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Category — Computing Tools

Favorite Tools – Fall 2014

Pens And Pencils

I use pens and pencils quite a bit.  Partly it’s simply because I like using them; I also feel that they are better for notes and initial drafts (sketching out software or electrical ideas and such) – you can quickly draw anything anywhere without constraints.

Gel pens are my favorites for their smoothness and solid, vivid lines.  Overall, Uniball is my favorite brand (Signo DX, Signo 207, Jetstream, etc).  I really love the Pilot G2 Limited body; it’s comfortable, attractive, reasonably priced, and takes Uni Signo 207 refills with ease.  In general, I’m not a Pentel pen fan, but the 0.35mm Energel Needlepoint is really sweet.

I didn’t use pencils much until I bought the Uni Kuru Toga Roulette; it’s still my favorite pencil, but I’ve been having fun testing out the Pentel Orenz 0.2 mm pencil.

When I’m doing sketches that require color, I use my Staedtler triplus fineliner 10-color set.  The only issue is that I can’t erase it; however, I haven’t found an erasable colored pencil or colored mechanical pencil lead, so sometime I plan on testing out a set of Pilot’s erasable Color Pencil Like Frixion pens.  I do have mixed feelings about the Frixion pens; they’re great for an erasable pen, but aren’t as nice (smoothness, color, line quality, refill life) as a decent pen.

Smart Phone

I’m not a big phone geek; I loved my old Palm Centro with its keyboard and excellent PIM apps.  I’m feeling a lot better about Android since installing DejaOffice; it’s not perfect, but provides integrated PIM functionality (Tasks, Memos, Calender, etc), synchronization (including to Palm Desktop/Pimlical), and is cross-platform (Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Win 8.1).

My phone is a Samsung Note 2.  I really like it: battery life is great, there’s a micro-SD card for affordable storage, on-screen keyboard is good, the display is nice, it’s fast enough, it’s barely hand-holdable, and it’s affordable used.  If I ever really use my phone for business, I’ll take a serious look at the Blackberry Passport, but it’s currently too pricey for just personal use.

I also have to put in a plug for my provider, Ting.  Their prices are competitive for my usage, and their service is the best I’ve experienced.

Tablet/Laptop

I’m currently using an Asus T100TA 2-in-1 tablet with keyboard.  It’s not perfect (keyboard is a little small, for example), but it’s a good fit for me now because:

  • It’s cheap (<$250 refurbished) so I’m not worried about losing it
  • Powerful enough (quad core Baytrail; the browser seems to handle complex web sites better than Android or BB Tablet OS)
  • Can run standard Windows software (like LibreOffice) and screen resolution is low enough the menus aren’t microscopic
  • USB 3.0 port on keyboard, micro-SD card on the tablet part
  • Great battery life (except sometimes it doesn’t go to sleep when I tell it to) and quick boot times

In summary, I find it’s a lot more productive than an Android tablet, and smaller and more convenient than a notebook.  Most of the time I use it with the keyboard, but I do take the keyboard off when I’m doing more tablet-y things (like exploring in Maps).  I’m surprised that I use the touchscreen a lot, even with the keyboard attached.  I think that’s because it’s so small.

Desktop

For getting work done, I still find there’s no substitute for a good ergonomic setup with a desktop: mechanical keyboard (Cherry Blues, Cherry Greens, or Buckling Springs depending on my mood), big 24″ 1920 x 1200 monitor, octa-core CPU, 16G RAM, and a fast Samsung SSD.

Keeping Everything In Sync

I believe in using what works for me, not keeping up with fads.  I’m still sorting out what works best for what tasks.  I’ve played some with Dropbox, and I have mixed feelings about it (including their security record), and don’t want to go all-Google.

So I’ve setup an Owncloud server for an affordable price ($15/year for 15G storage).  I’m still working out what I want to put on Owncloud in what formats, what I want to put on trac, and what works best on WordPress.

For example, LibreOffice Calc is much nicer for tabular content, but doesn’t share well; trac is probably next best.

Obviously, WordPress is best for public blog posts, but for public directories and content I update over time, I’ve shifted between using WordPress pages and trac pages; right now, I’m learning towards using trac most of the time.

Blog Notes

I’ve still been quite busy at work and home this month, but I promise to get some more posts up before end of the month.

Postscript 11/25/2014: I really like the Note 2’s form factor (biggest display that’s barely hold-able and slim), and can see why the Note family as created a new category.  I also just received my 12-color set of Frixion color pencil like pens; my initial impression are positive, and I plan on donating my Staedtler tri-plus set to a more artistic family member.

October 20, 2014   No Comments

Make SATA Drives Non-Ejectable In Windows

I recently had the problem that my internal SATA drives were showing up in the Windows 7 Safety Remove Hardware and Eject Media tray icon.  Since I don’t plan on ejecting my internal drives, I decided to solve the problem.

This How can I remove the option to eject SATA drives from the Windows 7 tray icon? Q&A gave the information I needed (I mainly used the first answer), but didn’t spell out how to find the correct driver.  So I will go over the procedure I used.  Note: if you’re not comfortable with hacking Windows, don’t do this!

  1. My configuration is an Asrock 960GMUS3S FX motherboard with a Samsung 840 Pro SSD on the first SATA 3 channel and a WD HDD on the second SATA 3 channel.  The first SATA 2 channel is used for eSATA; the last 3 channels are currently unused.
  2. First open up the Device Manager, find the controllers section, right click on the appropriate controller, and click on the Properties item.  In my case, both drives are on the Asmedia 106x SATA Controller under IDE ATA/ATAPI controllers.

    Device Manager

    Device Manager

  3. Click the Driver tab.

    Controller Properties

    Controller Properties

  4. Click on the Driver Details button.

    Driver Details

    Driver Details

  5. Note the name of the driver file; in my case, it’s asahci64.sys
  6. Now the procedure pretty much follows the Q&A.  Start by opening Regedit.
  7. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services, and then find the name that matches the drive file name in step 5 (asahci64 in my case).
  8. Add the keys as specified in the Q&A.  In my case, I added Controller0, and under Controller0 I added Channel0 (for the SSD) and Channel1 (for the HDD).  Under each channel, I added the DWORD value TreatAsInternalPort, and then set the value to 1.
    1. Here’s a screen capture of my updated registry:asahci_registry
    2. Here’s a REG file I created that does the job:
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services\asahci64\Controller0]

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services\asahci64\Controller0\Channel0]
"TreatAsInternalPort"=dword:00000001

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services\asahci64\Controller0\Channel1]
"TreatAsInternalPort"=dword:00000001
  • Reboot and verify everything works as expected (it took me a few tries to get everything right).

November 13, 2013   2 Comments

My NAS4Free System

I’ve been wanting to get a NAS (Networked Attached Storage) unit for the last few years.  Finally I made time to put one together using NAS4Free and some parts I’ve had for a while.

Why NAS4Free

I choose to go with NAS4Free over commercial and other open source projects for a few reasons:

  • NAS4Free was cheaper (since I already had the parts) and more flexible than a commercial NAS box.
  • I wanted my NAS to use ZFS for its robustness, which really limited my options.
  • NAS4Free’s installation and setup looked pretty easy, and there are many available resources.
  • NAS4Free supports UPnP which I want to use with my Grace Digital Audio system.
  • If I need to, I can install additional software (FreeBSD packages), although I should note that NAS4Free strongly recommends that the NAS stays just a NAS, and doesn’t become an all purpose server.
  • NAS4Free is fully Open Source, not the free version of a commercial product.

My Hardware

My major NAS hardware is:

  • Antec Sonata case  – a quiet mid tower case
  • Abit NF8V motherboard.  The good: Gigabit Ethernet.  The bad: old enough that I needed to add a SATA PCI board to handle the Terabyte hard drives.
  • AMD Sempron 2800 with 2G RAM.  I’ve had the case, motherboard, CPU, and RAM for ~8 years, and it’s nice to be able to re-use them.  The CPU is plenty fast enough, and the RAM is more than enough.
  • I left in the CD-ROM drive to use for initial installation and updates.
  • An old 256M Kingston CF card plus a CF to PATA adapter to store the OS.  NAS4Free strongly recommends running the OS on a separate drive, so I’m using the embedded installation method.
  • Dual Seagate ST1500DL003 1.5T drives for the main storage; with their 5900 RPM speed, these drives give me a nice balance between performance and power savings.  (“Green” drives are not recommended.)  I have the drives mirrored, since 1.5T is plenty of storage, and I’m more concerned with data integrity than storage capacity or speed.

My Experiences So Far

At the bottom, I’ve listed most useful resources I found; here are some additional notes:

  • Performance is fine; I’ve seen up to ~50MB/sec transferring files to my desktop.
  • Installation went pretty well, except for trying to get encryption working (more below).
  • The web GUI is nice, but could be a lot better.  You definitely need to read the documentation and some tutorials to get everything setup.
  • Remember, as the NAS4Free site says, a NAS is not backup!  You still need to backup the data (preferably in another location).  Right now I’m using some portable USB hard drives; in the future, I’m thinking about getting a high capacity (120G) Blu-Ray burner.

My main problems came trying to get encryption working with mirrored ZFS drives.  Here’s what I found:

  • In short, it’s not worth it for me.  Encryption is a like a lock: it can help, but it’s not a security cure-all, and does add hassles.  So I decided instead of whole disk encryption, I could use a container (such as TrueCrypt) for the files that need it.
  • If you really need encrypted ZFS drives, it’s probably worth checking out FreeNAS V8, which now includes its own ZFS encryption (not compatible with Oracle’s version).
  • NAS4Free’s underlying FreeBSD operating system includes the GELI encryption drivers, which can do whole disk encryption.  It’s probably a decent match with the UFS file system.
  • The problem is that every time you restart NAS4Free with GELI-encrypted ZFS drives, the drives are not attached until you enter the password in the encryption GUI.
  • So after reboot, your ZFS configuration is gone: you have to re-attach the encrypted drives (entering the appropriate passwords), then recreate their ZFS configuration, and synchronize: see the gory details here.  I decided that was too much work for the benefits.

In the future, I’d like to do a fancier NAS with hot swap drives and such.  My default OS will be NAS4Free, but I’d also take a look at FreeNAS and illumos-based solutions.  Although mini-ITX cases with hot-swap bays from Chenbro and CFI are very cute, I’m very tempted to use a bigger case because the mini-ITX cases are limited to 4 3.5″ hot-swap drives, while I have a case that can handle 10 hot-swap drives (using something like this), and ZFS starts to get really interesting at 5 drives and up.  Another possible approach is to use 2.5″ drives and something like this or this, and a cute mini-ITX or micro-ATX case.

Note 9/2014: CFI now has a mini-ITX case with 5 3.5″ hot swap trays (and a 300W power supply) which looks pretty interesting.

NAS4Free Links

Here are some links I found useful:

November 6, 2013   2 Comments