media work going on right now.  I haven't even touched on some of the other activities I'm planning, but I'll go ahead and list them here:

- Hungary Missions Trip - video and pictures, coming up in July
- 3 on 3 Soccer travel team
- Someone on the soccer team requested me to take pictures of a few softball teams they coach
- Cheerleading Camp
- Tumbling classes and associated performances
- Misc. stuff this summer (birthday parties, pool parties, etc) 
- Midwest Geobash (assuming we make it)

Shaping up to be a lot of work!! But looking forward to it.

WWDC 2012 News & Update.
Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you probably heard some of the recent Mac announcements.  Here are some of the ones that jumped out at me:
  • Retina displays for the new Macbook Pro's! Usb 3.0!   Glad to see this new direction, but I'm certainly not going out and buying a new one any time soon. Especially since the new 15" models are almost the price of the former 17" models. Not enough value there yet.
  • No more 17" MBP's (though I'm not sure if that will stay the case) - Makes me happy that I picked the last model year up.
  • Apparently, no update this year for the Mac Pro or desktop stuff in general, but supposedly that will come next year - no big surprise to me, as this stuff is more targeted for niche professionals and Apple is probably not making a huge amount on this market segment.
  • Mountain Lion will be $19.99 and released in July. It includes new cloud features, etc and AirPlay mirroring and may finally get me to purchase an Apple TV.  That means I'll be able to watch full screen Netflix videos without getting Mac-burn on my knees, and/or not having to power up the Xbox 360!
In general I think the news has been good. It looks like CEO Tim Cook is doing a fair job so far.  I think time will tell if Apple will keep the "cutting edge" reputation. I'm sure there are quite a few articles out there that are analyzing his every step and playing the "WWSJD" angle (what would Steve Jobs Do).

With all that news, I think I am planning for a few new Mac Adventures this year- some are still on the plate from last when I first got my Mac.
  • Eventually get a thunderbolt SSD drive. I'd like something for when I'm working on videos. This will help immensely when doing the rendering in FCP.
  • Replace my seagate hybrid drive with a full SSD internal drive. Prices are really starting to come down now. Once I can get a 512GB SSD for around $300 I may do so. As I write this, they are still around $400 but dropping fast.
  • Reconsider "Zune" and embrace iTunes.  Zune just doesn't play well on the Mac platform, and I've noticed the selection on the Zune Pass is getting worse and worse. I may dump it for iTunes.  On the other hand, I like where Windows Phone is headed (I might consider a Win Phone 8 when they come out).
Well that is about it for this post. Hope you've enjoyed it, and I plan on being a little more regular with my postings this summer. I think I'll have a lot to blog about.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Adventures with Cable Modems

I've been a bit busy, and February was a short month (granted it was leap year)- that is my excuse for not updating recently. Nevertheless, I'm going to try and get caught up with some of my latest Mac Adventures in this entry...

In the dead of winter I find it extremely important that my internet connection works well. Around our house, there could be up to 3 or 4 people using an internet connection at any given point in time.  Usually at least that many people (or devices) are doing so in the evening hours and on weekends. It's just really cold in Northwest Ohio and there isn't much else to do apart from the occasional indoor sport.

Consequently, in February I had a few situations arise that reminded me of how important my internet connection was to me. This is where the adventures began.

Sometime in early February, I received the annual "here's your new bill" from one of my Internet providers, Buckeye Cable System. This greatly aggravates me, because the internet access I was paying for (via cable modem) was truly awesome, but the new price wasn't.  5 millisecond ping times and 80% of the time I got the full 10 mb/s that I was paying for.  Unfortunately, the price of this internet connection more than doubled- from $25 to $55.  Even worse- since I was an existing customer, I couldn't qualify for the promotional price which was now $30 or something. Instead, they reminded me of their policy- "you can't use our services for 6 months to qualify for promotional pricing". Apparently they'd prefer to lose me as a customer than let me pay an additional $5 / month. Terrible business model... (sorry, I'm getting a bit off topic).

At any rate, I decided that was enough and decided to cancel. Thus, I would need to rely on my other internet connection provider, Time Warner aka Road Runner. They also provide my cable TV and phone which I've seldom had any issues with.

As you can probably infer, there is a lot of back story here. Telling that story would only serve the purpose of further raising my blood pressure so I will summarize: I decided to order the alternative internet connection because Time Warner's was lousy. After many initial support calls (why is it always slow after 5pm and on the weekends?!), the technician was honest enough to tell me that there was a problem, but nothing they could do until enough customers complained. He even gave me the scoop- a head unit in one of the offices needed to be replaced. 

At that point I was able to complain enough to get a refund of the Internet portion of the bill that month, but I ultimately threw in the towel and decided paying $25 for an alternative connection was well worth it. However, $55 is not.  

Fast forward to the end of February. I decided to give the old "bundled internet connection" on Time Warner a try.  Up until this time, I had been pointing my wife's laptop to this connection, so I knew it worked- she didn't complain too much.  For the first week or so it seemed to be working fine. But before I knew it, Saturday came around and I was trying to stream some videos.  Sure enough, my typical 10 mbit connection dropped down under 1 mbit.  

Obviously I was a bit irritated. I called Time Warner to see if there was any issue, but nothing on their end seemed to be amiss.  I went down and checked my hard-wired PC and ran a speed test from there and I was still getting around 10 mbit.  Something just wasn't adding up.

At the time I wasn't really thinking about it as scientifically as I should have been. I was hoping for a quick fix so I called Time Warner again and asked if there were any options for upgrading my connection speed. After going through about 3-4 different people, I finally got connected to the competent "tier 3" which could answer some of my questions.  I was on the "standard" plan which meant I would occasionally get burst speeds of up to 25 mbit or so when the bandwidth was available. Otherwise I could expect "up to" 10 mbit. That was pretty consistent with the speed tests that I had been running, and there didn't really seem to be an issue whenever I tested from my hard lined PC. Unfortunately, there were two levels above me that got prioritized bursting (turbo and super turbo, or something like that).  But there was some great news- I could upgrade my modem to a DOCSIS 3.0 and get a 30 mbit connection for only $20/month more.  That ended up being $5 less than my previous "alternative" connection and 3 times the speed... I was a little suspicious but I decided to pull the trigger anyway.

There was a minor fiasco where I lost my internet connectivity for about a day, because they upgraded my line before they sent the modem. I called in to have them revert the connection back, and in the process I later found out they also took away my package pricing deal (how does that happen?!) but was assured it would be corrected (I'm not holding my breath).  

Just this past week the modem showed up and I installed it with relative ease.  Now I've got a 30mbit consistent download pipe, along with a 5mbit consistent upload. It's truly awesome- I've never had a connection this good.

On a side note, I am just amazed at the lack of customer service in the industry. The terrible service is  consistent across all the cable companies that I have ever had the displeasure of getting service from.  In any other non-captive market, these companies would be long out of business....

Back the this adventure.  Congratulations if you've made it this far! :)

Unfortunately, my connection problems aren't over yet!

Despite having the new 30 mbit pipe, I am still having problems (only via wireless) achieving those speeds. When I am on the first floor, approximately 20 ft or so from the router, I can get 30mbit.  The signal strength is about 40%. But just about anywhere else in the house I get a lot less.  

This post is getting a little long so I'll summarize once again: it turns out my old trusty DLink DIR-655 might be on its last legs. This is a wireless N router I picked up a few years ago with hopes of it being able to stream HD (which it couldn't do- at least not with 25MB ABR video files).  I ran iStumblr to try and detect wireless signal strength.  The next door neighbors have about the same amount of signal... And they are a good 30-50 ft away from me on both sides.  

Fortunately, I have an old Wireless-G Linksys WRT-54g that I was also using for my "alternative" connection and it currently seems a lot more reliable in the more distant parts of the house. I also made some parabolic antenna that help with the range. Since it is running DD-WRT, I also boosted the transmit power.  I dusted off the cobwebs and plugged this in and it is getting me by for now- though with the speed tests I'm typically not getting more than 12mbit in the furthest reaches of the house. 

So it looks like I might be on a quest for a new wireless router.  Airport Extreme looks like it may be my next one- but I'm not eager to shell out $179 right now.

A few links from this post that you may find helpful:

iStumblr - great tool for checking signal strength on the Mac. - where I check my bandwidth speeds
Wifi Windsurfer - a cheap DIY wifi antenna  extender you can make (took me about 10 minutes w/ some card stock and aluminum foil). Works great with the WRT-54G
DD-WRT - linux based firmware, a great way to keep your old routers going. Works with a lot of older routers, and especially with the Linksys WRT-54g variety.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A helpful switching utility

It sure is cold in Ohio today- we were nailed with our first major snow last night. I'm guessing around 3" or so.  The kids are outside playing it in, and the wife is busy working this morning. I thought I'd take advantage of the time and post about a useful utility that I found, which should make the switching experience a bit easier.

I have a feeling that I will be focusing more on "how to switch" in the next few blog entries, but first a little background (you'll probably guess where I'm going with this). My wife has been using an ASUS laptop that I purchased almost 2 years ago.  The keyboard was starting to get very sticky and in my opinion was almost unusable (I am sure my kids sticky fingers had absolutely nothing to do with that)... Fortunately, I had purchased the black-tie coverage at Best Buy, and I am just within the 2 year warranty period-- so I am getting a brand spanking new battery and clean keyboard to boot.

My wife's her Birthday is Feb 1st and-- you probably guessed it-- I decided to get her an early present: a new Macbook Pro 13.3 inch.  I was going back and forth between the Air and the MBP. Best Buy was going to knock off $400 off the still-in-stock (but slightly older) i7 model of the MBP so I decided to go for that.  Given the sticky keyboard situation with the ASUS, I also opted for the black-tie w/ accidental coverage warranty on the MBP.  The 0% for 18 months also helped. Consequently, it's a win-win-win: my daughter's ancient Dell SC420 is just "too slow" for Webkins so the ASUS will be a suitable replacement and I can finally retire the old beast.

On a slightly less positive note, the timing of taking the old ASUS in for a cleanup job probably wasn't the best. She had a pretty tight work deadline for getting a word document done. I installed the latest Mac Office 2011 software, but she was having a tough time figuring it out (I think she had Office 2007 on her laptop previously). The screen is also a tiny bit smaller and she is still getting used to it. She did pretty well getting through a lot of it, and certainly enjoyed the new and improved "Facebook experience" the night before, but in the end she got frustrated to the point she had to revert back to the desktop PC.  Her biggest frustration was the annoyance of the maximize button not maximizing the window to full screen.

Fortunately, I came across a great app that helps with the more familiar Windows experience a few weeks ago: Moog.  Moog provides an extremely simple way to maximize your window, and looks like the best option in the app store (is also  rated 5 stars).  Reasonably priced at $4.99, I finally decided to give it a shot.  It is well worth the $$'s and works seamlessly.  You simply hover over the green maximize button and you have the option to maximize your screen, easily snap it to the bottom, left, right, or top.  Simple and well done, I applaud the developer that designed it ("Many Tricks").  I noticed this developer has a number of other utilities, including "Witch" that provides a slick command-tab interface.  

Screen shot of Moog:

Looks like it's about time to go check on the kids! Hope you enjoyed my update.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Macbooks and the Technical Community

During this past week I was at one of the premiere conferences in the Midwest (Sandusky, OH) aka Codemash.  This years conference was absolutely amazing.

As you may remember from a previous post, One of my objectives was to take notes from any fellow Mac users and see if there were a few things I could learn.  

Truth be told, I didn't get much of a chance to talk to others specifically about their Mac usage and what they are doing with them. However, I did come back with a few observations (actually, I'm still here at the Kalahari as I type this- the Jiterry Monkey coffee drink is keeping me up).  First, I noticed that there were a ton more Macbook Pro's than I remember from any of the previous years codemash.  As I walked through the halls it anecdotally seemed like there were more Macs than not. I also noticed several 15" Macbook Pro's and a few "plain old" Mac Books. I also chuckled at how many "non Macbooks" I saw that had the Apple sticker on them (I have one on my work laptop, which sat in my hotel room the entire time. Fortunately, I never had to turn it).

I did speak to a few fellow Mac users. I didn't necessarily initiate the conversation, but occasionally I overheard someone say something to the effect of "wow, there sure are a lot of Macs this year. I guess I'm not the only one".  I usually would chime in, agree, and give a brief synopsis of my switching experience. I found that in almost every case, the reason provided for getting said Mac was because they got hooked in by the iPad, then iPhone, etc. Very similar to my own story.

I also had a chance to show a few interested people what you could do on a Mac as they watched me playing around with either Tweetdeck or Visual Studio. Many of them were already somewhat interested in getting a Mac and typically wondered if it was worth the extra $$. A few were also concerned about leaving Windows behind and wondered how good the experience would be running a VM.  I was able to tout my Visual Studio 2010 running in VMWare, Unity Mode. The two or three people that saw my ad-hoc demo seemed pretty impressed and basically realized that it's kind of a fun experience. You can run Mac and Windows concurrently and actually enjoy the quality and feel of your computer.  For me, it's really about enjoying your experience and being able to get your work done. 

I'll end this blog post with a note on self-improvement. While at Codemash, I went to a great session by Scott Hanselman that talked about handling information overload. Many of these concepts were already in place and I've learned over the years, but I also learned a thing or two. He spoke about finding a trusted tool and using it to reduce your "Psychic Weight", which is essentially a for-loop running in your head, keeping you awake at night because you can't stop thinking about it.  At work this has been Microsoft OneNote and it has worked out quite well. I don't currently have it installed on my phone or Mac, and I think it will do a great deal to help me reduce further "Psychic Weight" in other areas of my life. As I type this I am downloading the Windows version of OneNote, and will be installing this on my VM (the Kalahari wifi is a bit slow, but CodeMash is over so I don't feel guilty downloading). There is also a version for the iPhone that I plan on installing as well.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Mac Adventures in the App Store

Today I decided to redeem a few of my iTunes gift cards that I received for Christmas. I didn't really tell anyone what I wanted this year, so I got lots of gift cards. I'm actually pretty happy with that so maybe I'll stick with the strategy for next year :)

Before I talk about the apps that I downloaded, I have to take a moment to vent. Apple iTunes has always been frustrating to me. I have been using it with my iPad since I got one almost 2 years ago when they were first released. My biggest complaint about the App Store is that it isn't very intuitive, particularly when it comes to purchasing or downloading an app. One would think that apple would want to make it an easy and intuitive experience... but there have been a few gotchas.

I'll bring up my iPad App Store story once again, because even after all this time it still irritates me and I want to make a point. You may remember my earlier post about having gone through a few defective iPads, mainly due to the sync not working or giving out after a short period of time.  In addition to the hassle of trying to return it and find a new one, there was another frustration that quickly followed-  re-loading my apps through the App Store.

At that time there was no cloud backup, so if you didn't back up to your PC or Mac, you were in for a headache when you wanted to reload your apps to your new device. Well you guessed it- I was in for a painful reloading experience. At that time, the only way to re-load apps would be to find all my receipts/ purchases and "re buy" the apps.  However, if you had already purchased the app you wouldn't get charged.  Needless to say, this was a very manual process and due to the way app purchases work (there are the "in app" purchases, and the buy from the app store purchases) you can very easily make a mistake and purchase the same app twice.   Let me illustrate- Sound Hound was an app that I originally downloaded the "free" version for.  When I decided I wanted to purchase it, I did so within the app.  I completely forgot how I had purchase this by the time I went back to the app store. I found Sound Hound and purchased it. I fully expected not to be charged, but you don't find out it has already been purchased until after you click buy.  NOT INTUITIVE.  Sure enough, I was charged again for the app.  Fortunately, I complained to apple support and got my $3 back. The rep kindly pointed out that the Sound Hound I had downloaded was Sound Hound with an infinity symbol by it, not the original Sound Hound free and in app upgrade, which is why I was charged again.  Wowzers, how was I supposed to remember that?

Anyway, today I was contemplating a purchase from the App Store for my Mac. I signed in, redeemed my gift cards, and went to buy an app for 3.99. After typing my password in, I was prompted again for billing info.  As if I had never entered the codes in.  Hmm, that's not right!  There was a little message in red text that said something about entering in my security code again, but not really any good explanation. It certainly seemed that it was trying to charge my card for this purchase.  Bahh!  I did some quick googling and didn't find anything useful. I then proceeded to email apple support- why do I need to enter my credit card info when I have a credit?  In fairness, they responded a few hours later and gave what I thought was a pretty a lame-o reason: apple is all about security. Since this was the first purchase I was going to make on the app store from my Mac, I needed to re-confirm my credit card security code.  AFTER that, I could utilize a different form of payment, ie, my app store credit from the gift cards.

Blech!  NOT INTUITIVE.  Why not have a message that says something like that right on the page? Why not make me re-enter my credit card when I downloaded several other "free" items?

Anyway, I guess it isn't a huge deal, but it just bugs me about how UNINTUITIVE the app store still is. On the flip side, I am very glad there is a Mac app store, which makes it very convenient to download.

There is much more venting that I'd like to do because of the App Store policies when using it in a Corporation, but I will save that for another day.

Let's change the tone and get on to a more positive note!

Apps that I just downloaded that seem to be pretty slick:

1. FreeMemory - A freebie that is a very useful "menu bar" app, letting you easily see memory usage. This is especially useful when running VM's, and also when you are not sure what apps are hogging memory.

2. Caffeine - this is another freebie. It forces your make to stay awake indefinitely (or different intervals).

3. There will be many many more downloads of the freebies!

Paid apps that I am considering:

1. Moom - it lets you hover over the green maximize window button.  It presents another pop up menu that allows you to easily maximize to the full screen, similar to what happens on a PC when you maximize (by default, maximizing windows just makes them somewhat bigger).

2. Air Display - lets you add a second monitor wirelessly. I downloaded this for my iPad (it was free) which works with a Windows 7 machine.  Before I buy this app ($20) I want to find out if I can basically share a monitor between a PC and Mac, which would be very useful.  Currently I am using Chicken of the VNC when I need to go back to my PC (which is admittedly rare). Chicken of the VNC is horrible from a resolution / color perspective.  It would also be nice to let the PC have the ability to use a monitor, and have the Mac take it over when needed.

3. Again, many more... so much out there to explore!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year- The Mac Adventures Continue

I had a brief hiatus on the blog due to a) the holidays and associated hustle/bustle, b) some minor health issues (out of commission for a few weeks), and c) Modern Warfare 3 / Skyrim on the Xbox 360 (a guy has to get some down time!).

The good news is I am back in the swing of things and thought I would do a "Happy New Year" post, along with what I've been up to over the last few months.

You may remember my last blog left off on my joys with using Final Cut Pro (version 7). I have continued to dabble and play around with media editing- including video and photo. But I've also been continuing to all but eliminate my PC from the mix.

For the month of December I have to admit I reverted back to the PC on occasion.  The PC has the larger screen and I found myself jumping on it vs. opening up the laptop. There really wasn't any reason other than enjoying the nice big screen... and one other semi-critical thing: the printer driver. Tis the season to print coupons... as much as I hate to waste paper.

Since I had some time off at the end of the year, I decided to make a couple more adjustments to my setup. I went over to best buy and purchased the adapter to extend my desktop to the larger screen.  It's still not quite the same because my keyboard is on the laptop screen... but now I can easily do browsing, netflix, etc.

After that I decided to try and get my Lexmark Prevail 705 Pro printer going. I had some difficulty trying to figure it out myself (similar to the PC) so I gave the technical support chat a try. I was up and running within 5 minutes.  Great experience and I really appreciate Lexmark's customer service. The printer seems to work just as well on my Mac as it does my other PC's.

I also finally took the plunge and found a great price on a memory upgrade $40 for 8 GB. I'm still patiently waiting for external thunderbolt drives for my VM's, but those aren't quite out yet (at least according to the Best Buy salesman).

On a related note, I did some ASP.NET development from my VMWare Fusion in Unity mode... It worked great, even with only 4gb RAM. It was good enough to write a small web application (single web form), complete with debugging.

Still quite happy with the purchase and I don't have much reason to keep the PC on at this point. It's still there for a few things like the Microsoft Zune software, because I havent' taken the time to load that into VMWare Fusion yet. It also has the external USB drives tethered to it for backing up over the network. I think I may leave it primarily for that task for the time being, at least until I get a good USB hub that I can easily plug in to the MBP.  Would be nice if there was a good docking station solution so I don't have all the cables to contend with.  Apple has a nice monitor that is thunderbolt and has a lot of USB connections so that may be the answer- I would just need to plug in my thunderbolt and power adapter and be all set. But then that's more $$$ that I don't want to spend right now... :)

It's good to be back and I plan on publishing a few more articles.  What is coming next?


One of the things that I look forward to every year is a conference called codemash (   This conference was started several years back and I had the fortune of being one of the people that helped with some of the initial ideas (I think it was Drew Robbins who got everyone on a conference call to hash out the details of the v1.0, if memory serves correctly). I think the first year there might have been 150 or 200 in attendance. The event has grown to over 1200 (probably 1500 by the time you add in all the speakers and vendors) and registration sold out in 20 minutes this year.  I am not involved in the planning but did some speaking in the early years on topics such as ASP.NET and Agile, and have been an attendee ever since. It's great to see how the conference has grown over the years.

Anyway, I digress and I'll get to the point. The attendees that go to Codemash are a varied bunch. Other than enjoying bacon and hot sauce, the whole point of the conference is not to get religious about which programming language is better... in fact it is just the opposite. It's to see what other technologies are doing, how to leverage some of those concepts, and of course to meet some of the sharpest / most interesting people in the industry.  Many of those people use Macs (even the .NET guys like me) and tend to be innovators. So, I'll be keeping an eye out for anyone using an MBP.  Who knows, maybe there will even be an "open spaces" topic for people wanting to learn more about development on an MBP.  I will be taking notes and plan to post what I hear / learn on this blog.

And yes, if you see me there I will most certainly have my MBP and will be leaving my Windows 7 work laptop in the room (if I even take it at all).

Happy New Year and enjoy 2012!!!