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Posts from — March 2011

My Toolbox: Laptop

My Toolbox series is about my tools for working on machines, including some stories.  I’m going to talk about my tools; your toolbox will be different, but hopefully I’ll give some useful ideas.

Yeah, I’m a software guy, but as the automation software guy, I have the privilege of understanding the whole machine and making sure it is all working right.  That’s why I have a toolbox filled with mechanical tools and electrical test equipment, but I’ll start with service laptops.

Service Laptop

  • I’m using Win7 64-bit on my own laptop, but Win7 32-bit is probably the best choice for a field service laptop,  since you should not need >3G RAM, and many device drivers are still not available for 64-bit Windows.
  • Since almost all automation software is Windows only, you really have to use Windows.
    • Siemen’s SoftComfort Logo! development environment is a notable exception (it’s written in Java).
    • However, if you can talk to all your equipment via USB (including USB to serial converters) and Ethernet, you could use Linux or Mac OS X as your host OS and run the Windows software in a VM (Virtual Machine) with networking and USB pass through for outside access.  Or you can dual boot.
  • I’m partial to Lenovo Thinkpads because of their excellent keyboards and overall quality.  Besides, most Thinkpads support using a FDE (full disk encryption) hard drive, which is a good idea when venturing out with gigabytes of proprietary information.
    • Not all Thinkpads come with with FDE drives, but it’s an affordable do-it-yourself upgrade.
    • Thinkpads are more affordable at the Lenovo Outlet, and you still get a 1 year warranty.  If an older Thinkpad is good enough, and a shorter warranty is OK, then TigerDirect often has great deals (<$400) on off-lease Thinkpads.
  • Of course there are plenty of other good possibilities.  My advice is always get a business class laptop; I’ve seen way too many problems with consumer laptops.

Don’t forget the cables

  • I typically bring along an extra RJ-45 cable, a standard DB9M/F serial cable, USB extension cable, USB A to micro-B cable, Panasonic FP0 serial cable, and USB to serial port converter (since my laptop doesn’t have a serial port).
  • I normally don’t bring along all the special serial stuff, like null modem (laplink) cables, DB9/DB25 cables, and assorted gender changes.  I’ve only needed something weird once in the past 5 years.

Other Computer Hardware

  • A 4G or larger USB memory stick.
    • I frequently have to transfer files without using a network.
    • If you work with really old computer systems, a USB floppy drive would be useful.
    • Don’t forget the memory stick!  Always remember to put it back in your bag or pocket.
  • 3G/4G wireless is a nice option, so you can access the internet to research problems, download files you forget to do earlier, and such without needing access to the customer’s network.
    • On the other hand, 3G is another monthly fee (typically $40-$80/month in the US) for a service that’s typically not often needed.  If AT&T does complete its acquisition of T-Mobile, expect prices to go up.
    • Pre-paid (from Virgin Mobile and others) gives the option of paying only when needed, but pre-paid is more expensive for heavy data use. Walmart probably has the best pre-paid deal: $20 for 1G for 1 month.
    • Another option is tethering (via USB cable, Bluetooth, or WiFi) to a cell phone with 3G/4G.  However, tethering usually adds another monthly charge (often about $15) on top of the data fee.

March 31, 2011   No Comments

Rhodia Deals at Target

Clearance-priced Rhodia Notebooks

Clearance-priced Rhodia Notebooks

I noticed my local Target started carrying Rhodia notebooks a couple months ago.  They were a little pricey for my budget, so I didn’t get any (I’m not  addicted (at least not yet) to pricey notebooks or fountain pens).

Then they disappeared.  Where did they go?  I saw the solution at another Target: they are now on clearance.  I couldn’t resist the clearance prices ($1.31 for the lined notebook, $2.54 for the Reverse square book),  so I bought a bunch.

I’m not sure why the Targets here (Silicon Valley) are dropping Rhodia.  My impression is that my local Target has reduced the size of the paper (notebook, notepad, etc) section by 50% or more, with a corresponding reduction in selection.

Update: I checked another Target, and they have the same clearance deal.  So if you’re interested in these Rhodia notebooks at firesale prices, check your local Target before they’re gone.

March 16, 2011   No Comments

When Suppliers Start Milking You, Start Moving

I’ve reached this point with my local telephone service; it’s now at ~$28/month for unlimited local calling.  My cell phone bill is just a bit more, but is a much better value.

I could go cell phone only; however, my wife values the local phone number (she is the main user), and we both like having a phone number for people we don’t know, such as banks, schools, etc.  I could also change to metered local calling, but it doesn’t seem worth it to potentially get stuck with overages for a still substantial ~$22/month.

So, I’m moving to dump AT&T.  The big duaolopy (phone & cable) tries to make it hard by charging you a lot more for unbundled services, but it’s still a better deal than paying for unwanted bundling, such as voice & DSL or cable internet & TV.

I have a lot of choices for VoIP (voice over IP), such as Skype, magicJack, Ooma, iTalkBB, and Asterisk-based systems, but I’ve installed a refurbished Ooma Hub from Fry’s.  The cost is affordable (under $4/month for taxes gets me unlimited US calling), it’s simple to install (unlike Asterisk), works with our existing phone (which my wife likes), doesn’t require a computer (unlike magicJack), and it includes E911 services (unlike Skype).  So far it’s working great.

The final step is to switch my internet to non-AT&T/non-cable, for example, Dry Loop DSL.  The savings at first won’t be huge (about $10/month), especially considering I have to invest some money up front for Ooma ($100) and a new modem ($50-$100).  But there’s no chance the phone rates are going down, so the sooner I change, the sooner I’ll start saving.

The same logic applies to business.  Your CAD is asking too much in maintenance fees for too little value?  Seriously investigate changing (or use a mix); there are good alternatives, some of which are probably better than what you are using.  Your PLC vendor nickle and dime-ing you?.   At least start a pilot test using a brand that supports you better.

Changing might be painful, and may not make sense for a variety of reasons, but at least investigate the options, because the chances of these leopards changing their spots are pretty slim.  If you’re going to change eventually, you might as well start sooner than later.

March 3, 2011   1 Comment