3 Things I Hate About Windows Home Server

Generally speaking, I am very impressed with the Windows Home Server software in general, and my HP MediaSmart Server in particular.  Unlike every other backup solution I have ever tried, it works.  I love having shared space for media.  I love having a mapped network drive for stuff I want to store on the network.  In other words, it just works, with a lovely combination of simplicity and flexibility.

Most of the time.

There are three things about my home server that drive me stark raving mad.

Slow, Unresponsive Console

Number one, by far, is that the Windows Home Server Console, the control panel for the software, is so slow it makes it impossible to do anything.  Every time I try to use it, I see virtual glaciers flying by my desktop window.

It’s bad enough that it takes a minute or two to connect to the server, but that is bearable.  What’s not bearable is to try and click something and have absolutely nothing happen for minutes at a time.  The only other experience I can compare it to is when you’re trying to slog around a recently drained fish pond, with mud up to your knees.  Anyone who has ever drained ponds knows that getting around down there is slow going.

For example, it took me 5 minutes just to check an “Ignore this issue.”  That is beyond insane.  It’s to the point now that I’d rather not use my server to its fullest than to fight a losing battle with the console.  The home server is such a key and potentially useful part of your home network, that fast and reliable should be job one.  Even if it costs more.

Too Many Home Network Health Warnings

In theory, it’s great that the software notifies you when there is a potential problem with one of the network computers.  In practice, however, this feature comes across like Windows User Account Control on meth.  The sheer magnitude of the warnings combined with the slower than freeze-dried molasses console creates gridlock.  Grid. Freaking. Lock.

I ended up taking a number of lesser computers off the network, just so I could go on living my life.


Backup Failures

Of course, this only happens with my computer, which has the most important stuff on it, but over half of my backups fail, because for some inexplicable reason, “The computer failed to take a snapshot of the volume for backup.”  No shit Sherlock.  A Google search confirms that others are having this problem, but no solution was evident.


Is There a Solution?

I’m not sure.  I could buy one of the newer servers, which have more memory, and cross my fingers.  Nah.  I could make my own server out of an extra computer, but I’d lose all the stuff on my current server.  I could soldier on, and just take it.

I don’t know what I’m going to do, but this is driving me nuts.

Good and Bad News for Old MediaSmart Servers

I was a very early adopter of the HP Media Smart Server. I bought an EX475 model, upgraded the storage to 4 terabytes and haven’t looked back. Until, that is, I noted that the new version of the MediaSmart Server software (which includes the iPhone media streamer among other goodies) was not compatible with the older models.

That was a bummer.

But today I noted in my feed reading that someone has hacked a way to install the new software on the old machine. I’ve built computers from parts, and I hacked my Mac Mini right after I bought it. So I figured I was good to go.

Until I saw the required steps.

Are you kidding me? That’s looks about on the scale of building a space shuttle in your garage.

I don’t really need the software update. But if I did, I’d buy a new server from Amazon for $585, and move my bigger hard drives to that box. Compared to all that work, $585 seems like a great deal.

The Refurbished Risk

As someone who likes to build (and take apart and rebuild) just about anything, I have saved a lot of money over the years buying refurbished products.  Back in the day, I made regular trips to the old Compaq outlet in Houston.  I bought a lot of damaged and refurbished hardware there, including several of those wonderful Compaq keyboard scanners, a product that was far ahead of its time.  Most of the stuff worked fine.  Some of it had to be fixed, but there was only one computer that was so internally mangled that I had to take it back.  I saw and fixed many a blue screen of death (BSD) back then.  After HP consumed Compaq, I quit visiting that store.  I don’t know if it’s still there or not.  And I hadn’t seen a BSD since.

Until yesterday.

tx2525nr I have long been a fan of Woot, the “one deal a day” retailer.  Some of the items sold on Woot are refurbished.  I’ve bought several items from Woot and until now have never had any problems.  The other day, Woot was selling refurbished HP tx2525nr tablets for $699.  These boxes have 2GHz Turion chips, 3GB DDR2 of memory, a 12.1 WXGA touch screen, a 250GB hard drive and Vista Ultimate 64-bit.  Seemed like a good way to replace my trusty Thinkpad tablet that was long ago confiscated by my daughter.  So I, along with 511 others, bought one.

It came yesterday.  I set it up, went through the set up and registration process, and uninstalled all the crapware (less than it used to be, but still too much) that HP stuffs into its computers (why in the world do they make you check every one of those stupid HP games when you want to purge them?).  I connected to my wireless network and things were running smoothly.  For about 5 minutes.  As I always do with a new box, I went to the Microsoft Update site to update my software.  After installing the first round of updates, I get- you guessed it- a BSD.  I rebooted and the box restarted normally.  But when I tried to access the web, more BSD.  This time I had to remove the battery to get the box to restart.  And after that, it wouldn’t even boot.  BSDs galore.  The problem has something to do with the drivers for the wireless network card (a Broadcom 4321AG), but since I couldn’t get it to boot normally or access the web if it did, I couldn’t look for a new or alternate driver.

I don’t blame Woot.  The description clearly said the tablet was refurbished.  And if I had patience and several hours to kill, I could probably have sought help from HP.  But that’s not fun.

So I did what anyone else would do.  I wiped the entire hard drive.  And installed the Windows 7 beta.

I am already testing Windows 7 on another computer, so I have been through the installation process before.  Let me reiterate what others have said: the installation process is a breeze.  When the OS comes up, it automatically walks you through network connections and downloads updates.  I was able to reconnect to my network, access the web and even update some hardware drivers.  I lost some software that came with the computer, but some of it was unnecessary and I have alternatives for most of the rest of it.  I lost the fingerprint reader, but I found the drivers on the HP support site.  When I tried to install them, the fingerprint reader was not detected and I got more BSDs.  You can’t install these drivers in Safe Mode so I found the drivers in another format and tried again to install them via Device Manager.  More BSDs. And more, and more.

Ultimately, it fell into a BSD/restart death spiral.  By reinstalling Windows 7, I was able to interrupt the death spiral.  So the machine would boot, but without the fingerprint reader and, more importantly, without the ability to rotate the screen in tablet mode.

Since the early problems indicated an issue with the wireless card, I took it out and tried to install the tablet screen rotation application and the drivers for the fingerprint reader.  The rotation application installed without a hitch and worked upon restart.  The fingerprint drivers installed, and upon restart I could log in via the fingerprint reader.  No BSDs, at least not yet.  Eventually, I was able to get all the hardware working.  Well, except for the now absent wireless card.

During those happy and optimistic minutes I successfully installed some other applications: Microsoft Office, Evernote, Windows Live Writer.  The system seemed very stable.

But no wireless, which is pretty darn important in Tablet PCs.  So I marked a system restore point and reinstalled the wireless card.

Immediate BSD.  After a couple of reboots, I could get to the desktop and everything worked for a short while and then: BSD after BSD.  So I removed the wireless card, leaving me with an immobile mobile device.

I googled the wireless card and didn’t find any newer drivers.  I scanned the computer with Driver Scanner and it said all my drivers were up to date.

But the fact remains that the computer implodes when the wireless card is installed.

It has an ExpressCard slot, so I grabbed an ExpressCard wireless adapter and installed it.  So far this seems to work, though at the cost of the card protruding an inch and a half on the side of the computer.  I also ordered a different internal wireless card to see if a different brand with a different driver would work.  My guess is that it won’t, and if it doesn’t I can always put the new card in an another laptop.

After hours of work, it looks like this is a problem without an acceptable solution.  I have no way to know how many others who bought from Woot (or elsewhere) are experiencing problems, but at least a few are based on the discussion board at Woot.

In sum, this sucks.  Maybe I can get some help from HP.  Maybe I can’t, since I went to such extensive measures to fix the problem myself.

Either way, it’s a good lesson on the risks of buying refurbished products.

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Are Computers Becoming Irrelevant?

I have loved computers since that Christmas break long, long ago when my brother in law and I stayed up all night playing Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure on his Apple II.  Later, I spent countless hours playing Starflight and writing shareware games on an IBM clone.  Even later, I wrote and recorded hundreds of songs and took my home office paperless, all on my trusty computer.  In order to learn as much as possible about computers, I started building my own.  It makes me a little sad to realize that my beloved is quickly becoming irrelevant.

But the fact remains they are, because we just don’t need them anymore.  A confederacy of other devices have stolen all the fun and turned the once proud computer into an over-priced media server or typewriter.  The addition of an HP MediaSmart Server to my home network removes even the data storage role from my desktop computer’s job description.

So how did it happen?

Let’s start with games.  I have fond memories of late nights playing all sorts of computer games, from the excellent until abandoned Front Page Sports games to most of the Civilizations.  Then came Nintendo, the PSP, the X-Box and, finally, the Wii.  I held out during the PSP and X-Box era, but one game of Mario Kart on my kids’ Wii was all it took to convince me that the computer is an ineffective and obsolete gaming platform.  From this point on, it’s all about Mississippi Queen on Guitar Hero.

For email the herd has migrated to the iPhone and other lesser, but effective, devices.  We also use text messaging a lot more that we used to.  My family uses Beejive IM on our iPhones and iPod Touches, both to allow the kids to text from their iPods and to avoid the cost of traditional text messaging.  For music, we have our iPhones and iPods, AppleTV and, most recently, the ability to hear and display Pandora through our home theater system, via Samsung’s excellent BD-P2550 blu-ray player.  The Pandora application on this box is easy and beautiful.  It shows the last few songs played, with album art, and lets you easily switch between stations.  You can also watch your Netflix instant queue on this box.  It’s a brilliant strategy for the DVD makers to go on the offensive in the turf war.  PC makers have been trying, unsuccessfully, to displace DVD players for years.

If you just want to rent movies online or easily access your home movies, there is no better solution that AppleTV and iTunes.  Again, except for a server tucked in a closet somewhere, no computer needed.

All of this leaves the computer in the unenviable role of typewriter.  Sure, we need typewriters.  We use them every day.  But we don’t love them.  Or think of them as fun.  And, sadly for the PC makers, we don’t want to pay much for them.  So all these new devices steal the fun and the dollars, while the once mighty computer becomes a commodity, like paper, pens and other office supplies

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Following, Lazily, in the Footsteps of Giants

In August of 2004, I built a mighty fine computer from the ground up.  It had everything I needed, and it served me well for three years.

But boy was it loud.  Jet engine loud.  A fanless video card and an insulated case didn’t achieve the level of quiet I was hoping for.  Turning the fans down helped a little, but if I wasn’t careful it would get really hot.  Sometimes spontaneous reboot hot.  So I cranked the fans back up and soldiered noisily along.

I used two internal hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration, and two removable SATA hard drives for music and video storage.  That worked OK, but in hindsight I should have used RAID 1.  Over time, I started feeling nervous about data loss.  A couple of months ago, I started to have hard drive and boot configuration issues.  I started thinking about a new computer.

Then, as fate would have it, both of my computer gurus, Ed Bott and Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, bought and/or started to build new computers.  Both based on the Intel Intel Core 2 Q6600 chip.  Quad core, 2.4GHz.  Hmmm.

This past weekend, I had more boot configuration problem.  I can fix just about any computer problem, but when I spend too much time fixing something that ought to just work, I get irritable and frustrated.  Call it the Car Rule.  Application of the Car Rule to my loud, boot-challenged computer mandated- mandated I tell ya – that I get a new one.

I didn’t want to wait for the parts to arrive, and I was a little worried that if I built one from scratch I might end up with another jet engine sounding box.  So I did it the lazy way.

Image (1) hp.jpg for post 3488I bought an HP Pavilion m8150n.  I switched out the video card in favor of a GeForce 8600 GT card, for the dual DVI outputs (I am a devout believer in the dual monitor efficiency advantage).  I added an HP personal media removable hard drive (which slides into the slot to the left of the HP logo in the picture) to give me a almost a terabyte of storage, and to allow for hassle free back up.

Presto, I have a new computer that works like a charm.  And it’s very quiet.  As I type this, the only sound I hear is from the fan inside my AV cabinet 10 feet behind me.  The computer at my feet is virtually silent.

It wasn’t the cheapest way to go, but for a little over $1700 I have a new, quiet computer.

Now, about that fan in my AV cabinet…

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Why HP is Kicking Dell’s Ass


I’ve been a Dell guy for a long time.  Until I started building my own desktops, I bought a series of Dell desktops for me and my wife.  My first three laptops were Dells.  We used to have Dell desktops and laptops in my office.  I recommended Dells to teens of people who came to me for computer advice.  I am a long time Dell shareholder.

But the fact is that HP is kicking Dell’s ass.  Here’s why.

My office (which has thousands of computers) switched from Dells to HPs a year or so ago.  I have asked several of my friends who work for other big companies about their experience and, while Dell still holds a lot of market share, it is clear to me that HP is gaining share.  HP has the momentum for business users from what I see and hear.

When the power supplies started exploding on my self-built primary computer, I decided to buy a second computer to use as a backup- for both data and use when my primary computer is doing its fireplace imitation.  I went to Micro Center and looked around.  It was all about HP there.  I looked at a nicely priced HP Media Center computer and then came home to buy a Dell online.  I couldn’t find one I liked as well as the HP for the same or a better price.  I went back to the store and bought the HP.  It has worked like a charm, even through a Vista upgrade– and I didn’t have to wait for it to be manufactured and delivered.

HP has a virtual lock on retail shelf space as far as I can tell.  If he wants an HP,  Average Joe has to pull into the first computer store he sees.  If he wants a Dell, he has to go online, build it, send his credit card information into the big, scary internet…and wait.  Traditionally, Joe might be willing to do this, because he got a better bang for his buck and better technical support.  Dell seems to have squandered that giant advantage.

Next, my wife wanted a new computer for her birthday.  She uses computers for email, Photoshop and light word processing.  She told me what features she wanted.  I found another HP desktop that had exactly what she was looking for.  The price was right, and again I could buy it and bring it home right away.  Suddenly I had more HPs than any other brand of computer in my house- that was a weird feeling.

Finally, I decided I needed an alternate to my trusty Thinkpad X41 Tablet to take on business trips when I need a CD/DVD player and a little more H(orse)P(ower).  I looked at Dells, but the ones I liked cost more than I wanted to spend.  So one day I’m walking into a CompUSA to buy a useless Windows LifeCam (which managed to crash Vista and never worked once- more on that later) and I see this huge, 17 inch widescreen HP Pavilion laptop (model no. dv9225us).  Vista Ultimate, 64 bit, 2G of RAM, built in webcam, very nice speakers, HDMI output, etc.  For less than $1500.  Other than the unavoidable 64 bit compatibility problems (some applications aren’t compatible with the 64 bit version of Vista), this is one heck of a laptop for the money.

In sum, it looks to me like HP has the momentum across a very wide spectrum and in a very big way.

Momentum that changed me from a guy with a house and office full of Dells to a guy with a house and office full of HPs.  Sure, I feel a little disloyal, but other than that, it was a no-brainer.

And, yes, I bought that laptop.

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At Long Last: The Convergence of Phones and PCs

I remember a few years ago when we were selecting new telephones for my office. A few of us got to test out some of the possilibities and we later talked about the pros and cons of each.

I made the point over and over again (as I know I am prone to do, but at least I’m consistent) that I couldn’t believe there wasn’t more convergence between the PC and the good old phone. Specifically, I was amazed then, and I am still amazed now, at the lack of communication between PCs and phones, particularly in the corporate environment. If you’d told me back in the eighties that in 2006 there would not be an easy and widely used way to click on a name in your Outlook contacts and have your phone dial that person’s number, I would have laughed in your face. Yet, if anything it’s gotten worse over the years. One click dialing actually worked back in the dial up with your slow modem days. If I were creating the tech universe, once click address book dialing would have been the next thing I did after word processing and email.

But is hasn’t happened. And the inroads that have been made are much better suited for you home telephone than your office one. There’s still not easy way to get your office PC to talk to your office phone.

Sure, I have a Skype account at home and I know we could use some fancy VOIP phones at work that integrate, at least somewhat, with your PC. In fact, I tested a Cisco VOIP phone for almost a year. It was fine for me, as someone who is very tech savvy. But it would have been a disaster to roll them out to thousands of people who aren’t. Not to mention very expensive.

So we continue to plug along tethered to our regular old phones, which sit beside but never speak to our PCs.

But things are finally starting to change.

Jajah, for example, allows you to make phone to phone calls from their website. Just add your number to the first blank, the number you want to call to the second one and click “Call.” Your phone will ring, the other person’s phone will ring and, presto, you’re talking. It is easy and it works. Even better, there is an Outlook plugin that promises one click dialing from within Outlook- including both contacts and phone numbers that appear in the email you’re reading. The plugin would not install correctly in my exchange-driven office computer, but it is still in beta, so whatever problem I experienced may be fixed before the plugin is finalized. I will contact Jajah and see if I can get a fix on the issue.

Another startup, Hullo, provides similar services. Plus it lets you talk either via your regular phone or over the internet via VOIP. Plus, you can also add others to the call, creating easy conference calls. You can even switch between your regular phone and VOIP during a call.

Pinger, which I just read about today, takes things one step further. It allows you to store a special number in your mobile phone’s speed dial. You press the button for that number and, via voice prompts, you can access a person’s information from your phone’s address book and send that person an audio message, either to his email account or via SMS. Handy for when you need to leave a quick message, but don’t have time to talk. It’s in invitation-only beta right now but it looks very promising.

The big winner will be the company that combines most or all of these features in a cross-platform application that can be used in with corporate phone systems.

We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m excited about the possibility that my PC and my phone might soon be on speaking terms.

Why You Need a Terabyte Hard Drive

C|Net reports that terabyte (that’s 1,000 gigabytes) hard drives will likely be available by the end of the year.

The article goes on to say:

Granted, few people really need 1 terabyte of storage. But it sounds cool–sort of like you could be running a ballistic missile tracking site in your den. Besides, humans continue to show that they can come up with ways to gobble up hard drive space.

I can think of a lot of people who need that much storage, even if they don’t know it.

1) People (like me) who have years of raw and edited video footage they want to keep accessible for later use. I eventually burn my home video onto a DVD, but I like the redundancy of having it on my computer as well. Plus, having it on my computer allows me to more easily grab clips for later projects.

2) People (like me) who make music. I have tons of music tracks and many versions of a lot of my songs. Sure I could put them on DVDs and lose them, but why do that when storage is so cheap.

3) People who use their computers to record television shows and movies.

4) Families (like mine) who aspire to have central data storage for security and backup purposes. Everyone needs at least 250 gigabytes of storage and 1,000 divided by 4 is 250.

And most importantly…

5) People who want to create and administer a backup system that works. Every single one of the backup products out there is at least three times more complicated than it needs to be- which is why most people do not back up their data sufficiently. I decided a long time ago to forgo the brain damage of trying to create backup sets (and then to have to access and install them after a drive failure). Backups are like parachutes- there’s no way to test them until its too late.

It is much easier to have an extra hard drive, either in your computer or on your network, and simply copy all of your data to that drive, in its natural, uncompressed form. In fact, it is easier to clone your entire hard drive than it is to set up most backup programs. And if you have a drive failure, all you have to do is replace the bad drive with the backup drive and you’re off to the races.

I have over a terabyte of storage on the computer I am using right now- in a RAID array and in 2 other permanent and 2 other removable drives. It’s not easy to get that many drives to co-exist peacefully in one machine.

If I could have one terabyte drive in my computer and another on my network for backup, I would be in hard drive heaven.

So would you, even if you don’t know it yet.

UPDATE: Mike Miller points out in a Comment that Best Buy is selling a terabyte external hard drive right now. It’s not clear to me if that enclosure contains a single drive or multiple ones. My hunch is that is contains multiple drives, and thus the RAID configuration reference in the specifications.

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Dell's Dilemma

I can’t argue too much with Nick Carr’s take on Dell’s problems. I think Nick is correct that the support side of the business is dragging Dell, and its profits, down.

But I think there’s even more to it. Part of it isn’t Dell’s fault and part of it is.

The part that isn’t Dell’s fault is the fact that Intel and Microsoft aren’t doing their part to get new technology out the door that will spur lots of users into computer buying action.

The part that is Dell’s fault is the fact that Dell has become one of the giant companies it was created to slay and its regrettable decision to try to go cheap and off-shore where support is concerned. Most of the people who buy Dells are not computer geeks- at most they have read in the trades that Dells have traditionally been reliable and well-supported. These people have trusted the Dell brand, not so much for the cutting edge technology as for the reputation for reliability and good support. For Dell to take the cheap route where support is concerned is, to put it mildly, not taking care of the goose.

Adding to the problem is that Dell’s notebook line is faltering at a time when more and more businesses are moving to laptops. My firm just replaced our Dell desktops with HP laptops. From what I hear and read, I suspect some other large companies have done so as well.

Back in the day, buying a Dell and not a Compaq or an IBM was a little bit of a rebel move- and Lord knows the establishment-hating computerites of the world are always willing to take a shot at the man. Unfortunately for Dell, it has moved from the right side of the table to the wrong side. Now, along with Microsoft and Intel, Dell is the man. Its former place is now occupied by a new generation of small shops, who take their own shots at the man by building generic (but, generally speaking, quality) machines with AMD chips and Linux operating systems.

Making matters worse is that all of this is happening at the same time the desktop computer market matures, making computers less about tech and more about commodity.

Given that, Dell has to figure out how to make the transition from tech company to commodity company. In 2006, Dell has more in common with Ford or GM than it does with a tech company.

Making money in commodities is almost entirely a contracts and cost business. I think that explains, but does not excuse, the failed attempt to cut support costs.

It’s going to be a tough ride for Dell, but Dell is not without some advantages.

The advantages in the direct sale approach are still there. It costs money to operate and maintain retail distribution channels. Plus, Dell is expanding its services into storage and IT services. Its experience in building quality equipment cheaply will serve it well in those areas too. And there is still growth to be had overseas.

I still recommend Dells to my friends who ask. But I have to admit that, other than one trusty Latitude I keep around for guests, none of my current computers are Dells.

DISCLAIMER: I am a long-time Dell shareholder.