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Articles about home, SOHO and small-business IT and networking issues

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

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

31 July 2009 Posted by | Computer setups, Feature Article, Mobile Computing | , , , , | 2 Comments

Stronger Economy May Weaken Netbook Sales

Stronger Economy May Weaken Netbook Sales | Wi-Fi Planet

Netbook growth might end when economy recovers, says iSuppli

My comments on this issue

The “people’s cars” that were built in Europe.

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, VW, Citroen, British Motor Corporation and Fiat had put in to their lineup a small simple car which sold at a price affordable for most people in the country they were sold in. Before these vehicles came on the market, vehicles that were on the market wore priced out of reach of most people living in Europe. In some cases, the national governments were involved in the manufacture and sale of the vehicles to their citizens.

The vehicles, which were the VW “Beetle”, the Citroen 2CV, the Morris Minor, the Mini and the Fiat 500, had minimal equipment levels and were powered by a low-power engine which was of a simple design with the power going via a three or four-speed manual gearbox. These cars, which were of the sedan (saloon) body style, were able to comfortably accommodate four adults including the driver or a family of two adults and three children at a pinch.

But through the life of the models, they had undergone significant revisions to make them to the same standards as one of today’s small cars. For example, some of the cars were equipped with more powerful engines and had equipment which they did not have previously like electric windscreen washers or wind-down windows. The vehicle builders also had issued the vehicles in different body styles such as a delivery van, or convertible as well as the standard sedan (saloon) body style. In the 1960s, most of these vehicles had undergone a “rework” which had modern conveniences, improved performance and compliance with newer road-safety expectations integrated in to their design.

Now these cars had acquired “cult status” especially amongst people of the “baby-boom” generation. This was due to the vehicles being used by their family as the main household vehicle or these people buying them as their first car. The minimalist design that these vehicles had also been valued by the 1960s hippie culture.  The vehicle builders had responded with or are responding with “one-more-time” designs of these vehicles which look similar to the original model but have a design based on a current-issue small car. These cars are still considered “cool” and fashionable amongst today’s generation.

How this relates to the netbook.

I see the netbook as being akin to these “people’s cars” – a computer designed with a quaintly simple design with a simple outlook for a simple purpose. Then, like the vehicle builders had done with the “people’s cars”, the manufacturers will supply newer models with improved performance, capacity and functionality but in the same form factor, especially as the financial situation improves. Similarly, operating systems available for installation on these devices will end up being able to do most of what a full-size computer can do.

How the netbook could be relevant in a stronger economy

The netbook would evolve as a lightweight small-unit alternative to the economy notebook for the entry-level computing market. This class of users will want to start out on something simple so they can “get the hang” of the technology and work out their direction with it.

It would then exist as a secondary-computer option especially for users like journalists or students who want a highly-portable computer to take “out and about”, especially for notetaking or liveblogging. On the other hand, it could exist as an alternative to the mobile Internet device or the smartphone as one’s personal computing device.

It can also exist simply in a home network simply as a secondary “floater” computer that is moved between the kitchen, main lounge area (where most of the TV viewing is done), the outdoors entertaining area and similar common areas for online activity like interacting with TV-show Websites or responding to social networks and Web-based e-mail.

The thing to remember about these devices is that they won’t be used by most computer users as a primary desktop or laptop computer. They will simply be seen as an extension of one’s computing life.

7 May 2009 Posted by | Computer setups, Mobile Computing | | Leave a comment

Bluetooth 3.0 with High Speed Transfer – What does this mean?

Bluetooth Special Interest Group press release

WiFi Planet article on Bluetooth 3.0

My Comments

Bluetooth has hit the “big 3” by introducing a high-throughput version of its wireless personal network specification. This same technology used for sending pictures or phone-number data between mobile phones in the same space or streaming sound between mobile phones and car handsfree kits can do such things as wirelessly transferring one’s music library between a laptop computer and an MP3 player or “dumping” the contents of a digital camera to a computer.

It primarily allows data streams conforming to the Bluetooth protocols to be transmitted over the 802.11b/g WiFi network just by using the media-transfer levels of that specification. This takes advantage of the fact that a lot of the smartphones and the laptop computers have Bluetooth and WiFi wireless technology built in to them; and that premium MP3 players like the Apple iPod Touch will offer WiFi and Bluetooth on the same device. This is a situation that will become more common as chip manufacturers develop “all-in-one” WiFi / Bluetooth radio chipsets. For applications requiring a small data stream, the device just engages a single Bluetooth transceiver with the regular Bluetooth stack, which can save on battery power.

Intel had developed “My WiFi” which is a competing standard for a personal area network based on the WiFi technology with the devices using the full list of protocols and standards applicable to regular LAN applications. The idea was to have the laptop “split” its wireless-network ability into a client for a WiFi LAN and a very-low-power access point for a WiFi LAN which is the personal area network. At the moment, this technology is limited to laptops based on the Centrino 2 platform and requires that the laptop, being a general-purpose computer, becomes a “hub” device for the personal area network. But what could happen could be that other WiFi chipset vendors would license this technology and implement it into their designs, which could extend it towards other applications.

This would lead to a highly-competitive space for technologies that connect the wireless personal area network together, especially if the primary device of the network is a laptop computer. It could also incite manufacturers of devices like digital still and video cameras to include WiFi and Bluetooth in to these devices.

Who knows what the future will hold for the wireless personal area network.

23 April 2009 Posted by | Mobile Computing, Wireless Networking | , , | Leave a comment

The Mobile Internet Devices becoming the trend for this year

O2’s Joggler, formerly OpenFrame, launches in UK this April

Over the past few months, a new device category has started to emerge in the form of the Mobile Internet Device. It would have the functionality of one of today’s smartphones except for cellular voice and data communications.

The device would link to a home or other network using 802.11g or 802.11n WPA2 wireless or use a Bluetooth-connected mobile phone as its modem when it wants to benefit from the Internet. They will work as a media player, a games machine or an Internet-based information device. Some of these devices may benefit from extra software being downloaded on to them through a Web portal set up by their manufacturer or supplier. The primary user interface on all of these devices is a touch screen, but they may have extra keys for access to regular functions. They would mainly use a standard or micro SD card and / or built-in flash memory as their user storage and have their software loaded on other flash memory.

Interestingly, Clarion, one of the most respected car-audio brands, had developed the ClarionMIND which is a combination of a portable navigation device and a mobile Internet device. This gadget provides in-car and on-foot satellite navigation as well as Internet information access and media playback. If it is installed in a matching dock, the unit works like a high-end portable navigation device, passes its audio through the car stereo system and matches its display to “day” or “night” mode according to how you operate the car’s headlight switch.

The iPod Touch was one such device that predicted this device-category trend. It had the ability to play or show media held within it and was able to benefit from a wireless home network by being able to browse the web or add on software through the iTunes App Store.

But could they make the smartphone or connected electronic picture frame / portable navigation device / portable media player redundant? Not really. I would see them as a companion device for all mobile phones and a device which can perform functions complementary to these other devices.

For example, a mobile Internet device could become a DLNA Digital Media Controller / UPnP AV Control point for the DLNA Home Media Network. Similarly, they could perform other control functions that are becoming part of networked home automation. As well, they could be seen as an alternative to handheld games consoles by being able to download games from the Web portal. Other applications would include Web activities where very little text entry needs to be done such as monitoring information pages.

It would be certainly interesting to see how the new Mobile Internet Devices fit in to the personal computing ecosystem as they start to appear on the market.

5 March 2009 Posted by | Future Trends, Mobile Computing | , , , | 5 Comments

Wi-Fi for your Car, Truck, or MPV

 

Wi-Fi for your Car, Truck, or MPV

My Comments

One factor that is often missed when WiFi in the car is mentioned is the idea of network-hosted media in the car. This should cover access to Internet-hosted media like Internet radio through the car stereo, the ability to sync to the master media library at home whether the vehicle is at home or away and DLNA functionality at home or away.

The last function would cover DLNA media play through the car audio system whenever there is a DLNA media server in or near the car. A situation that would be covered in this setup would be to play music files held on a DLNA-enabled laptop or mobile phone or a home network’s DLNA server through the car speakers. Similarly, music could be downloaded to a hard disk installed in the car from these sources for later playback. In a similar vein, the car stereo could be a DLNA media server for RV (caravan) and holiday-home setups where the media library could be available through a UPnP AV-compliant media client device in the RV or holiday-home. This same setup can also please tradesmen who don’t want to hear the usual radio content on the job.

Another issue that needs to be raised is to have wireless broadband service at a cost-effective rate so that more people can think of benefiting from the technology.

8 January 2009 Posted by | Mobile Computing, UPnP AV / DLNA | , | Leave a comment

Ultra-Low-Power Wireless Networking

Recently semiconductor manufacturers like Intel and members of the Bluetooth consortium have been working on reference circuit designs for Bluetooth and WiFi network hardware that is designed around reduced power consumption and small circuit footprint. They will still have the same power output as current-generation wireless-network devices.

Ozmo and Intel are now looking at using the physical layer standards of WiFi beyond the local area network. They are looking at competing with Wireless USB and Bluetooth by using it as a “personal area network” or linking peripherals, typically user-interface peripherals, to a computing device. Their idea is that if a computing device like a laptop, mobile phone or portable media player has WiFi functionality for network access, the same WiFi electronics can be used for connection to wireless peripherals. It is in a similar sense where one uses a Bluetooth-capable laptop computer and uses that Bluetooth functionality for connection to a mobile phone as well as using a Bluetooth mouse.

Initially this technology will work as a way of allowing gadgets like mobile phones and MP3 players that have Bluetooth or WiFi functionality to work for longer sessions without “running out of juice” or needing to spend significant amounts of time being hooked up to external power. It could even lead to the feasibility of running this class of devices on commonly-available batteries like AA alkaline batteries. In the case of “small-form-factor” devices like watches or key-fob / card-size remote controls, they could be able to benefit from WiFi or Bluetooth technologies while running for their expected battery life of at least 3 months on one or two “button-cell” batteries.

Subsequently, the technology will allow the WiFi LAN technology to be considered useful for device control subsystems like handheld or key-fob remote controls and control / display units that are part of any building control and security application. Such devices could then be able to run on the same power quota as devices of this class based on current technology i.e at least 6 months on a set of 2-4 AA or AAA alkaline batteries or 1-2 “button cells” rather than manufacturer-specific rechargeable battery packs that require the device to live in a charging cradle. This can give RF-based remote control the ability to work in a home network that is optimised for the building. It also permits one to design a network device that has only a wired (Ethernet or HomePlug powerline) network connection but can exchange control signals with an optional WiFi-based controller that works through the wireless home network hosted by the wireless router that the device is connected to using a wired network connection. Similarly, a central HVAC system could use one or more wireless-linked temperature sensors to gain a proper measurement of house temperature instead of referring to the thermostat located in the hallway or kitchen.

As we se more of the semiconductor manufacturers and the wireless networking standards bodies work on the ultra-low-power wireless client device, there could be many new applications for WiFi and Bluetooth being made real and a huge gateway of innovation could open up.

8 January 2009 Posted by | Mobile Computing, Network Management | Leave a comment

WiFi tops poll for best technological innovation of last decade – Telegraph

 

WiFi tops poll for best technological innovation of last decade – Telegraph

What has WiFi been about especially for the home IT environment?

One major way WiFi has benefited the home IT environment is the increased sale of laptop computers (http://www.australianit.news.com.au/story/0,24897,24851973-15306,00.html?referrer=email) over desktop computers. This typically would manifest in a home computing environment consisting of one or more laptop computers that have built-in WiFi wireless ability. The network – Internet “edge” device in this environment would be a wireless router that brings the Internet to these laptops via WiFi wireless. In some countries, the standard provider-supplied “customer premises equipment” for Internet service would be equipped with WiFi wireless capability.

Increasingly, nearly every printer manufacturer is running at least one residential-tier multi-function printer equipped with network ability, typically with WiFi network access. This means that the printer can be located in one position wherever the user desires and print documents from their laptop. There also is the increasing number of “Internet radios” or “i-Radios” that use WiFi to bring Internet radio streams to the speakers in these sets.

This may not be strictly a home-IT environment issue but the number of “hotspots” and “hotzones” that are part of public places is now increasing. These WiFi-based public networks are allowing for anywhere computing.

This has also caused most current-model mobile phones and PDA devices to be equipped with WiFi wireless thus allowing for cost-effective portable Web browsing and, increasingly, DLNA-driven music management and playback. These phones will eventually lead to WiFi being another mobile-telephone network usually in the form of fixed-mobile communications for example.

There have been attempts to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg” by limiting WiFi or making it unpopular. It has mainly been based on the “electromagnetic waves being dangerous to people” theory being propagated as part of junk science, but real scientific tests have proven that the RF emissions yielded by typical WiFi and Bluetooth setups none or very little detrimental effect on people.

Even without this article, I would certainly agree that WiFi has become an important computer technology for all IT scenarios.

29 December 2008 Posted by | Internet Access And Service, Mobile Computing, Wireless Networking | | Leave a comment

Broadcom’s New 802.11n Chip Includes Bluetooth and FM | WiFi Planet

 

Broadcom’s New 802.11n Chip Includes Bluetooth and FM

My Comments

I see this design as being increasingly relevant because of the way major electronics manufacturers are building “best of class” personal-electronics devices in all of the device classes (mobile phone, personal digital assistant, personal media player, etc) that they offer such devices in. The main issue that has plagued people who use these devices is the increased likelihood of the device’s battery dying on them when they want to get the best out of the device.

I see this design as a step in the right direction regarding long battery run-time for these devices because, as the article has said,  of integrating the WiFi N, Bluetooth and FM radio circuitry in to the one circuit with improved power consumption. This is certainly important if the device is to be used in a wireless network and with a Bluetooth headset for example.

It also encourages device builders to consider not just Internet-hosted services but network-based services like DLNA-based media server / control / play functionality. Now that this version of the chip integrates low-power FM transmission, this could appeal to the idea of a “music phone” or personal media player with DLNA media play functionality playing music from its own collection or a DLNA network media server through an ordinary FM radio.

At least this chipset will be a step in the right direction for “raising the bar” in personal-electronics design.

18 December 2008 Posted by | Mobile Computing, UPnP AV / DLNA | , , | 1 Comment

The “netbook” computer – now every manufacturer is selling one of them

A “netbook” computer is a low-cost portable computer the same size as a classic “Day-Planner” or “Filofax” personal organizer but is primarily designed to be used for basic computing tasks like Web browsing, e-mail work or basic word-processing. Typically they will have up to 1Gb on the RAM and up to 80Gb on a solid-state disk or 120Gb on a mechanical hard disk. They will use a processor like the Intel Aero that is pitched at ultra-portable computer work by being designed to offer basic processing power without much energy being used. . The display won’t have the kind of performance that you would expect for intense game play or video editing but would be suitable for most tasks including playing casual games.  Typically, they will have built-in wireless networking support primarily for Internet access. The operating system they will often run with is either a customised Linux build or the latest “out-of-box” build of Windows XP. They usually don’t come with any sort of “load device” like an optical disk drive because you are expected to work with the software that is supplied as part of the unit or download extra software from the Internet to suit your needs. If you do need auxiliary storage or a “load device”, they may come with an SD card drive or you plug in a USB Mass-Storage compliant device like a memory key or external optical drive.

This class of computer was born out of the “One Laptop Per Child” project where the idea was to provide computer and Internet access to children in marginalised Third World countries.  They have also gained appeal in Western countries as a small secondary computer for e-mail and Web use or as an entry-level computer for the likes of students. One area that they can come in handy in the home is as a “Web terminal” that is used in the kitchen or lounge for casual Web browsing. This would be set up in a similar manner to what I have suggested in a previous article about how a secondhand computer could be set up as a kitchen computer.

For most people, it may be preferable to work with Windows XP-based netbooks rather than the scaled-down Linux units. This will provide a lot more operating room through the unit’s working life. If you do a lot of work with Linux, I would suggest that you go for the high-end Linux units and know how to keep their software up to date. This may involve “rolling in” the latest version of a standard distribution like Redhat or OpenSUSE with all its functionality. Some Linux “geeks” may be interested in using a “netbook” for modelling programs that they are developing or building the “perfect” distribution.

I would still certainly say that these “netbooks” still have their place in the computer market in all market conditions.

30 November 2008 Posted by | Computer setups, Mobile Computing | | Leave a comment

SlotMusic – the Musicassette of the 21st Century

SlotMusic web site

Those of us who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s, will remember the pre-recorded cassettes being another way to sell recorded music. These tapes were typically marketed as “Musicassettes” and were able to be played in any old cassette player or recorder that existed, whether in (or under) the dashboard of a car, a portable unit or a cassette deck attached to the hi-fi system. They were typically considered second-rate to the LP record and people who were serious about music quality typically recorded the LP onto one side of a blank C-90 cassette for in-car or portable use rather than buying these tapes.

This was until the 1980s where there were many high-quality cassette players and recorders being used by the public. This was exemplified by the Walkman personal cassette player and the large “boom boxes” of that era and vehicle builders equipping their premium vehicles with high-quality cassette players. It led to the music industry improving the quality of these tapes by using improved tape stock for the cassettes, implementing an improved signal path and using stringent quality control during the tape replication process. This led to the cassette being respected more as an analogue recorded-music medium alongside the LP record. Some people then ended up not using the turntable function of a music centre or built up a music system with a cassette deck as the system’s only packaged-music source.

Now, SanDisk has implemeted the MicroSD card as a recorded-music distribution medium for use with mobile phones or MP3 players. The medium, market as “SlotMusic”, is sold with an accompanying USB card reader for use with PCs or media players equipped with USB ports, but can be played on equipment that has a MiniSD or standard SD card slot through the use of a MiniSD or standard SD adaptor card. These cards will contain 320kbps MP3 files of all the music that is on the album.

I have read many criticisms to this format, primarily by CD enthusiasts who see it as another poor-quality format for portable use. This is going to be very much the same sentiment that was held regarding the pre-recorded Musicassettes where they were only suitable for playing on a low-quality portable cassette recorder and weren’t fit for use on a hi-fi system.

As far as the home network is concerned, music files on a SlotMusic card can be copied to a DLNA media server which can provide them out to other DLNA music clients. This could be done either by copying the files in to a directory named after the album using the network file-transfer techniques or by “inducting” the SlotMusic card’s contents in to the music collection using the PC jukebox software’s content-import procedures and, if necessary, synchroniing that data to the music server.

29 November 2008 Posted by | Mobile Computing | , , | Leave a comment