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Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

“Impossible” is only found in the dictionary of a fool.  
Old Chinese Proverb

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hot Smokin' Weapon! Award for October 2013
The Raspberry Pi

Yep.  It's time for yet another Hot Smokin' Weapon award - and this month's winner is the Raspberry Foundation's pocket-sized computer, the Raspberry Pi.

Recently I was able to get my hot little hands on a Raspberry Pi board.  Built and designed in the land of British pubs and lousy beer, they're available here in the U.S. for about $35 each.  For another five or ten dollars, you can get it complete with an SD card pre-programmed with a boot loader and five or six Linux distributions to play with.

Here's what a Raspberry Pi, Model B, looks like in real-life.  Notice its size relative to the full-size SD card next to it.  The Raspberry Pi people refer to it as a "credit card" sized computer.  The red board on the right is the PI's GPIO breakout board that you can use to control external circuitry.

The layout illustration was taken from the Raspberry Pi web-site located at http://www.raspberrypi.org/faqs

And here's the layout, (minus the two flex connectors).  The difference between the Model A, and B, is that the A version does not have the LAN port, has only half the onboard memory, and has only one USB slot instead of the two on the model B.  Since, IMHO, the extra USB port and the LAN capabilities are important to me, I purchased the model B, and I am basing my review on that particular version.

This is the Ethernet / USB end of the board.  You can see the full-sized HDMI connector on the left just above the Ethernet jack, (with the brown tape on it), as well as the yellow RCA composite video connector and a blue "headphone" jack for analog audio if you are not using the HDMI connector.  Or, if you have connected it like me using a HDMI - DVI adapter plug, you need the aux audio connector for audio.

Here's a view from the other end.  In this view you can see the two flex-cable connectors, (marked with red arrows), and the GPIO header on the left, marked with the green arrow.  The bottom flex connector is for use with the Pi's camera module and the flex connector on the upper right is rumored to be for an LCD display module.  The GPIO connector attaches to the GPIO breakout board using a standard 26 conductor ribbon cable and connectors.

The big square chip just above the lower red arrow is the brains of the beast.  It is a Broadcom "System on a chip" that contains everything on the board, except the connectors, voltage regulator, decoupling capacitors, isolation resistors, and the status LEDs.  The rest is in the chip - the ARM processor, the GPU, the Ethernet and USB controllers, and God only knows what else.

Here's a full-size SD card, the Raspberry Pi, and the GPIO breakout board shown next to a 12" ruler to give you a sense of scale.

This picture has the Raspberry Pi next to a plastic case you can buy for it.  It has cutouts for all the connectors, the GPIO breakout board's ribbon cable, and a slot to put a SD card, (face down) at the back.  Since, (obviously!), the Pi is a live circuit board, putting it in some kind of a case is a smart move to prevent accidental short-circuits from ruining it.

Now, let's insert a pre-loaded SD card, and fire the beastie up!

Note that the Raspberry Pi has no onboard BIOS of any kind, so there must be a SD card, with software loaded, before the thing will do anything at all.  Especially since the SD card is the system's "hard drive" so to speak.

You can load software on the Pi in one of several ways:
  • If you are a total masochist, (or need special capabilities not available any other way), you can dig up the specs, an ARM assembler/compiler, and write "bare metal" code for the thing.  There's a whole forum at the Raspberry Pi site devoted to just that kind of insanity.  Since I've done that kind of thing before, (and no, I've never claimed to be sane), it sounds rather interesting.  I'm planning to go wander around there, just as soon as I work up the nerve and get a couple of minutes to spare.

  • You can spool a byte-for-byte image of various distro's directly onto the SD card.  Note that these images are bit-images, just like an ISO file for a CD, so they have to be written as a bit-image using special raw byte transfer software like "dd" in Linux.  There are several software image writers for Windows, and you can use them as well.

  • Even though spooling a bit-image onto your SD card isn't really that difficult, it is a bit tricky, so the developers of the Raspberry Pi created a special boot-loader called NOOBS.  (New Out Of Box Software)  And yes, the pun is deliberate, since it is primarily intended for those of us who are not Certified Raspberry Engineers; to help us get up, running and productive with a minimum of grief.

Here's an image of the initial screen you see when NOOBS version 1.3.0 boots for the first time.

The first thing you notice is the list of distributions you can load, ranging from the very capable Raspbian re-spin of Debian Linux, all the way to the more esoteric RISC OS, while not for beginners, it's a full-blown re-spin of IBM's RISC operating system.  It's funky, but fast.  Unlike a Linux distribution, this thing boots all the way to it's GUI in less time than it takes your hand to move away from the power connector you just plugged in.  Like I said, it's a bit wonky if you're not familiar with RISC systems, but its scary fast!

If you're looking carefully, you will notice a number of selection icons across the top of the dialog window.  And yes, Virginia, that round thing that looks like a globe is the icon that launches the loaders built-in web browser.

Yep, you heard me right, the OS loader selection screen has a built-in web browser that can be used to surf the web in case you need any supporting information to get you started.  And to make things better, the browser's home page is set to link directly to the Raspberry Pi help forum.  And it's not just a crufty text-based browser either.  It's the Real Deal.  So far, the only things it doesn't do is allow you to download something, (though I might be wrong here), and play Flash video.  Oh, in case you wondered, it does fully support PDF files, and they can be viewed directly within the browser itself.

In case you really need to get down-and-dirty, ALT-F2 brings you to a text based login screen - the user is "root" and the password is "raspberry" - where you can do pretty much everything you could do in a "normal" text based startup - or a terminal window - in Linux.

Here's a closer look at the distro selection screen showing the various distributions you can install.  Oh, and by the way, the check-boxes are there for a reason.  A new feature in NOOBS 1.3.0 is the ability to install more than one distribution at a time - limited only by the space on your SD card.  And just to make sure you don't goof up, the area down at the bottom, labeled "Disk space" shows you both how much space you have to play with, and the total space needed for the selections you've made.  If you select more than can fit - the total space number becomes a bold-faced red to warn you. I don't know if it prevents you from trying - I did not try it - but it is a thoughtful touch.

If you install Raspian, you see this configuration screen at first-boot where you can set a whole bunch of useful and important parameters - like your localization settings since everything defaults to settings appropriate for Great Britain.  Unless you live there, you will have to set the system locale to one appropriate for you, your time zone, and your region's particular keyboard-map.  Note that the locale settings also set the default language for the system, as run.  And yes, they have support for just about every weird character set and language out there.  I didn't try Arabic or Hindi, but they do a darn good job with Russian.

Once you're done, the system reboots and - if you have selected the option to boot directly to the GUI - you are presented with the Raspian desktop.

Of course, the background image is the Raspberry Pi logo, in living color, larger than life.  Once you get tired of looking at that - which doesn't take long - you can substitute any image your little heart desires.

The desktop manager is LXDE, one of the "lightweight" desktop managers.  Though it might be "lightweight" desktop in size, it's a fooler since it's most definitely not lightweight in capabilities.  If you can do it in Gnome or KDE, chances are you can do it here too.  Though you won't see all the "eye candy" that's in the larger desktops, (Face it, do you REALLY need bouncing desktop icons that spin and change colors?), it does a very competent job of doing what it does, being a desktop that lets you get work done.

Since the original design philosophy of the Pi was to use it as a teaching tool, it comes pre-loaded with a couple of programming environments:  Scratch for the rank beginner who has never even thought of programming in his life, as well as Python, the "official" programming language of the Raspberry Pi in Raspian.

In case you're curious, Scratch is a very elementary programming language - not unlike the "turtle graphic" languages that were in vogue during the '90's, and it works a lot like a Lego building set.  Each kind of statement, conditional, expression, or whatever has a particular shape.  Syntax is taken care of by how the shapes fit.  If they fit, it will work.

Another part of the language is a large catalog of "sprites" - graphical images that can be placed in the primary display area known as the "stage".  Depending on the steps you put together, you can make the sprite do any number of things on the stage.  You can put more than one sprite on the stage, change their position or direction of travel, and detect if they touch each other, or touch one of the stage's side walls.

I played with it for about 30 minutes or so, and I was able to get the main sprite - a cat - to walk around the stage, changing color as he walked.

Oh!  I almost forgot to mention; what happens if you get heartily tired of the distro(s) you originally picked and want to do something different?

Every time the system boots, you get about five seconds of this - a way to abort the boot and return to the original NOOBS loader screen.

The good news:  If you've gotten so tired of Raspian that you are about to scream, you can swap it out for any of the other distributions.

The bad news:  Making new distribution selection(s) on the NOOBS loader screen is a destructive process.  Any settings, files, and God Knows What Else you may have created are lost and gone forever, oh my darling Clementine. That is, unless you had the foresight to plug in a thumb-drive and copy your settings and files off the system before selecting a new distribution set.

The bottom line:

Though originally conceived as a teaching tool, the Raspberry Pi is a competent system in it's own right.

You can use it as a self-contained media center connected to your huge screen HDMI TV / Display - a job that it totally KICKS ASS at, making my larger computers with wicked nasty video cards look like pikers by comparison.

You can use it as a miniature, (in size only, not in capabilities), RISC "mainframe" system with multiple users logged in at the same time.

With a suitable distro installed - like Raspian - you can use it as a full-fledged workstation.  So much so that there are a multitude of forum threads devoted to people who have decided to toss their big, noisy, power-hungry beasts and just use the Raspberry as their main computer system.  And if you're like me, and won't miss the dancing bears, roving eyeballs, and bouncing icons, you will feel right at home sitting in front of your cigarette-case sized computer, kicking ass and taking names, right up there with the Big Dogs.

Don't take my word for it.  Go out and get one - they're dirt-cheap by comparison - and give the beast a spin.  Just be careful.  It might be love at first sight!

Read all about it at http://www.raspberrypi.org

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Migrating Outlook's User Settings
How to move your settings from one computer to another

In a previous article, I wrote about how to migrate Outlook's mail files from Windows XP to Windows 7, and it has been one of the most popular articles I've written based on web traffic.  The most common question that this article spawned was, (something like), "OK, Einstein, I've moved all my files; now how do I go about moving my settings as well?!"

This is a perfectly legitimate question since, if you've had Outlook set up for longer than fifteen minutes, it's a lead-pipe cinch that you've developed a rather complicated set of settings, rules, accounts, and such-like over the years.  And one of the biggest hurdles to migrating your e-mail from one system to another is not so much migrating the e-mail, (that is, your mail files and such), but recreating all the customizations, tweaks, changes, and such that make your installation of Outlook uniquely yours.  Not to mention having to remember all the settings, passwords, security configurations, (etc. . .), for each and every e-mail account that you've associated with Outlook.

This article seeks to address that issue by showing you how to move not only your mail files, but all your customizations, rules, and settings as well.

Unfortunately, this article is Looooong. . . .

It's not that difficult to do, and it really doesn't take as long as you might think from reading this article.  It's just not something that can be told in three or four steps.

Be patient, read through it two or three times, grit your teeth, and push onward!

  • This article assumes that you are using Outlook for local e-mail storage. (i.e. your mail files are stored locally on your system, you connect to your ISP's mail server using POP-SMTP, (or maybe even IMAP, though I have not tried it), and not as part of an Exchange Server system on a domain, etc.  If your mail is stored on an external/corporate mail system this may not work.  You can try it, and if it does work, please let us know!
  • My system is a Windows 7 - 64 bit system; though this should work on the 32 bit version of Windows 7, as well as both 32 and 64 bit versions of Vista.  If anyone tries this on Windows 8 - 32 or 64 bit, please post a comment and let me know if it works there too.
  • I have not tried this migrating between 32 and 64 bit versions of Windows - in either direction.  Because certain important metadata information about your e-mail setup is located in the Registry, and because I do not know if there are any differences between them on 64 or 32 bit systems, Your Mileage will most certainly Vary.
  • My system is a Win-7 / Vista generation system.  Since I do not currently have a working installation of Outlook on anything older than that - like XP - I cannot say if this will work or not.  However, knowing how Microsoft does things, and how their Registry is organized, I wold not be surprised if this works there too.  Again, if you try this on XP, please post and let me know if it works there or not.
    • Also note that the locations of the various mail-files and such are different when migrating from XP to Vista/Win7/Win8.  Pleas see my previous article for information on where the files are located on XP, and how to migrate these files from XP to something later.  You should also be aware that these differences in file locations will, very likely, affect the Registry settings for Outlook too.  Beware.
  • My version of Outlook is the Outlook 2010 version, however this should work on versions from 2007 onward.  It might work with Outlook 2003, and I have not tested it with Outlook 2012, though it would not surprise me if it works there too.
  • My version of Outlook is the 32 bit version of Outlook 2010, since at the time I installed it Microsoft was recommending everyone install the 32 bit version unless you had a very specific need for the 64 bit variety of Outlook.
  • I am also assuming that your mail files are located in the standard locations where Outlook normally installs them.  If you've moved your mail-files around, you'll have to substitute your unique paths and places when I tell you to either copy or paste the various folders.
  • You will be "mucking around" with your Registry, and if you're not careful, you can mangle a system in short-order.  However, most of the things here are relatively benign, and if you follow the steps carefully, you should have no problems.  Of course, Your Mileage May Vary, and if you bork your system. . . .  Well you should have made backups first!

 Here's how to do it.

Setup, prior to migration between the two systems:
  • First things first:  Perform a full system backup, preferably a "bare metal" backup if at all possible, before doing anything else.  These steps are fairly easy and the majority of Windows users should have no problems.  However, good 'ole Mr. Murphy likes nothing better than to catch someone - no matter how experienced - with his pants down.  Mistakes happen, so don't forget the backup!
  • Make sure that the account username is identical on both the original system and the target system.  Likewise, make sure that both of the accounts are elevated to "Administrator" access.  If you want to down-grade the account(s) to "Standard User" access, that can be done once everything is proven and working.
    • You can move between systems where the username is not the same, but you will loose a lot of the metadata and rule relationships simply because the paths to the various files are different.

      In one case, I tried moving from a system where the username was "Jim" to one where the username was "Jim Harris", and because the user path isn't the same, things get interesting.  In my case I ended up having to re-sync a number of my rules because the target folder of the rule changed due to the path change.  Likewise, although all the account information came over, the passwords for the accounts were lost and I needed to re-enter them again.
  • Prepare the target system by installing the same version of Outlook as is on the original system before you migrate.  Microsoft likes to make, (ahem!), "little tweaks here and there" between the differing versions of Outlook.  If you don't believe me, go look at another article I've written on just that very subject.  Verify that Outlook on the target system is fully installed and ready to have e-mail accounts set up.  Don't set the accounts up just yet, just make sure that Outlook is at the point where accounts can be set up.
  • Make sure Outlook is not running on either of the two systems - both source and target..  In fact, while you're doing this, you'll probably want to either unplug the network cable, or turn Wireless networking off, (or both.), on both systems.  The reason for this is that:
    • If the first system downloads e-mails while you're migrating to the second system, your two systems are now "out of sync", and you'll have to repeat much of this to re-sync them.
    • If Outlook is running on either system, you may not be able to copy, or instal, the necessary files and settings.  And even if you do, you can't guarantee that they'll work right.
  • With networking / Wireless turned off on both systems, do what I call a "Frosty Cold Reboot".  That is, do a full shutdown to the power-off state on both systems, count to five slowly, and then restart both systems, making sure that networking is still disabled and Outlook is not running.
Most of the things you'll be doing require full administrative rights on the system.  If the account you're migrating from/to is just a "standard" account, you should, (temporarily), elevate it to an "Administrator" account while the migration is in progress.

Saving your mail-files:

This is where you'll backup all your important e-mail files.
  • Prepare a thumb-drive, (USB stick, flash drive, or whatever you want to call it), that is big enough to hold all your mail-files with about a gig or two left over.
  • Place the thumb-drive in your original system, and create three folders:
    • In the root of the thumb-drive, create a folder called "Outlook"
    • Inside the Outlook folder you just created, create two new folders called "Local" and "Roaming".
  • Make sure that Outlook is not running, (or shut it down if it is), then make the following file copies between your original system and the thumb-drive:
  • Go to the "C:\Users\[your user name]\AppData\Local\Microsoft" folder.
    • If you cannot see the hidden "AppData" folder from within your home directory, you'll have to open the "folder options" dialog and - under "Hidden Files and Folders", select the radio-button next to "Show hidden files, folders, and drives".
    • Likewise - from inside the same dialog - you'll have to un-check "Hide protected operating system files (Recommended)"  Windows will complain bitterly about this, but go ahead and do it anyway.  (You may want to go and set these two settings back to the way they were when you're finished migrating.)
  • Within the Microsoft folder, pick up and copy the entire "Outlook" folder to the \Outlook\Local folder on your thumb drive.  Since this contains your mail files, as well as certain special indexing and metadata files, this might take a while.  Note that the Outlook directory on my own system weighs in at just under two gigs.  It's been around a while, but I've also done the periodic garbage collection - throwing out ancient and useless e-mails - as well as compacting folders to keep the amount of cruft and junk to a minimum.
  • Next, go to your "C:\Users\[your user name]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft" folder and copy the following folders to the \Outlook\Roaming folder on your thumb-drive:
    • The "Outlook" folder
    • Both the "Proof" and "UProof" folders.
    • Both the "Signatures" and "Stationary" folders.

Saving your e-mail settings:

This is where you backup all the "hidden" settings and passwords from the Registry.
  • First:  Open an elevated (Administrator), command prompt.  This is important since Windows versions starting with Vista onward, "virtualize" important parts of the system.  You need to be working with the real Registry, not some "virtual" copy of it.
    If you've never done this before, here's how:
    • Click on the "Start" button and go to "All Programs" and then "Accessories".
    • Within the "Accessories" section, you'll see a black box icon named "Command Prompt" about three or four icons down from the top.
    • Right Click on the "Command Prompt" icon, and select "Run as Administrator" from the pop-up sub-menu that appears.
    • Click on "Yes" if a UAC prompt asks you for permission.
    • You should now see a "DOS" type command prompt window that has as it's title "Administrator: Command Prompt".  This is very important!  Verify that you have the correct command prompt window open before you proceed!
  • Within the elevated command prompt window, type "regedit".  Once you do this, you'll see the standard Windows Registry Editor window appear.
  • Navigate to the following location within the registry:
    HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Windows Messaging Subsystem\Profiles.
    (Whew! What a mouthful that was!!)  Let's try that again, easier this time.
    • Software
    • Microsoft
    • Windows NT
    • CurrentVersion
    • Windows Messaging Subsystem
    • Profiles
  • When you expand the "Profiles" key, (by clicking on the small triangle), one of the sub-keys you should see is one named "Outlook".  (On my system, "Outlook" is the only sub-key there.  Your system may have others too.)  This is the Registry key you're interested in, and this is the Registry key where all the magic is located.  In the next few steps, you're going to make a copy of all the data in this key and save it on your thumb-drive so that you can move it to your new system.
  • Click on the "Outlook" sub-key so that it is highlighted, right click on it to expand the pop-up sub-menu, and then select "Export"
  • When you do that, you'll see a dialog box titled "Export Registry File"
    • Select the \Outlook folder on your thumb-drive as the location for the exported file.
    • Give the export file a useful name.  Something like "Outlook Settings Export 06-21-2013.reg" is a good choice.
    • Make sure the "Save as type" is set to "Registration Files (*.reg)" - which is the default setting.
    • Make sure that the "Export range" is set to "Selected branch".
    • Click on "Save", wait a nanosecond or so, and the magic is done!  You now have a perfectly preserved copy of all those mysterious settings in Outlook.

Danger, Will Robinson!  Danger!  Danger!

All of the previous steps assume that you have not opened Outlook since you started this process.  Opening Outlook, (especially if you've received any e-mails between the time you copied the mail-files from ...\AppData\Local and now), will write various changes into many files on the system - especially within the "Outlook" sub-key in the Registry.

This actually surprised me as I had previously "assumed" ( ! ! ! ) that the Registry settings only contained account, setup, password, (and possibly), path information about your e-mail.  When I re-exported my Outlook registry key today, (just to make sure I was using the correct sequence of steps in this article), I tried comparing it to another Outlook registry key export I did a week ago, "just for grins and giggles" - and damn if they weren't different!

Admittedly, the differences were (usually) relatively small in nature with only a few bytes different here and there; but any differences make me nervous.  Especially since I don't know what those "few bytes here and there" might represent.  And, AFAIK, the only differences between then and now is that I have received a fair amount of e-mail since I did the original Registry settings export.

If you have opened Outlook, it is very likely that your mail-files, metadata, and Registry have become unsynchronized.  If you try to restore the files you copied earlier, along with the Registry settings that you've just now exported, the results may be, (ahem!), "interesting".  To avoid this, you'll have to make sure Outlook is not running, then go back to the beginning and start re-copying all the files and settings all over again.  Bummer. . . .

The last step in exporting everything from your "old" version of Outlook is to export all your rules.

I know that I have been screaming up-and-down about not opening Outlook, but this time you gotta do it, since (again, AFAIK), the only way to access these rules is via Outlook itself.

Now hold on!  Before you get all eager and go starting up Outlook, you still have to make sure your e-mail sessions don't get outta whack.  To do that, you need to make sure that Outlook can't get to the Internet, and the best way to do that is to disconnect from any and all network sources; either hard-wired Ethernet, or via WiFi.

Once you're absolutely and totally disconnected from ANY network source whatsoever, you can go ahead, start up Outlook, and export all your finely crafted rules.

Here's how to do it:
  • Start Outlook and go to your usual mail-view page where you read and send e-mails.
  • Once you've gotten your e-mail open, up on the "ribbon" near the right side, is an icon that looks like a folder, labeled "Rules".
  • Click on the little triangle under it to expose the drop-down menu, and select "Manage Rules & Alerts".
  • You should now see the "Rules & Alerts" dialog with the "E-mail Rules" tab selected, showing (the top of) all the rules you've defined.
  • On the top right-hand side, select "Options", it will open another dialog titled "Options", and within the top half of the dialog you'll see two buttons labeled "Export Rules" and "Import Rules".  Obviously, what you want to select is "Export Rules".
  • When you click on the "Export Rules" button, you get the usual Windows "Save" dialog which defaults to the "C:\Users\[your user name]\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook" folder.  You don't want to save it there, you want to place it on your thumb-drive with everything else, so go find the thumb-drive on the left hand, ("places"), pane, and select the Outlook folder you created there earlier.
  • Give the exported rule file, (*.rwz), a useful name like "08_20_2013_rules_export.rwz", and save it to the thumb-drive.
  • Click "OK" on each of the dialog boxes to get back to Outlook's e-mail page, and then close Outlook.
At this point, you can do a complete shut-down on your system and remove the thumb-drive.

Now that you have all the data and metadata from the old system saved all snug and warm on your trusty thumb drive, you can set the old system aside, and bring the new system to center-stage.

At this point, you're going to move all of the carefully preserved data from the old Outlook installation into the new Outlook installation; making it, (hopefully!), an exact clone of the original Outlook install.

How to do it:

Setup prior to restoring the Outlook data:
  • First, make sure the new system has no active network connections whatsoever.  Unplug the network cable and/or turn off wireless networking on the new system.  This will prevent Outlook from trying to do things to you behind your back.
  • Make sure that the user on the new machine has the exact same name as the user on the old machine.
  • Launch Outlook, and verify that there are no accounts set up, but that it is ready to create new accounts.  Then close Outlook.

Restore the saved Outlook mail-files and metadata:
  • Attach the thumb-drive (where you saved the data) to the new system, and navigate to the Outlook folder you created earlier.
  • Navigate to the \Outlook\Local folder on the thumb drive, and copy the "Outlook" folder you saved there to the "C:\Users\[your user name]\AppData\Local\Microsoft" folder on the new machine.
    • Windows may complain that there is already a folder with that name, and it may also complain that there are files there with the same names.
    • Allow Windows to "merge" the folders, and if there are any complaints about files being the same name, select the top option - copy the new file and replace the old one with it - since you want to totally erase whatever is there and replace it with what was brought over from the old system.
  • Next, navigate to the \Outlook\Roaming folder on the thumb-drive, and copy everything there into the "C:\Users\[your user name]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft" folder on the new system.  This should include:
    • The "Outlook" folder
    • The "Proof" and UProof" folders
    • And the "Signatures" and "Stationary" folders
    • If Windows complains about files or folders being the same, let Windows copy and/or merge as you did before.
  • On the thumb-drive, move up to the "Outlook" folder and find the saved registry file, (it will have an icon that looks like a Rubik's Cube with pieces missing), and double-click it.
    • You will (probably) get a UAC asking you for permission to update the system.  Answer "Yes".
    • You will then see a "Registry Editor" dialog warning you that adding or modifying values in the Registry can do serious damage to your system.  It will also ask you if you trust the source of the file you created just a few minutes ago, (of course you do!), so go ahead and let it install.

Sanity Check:

Before you do anything else, you should stop and make sure that things are going OK so far.  To accomplish this, launch Outlook.  What you should see when Outlook finishes launching itself, is that Outlook on the new machine looks exactly like the way Outlook looked on the old machine.
  • All your mail folders should be there and they should contain exactly what was in them before you began the migration.
  • The e-mail messages that were on the old system should be on the new system.
  • "Unread" messages on the old system should exist, and be "Unread" on the new one.
  • Likewise any garbage that was left in the "Junk" and "Deleted Items" folders on the old system should still be there on the new one.
In other words, what you see now, on the new system, should be exactly the same as what you saw on the old system before you shut Outlook down for the last time.

If they don't - STOP! - go back and verify that you've done things properly.
  • Verify that you copied the folders from the thumb-drive into the correct folders on the new machine.
    • Did you place the "Outlook" folder that was inside the \Outlook\Local\ folder on the thumb-drive inside the ...\AppData\Local\Microsoft\ folder on the new machine?
    • Did you place the five folders that you copied to the \Outlook\Roaming\ folder on the thumb-drive inside the ...\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\ folder on the new machine?
  • Were you able to successfully import the Registry file you saved before?
  • Did you restore your Outlook settings to the exact same username on both systems?
  • Have you tried a system reboot?
It is important that you go back and resolve any issues now, before you continue.

Now that you're golden so far, let's do the last few tweaks to get Outlook running on the new machine.

Restore the saved rule file:
  • With Outlook still running and open to your e-mail, go back to the "Rules" icon on the ribbon.
  • Click on the small triangle under the "Rules" icon and select "Manage Rules & Alerts", "Options", and then "Import Rules".
  • Find the exported rule file, (*.rwz), that you saved in the Outlook folder on your thumb drive, select it and click "Open"
  • If all goes well, nothing will appear to happen when you import the rules file.  Select "OK" on all the dialogs to bring yourself back to Outlook's e-mail page.  You can verify that all is well by re-opening the "Manage Rules & Alerts" dialog to verify that all your rules were successfully imported.

Verify and Test the account settings:
Before you just "let Outlook go", you need to verify that the accounts, passwords, (etc.), are set up correctly.
Likewise, you should make a small settings change that will allow you to go back to your old system if something goes wrong.
  • With Outlook still running, and open to your e-mail, select the "File" tab on the far left side of the ribbon.
  • Within the "File" tab, select "Account Settings".  This brings up a, (in my opinion), totally stupid and useless button that is - in essence - identical to the one you just selected.  Go ahead and select that one too.  (What where they thinking?)
  • You should, (finally!), be at the "Account Settings" dialog.  Verify that each account that existed on your original machine is here on the new one.
    • If you do NOT see all your accounts, STOP!  Close Outlook and repeat the steps for restoring the Outlook registry file.
    • If that does not fix the problem, go to your thumb-drive and open the Registry file with Notepad.  You should see a lot of strange looking stuff that looks something like this:

      Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

      [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Windows Messaging Subsystem\Profiles\Outlook]

      [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Windows Messaging Subsystem\Profiles\Outlook\05035e0babc255def9547eba6a273a93d]
        (etc. . .)

      and a lot more just like it.  The file should be fairly big, mine is just a tad over 350k in size; but then again I have two different e-mail accounts, and some weird security settings for parts of them too.  Depending on how many e-mail accounts you have, and their settings, your file may be a bit larger, or smaller, than mine.  However it shouldn't be tiny, and it shouldn't be filled with unprintable garbage that looks like cartoon curse-words.
    • If you don't see text like I have shown above, or if it starts with something other than

      [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Windows Messaging Subsystem\Profiles]
      [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Windows Messaging Subsystem\Profiles\Outlook]

      you should close Outlook, shut down the new machine, go back to the old machine, and re-do the steps for exporting Outlook's Registry profile.
  • Highlight your account, (or each account in turn if you have more than one), and then click on the "Change. . . ." item just above the account list.
  • Look at the first settings page, and verify that it looks like it should.  Then clear the "Test account settings by clicking the 'Next' button" check-box.  (You do this so Outlook doesn't try something stupid when you move from screen to screen.  Ask me how I know.  Go ahead, I dare you!)
  • Click on the "More Settings" button and click on each tab in turn, from "General" to "Advanced", and verify that the information on each tab is correct.
  • Once you get to the "Advanced" tab, look about 2/3 of the way down and select the "Leave Messages on Server" check-box.  This is the important "small settings change" I mentioned before.  By setting this, Outlook won't delete messages from your mail server when it reads them.  This is important because if things don't go right, you can always go back to your old machine and all your messages will be there.  (However, any replies you may have sent while on the new machine, won't be.)
  • Repeat these steps for each additional account you have, verify that all the information is correct, and make sure to select "Leave Messages on Server" for each account in turn.
Now, let's fire that puppy up and see if it really works!

At this point you've checked just about everything that can be checked without "going live" with Outlook.
  • Shut down Outlook.
  • Re-attach the Ethernet cable, or turn Wireless Networking back on, and wait for the connection to happen.
  • Verify a good network connection by launching your web browser and verify that you can go to various web pages.
  • Restart Outlook.
  • When Outlook restarts, (God willin' an' the Creek Don't Rise), you should receive any outstanding e-mails that have been queued on your various mail servers.
    • If you get errors, resolve them the way you normally would, though I'd be really surprised if you get anything significant at this point.  Maybe a rule error or two, but nothing serious.
  • You should go to each of your accounts, in turn, and send a test message back to that account, along with one to every other account you have.
    • You should receive all the test messages from each and every account.
    • If you don't, go visit that account via it's web portal, (if it has one), and use normal troubleshooting techniques to discover what's happening.  In my case, my Yahoo! account periodically goes brain-dead for no apparent reason when I try to download e-mail from it.  No real reason that I can see, it just doesn't like POP mail sometimes.
  • If you can, call a friend or two and ask them to send you a test-e-mail.  Or, be bold and send them a test e-mail asking them to reply!

By now, you should know if your e-mail migration has succeeded or not, and if you've gotten this far, it's a pretty fair bet that you're doing just swimmingly.  Give it a few days, maybe a week or so, and if all goes well you can go back to each account's "Advanced" settings tab and un-check the "Leave Messages on Server" check-box to clear the cruft off of your mail server(s).

Drop me a line and let me know how things went!

Jim (JR)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Cute Gadget
The iGo "Green" Computer Power Adapter

In a previous blog article I mentioned that, when thinking about this article, the thought path took me to thinking about garage sales, (also known as "yard sales"), which lead me to thinking about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, a weird association if I ever saw one.

As I promised, I began writing how I made that association.  At second glance I noticed that I was taking up too much space in the article discussing something totally irrelevant - so I deleted it.

However, the bottom line is that it is possible to score very interesting and useful stuff at garage sales for practically nothing.

And so it is here.  I found the iGo "Green" AC power adapter at a garage sale, being sold by someone who had no idea what it was.  Ergo, I was able to buy it for one dollar.  (MSRP is $80.)  Of course, it was missing a power cord and had no instructions, but I have plenty of power cords and a computer power adapter isn't that hard to figure out.  (And I can get the instructions on-line at iGo's web site, if I really want them.)  And, more luck, it had the right adapter plug to fit my laptop!

So, what makes the iGo"Green" adapter such a cute gadget?  It's a whole new take on the standard laptop AC adapter, designed to save power.

A "normal" (as supplied by the manufacturer), laptop AC adapter is usually a standard switching power supply converting the normal AC "mains" voltage, (either 110 or 220 volts, depending on locality), to the DC charging voltage required by the laptop, and includes a plug guaranteed to fit.

"Da' Bitch Part", so to speak, is that these switching supplies can consume non-trivial amounts of power from the wall mains even when the laptop is fully charged.  (A good test of this is to touch the adapter and note how warm it is when your laptop has been turned off for a while.)  Likewise, the ever-fussy folks in California, as well as in the European Union, consider this "wasted" power a Scourge to Mankind.

The iGo "Green" adapter claims to eliminate much, if not all, of this wasted residual power by detecting the power consumed by the device it is supplying power to.  Theoretically, laptop power draw through it's charging port drops dramatically once the batteries are charged. So, by detecting the amount of power the laptop wants to consume - and by allowing the laptop to spend at least some of it's time on battery power - it claims to reduce wasteful standby power by up to 80%.

Well, I don't happen to have a laboratory-grade micro-wattmeter in my back-pocket, so I cannot give you my own measurements on the actual, real-world, "where the rubber meets the road" consumption, (or lack thereof), of this device when connected to my laptop.  What I can tell you is what I have observed while using the device.

The Good:
  • It is a "universal power" device and can be used on both 110 and 220 volt mains.  However since this is, essentially, universally true for device supplies in general, and computer power adapters in particular, this is not exactly the strongest selling point the device has to offer.
  • It checks the power demand of your device every fifteen minutes, and if it's not demanding power, the charger switches to its "Green mode", and stops supplying power to the device.
  • Once the charger notices that your device has an increased power demand, it switches back to full-power mode.
  • Theoretically, this will save bucket-loads of energy by reducing residual power waste.
The Bad:
  • The device will - if it decides that you don't need it running - turn itself completely off.  This can happen, (and has happened to me), when you turn your laptop off for the night.  Translation:  When you power up the laptop in the morning, you're running sans adapter, even though it is plugged in.
  • I have noticed that it, sometimes, does not exit its "Green mode" when it is supposed to, leaving the laptop running on its batteries.  This is especially obvious if the laptop is turned off, the adapter switches to "Green" mode, and then the laptop is turned back on again.  You can mitigate this by pressing the green "power" button on the device, but that assumes you're checking the device to see if it's running in full-power mode.
  • Likewise, the device does not return to it's last running state if power is interrupted and then restored.  If I turn off a power strip briefly to reset a network device connected to it, the iGo adapter remains off.  A standard adapter continues to supply power when mains power is restored.
  • On all of the more modern, (say within the last five to ten years), laptops I have purchased, the power adapter is as cool as a cucumber when the laptop is off.  Which, IMHO, takes much of the wind out of the iGo adapter's sails since that implies that the amount of wasted residual power is minimal.
The Ugly:
  • Depending on your laptop's power settings, suddenly entering "battery powered" mode may cause a significant drop in performance.  (Not to mention that your laptop screen may suddenly become unreadable when it switches to it's low-brightness mode.)  Note that this effect can be eliminated by changing your device's power-profile to a more piggy, (power-hungry), setting.  Which, IMHO, is counter-productive if you are trying to save power.
  • By making the power profile changes noted above, your laptop's battery life will likely go right into the toilet when not connected to the adapter.  That is unless you are thoughtful enough to re-switch your power profile back to a more power-friendly setting.
  • If unused for a period of time, it shuts itself entirely off.  Ergo, when you fire up that trusty 'ole laptop in the morning, you may suddenly discover your machine is NOT running on adapter power at all.  I have discovered this by turning on the laptop, expecting it to be on adapter power because the adapter is both plugged in - and plugged into the laptop - walk away from it for a bit, and come back to a hibernating computer.  That, in and of itself, is not entirely bad.  However, some software, (including some of Windows' own stuff), does not recover from hibernation gracefully.  (Translation:  Your machine may begin doing strange things, depending on what you're doing with it.)  I have learned not to trust hibernation - or standby - completely and it annoys me no end when a computer goes into hibernation when I don't expect it to.
  • This means you have to be much more vigilent about what power mode the adapter is in.  Am I in "Green" mode?  Am I in the normal full-power mode?  Has it shut itself off completely?
  • You also have to be much more aware of your computer's power profile settings and adjust them as necessary to avoid undesired behavior when in battery power.

The bottom line:

If you are willing to make the effort to be aware of, and regulate, both the adapter's and the computer's power settings, this can be a useful tool.

If you want to impress your friends with your "Ecological Awareness" with the newest Eco-Gadget, this is it.

If you want to keep your laptop set to sane and useful power settings, you can do a great job of eliminating wasted standby power just by turning off the power-strip the laptop is plugged into.  And you can do that for free.

What say ye?

Jim (J.R.)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Uncertainty Principle
(as it applies to QA)

In 1927 Dr. Werner Heisenberg first wrote of what has become known as his "Uncertainty Principle".  Though a thorough understanding of this principle involves boatloads of mathematics and quantum physics, it can be expressed, (in a very simplified form), like this:

It is not possible to know both where a particle is, and what the particle is doing at the same time.

This had profound implications for particle physics back in the 1920's when it was first stated, and it is still very much a part of atomic physics today.  In fact, there are certain properties of very interesting things - superconductors, for example - that cannot be expressed or discovered without using the Uncertainty Principle.

The idea for this article came while I was thinking about writing another article.  The thought path for that article lead me to "garage sales", and from there to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.  How thinking about garage sales lead me to quantum physics is a whole 'nother story, but when I got thinking about it, it struck me as something very interesting to write about.

Now what the heck does Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle have to do with QA?  Plenty.

In QA, especially software QA, we often forget that the observer and the observed interact, and that interaction can lead to results that may not be true in real life.  A classic example of this is the "I haven't found any bugs, (yet), so it must be ready for release" concept found so often as a project deadline approaches.  In this case, the seeming lack of defects has given the "observer", (the software tester), a potentially unreasonable confidence in the "observed", (the software product), setting the stage for a possible disaster come release time.

What should be happening is for the tester to seriously examine how applicable the test methodology might be to the object being tested.  Are assumptions being made that may not really be valid in the real world?  Are we testing deeply enough?  Have we tested enough program paths to really have that level of confidence?

In a manual test scenario, there are a whole host of ways the observer and observed can interact, and I am sure you can think of ten or twenty yourself.

What about automated testing?

Automated testing is probably the best example of observer and observed interacting to their detriment that can be found in so-called "black box" testing.  And it's not just the automated test software interacting that's the problem.

Of course, when you introduce an automated test tool into the program's logic flow, you have altered that flow - even if only infinitesimally.  When you add up enough "infinitesimally's", you have a serious impact.

What about the speed of the test, or of the test's input?  Automated tests can insert themselves into the program's messaging queue, and supply user input via trapping that queue and inserting messages into it.  The result is that input is provided virtually instantly, something a normal user cannot do.  In the real world, you have a user supplying a phone number for example.  Instead of xxx-xxx-xxxx appearing instantly, maybe the user types in the area-code, (xxx), and then stops.  Oh!  I forgot!  Let me go look it up. . .  There may be a five or ten minute delay - or longer if he gets distracted by his wife wanting something done.  What happens then?  Is the test trapping output the same way? Natch'.  Video?  Video always works, right?  Via automated testing we have no way to tell if the program's output visuals are corrupted, off-center, or unreadable.

In this case the interaction between the observer and the observed is woefully incomplete, yet the fact that "Automated Testing" passed with a clear bill of health may also lend itself to a false sense of confidence.

The canonical example of the Uncertainty Principle is White Box testing - or even "Grey Box" testing, where the "observer" has to deliberately insert instrumentation code into the product, or a similar kind of invasive testing.  Oh, but valid QA requires a good "black-box" test after the white box testing is complete, right?  And if I had a nickle for every software product that was released based on the results of the White Box test. . .  Um, we probably shouldn't go there.

The bottom line is this:  Any QA test plan should account for the interaction between the observer and the object being observed.

What say ye?

Jim (J.R.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hot Smokin' Weapon! Award for April, 2013


Today, I proudly announce yet another of my - somewhat - famous and world renowned Hot Smokin' Weapon! awards - and this award goes to my Usenet provider, Giganews.

The various criteria for my Hot Smokin' Weapon! award are somewhat subjective.  However, since it's MY award, obviously I get to choose the criteria, right?  (Laughing!)

Seriously, an award like this has to have rather flexible criteria, since it can encompass a wide variety of people, places, and things, depending on what strikes my fancy at a particular point in time.

However, the basics are something like this: 
  • Do they deliver, as promised, 100% NO BULLSHIT?
  • In the extremely unlikely event that "Shit DOES Happen," do they promptly step up, take ownership, and make it right, right away?
  • Do they make product quality and customer satisfaction their highest priority?
  • Is this something I can unashamedly recommend to whomever might be interested?
  • Do they make "uncommon valor a common virtue" by going above and beyond the call of duty to meet the customer's needs?
  • Do they do this at a price that mere mortals like you and I can afford?  And despite that, do they make us feel like we're big-shots like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates?
In this particular case, Giganews meets, and exceeds, these exacting criteria, and I can honor them with my (semi) Coveted Hot Smokin' Weapon! Award with absolutely no reservation whatsoever.

So, who is Giganews anyway?

In short, Giganews is my Usenet provider.  And they have been my Usenet provider for a number of years.

Of course, calling Giganews "my Usenet provider" is like saying that The United States of America is "my nationality."  It may not seem like much on the surface, but there's a lot more under the hood than meets the eye.

Giganews IS my Usenet provider, and at that task they do an excellent job.  With article and download retention periods exceeding a thousand days, (right now, their web-site says the retention is at 1700+ days and climbing), and network speeds that make National Internet Backbones jealous, they are THE Usenet provider par excellence.

Now don't quote me on this, and I don't know this for a fact, but I would NOT be surprised to discover that Giganews provides the "National Internet Backbone" for the places they serve, their speeds are that awesome.

One thing you CAN quote me on is something a Giganews support person told me years ago:  If you're having speed problems with downloads; something you can 100% take to the bank, and get CASH MONEY for, is that the problem is NOT at their end.

Another thing you can quote me on is the fact that I have seen, with my own eyes, the servers at Giganews totally saturate a 100 Mbit premium cable internet connection without seeming to break a sweat.

I have watched them go from a standing start to 100 Mbit in less time than it has taken me to write this sentence - and I am not the world's slowest typist.  Depending on network congestion, I've seen them go from zero to network maximum in less than five seconds - often in one or two.

I have also seen, again with my own eyes, the network folks at Charter Internet throttle my internet speed rather dramatically!  (You know, I don't think Charter likes these guys. . . . .)

As far as downloads are concerned, the only thing that would make my joy complete would be for them to start mirroring some of the more important Linux distributions, important Open Source projects, and back issues of Linux Format magazine!

Another thing they do, and do damned well, is provide highly secure VPN portals to various places all around the world.

Why is this important?  Well. . . . .

First of all, at least in my case, I tend to be rather mobile.  And I really don't know where I might be the next time I go on-line.  And many of the places I connect at are, ah, (shall we say), somewhat less than pristine security-wise.  (Can you say "Public Hot-Spot"?  Ahhh!  I KNEW you could!)

Being able to connect to a secure VPN connection that punches you through the wilds of that hot-spot to get you to the Internet is a Godsend.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Simply punching through a hot-spot isn't the last word in Internet Security, and if that's all you've got going for you, than you're in huge trouble.  However. . .  It does protect you from others on that hot-spot who want to launch a sneak-attack on your system, or prevents you from falling prey to an "evil-twin" exploit.  Etc.  And that can be critically important, everything else being equal.

Another useful thing is that not only do they have a whole host of convenient VPN endpoints, these endpoints are located all over the world.  Literally.  Asia, Europe, the Americas.  Even Russia!  You name it, they got it.  (Or will have it in two shakes of a tiger's tail.)

Why is this important?  Simple.  It allows you to appear to be somewhere else than where you physically are.  And that can be damn handy.

Here are a couple of very simple examples:

First example:
My wife, (who came from Russia), loves to watch Russian TV and Russian movies, so she subscribes to a Russian entertainment web-site: etvnet.com.  It's a subscription site, as in "for-pay", though they do have a whole host of free, (бесплатно), content as well.  (Hint!  Hint!  If you're studying Russian. . . .)

There's only one kicker.

If you're not physically located in North America, (the United States or Canada), then No Enchilada Señor!  Subscription or no, you cannot connect to their site.  So, if we're traveling abroad, and she wants to catch the latest episode of an interesting mystery series, she's outta luck.

The solution?  I punch through to a VPN endpoint physically located in the U.S., and I can connect to etvnet.com all day long if I want.  And she can watch her Russian TV regardless of where we may be in the world.

Another example, just like the first, only going the other way:
There is a "coupon" site in Russia, Vigoda.ru, (I think), and they have periodic deals from various businesses, like resorts, who have excess product or capacity they want to fill.  And the discounts can be rather dramatic.  In the past we've scored all inclusive vacations at excellent lake-side resorts just north of Moscow for pennies on the dollar.  Or maybe I should say kopeks on the Ruble?  (grin!)

Since we periodically travel there to spoil our two delightful granddaughters absolutely rotten, and we like to take them to interesting places when we're there, if we can get massive discounts by booking before we go, so much the better.

Again, there's a location kicker.  If you're not physically located there, then No Vodka and Caviar for You, Comrade!  And, just like before, the solution is to punch through to the Shiny New VPN endpoint they just opened in Moscow Russia.

Which, I might add, is the particular inspiration for this Hot Smokin' Weapon! Award.

Back on the 14th of this month, (April, 2013), they announced a Shiny New VPN endpoint in Zurich Switzerland.  And that's nice.  I can think of all kinds of things to do with an endpoint in Zurich.
(Visiting CERN's lab comes to mind. . . . . .)

Coincidentally, (i.e. at the exact same time), we were having no end of troubles trying to book something nice for our granddaughters on said sooper-dooper deal site and I had narrowed the problem down to the fact that we were not physically there.  So I sent a reply back to Giganews suggesting that, at some point in the future, if possible, they might, maybe, sorta' want to consider a VPN endpoint somewhere in Russia.  If it could be located in Moscow Russia, that would be even better.

In a matter of an hour or two, my suggestion of a Russian endpoint, at some future point-in-time, if possible, maybe, had been responded to, and assigned a trouble ticket number.  The very next day, I received a personal reply from a gentleman within the support team at Giganews telling me that they were always on the lookout for new VPN endpoints, and they appreciated suggestions like mine to improve their ideas.

The crowning point:
Six days later, Giganews announces a new VPN endpoint in Moscow Russia!  I have the e-mail in my hot little hands, fresh in my inbox today.  Not just somewhere in Russia, which would have sufficed, but exactly where I had requested!  Now that's customer service with a vengeance!

I am still looking for more bandages to cover the scrapes on my jaw where it hit the concrete floor in my basement.

What else do they do?

They have a cloud storage product called, oddly enough, "Dump Truck", and everyone, even the lowest tier subscribers, get to use it - free of charge.

They have a sweetheart deal with NewsLeecher to provide you with free access to what is probably the best news-crawler software out there.

Not only do they provide all these VPN access points, they provide a cute little utility that automates the connection process for you.  You click on the icon, select the endpoint you want, and away you go!

In other words, not only do they have one heck of a service, they go outta their way to make it work for you, instead of you working for it.

Since they know that not everyone needs the same things from a Usenet provider - some people read the occasional message or two on .alt.birdwatching.european.crows, while others, (like myself), use it as a major research tool - they have a variety of subscription plans.

These plans range from their more limited "Perl" level plan starting at $5/month, (for the bird-watchers), all the way to their power-user "Diamond" plan for $35/month, though they usually have a nice sign-up incentive for the Diamond plan that gives you a sweet discount for the first few months.

Of course, depending on the plan you choose, there is a greater or lesser amount of freebies included with it, though they go outta their way to make things as nice as possible for everyone - so even the bird-watchers feel right at home.

Go pay 'em a visit!  (<== cleverly hidden hyperlink)  And tell 'em that Jim over at QA TechTips sent 'ya!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

All Hail Mighty Mint!
The new King of the Linux Distro's

Back in November of 2012, I did a review of Linux Mint 13 after it had destroyed all contenders in Linux Format's Annual "War of the Distributions" - beating some of the real heavyweights like Fedora and Ubuntu.

Prior to this I really hadn't paid that much attention to Mint as it appeared to be just another Ubuntu clone among many Ubuntu clones.  Of course, it was getting some good press - especially the Cinnamon desktop - but that didn't faze me since just about every distro out there has its own legions of fan-boys.

However. . . . .

After Linux Format ran just about every major distribution through the mill, compared them feature-for-feature, and crowned Mint the winner, I started to think again about playing with Mint.  So I downloaded Mint 13, (the latest at that point), with the Cinnamon desktop and gave it a spin.  I ran the live CD, did a couple of test installations - both on real hardware and within VMware - and I was impressed out of my socks.

It wasn't full of Canonical's posturing, arm waving, and experimenting with bizarre new layouts and desktop paradigms every release.  It wasn't trying to monetize the distribution with hard-coded advertisements or forced use of Canonical's newest features.  It wasn't trying to out-Mac the Mac.  It just worked, and it worked very well. The interface was familiar, uncluttered, and easy to work with, and it was filled with a lot of nice little touches here and there, which indicated to me that someone at Mint was actually trying to give the user what they needed.

Now I don't want to completely re-write what I wrote before, you can go read all about it here.

Just this last week I picked up another copy of Linux Format, (Issue 167, February 2013), and splashed all over the front cover was a HUGE copy of Mint's logo, and the headline said "All Hail the new number one distro. . .  MIGHTY MINT"

My interest piqued, I read the article - and it really reminded me of my own review of Mint 13.  They fell all over themselves marveling at its clean interface, stability, and how it was conducive to getting real work done.

Of course, what really piqued my interest was the article titled Mint - The new Ubuntu?

And then I thought about it. . . .

Why had I jumped on the Ubuntu bandwagon in the first place?  Because I was getting tired of other distributions - Fedora among them - telling me what I could and could-not do with my own system.

Ubuntu's motto (was) being "all about choices" - and that's what I wanted.  If I wanted to make a system install jump and wave it's arms like a maniac, I could do it.  If I wanted an install that would sit and play quietly, I could do that too.

Then Canonical and Ubuntu started getting snotty.  There was a lot of moaning and griping on Ubuntu's fora about not wanting to "Dumb Down Ubuntu" - as if that was, somehow, beneath their dignity.  They started making unilateral decisions - absent user feedback - that did NOT give us the choice of using it or not.  Grub2, the Unity desktop, the sudden shift to a very Macintosh-like layout with stuff organized in a very Mac-centric way, and the way the decision makers at Canonical and Ubuntu were turning a deaf ear to the user's requests.  It was almost as if the folks at Ubuntu had developed a "F**k 'em all!" attitude - and if you don't like it, go somewhere else.

Apparently, Ubuntu got its wish.  People have been abandoning Ubuntu in droves, wanting an Ubuntu-like distribution that was willing to listen and let them get work done.

Enter Mint, stage left.

Mint's philosophy, since day one, was to provide a simple, working, usable Linux distribution that avoided all the fancy eye-candy, the bells-and-whistles that eventually destabilize a system.  Most of all, Linux Mint did not have any corporate identity pulling them this way and that.  Mint's loyalty, and the primary focus of the Mint leadership and developers has been the user and the user experience.

Back when I first fired-up Mint 13, it was an Epiphany, almost bordering on a religious experience.  Wow!  A Linux distro that did everything I wanted a distribution to do, and none of the things I didn't want it to do.  Ergo:  My glowing article about Linux Mint 13.

Not long after that, Mint released version 14, based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTE and I decided to give it a spin.  It didn't spin very fast though being a bit wonky and weird in ways that I wasn't sure I liked.  So I tossed the Mint 14 disk in the trash and went back to 13.

Apparently I wasn't the only person who tossed that distribution.  Though I was not on the Mint fora and didn't hear any of the discussions, it was remarkable how quickly Mint 14.1 came out.

With 14.1, they got it right.  It's just like 13, only more so.  Clean, uncluttered, and easy to work with.  In fact, if it weren't for the changed desktop background saying "14" instead of "Maya", you'd be hard pressed to tell the distributions apart just by looking at them.  And frankly, I like that.  I don't want to re-learn a distribution's interface every time they cut a release.  I want everything that worked in the one distribution to work in the next, and work the same way if not better.

Like I used to say about Ubuntu way, way back:  This is a distribution that I would feel comfortable loading up on my wife's computer, or even my sainted mother's.

Bottom line:

Mint is a distribution that "just works", and it has leadership and maintainers who actually want to listen to the users suggestions.  With that kind of an attitude toward the distribution and their user-base, it's easy to see why people say:

All Hail the new number one distro. . . .
What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: Samsung's ATIV Smart PC 500T
Is it worth the money?

Recently I had an opportunity to take a peek at one of Samsung's newest tablets, the ATIV Smart PC, and frankly, I thought it was an interesting piece.  Looking at it, you are immediately aware of how this can function as both a tablet PC and a fairly good sized netbook.

The version I messed with was the XE500T1C-HA1US model with a "64 gig" internal SSD hard drive, 2 gigs of internal system memory, 802.11 a/b/g/n Wireless connectivity. mini-HDMI, microSD, and a standard-sized headphone jack.

The Samsung XE500T1C-HA1US

The nice thing about this particular tablet is that it comes with the keyboard/docking station right out of the box - whereas with many tablets, the keyboard and/or dock is an extra-cost accessory.

As tablets go, it's rather big - 11.6" x 7.2", and maybe just a tad more than a half-inch thick when it's closed on the keyboard.

Here are the full spec's for this system at Samsung's site

I have read other reviews who complain that the 12 x 7 form-factor is too big and clumsy.  Of course, that all depends on what you're looking for in a tablet.  If you want something that will run Android or iOS apps, surf the web, play tunes and videos, then maybe they're right.

However, if you are looking for something a little more substantial - something with a big enough screen to let you actually see what you're doing, and actually do something useful, like word processing, e-mail, and other office-type apps, then this tablet might just be your man.

One place where I can see something like this being really handy is in the "mobile office" scenario.  Say you're a Real Estate agent, or someone who takes notes or fills out forms "on the road" - a tablet like this that's almost the size of a full sheet of paper could be really handy.

The included accessories comprise the keyboard / dock, as well as a charging adapter which works with both American and European voltages.  The power module has the (somewhat) standard triangular three-pin plug that allows you to find cords that will fit whatever sockets you may have to use.

(Reviewer's note:  Having been overseas on a number of occasions, I find the ability to use an actual power cord designed for the sockets you are going to be using a far better choice than trying to futz around with a bunch of stupid little plug-adapters.)

They are also thoughtful enough to include several, (five!), extra pen tips for their S-Pen, and a small metal removal tool that makes changing the plastic tips reasonably simple.  Even though they supply five extra tips, each of which is reversible, the tips themselves look to be quite rugged.  With five extras, you will outgrow the tablet long before you use up the pen's tips.  That is unless you chew them, or drag them on concrete.

Before I go on to tell you what I think about this beast, I want to make a very substantial caveat:  This tablet shipped with Windows 8 installed, which, as I have already said, is an absolute PIG of an operating system.

There were performance issues that may not have had anything at all to do with the underlying hardware, such as sluggish response at times, or choppy video.  I could not compare this system with Windows 8 installed to anything else as Microsoft's SecureBoot mandate makes it literally impossible to use this hardware with any other operating system, even if it's on a bootable CD.

I want to place this right out on the table, up front, since I have had similar issues with installations of Windows Vista - another ill-conceived operating system - even on hardware that was known to be rock-solid with performance to burn.  I would like to suggest that you take the performance issues raised in this review with a pretty large chunk of salt.  That is, until it is possible to review this with some other operating system.

The Good News:

  • It runs the Windows operating system, which means that the majority of the apps that you will need to use, will slide right in with 'nary a squeak.
  • It's big.  The screen is big, bright, and easy to work with.  Just as important in my opinion, the screen is large enough so that you can see what you're doing.  Even if your eyes aren't exactly twenty years old anymore.
  • The touch features are clever and interesting.  Though you can use your fingers for many tasks, you will probably want to keep the included "S-Pen" in your pocket as well.  One nice feature is that when you get the pen close to the screen, a small target-like cursor pops up showing you where the screen thinks you're pointing - damn handy if you ask me.  Likewise, on the side of the pen is a small plastic hinged button of sorts that - when pressed - displays a circle around the target that's easy to see, indicating that you are about to right-click instead of left-click.  Also pretty darn handy.
  • The included keyboard, though a bit small by laptop standards, is still a comfortable size and even my fat fingers had no trouble using it.
  • Attaching the tablet screen to the keyboard is accomplished by two hook-clips in the keyboard's track where the tablet docks.  When they snap in, it's a nice solid attachment.
  • Likewise, once docked, the "dock" part of the keyboard is hinged so you can close it like a laptop.
  • It has one USB slot on the "top" of the tablet, along with a micro-SD card slot and - depending on model - there is also a place where you can slip in a GSM SIM card for broadband internet access.
  • On the left side, there's a small (ahem!) HDMI port, though I am not sure that this little beast would be my choice as a source of HDMI video.
  • There is a charging port on both the keyboard and the tablet itself, so you can either charge it as a tablet, or have it recharge when docked.  (You only get one charger though, to effectively use both, you will probably want to get a second one.)
  • The keyboard also adds two extra USB ports, so if you want an external hard drive, or a mouse, attached to the keyboard dock, you can set it up and just leave it that way.

The Bad News:
  • It comes with Windows 8 - which as I discussed in a previous article - isn't exactly the operating system I'd want to see on a PC - though to be honest, I have no idea how you'd use Win-7 on a tablet either.
  • It's big.  It won't fit into a pocketbook or pocket - if you want to tote it around you will probably want some kind of a cover or netbook bag for it.
  • Though the keyboard latches tightly to the tablet when docked - you have to be really careful about how well it has snapped into place.  On a few occasions, after I thought I had a good solid attachment, I discovered that only one of the two hook-latches had engaged.
  • There is a little button just below the center of the tablet's screen on the keyboard's dock that releases the tablet.  I found it a bit clumsy to use, often struggling to get the tablet undocked, worrying if I was grabbing the tablet hard enough to damage the screen when trying to separate the two pieces.
  • Though the keyboard dock is clever and useful, the combination touch-pad and button is absolutely awful - there is only one button, which you press by pushing down on the touch-pad itself.  Trying to right-click with the touch-pad involves a somewhat complicated two-finger move while pressing the touch pad to engage the button.
    • Recommendation:  Get yourself a wireless mouse that has the teeny-tiny dongle that barely pokes out the side and use that.  Also, unless you are a lot more coordinated than I am, you will probably want to turn off tapping as well.  I found it way too easy to inadvertently move the mouse cursor and select things just by typing if my palm brushed the touch-pad.
  • The dual-core 32 bit Atom processor is powerful enough for most every-day tasks, but I'd save the heavy lifting for something more substantial.
  • In my case, I had some trouble using the pen and touch features.  This may not be the fault of the tablet, as anyone that has enough of a tremor that they can rent themselves out as a paint-shaker, isn't the best candidate for something that requires a modicum of eye-hand coordination.  However I was a bit disappointed; after all Microsoft's posturing about "accessibility" they didn't include some kind of anti-tremor feature.  Of course, even Ubuntu Linux doesn't have that, and I'm pretty darn sure that Apple isn't paying too much attention to those of us with unsteady hands either.
  • It comes with Microsoft's newest abomination - SecureBoot - which makes any kind of modification or update to the system pretty much impossible.  Though I will admit that this isn't Samsung's fault, as Microsoft has mandated certain very specific requirements to tablet manufacturers before they can ship Windows 8.  The Microsoft mandated features of the EFI bios makes it virtually impossible to boot using external media.  I tried booting with a bootable USB thumb-drive as well as an external CD drive, and though both were detected during boot-up, (I could tell by the way the lights flashed that it obviously had mounted the device and read from it), the EFI bios refused to list them as potential boot sources and would not touch them.  Maybe it only works if they are properly SecureBoot blessed?  I don't know, but I do know that I could not boot anything I had externally, even with SecureBoot marked as "disabled" in the bios itself.  Ergo, if you decide you want to transform this into a hot-smokin' Linux tablet - fuggeddaboutit.

The bottom line:

It's a nice piece and I can see how it could be pretty darn useful, especially in a student or mobile-office scenario, but it's no laptop.  The fact that it comes with a docking keyboard that - in essence - turns it into a "convertible" tablet / netbook system, is one of it's strongest points.

It has plenty of USB ports, and if you need more than the 32 gigs of drive space left over after Windows 8 claims the first half, you can use either external USB drives, or slip a microSD card into it to add an additional on-board drive to store stuff in.  I should also note that they have other versions of this tablet that include larger amounts of SSD storage, and perhaps other interesting features built in.

Since the model I reviewed only came with wireless internet capability, it wasn't the best choice for watching streaming video, as on my local wireless network the video I streamed to it was a bit choppy at times.

Though I will qualify that statement by saying that I had similar problems with Windows Vista - even on a hard-wired network connection - so it may not be the tablet's fault.  Again, there are other models that include hard-wired Gigabit LAN connectivity if that's something you want.

The fact that it has an Atom processor - even though it's dual core - it still seems a bit under-powered at times.  Though - another caveat is that this will be strongly influenced by what you want to do with it, and again this may be due to Windows 8 instead of the hardware.

The list price of $750 may not endear it to many people either - especially since a bit of judicious web-sniffing brings up alternatives for much less money.  Prior to writing this review, I made a quick web-search looking for other Windows 8 tablets, and it wasn't long before I found a strong contender from Acer - another brand I like - in their W510-1422 Tablet - that has virtually identical specs to the Samsung, including screen size and keyboard, for $600.  And this is from Acer's own on-line store.  You might be able to find it cheaper at other reputable on-line retailers like Amazon or B&H.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Windows 8 - Behind the "8" Ball?

Today I got the chance to play with a Samsung tablet with Windows 8 on it, and though the tablet itself was nice, Windows 8 failed to impress me at all.

My first impression with Windows 8 aligns it more with Vista or Windows ME, than XP or 7, as it is a flaky, wonky beast at best.

It reminds me of Vista, since it appears to be a half-baked, cobbled-together O/S that shouldn’t have made it past beta.  Or, to be more accurate, it appears that Windows 8 IS the beta.  They just decided to release it before it was finished, the same way they released Windows ME and Vista earlier than they should have.

It seems that Windows 8 doesn’t know if it wants to be a Windows box or an iPad, and as a result it doesn’t do that good a job as either one.

It’s almost like Microsoft decided to create a touch enabled tablet O/S by cobbling up a tablet/touch-screen type interface, then they went and slapped it on whatever they had laying around.  The result is an operating system that doesn't really know which way it wants to go, and does a poor job of guiding you to whatever tool you may need to accomplish a particular task.

One thing you notice right away is that you cannot force the system to boot to the desktop.  You always get a home screen which is filled with more useless applet icons than you can possibly believe.  This is particularly unfortunate since if you want to do anything useful or important, (like setting up a wireless connection, changing your display preferences, or finding something in your home folder), you are forced to go to the desktop as there is no “tablet” way to do it.

When you finally get to the desktop you're in deep sneakers, unless you have a keyboard and mouse installed, because the underlying desktop applications have not been updated to meet the requirements of a touch-screen environment.  So, trying to use the desktop on an un-docked tablet is a challenge to say the least.

Microsoft also had the bright idea of actually and physically removing from Windows 8 a lot of what made Windows 7 useful.

For example the start menu, and it's associated button, has been completely ripped out of the O/S to prevent any “back-rev” wannabes from using it like 7.  (Though there are some 3rd party payware apps that restore it.)

Removing the "Start" button functionality is an absolute disaster because there are a number of applications that have separate configuration or installation update features that are only found in that application's start menu folder.  You need to update or configure something?  Hey! It just stinks being you.

Following that lead, Microsoft decided to modify the Windows 8 "First Boot" experience in ways that all but force you to do things "The Microsoft Way", or not at all.  A classic example is the initial setup for Windows Update.

In previous Windows installations you were given the choice of automagic installation of updates, or electing to set these options later.

The Windows 8 startup experience gives you two choices:  Do it the Microsoft way, or don't do it at all.  Period.  Oh, you can set Windows Update to notify you prior to downloading and installing, but you have to dig into the control panel to use the Windows Update tool located there to set it that way.  And even getting to the Control Panel is not made all that obvious.

To make a bad situation even worse, Windows 8 does not ship with sensible choices enabled by default.  An example I ran into really early on is that the out-of-the-box default media player is not Windows Media Player; instead it is some wonky "media center/player" type app.

To make the poor choice of defaults even MORE obvious, when you start a media file a little tool-tip like box pops up to tell you that "There is other software installed that might do a better job of. . . ."  If you click on the box, it gives you a list of things that really should have been default choices from the start, and lets you choose one.

Likewise, the application icons offered on the default home screen look like the kind of apps you'd expect to see on some smartphone, not on a tablet that wants to do something useful.

Many of the apps are scrolling boxes that display various things.  The weather app keeps scrolling various weather reports from all over Hell and Half of Texas; and quite frankly, I really am not all that interested in what the current weather is in Istanbul, Zaire, Uzbekistan, or Sydney.  There is a stock-ticker app, a news feed app, along with enough cruft to make actually finding something useful a challenge in itself.

The way I would describe most of these apps is that Microsoft appeared to take everything that I absolutely HATE about the MSN web-site, chopped the noisy little Java applet pieces up, and placed them on the primary startup screen.  Since they decided that the background color of the home screen should be a dark blue instead of some pleasant neutral color, it just makes the applet icons appear even more garish.

Like they tried to do with Vista, they are trying to impress everyone with lots of eye-candy.  As a result the default startup screen is ugly, it's way, way too visually noisy, and it's about as useful as Teats on a Boar Hog.  The few applets that are actually useful are buried in such a mountain of Gagh!, that it's almost impossible to find them.

What they should have done is to follow the example of Windows 7 by placing a few essential applets on a more cheerfully colored background, allowing the user to choose - like Windows 7's gadgets - what other applets they might want to have on their home screen.

Summary of Windows 8:

As a tablet based operating system, Windows 8 leaves a lot to be desired.

On a desktop system Windows 8 is absolute insanity as you end up with the worst of both worlds:  A touch-enabled operating system that functions more like a smartphone than a desktop, with a lot of the useful desktop functionality ripped out of it, installed on inexpensive desktop systems without touch-screens and tossed to an unsuspecting public.

If Microsoft is “betting the farm” on Windows 8 as some have said, then they’re doomed.

I did learn one important lesson about tablets and touch-screens though:

If you have any kind of tremor or palsy, (as I do), using a stylus on a touch-enabled device gets “interesting” to say the least.  I’m surprised that they didn’t include some kind of “jitter” compensation in their
“accessibility options”.  On the other hand, maybe I am not so surprised.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)