What I LOVE about Windows Phone 8.1

June 2nd, 2015

NOTE: Please forgive the lack of visual appeal to this article (images, video). I plan on adding those in the future. This article is a work in progress.

If you read my previous article you probably think I really do hate Windows Phone 8.1, but I don’t. In fact, I actually love it. I think it is one of the most compelling mobile operating systems that I have ever used. It’s definitely not without its flaws, but please allow me to tell you why I think more people should give it a chance.

Lock & Start Screen Customization Options

I know I complained about the lack of lock & start screen customization options in my previous post titled “What I HATE about Windows Phone 8.1” However, the customization options that are available with Windows Phone 8.1 (WP8p1) still make me quite happy. I won’t go into great detail about all of the customization options because for the most part they are pretty similar across iOS, Android and WP8p1, but there are a couple that do stand out for me.

I love that I can control exactly which applications display information on my lock screen. I even use an application called “Lock Screen Text” to display my contact information in case my phone is ever lost. I love that I can choose the size and position of the icons on my Start screen. If I wanted to go for a minimalist look I could clear all of the icons and widgets from my Start screen. I know, I know. Android fans are screaming “I’ve been able to do this since *INSERT ANDROID VERSION HERE*.” However, after having been locked into the world of iOS for many years, these are welcome options.

With WP8p1 if you choose not to display any or a few icons on your Start screen you still have quick and easy access to the Start Menu and all of your applications. It’s just a swipe to the right! I actually find the Start menu a better feature than Android’s applications menu. With the Start menu in WP8p1 you can touch a letter to bring up an alphabet that will get you to the application you are looking for quicker. With Android and iOS you sometimes have to scroll through several screens before getting to the application you’re looking for.

A Growing App Store

Believe it or not, you can use WP8p1 as your primary phone. The app store is growing constantly. There are a lot of great applications being developed by people who believe in the platform. I won’t deny that it could be better. There are a lot of mainstream sites and services that desperately need to get on board with an application for WP8p1. In many instances I have found that when there isn’t an app from a product/service that there is usually a third-party application for WP8p1. Not always, but in some cases these third party applications are better than their Android or iOS equivalents that were developed in-house by the product/service. In some cases I have found myself switching to a different service because there isn’t an application available for the product/service. An example of this is Urban Spoon. There used to be a Windows Phone version of Urban Spoon that worked fairly well, but they discontinued development of the application and removed it from the Store. Since then I have been using Yelp and find that I like Yelp a lot better than I ever liked Urban Spoon.

Windows Phone Application on the PC

Connect your WP8p1 device to your PC and you’ll be presented with a great utility for managing the content on your device. My favorite feature was getting the non-DRM’d content from my iTunes library onto my WP8p1 device. The application made it super simple.

Remote Desktop Application

I do a lot of remote computing with the computers on my network. If I’m upstairs and want to initiate a download on the media center PC downstairs I can RDC or VNC into the machine from any computer on the network. Thankfully, Microsoft has included a built-in RDC client into WP8p1. It’s basic, but it gets the job done beautifully. I am very pleased that Microsoft incorporated it. I do wish they would incorporate more business type features. A tool to mount network shares, comes to mind, but I digress (this isn’t the “What I HATE about Windows Phone 8.1” article after-all).

Podcasts

I am thrilled that Microsoft has included a podcast catcher into WP8p1. It even works pretty well. I have it set to download podcasts automatically for me and it actually works. Even better, it will download them automatically to the SD card I have in my phone! Heaven forbid I need more storage than what was provided to me by the manufacturer! This is why I could never use the auto download feature for podcasts on my iPhone. The internal storage was never enough and I didn’t want to pay the Apple tax just for more storage space. Ridiculous.
The app could use some improvements. I don’t know which directory it is searching through for podcasts. Some of the lesser known podcasts that I listen to are not found. Luckily, if you have the link to the RSS feed with enclosures you can use that to subscribe to podcasts.

Stock Applications

While in my previous post I complained about the lack of stock applications that are included with WP8p1, what is included, I do love.

News – When I first started using WP8p1 I assumed that I would need to install all of my favorite news aggregator applications. While I do have them installed, I find myself using the stock news application by default. I rarely go into Flipboard or Converge anymore. The default app is quick and always up to date. My favorite feature is that I can add topics that I am interested in and the application will pull stories based on those topics. My only complaint is that when you click on the topic to view more stories it only pulls down 20 news stories related to that topic. It doesn’t do a continuous scroll like most apps do these days. In some ways this is a good thing. It presents me with the most relevant articles and I’m out of the app faster.

Weather – When I was initially trying to figure out how I wanted to lay out my Start screen, I hated the Weather app. I hated that the live tile rotated through the weather report. After having found a less distracting location for it, I have found the live tile useful. It’s nice not having to go into the application to get the current temperature and the five day forecast. It’s right there on my Start screen. Super convenient. I use it all the time.

Data Sense – Prior to moving to my current Windows Phone I was on an unlimited 3G connection with my iPhone 4. I never worried about how much data I was using. Partially because the data connection was so slow I rarely used it. Now that I am on a metered data plan I needed to be able to see how much data I am using. I love the Data Sense application for this. I can see exactly how much each application is using. I can also tell the application how much data I am allotted each month and it will let me know how much I have left. You can use the Battery Saver application to prevent applications from running in the background to help save your apps from eating your data plan. I do think they could have come up with a better method for limiting each program from using data in the background. I always forget that you have to do it from the Battery Saver application. It seems like this feature would also be useful in the Data Sense application. I understand not wanting to duplicate functionality. I still think there is a better way and I am hopeful it will be addressed with Windows Phone 10.

Reading List – I often find myself looking at my Facebook news feed while I am on break at work. I often come across a long article that I would like to read, but you can only read so much in fifteen minutes. I love the reading list. If I come across an article I want to read later I can save it here. Not only does it bookmark the page for me, I can click a button that strips away the design elements of the website that the article is on (if the website is coded properly), which allows me to focus my attention on just the contents of the article. Since WP8p1 is cloud connected via OneDrive I can view the same articles when I get back to my desktop or laptop computer running Windows 8.1.

Storage Sense – Before moving to my current Windows Phone I made a list of requirements for my next phone. I refused to purchase a phone that did not have user upgradable storage. I didn’t care if that was the only feature that it did not have. I was not going to be locked into an environment that did not allow the user to upgrade their internal storage. Unfortunately, not all Windows Phones support this feature. I’m sure we’re going to see more phones in the future without it. Fortunately, the phone I am using does. Microsoft does a tremendous job of supporting it too. The phone I have is limited to 8 GBs of internal storage, but I can insert a micro-SD card with a capacity up to 128 GBs. Using the Storage Sense application I have new music, videos, podcasts, photos, apps and downloads being downloaded to the SD card instead of the phone’s internal built-in storage. You can also use the Storage Sense application to move most of the pre-installed and system applications over to the SD card. Not all application developers support this feature.

My only complaint about Storage Sense is that you cannot manually scan for errors on your SD card. Over the past few months I have ran into a couple of issues where applications were not loading properly. In the past I have simply rebooted the phone and a message appeared asking me if I wanted to check the card for errors. Running the scan usually repaired the errors and returned my phone to normal operation. I have been running into this issue more often. It requires rebooting the phone several times to resolve. I am thinking a format of the SD card and restoring my apps may be the way to go to resolve the issue. If I find out, I will post a future article.

I mention the above problem that I am having just to alert you that your mileage may vary with running applications off of the SD card. For the most part it works great, but I have definitely encountered issues. When you’re on a device with limited internal storage it is a blessing though.

FM Radio – I rarely use this feature, but I think it’s great to have. In the event that you’re desperate for something to listen to, wanting to listen to local radio stations while you’re traveling or wanting to get weather alerts. I am glad to see it included. Unfortunately, not all Windows Phones have an FM tuner. If yours does I recommend playing with the application. Like all Windows Phone applications it is pretty minimalist. About the only thing you can do is set favorites to stations you frequently listen to. I know it will never happen, but it would be pretty awesome to see a recording feature implemented in future versions. Maybe even a scheduled recording feature. That would be great. I won’t hold my breath though.

Windows Store – One of the best features of the store is the ability to sync your applications across multiple devices. I know you can do this on other platforms so I won’t go into great detail about this feature. It works essentially the same way it does on Android and iOS. When you have multiple devices or are switching to a new device you can have the Windows Store app restore all of the applications you have purchased/downloaded/installed previously. If you ever have to wipe your phone to factory defaults it is a great way to get back up and running again.

Bluetooth Pairing

When I first switched to Windows Phone I had a frustrating time with the Bluetooth pairing in my car. After several updates to WP8p1, Bluetooth pairing has gotten a whole lot better. When I first started using the feature I couldn’t use the forward/back buttons on my car’s steering wheel to reverse to a previous track or progress to the next one. In the beginning there were a lot of instances where the phone would lose its pairing to the car. Sometimes it would take three or more tries to actually get the phone to pair with the car. These frustrations have mostly disappeared after recent updates. I have found in some instances I have more control over the audio on my Windows Phone than I did with my iPhone in the same car.

Although this is the “What I LOVE about Windows Phone 8.1” article, I do want to address a complaint I have with the Bluetooth volume settings. I wish I could get them to stay locked to 100% all the time so I could simply control the volume using my car’s stereo controls. For whatever reason, the phone will occasionally decide to reduce the volume of the audio stream to a faint whisper. When this happens I am forced to switch back over to regular radio or find a place to pull over and fix the issue. It requires unlocking the phone and increasing the volume. Sometimes it requires a full reboot to even get the Bluetooth audio settings back.

Microsoft Office

It is really nice to have Microsoft Office support built-in to the phone. Not only can I view documents, I can edit them, in the application that I created them in. When I switch back to my desktop there is no loss in formatting. Very handy for making sure that resume you’re about to send off is in tip top shape!

Project My Screen

While I could only get this feature to work while I had my phone tethered via a USB cable (I think I need a Miracast dongle for it to work wirelessly). This feature is supposed to work the way AirPlay does for iOS devices and Stream to TV does for Android devices. In addition to the standard uses, I can see many creative uses for this feature from an educational perspective.

Multiple Camera Apps

It can be confusing as to which camera application Microsoft is devoted to as there are several. The Lumia Camera application is great if you require lots of control when taking photos. The standard camera application is great, but does not provide as many advanced features. In addition, there are several feature photo applications. One called Lumia Selfie makes it easy for people who have a phone without a front facing camera to take a selfie. Another Lumia application allows you to create panoramic shots. While I do love that Microsoft provides multiple feature applications for taking photos, I do hope that they will combine the features into one application. Also, I hope they will eventually integrate a decent HDR setting. I miss the HDR feature from my iPhone. I have yet to find a program on Windows Phone that does HDR shots as well as my iPhone 4 did.

Cortana

I love Cortana, when I have a use for her. She works surprisingly well. I am amazed at how well she can understand me. She can be a lot of fun as well. Ask her to sing you a song or tell you a story and she will. Ask her to set a reminder or an alarm for a certain time and she will do it flawlessly. That being said, I just don’t use Cortana that often. I think if I didn’t have to pick up my phone to use her that she would be a whole lot more useful.

A Beautiful Mobile OS
The more I have used my Windows Phone the more I have fallen in love with it. The more I want the platform to succeed. I think the OS is absolutely stunning. I love the minimalist look of all the applications. Many of the third-party application developers are good at keeping this minimalist look. I don’t feel like I am ever very far from anything that I need. The transitions are crisp, even on a low powered device like the Lumia 635 that I have. Everything is as smooth as butter. Yes, I know that is a phrase that gets way too often, but when on TechButter…!

I highly recommend that if you’re interested, watch for sales. Often you’ll see the Lumia 635 go on sale for $40. Pick it up just to experience something different. Give it to a kid later to use as a camera or portable music player if you don’t like it. The Lumia 640 is also out there. The extra 512 MB of RAM will definitely help out. If you can get it for a good deal, I do recommend it based on my experience with the Lumia 635.

What I HATE about Windows Phone 8.1

March 18th, 2015

Customization Options

The operating system is extremely customizable, but there is a limit. That limit is where I get frustrated.

Example 1, Transparent Tiles: Finally, you have the ability to add a background image to your Start screen. This option makes many of the icons on the Start screen transparent so that you can see through to your background image. However, not all application icons become transparent. You’re left with that Fisher Price look we’ve become familiar with from Microsoft, from the Windows XP and the Windows 8.1 desktop operating systems. I personally want all of the icons to be transparent so the background image can shine through. Microsoft isn’t entirely to blame for this. They give developers the option to include transparent tile images for their applications. More developers are, but there are some that seem extremely stubborn in releasing a transparent icon for their application. They demand that their icon stand out like a sore thumb among all of the other beautiful transparent tiles. It is usually the social network sites that INSIST on this.

Example 2, Live Tiles: Simple live tiles that alert me to the number of unread messages or missed calls, I am fine with those. However, I absolutely hate live tiles that cycle through an entire news feed. I hate looking at my Start screen with the desire to scream “SHOW ME THE MONEY” as if it were a slot machine. There is one exception to this frustration. I am fine with the stock weather app cycling through the weather report. I keep it at the bottom of the Start screen, below all of the beautiful transparent tiles. I can’t keep all of the blinky, blinky apps at the bottom of the Start screen though. Ok, yes, technically I could, but that would look terrible and be terrible from a usability perspective. Again, this isn’t entirely Microsoft’s fault. They do give developers the ability to allow users to turn off their application’s live tile. It seems as though some application developers think their content is so important it must stare me in the face as soon as I unlock my phone! There are some media outlets, I’m looking at you CNET, that insist on having constantly updated information on their tile, no matter how small you make the tile.

Feed Resiliency and OS Navigation

Windows Phone 8.1 is ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE at remembering where you were on the previous page when you hit the back button. The best example of this is the Facebook application (which is developed by Microsoft because Facebook doesn’t believe in the Windows Phone platform). As I am scrolling through my news feed I will inevitably come across a link that a friend or a news outlet has posted. I will click the link and read the article. When I press the back button to go back to Facebook and my news feed I expect to be able to pick up where I left off. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, does it? Well, I guess it is because I am instead taken ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE TOP OF MY NEWS FEED. That is like having to start reading a traditional newspaper from the front page after you’ve read an article! This is, quite possibly, my biggest problem with the operating system. It is one of the most frustrating problems because it affects me constantly. The good news is that there are some applications that are good at remembering where you were. Not all of them make me want to bang the phone on sharp objects and run it over with my car!

Side note: While I do have major gripes about the Facebook application that the Microsoft team is developing. I have to also thank them for stepping up where Facebook won’t.

When I am finally ready to be taken back to the top of the page I am on, there is not a universal gesture for returning to the top. Most mobile operating systems allow you to double tap the top of the screen to return to the page you’re on, but not Windows Phone OS. If the application developer hasn’t added a method for returning to the top in their application you will be doing a lot of scrolling to get back to the top, refreshing the page or closing and re-opening the application you’re in.

There are some sections of the operating system that provide you with a quick way to jump down the page to the section you need to get to. Example: From the Start screen you can select a letter and then select the first letter of the application you’re trying to get to. Tapping the letter ‘S’ allows you to get to the applications that start with the letter ‘S’ very quickly. Unfortunately, not all applications provide this feature. Looking through long lists of folders in the Windows Phone Mail client, this feature would be extremely useful. This must be an easy feature to add, but I don’t know why Microsoft didn’t add it wherever they could in their own applications.

Limited Network Share Support

I hate that I have to install a third party application to access network shares on a Windows Server from my Windows Phone. I guess their intention is for you to store everything on OneDrive? I would love to have my favorite home network shares automatically mount on my phone when I connect to my home network’s wireless access point. I am sure that is asking for way too much! I won’t hold my breath waiting for that wishlist item!

For years, I have been able to watch a plethora of media file types across my home network by simply mapping to the share. Rarely, have I ever had to copy the file down to my device to watch the file. However, many file types that are supported by Windows Phone simply will not play unless you copy them to your device. It seems as though iOS and Android are better at buffering the data stream from server to device than Windows Phone is. WMV files that I attempted to stream to my Windows Phone were the worst. I would get a few seconds of video, playback would begin to buffer, but playback would never resume. This was not a problem from Android or iOS (with the same .wmv file).

How the **** Do I Copy and Paste Text?

It was the season for shipping and receiving when I first started testing Windows Phone OS. My inbox was full of tracking numbers. I wanted to copy and paste these tracking numbers from the mail client into the tracking application. One would think that you could simply tap, double tap or simply hold your finger on the area you want to select to get a highlighter to appear, but one would be wrong! In the Windows Phone Mail client you have to hit the reply button in order to copy and paste text from an email message. Thankfully, in other applications such as Internet Explorer, copy and paste doesn’t appear to be so frustrating.

Lack of Default Stock Applications

I am sure by now all of you have seen the image where someone has laid out all of the devices that a modern mobile phone has replaced. Microsoft forgot to include a few items from that image: Compass, level, world clock, voice recorder, stop watch and a note pad. I can deal with the omission of a compass because there is a stock map application. Also, the Lumia 635 does not have a built-in compass. I can deal with the omission of a level, but it is still a nice feature to have. It is great when you don’t have a spirit/bubble level handy when taking pictures. I think a world clock, stop watch and alarm should be combined into one application. Yes, the phone does include Microsoft OneNote for notes, but I hate it. I guess I am simply one of those people that “doesn’t get it.” Perhaps if I took a class and learned how to use it and all of its features I would learn to love it. However, all I really want is an application that allows me to take quick notes and have those notes sync across all of my devices via OneDrive. It took a few days to get all of these features onto my phone. Microsoft does provide applications for some of these features, but you have to hunt for them in the Store.

Lack of Security Applications

There does not appear to be a built-in mechanism for scanning for viruses. It doesn’t appear as though there are any reputable solutions in the Store either. Being a Windows OS based device, I would think it would be a necessity. This seems like the perfect opportunity for Microsoft to release a version of Windows Defender for Windows Phone.

The OS also does not provide any security for your SD card. Anyone can pull the card from your device and access the contents. There are no options for encrypting the data on your card.

After a few days of having the device I noticed that in the Wi-Fi Sense application the option for “Connect to Wi-Fi hotspots” was on by default. I would love it if we lived in a world where everyone who has an open WiFi access point had good intentions, but we don’t. I highly recommend turning this off. You’re phone will still automatically connect to the networks you intentionally connect to (i.e. your home network.

VPN Issues

Speaking of security. One of my goals for 2015 is to be more secure. To do that I intend on utilizing a VPN while using public WiFi. According to Microsoft the Windows Phone VPN client supports IKEv2 or L2TP with IPSec. I attempted to create a VPN using Windows Server, which should support IKEv2, but I was never successful in getting the Windows Phone to connect to the VPN server. I won’t blame anyone but myself for this. I’m sure I just need to learn more about it. Unfortunately, despite all of the documentation that states the option for “L2TP with IPSec” should be an option, it is not.

You have tasks to complete, but Cortana won’t tell you about them.

First, I find it completely absurd that tasks are hiding under the calendar. Once you are in the calendar application you click on the “…” menu and then click on tasks to access them. I feel as though tasks should be its own application.

Second, you can add tasks all day long. However, if you ask Cortana what tasks you have, she won’t see any at all. If you ask Cortana to remind you to do something at some point during the day she will gladly create a calendar reminder and you will be reminded. Tasks though, they don’t seem to be relevant in Cortana’s world.

Miracast Is The Way Of The Future

If you have a TV, gaming console or some other set-top box equipped with Miracast you can stream content to those devices from Windows Phone. Supposedly. I don’t have any Miracast devices in the house to test this feature with.

I did play with the “Project My Screen App” app to mirror my phone’s display to a Windows desktop. Unfortunately, I was only able to get it to work while having the phone tethered to a computer via USB cable. I can see a lot of uses for this feature (especially in the classroom).

I am disappointed that DLNA devices are not supported for streaming content to. Since Windows 7 the “Play To” feature has been equipped with the ability to stream content to DLNA certified devices. It is sad to see that this was not included in Windows Phone.

One would think that Microsoft could simply allow a Windows PC to act as a projector for a Windows Phone, but no.

USB on the Go Is Not Available

I would love to be able to connect a USB on the Go cable to my Windows Phone so I can connect a card reader or a USB flash drive. There are many uses for this. Sometimes you simply don’t have access to a computer or a WiFi connection. I have had the occasion where someone has handed me a USB flash drive and I am not able to view the files until I get home. USB on the Go would solve this problem. I could connect the flash drive and provided that it wouldn’t take too long I could upload the files to OneDrive and hand the drive back to its owner. USB on the Go cables are supported on Windows 8.1, so I don’t understand why this feature was stripped from the mobile operating system. I can’t see it taking up that much space.

I, like Steve Jobs, HATE Adobe Flash

Browsing websites on my iPhone I got spoiled by not having random audio coming from some hidden location in a webpage. Flash simply wasn’t supported in iOS. When clicking a YouTube video link the MP4 version was streamed instead. In a separate application with accessible controls. It was a beautiful thing. Now, like on the desktop, I have to fight the myriad of flash popups and banners. Flash videos play automatically and inside the browser windows. Some of the players built into the webpage are absolutely atrocious. You can barely access their controls because they weren’t built for mobile clients.

Speaking of YouTube. The stock YouTube application is terrible. Absolutely awful. It is simply a wrapper application that utilizes Internet Explorer. Look for a third party client for a better YouTube experience.

Check Your Backup Settings

This is just a personal preference, but if you look at the backup settings, by default photos and videos are only set to upload a “Good quality” version. I personally prefer to wait until I am on WiFi to allow pictures and videos to be backed up so that the “Best quality” version will be uploaded. I would rather have the peace of mind of knowing that the full resolution version has been backed up instead of a lower quality version.

I also highly recommend enabling the settings and application backup to the cloud.

Where the **** is the Lumia Denim Update?

The Lumia Denim update was announced several months ago. Since that time several Lumia devices have started to receive the update. Unlike Apple, Microsoft is not rolling out the update to all of the Lumia handsets at once. Instead, they are rolling it out to a few devices at a time. Unfortunately, when you have a ton of different devices to support, it is much harder to roll out a software update to all of those devices. This is something I will have to get use to on this platform.

OneDrive.com is TERRIBLE

I could write an entire blog entry about why I think OneDrive.com is terrible, but I don’t want to induce a heart attack. I hate comparing everything in Windows Phone OS to my experience with Apple iOS, but seriously, iCloud.com is phenomenal. Don’t get me wrong! There are a ton of features I would love to see implemented on iCloud.com, but compared to OneDrive.com, Apple got it right! Microsoft has some SERIOUS work to do with OneDrive.com! For a start, why must everything load in a separate window?

Having an online component, that works beautifully, allows users to manage their information much more easily and from any location, from any device, without having to install any software. iCloud.com is beautiful and each application available on the site is essentially a replica of the mobile client. Sometimes you don’t want to tap data into your phone or your tablet. Sometimes you want to sit at your computer to update your contacts or calendar items. Not everyone wants to use Microsoft Outlook. You won’t always be on your home computer.

While OneDrive.com does provide the same functionality as iCloud.com, I very seriously hope Microsoft invests some money into improving it.

Lack of Applications and Hardware Accessories

When I first started investigating the possibility of switching to Windows Phone, one of the biggest complaints I heard from other users is that there is a major lack of applications. While yes, I have found that there are a lot of companies that I would like to see applications from, I have been able to find applications from third parties to get me by. Sometimes the applications from the third parties are better than the application I had experience with on iOS or Android.

The lack of applications is not the fault of Microsoft. As I mentioned earlier in this article, Microsoft is developing a Facebook application on their own. Facebook has released one Windows Phone application for Messenger. They could VERY EASILY release an application for Facebook. Google has released one application for Windows Phone. It only provides one feature, searching Google. Yes, there is voice support, but nothing more. Why bother when asking Cortana is faster? I wish they would develop their own Google+ client for Windows Phone!

Windows Phone adoption is on the rise thanks to Microsoft introducing low-cost smartphones. This trend will only continue. Hopefully, at some point in the near future, these companies will see the benefits of offering their services to Windows Phone users. Microsoft, on the other hand, has been trying to get their applications and services into as many user’s hands as possible. Whether they are using iOS or Android devices.

During my conversion to Windows Phone I had to look for suitable replacements for applications that I used on iOS. On iOS I used a lot of remote applications to control playback on my media center PC. Apple has a good one for iTunes. Thankfully, there is a good one available for VLC Media Player on Windows Phone. Unfortunately, I don’t see the same type of application from Microsoft for Windows Media Center, Xbox Music or Xbox Videos.

It is amazing how many add-on devices you can get for an iPhone these days. There are add-on camera lenses that allow you to take 360° photos and videos. There are meters, readers and all kinds of measurement add-on devices that you can get. Unfortunately, I fear it will be a very long time before any Windows Phone enjoys these same wonderful accessories. Thankfully, I’m hanging onto our old iPhones.

Use Mobatek’s MobaXterm to connect to Raspberry Pi through X11 forwarding.

February 9th, 2013

When I am working from my Raspberry Pi (RasPi) I am usually connecting to it using SSH or some other method that doesn’t require a GUI. However, when I do need access to the GUI, I don’t want to have to connect a display directly to the RasPi. For a while I had been connecting to the RasPi using a VNC connection. While it does work pretty well I soon wanted something with richer output. I remembered that Mobatek had an application called MobaXterm that might suit my needs better. I headed over to their website, downloaded a copy of the free version and set about trying to use it to connect to my RasPi through X11 forwarding. After I got it to work I was very pleased with the results and the added functionality that MobaXterm adds. The rest of this entry is instructions for connecting MobaXterm to the RasPi through X11 forwarding. Enjoy!

Use Mobatek's MobaXterm to connect to Raspberry Pi through X11 forwarding.

First, you will need to download and extract a copy of MobaXterm (as of 2/9/2013 the current version is 6.1). Once you have extracted the files, double click on MobaXterm_Personal_6.1

Click on the Sessions button at the top of the window. Choose New Session. Choose SSH as the session type. In the Host field enter the IP address of your RasPi. Leave the port set to 22. You can also at this point enter the username that you will be using. Make sure that X11-Forwarding is checked. Choose “LXDE desktop” for the remote environment type. Click on OK at the bottom.

Once you click on OK you will see an X11 window open on your desktop. You may have to move it out of the way to enter credentials into the SSH window. Once you enter credentials and choose whether or not you want to save your password you should then (after a couple of moments) see the desktop of your RasPi.

NOTE: I am using the Raspian “wheezy” OS on my Raspberry Pi. However, the instructions above will most likely work for a majority of Linux distributions as long as XDMCP login is enabled.

Redo Backup and Recovery

September 17th, 2010

One of the most critical aspects of setting up a new system is creating a system image. Especially for Windows systems. Who wants to install updates and reboot all day long? Whenever I set up a new system I install all of the updates, drivers and software that are needed on that system. I then create an image of its current, freshly installed state. In the future if my hard drive crashes, my installation becomes corrupt or I simply want to start over with a fresh installation I can very easily. It is much nicer than starting over with a fresh install of an outdated copy of Windows or having to deal with the CRAPware that comes pre-loaded with most consumer desktops and notebooks.

Redo Backup Home Screen Create or restore a backup image Redo Backup Tools Screen

For a few years I was using BartPE with a plugin called SelfImage. It worked tremendously well. The BartPE CD I created must have been trashed when I was in the process of moving. Otherwise, that is probably what I would still be using and I wouldn’t have a reason for writing now. I did try to create a new copy of BartPE but had trouble finding the correct copy of the SelfImage plugin. Frustrated, I started looking for something else. I tried several live Linux distributions that were designed to create and restore drive images. I also tried a couple of free Windows programs. None of them were working. Finally, I came across Redo Backup. I have to tell you that I am VERY excited about this software. It does what a professional grade cloning tool should do, for free! If they were to charge for this application it would be worth every single penny! Though, I hope they don’t because I’m sure it would be expensive!

File management Redo Backup Settings Network restore wizard

The feature that I am most excited about is the ability to save and restore images to an FTP server or SMB share. It’s very useful if the machine you are imaging only has one hard drive. It would also be useful in a corporate or educational environment where many machines need to be imaged. I have to tell you that while I did manage to use this feature successfully, I did have problems with it. Many times the process would lock up and the only way to start over was to reboot the machine. Sometimes the screen would go blank only showing the cursor. Like I said, I did manage to successfully backup and restore an image via FTP. But only after many restarts was I successful. The problem could be that the machine I was backing up and restoring was a virtual machine. It could also be a bad connection between the desktop I was running the virtual machine on and the desktop I use as a server.

While I did have issues using the network backup and restore feature; I was completely successful in backing up a hard drive to a secondary internal and external hard drive and restoring the image back to the main hard drive.

In addition to drive imaging you can use Redo Backup to: manage your partitions, use Firefox to download drivers (or just surf the web), synchronize files, recover deleted files, reset your hard drive to factory condition, mount internal or external drives to manage files. You can do all of that and more with software that can be run from an external 256 MB flash drive.

If you’re looking for free drive cloning software, look no further. I have tried them all and I promise you, this is THE ONE to keep in your toolbox!

Redo Backup and Recovery

Mac OS X terminal server using Vine Server

September 10th, 2009

In the previous blog entry I wrote about Aqua Connect Terminal Server for Mac OS X. While I think it’s a great application for an organization that can afford to implement it, I cannot. I’m sure there are others out there wanting to implement terminal server functionality but can’t afford to pay for a proprietary product either. If you are one of those people, I have great news for you! You can do it right now, for free! All it will take is a Mac with OS 9 or later (I am running OS 10.4.11), Vine Server, a little time and maybe a few groans here and there. But hopefully, this tutorial will get you up and running without going through the moans and groans that I did! Let’s get started.

Mac OS X terminal server using Vine Server

User account creation and fast user switching

The first task that we’ll take care of is setting up users. I am using a fresh installation of Tiger but you may not be. The first user that I would recommend setting up is an Administrator account.

Creating a new user account Enable fast user switching Switching user accounts

This is simply an account named “Administrator” with administrator privileges. This is an optional step but I find that it lessens the confusion of system administration. It also gives you an account that you can use to login to the machine you are setting this up on without disturbing a session of another user or your own.

Once you have multiple users set up you need to enable fast user switching. Either click on the System Preferences icon in the dock or from the desktop click on the Apple icon and then System Preferences. Once the preferences panel has opened go to Accounts. Look for a button labeled “Login Options” and click on it. If you cannot click on the button you’ll need to un-lock the system for changes by clicking on the lock at the bottom of the panel. Once there you’ll want to make sure that “Automatically log in as:” is unchecked. Under “Display login window as” I would recommend selecting “Name and password.” This way if someone happens to connect to your system through the network they will not see a list of your user accounts, which will give them half of the information they need to gain access to your system. The very last option is a definite necessity, check the box beside “Enable fast user switching.” The “View as” option is your own personal preference but I personally like the icon since it doesn’t take up so much of the title bar.

System VNC Server, Accept SSH connections and Firewall Configuration

Vine Server does have a system server but I do not recommend using it because it interferes with the functionality that we are trying to achieve. Instead, we will use the system VNC server. To enable it stay in System Preferences.

Enable Apple Remote Desktop Apple Remote Desktop Access privileges System firewall

System firewall configuration Apple Remote Desktop notice about no changes available Vine Server firewall settings

Click on Show All at the top to return to the main panel. From there click on Sharing. Click on Apple Remote Desktop. The service will start and you’ll need to assign a password in the section “VNC viewers may control screen with password.” You do not have to configure each user account with permissions. The permissions at the top of this screen are for Apple Remote Desktop software connections only.

If you are going to want your users to connect using SSH (great for security) you’ll want to enable the Remote Login service in the Sharing panel as well.

Next we’ll configure the firewall so your users can connect remotely. From the Sharing panel click on Firewall. Make sure that “Apple Remote Desktop” and “Remote Login – SSH” are checked. They should already be enabled. If not, simply select the check box beside them. Next, we need to allow connections into Vine Server (which we will install next). Click on New. Choose Other from Port Name. In the TCP Port Numbers field enter: 5800-5809. In the UPD Port Number enter: 5800. In the Description enter: “Vine VNC Server”. You can now close system preferences.

Install Vine VNC Server

Next you’ll want to login to your Administrator account (again, this is just a personal preference) and install Vine Server.

Configure user accounts

After you have installed Vine Server log out of the Administrator account and log into one of the other user accounts that you created. Inside of each user account do the following: Launch Vine Server from the Applications directory. You’ll be asked to either enter a password or choose none (no password required). I would recommend using the same password that is assigned to that user account. Now, to make sure that Vine launches at log in. Right click on the Vine VNC icon in the dock and select “Keep In Dock”. Right click on the icon again and select “Open at Login”.

System VNC security Connection settings Device settings

Sharing preferences Startup preferences Advanced preferences

We’ll need to make some changes to the Vine Server. From the toolbar click on Vine Server >> Preferences. The first thing you will enter is a display name for the connection. I like to use “username on machinename.” This is for organizational purposes so whenever I connect to the server from a remote machine multiple times I will know which account I am in.

We now need to configure the port. Since we’re also running the system VNC server we cannot use the default ports. This is why I had you to add those ports in the firewall. Otherwise, we could have used the standard VNC option in the drop down menu. You can use port 5800 for this first account but I prefer to use port 5801 for the first user account, 5802 for the second, 5803 for the third and so on. Again, it’s a personal, organizational preference. Before you continue you can also choose whether you want to require users to connect via SSH before they can make a VNC connection. Generally, on a local network I don’t require users to connect via SSH. If a user was connecting remotely, I would.

Let’s switch to the Device tab. Since this machine will be used by multiple users we want to make sure that it will not go to sleep. We also want to make sure that the screen saver is not running. Running a screen saver over VNC will make everything on your network extremely slow. Make sure those check boxes are not checked.

In the Sharing tab, I select “Always allow multiple VNC connections.”

Lastly, make sure that “Stop server on a fast user switch” is unchecked. Otherwise, when you log out you won’t be able to connect again unless you use the system server VNC connection to log in.

Configure all of your users with these settings and reboot the server.

Connect to Apple’s built-in VNC Server

To connect to the system VNC server you’ll need a VNC Viewer. For Windows I recommend TightVNC Viewer. If you’re using Linux use Vinagre or TightVNC. If you’re using a Mac you can use Chicken of the VNC. Testplant has a VNC viewer called Vine Viewer that you can purchase for added functionality.

Connecting to system server with TightVNC Viewer

Once you have chosen a VNC viewer, open it and enter the IP address of the Mac you are setting up as a terminal server and connect. You should be asked to enter the password you entered in the Apple Remote Desktop settings. Enter the password and you should then see the log in screen.

Now all you have to do is log in to each user account so that each account has Vine Server running in it and return to the log in screen using fast user switching. Make sure that you don’t log out or you won’t be able to connect to the VNC server that is running inside of each user account.

After you have finished starting up Vine server in each user account and have returned to the log in screen you can disconnect from the system server.

Connect to user account Vine servers

To connect to the user VNC servers the only change you will make in your connection process is the IP address in the VNC viewer. This time you will enter the IP address of the server followed by a colon and a port number. Example: 192.168.1.23:5801 – This will connect your VNC viewer to the first user account in which you launched Vine server. You’ll be asked to enter the password that you specified in that user account.

Connect to user accounts

NOTE: The default VNC ports are 5900 but since we are running the system VNC server we had to use a different port range for the user VNC servers. If you were not running the system VNC server and were using the default port range you could simply use 192.168.1.23:1

Final Thoughts

No, this is not a true terminal server. However, if you need this type of functionality and are not willing to pony up the dough, I think this is a great solution. At least, it’s the only solution I have been able to come up with! I think my next experiment will be to see whether I can achieve better performance with it using a FireWire connection. I’ve got to get the FireWire 6 pin to 6 pin cable first. I’d also like to eventually have a dumb terminal connecting to the server to display the Mac OS X desktop.

Aqua Connect Terminal Server for Mac OS X

August 5th, 2009

A few years ago I fell in love with Windows Terminal Services Server. Then I learned about the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) and fell in love with it even more because I could bring old computers to life by booting them over the network with a brand new, full-featured, modern operating system. I love the idea of terminal computing because it gives you the ability to connect from any workstation and access all of your applications and data from each workstation you connect from. Businesses, schools and organizations can implement terminal computing as a way to give more users access to a computer without having to purchase a complete computer workstation for each user.

Connected to the server via TightVNC Viewer

Since setting up a Windows and Linux terminal server it has been a dream of mine to get a terminal server up and running on Mac OS X. It’s a topic that I will occasionally do a Google Search for to see if there are any new projects trying to accomplish this. A couple of weeks ago I was doing a search on this topic and found two software vendors that offered a solution. I decided to tryout Aqua Connect because it would run on my iBook G3. Yes, ancient technology but it still works and I use what I’ve got!

Taking control of a remote Mac is already possible with VNC server software and of course Apple Remote Desktop. However, with a VNC server and Apple Remote Desktop only one user can use the system at a time. That is where a terminal server comes into play. Multiple users can connect to the terminal server at the same time from their workstation and use the computer they are connected to just like they were sitting right in front of it. Each user can use the applications that they need to without disturbing other users.

User administration Terminal options Server information

Once I found Aqua Connect I requested a free trial and about a day later I received the download link and a serial number. I downloaded the software and installed it. The software is extremely simple to install. If you can install applications on OS X, you can install Aqua Connect. Installing LTSP is much more complicated so I was pleasantly surprised. Once you get the server started, users added and a hole added in your firewall so the software can pass through it; you can connect from any computer on your network, using any VNC server client software (or a thin client that supports VNC connections). It’s that easy. Seriously? Yup!

A couple of cool features in the Aqua Connect preference pane are the ability to control priority for each connecting client and the ability to set the default resolution of the connecting clients.

As I mentioned above I was testing Aqua Connect on an iBook G3 which has Mac OS X 10.4 installed on it. Aqua Connect is designed to work best on Mac OS X Server and of course a computer with more resources. There are two versions of the software. One for OS X 10.4 Tiger and one for OS X 10.5 Leopard. The Leopard version has more features and unfortunately, I am unable to tell you about those as of this time. If in the future I am able to test the Leopard version I will update this article with updated information. I mention all of that so you can keep that in mind as you read the rest of this entry.

To connect to the server you can use any VNC client software (TightVNC Viewer, RealVNC, Chicken of the VNC, etc). The problem with this is that VNC is terrible for performance. For quick maintenance on a system it is okay but I don’t think anyone would want to browse the Internet or use many applications at a time due to the slow screen re-drawing time. Fortunately, the Leopard version of Aqua Connect supports connecting via RDP (remote desktop protocol) clients which should make the OS X terminal server experience a much more pleasant one.

There were a couple of quirks that I encountered while testing Aqua Connect. The first is console lockups. After connecting and logging off multiple clients I would try to login to the server (the iBook G3) but could not enter any login credentials. It looked as though there was a remote login being displayed over the real login screen. I don’t know if this was actually the case or not but the display had a much lower resolution than it normally does. I could not interact with the console and had to reboot when this happened. The second quirk was that I would sometimes be unable to login to the terminal server from a remote client without rebooting the server first. I just assumed that these quirks were due to it being installed on the client version of Tiger instead of the server version.

I did not obtain a direct quote from Aqua Connect for pricing but I did find information regarding a “Green Campaign” that they had earlier this year in which 20 concurrent connections of Aqua Connect were given away. The retail price of the 20 concurrent connections was $7,980. So, approximately $400 for each client license. While that is out of my price range it could be very beneficial for a business that is trying to save money on energy costs. (Out of curiosity I do wonder how much the cost of the license would drop if they had not licensed RDP technology from Microsoft.)

The alternative to Aqua Connect is iRAPP Terminal Server. It looks like a really great solution as well but unfortunately, it only runs on Intel Macs so I am unable to test it. They are more up-front about their pricing, which I like. Their pricing for 20 users is $5256.00. One user is $262.80 (at the time of this writing).

Both of these options are currently out of my budget, but, they’re definitely interesting projects to look at if you’re interested in terminal computing. I will be sticking with a simple VNC server since it accommodates my needs nicely.

Belkin Desktop Phone for Skype

October 21st, 2008

Last year I purchased the SMC WiFi Phone for Skype and was extremely disappointed. Haunted by it would probably be a better phrase. A reader of this blog by the name of Wayne gifted the Belkin phone to me. Thankfully so, because I was still needing a phone to use with Skype since I use it as my main line. I was still struggling with the same problems I faced when I purchased the WiFi phone. That is, I was never able to quickly answer Skype when someone was calling.

Belkin Desktop Phone for Skype

I’ve had the phone for a couple of weeks now and have thoroughly tested it out. Fortunately, for the phone, I don’t feel like slamming it against the wall as I did with the SMC phone. With that said, it’s not perfect. However, it’s been a much more pleasurable experience than the SMC phone.

I think I’ll start this review off with reasons I like this model, problems I had with the phone and then we’ll get to my conclusion.

Front of the box Side of box Belkin Desktop Phone for Skype, box open, showing CD.

Box open showing quick start guide Box open showing voice mail instructions Box open showing wrapped phone

Reasons I like this model: When I was looking at this phone on the Skype Store, I really liked that it was a desktop form factor. I have saw others in the past but they didn’t have all the features that this phone has. I liked that you could plug it into the network with an ethernet cable. I thought the call quality would be much better because of this. Others that I have looked at require you to connect the phone to the computer via USB. I wanted something fully independent. There are times that I’m working on video and still want to be able to talk on Skype. I also liked the fact that it had a full color display and speaker phone.

  • Voicemail: I am really happy to report that voice mail works with this phone. That phone that I keep referring to, the one I hate so much, would never send a call to voice mail. This phone will send it to voice mail after four rings.
  • Speaker: Although I really don’t use the speaker that much it is nice to have. Sometimes I’ll use the speaker to listen to voice mails or to see if I’ll get a ring or busy signal to the person I’m calling.
  • Web Based Administration: The only thing you can do with the web based administration is upgrade the phone’s firmware. However, the geek in me thinks it’s really neat. For added security you’ll want to change the default password so others cannot gain access to the administration area.

One or the other! One of the biggest problems that I have faced while using the Belkin phone is that you can’t use Skype on the computer and the phone at the same time. Well, you can, but it causes a lot of problems.

  • Instance 1: I was using Skype on the computer to talk to someone and I had my web cam on. I was mentioning to them that I had got the phone and they wanted to see it. I unplugged the phone from the network (thinking it would be no big deal) and showed it to my friend on camera. I then plugged the phone back into the network and Skype on the computer completely crashed.
  • Instance 2: I was on a Skype call using the Belkin phone. I needed to grab a link that someone was trying to send to me in chat. So, I started Skype on the computer and the Belkin phone completely rebooted and updated it’s firmware.
  • Instance 3: I had been instant messaging with a friend and knew that they were going to call me. When I know I’m going to be on a call for a while I’d rather use Skype on the computer because it’s much more comfortable than holding the phone. When they called me I had answered the call on the computer but the Belkin phone continued to ring a few more times.

For the most part I’ve mostly been using Skype on the Belkin phone and not running Skype on the computer. This is annoying because when someone IM’s me I don’t know. Also, a lot of the people on my contact list don’t pay attention to the message that says “This user is using a version of Skype that does not support chat.” So a lot of them have been irritated with me for not responding, I apologize. Though, it does keep my computer from being overrun with more instant messages. ;)

Quiet calls. A couple of people have mentioned that when I am talking to them and pause, that there is no background noise. “Are you there?” tends to rear it’s ugly head several times during the conversation. Only a couple of people have mentioned this, though.

Call quality. The phone doesn’t have the absolute best call quality. Though, again, it’s definitely much better than the SMC phone. I have forwarded ports to the phone and it is directly connected to the DSL router (which has a firewall, if you were worried) to try and improve call quality. It’s not traditional telephone quality, it’s definitely not the quality you can get out of Skype on the computer, but, it’s not terrible.

Conclusion. I really like this phone. It works and operates as a phone should. Although I did have a few problems with this phone (as mentioned above), it’s a really great phone. I think it would make a great gift. Buy one, set up a Skype account, add yourself to the contact list and give it away. Just tell the recipient to plug and play.

I hope to see many software updates for this phone in the future. Hopefully, they’ll figure out a way to improve call quality. I would also like to see an addition to the embedded Skype software that makes it easy to silence the phone without going on “Do Not Disturb,” going through the settings and turning the ringer off or signing out of Skype on the phone. Signing back into Skype through the phone requires re-entering your password. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s possible to silence the phone and it’s pretty simple to do. It just requires more clicks than I think there should be.

Most importantly I would like to see an update that corrects the problem of using Skype on the computer and the phone at the same time.

In a future model of this phone I would like to see the ability to plug in a headset.

Would I recommend this phone? Most definitely. Like I said, it works as a phone should. If you’re looking for a desktop Skype phone, this is the one to get.

Belkin Desktop Phone for Skype

Digital Stream DTX9950

July 29th, 2008

In my best television announcer voice: “Digital TV has better picture, better sound and more channels!” Unless you’ve been living under a rock then you have probably heard that a million times by now. If you have been living under a rock then you need to check out the Digital TV 2009 website to learn more and to apply for a converter box coupon so you can watch free over-the-air digital TV on your analog televisions.

A couple of weekends ago I purchased my converter box, a Digital Stream DTX9950. I purchased it then because my coupon was soon to expire. I knew several people who had already purchased their converter boxes. A couple of those people had purchased the Digital Stream brand. After looking at the Digital Stream, GE, Magnavox and RCA converter boxes online, I felt the Digital Stream box was to my liking as well. I had helped my Father and Grandfather with their converter boxes. My Father had the DTX9900 and my Grandfather had one from Magnavox. The one from Magnavox felt really cheap and the on screen display looked even cheaper. I had considered getting an RCA converter box but after looking at the reviews and some YouTube clips I felt it was cheap and poorly designed like the Magnavox.

Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, box front. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, box rear. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, manual.

Almost all converter boxes are packaged with the same accessories: a very short RF cable, a remote with batteries, manuals and the converter box. If you’re going to connect the converter box to your television or VCR the included accessories will be enough for you. If you want to connect the converter box to your television using RCA cables (for better picture) you will have to purchase those separately.

Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, universal remote. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, front. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, rear.

Setting up the DTX9950 is really easy. When you power the converter box on it will walk you through a setup wizard which consists of: language selection, confirmation of the cables being plugged in correctly, channel scan and time zone selection.

After having the converter box connected I was able to pick up a lot more channels. Before connecting the converter box most of the channels were snowy. I am a bit disappointed, though. I was hoping to be able to pick up even more channels. I use to get more channels on my indoor antenna than we got on the television in the living room which has an outdoor antenna. That has changed and I now get less than the antenna in the living room. There are two channels I cannot receive and four more that if I move the antenna around I’m able to get but they are very weak signals. Two of which I was able to receive before connecting the converter box. If I move my antenna around I am able to receive them but they’re prone to cutting in and out. I’m probably going to have to purchase a better antenna to pick up anymore channels. The antenna I have now is 10 years old (the same age as the television) and is just an indoor antenna that’s not very strong so I’m not going to complain.

Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, setup wizard welcome screen. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, cable check. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, channel scan.

Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, time zone selection. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, setup wizard completed. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, program guide.

Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, current or upcoming program description. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, menu. Digital Stream DTX9950 with Analog Pass-Through, current program information.

However, I do get two channels that I did not get before. I just don’t get everything that an outdoor antenna can pick up. I just wanted to point out that you may need to get a stronger antenna to be able to receive more channels.

The included remote works pretty well. I got it to work with my 10 year old 19″ RCA XL100. At first I could only get it to power off the television. I first programmed the remote using the codes in the manual. I then used the code search function of the remote (hold down the TV power button and press the channel up button until the television powers off). Using the code search of the remote I was able to get it to power the television on and off. The remote only controls the power, volume and inputs of the television (switches between channels 3 & 4).

The television we have in the living room has an older version of the Digital Stream converter boxes, a DTX9900. The only difference between the two that I have seen is that the DTX9950 has analog pass through which allows you to press a button on the remote and view analog broadcasts. Pressing the button again switches you back to digital television. This is handy in circumstances that you can pick up a channel in analog format but not in digital. When the switch happens next February I don’t know how useful this feature will be, there may be some low power stations that are allowed to continue broadcasting in analog. On the DTX9900 there is an “Info” button (instead of an analog pass through button) which brings up the program information for the channel you are currently watching. On the DTX9950 you can press the “OK” button to get the channel information to appear. There is a button for bringing up the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) on both remotes.

Note: Only digital TV signals will be sent through RCA cables. If you’re using RCA cables and want to watch analog broadcasts through the converter box you’ll have to use an RF cable.

Speaking of the EPG, this is another really nice feature. With the DTX9950 it seems that the program guide works really well and has a lot of useful information. Sometimes, more information than what is printed in the local newspaper television guide. I’ve noticed that there are some stations that have programming information for a couple of days and there are some stations that only have listings for the next few hours. Also, some stations have extended descriptions for upcoming programs and some don’t. Flashback: When I first got my RCA television the remote control had a program information button that sometimes displayed current programming information. Sometimes it would work, most of the time it wouldn’t. Hopefully, the EPG will work for the foreseeable future.

The Digital Stream and most other converter boxes allow you to take advantage of wide screen television broadcasts. If you have a wide screen television you’ll appreciate this the most. If you don’t have a wide screen television you’ll still appreciate this if you don’t mind letter boxing. I personally like it regardless of the letter boxing because it allows me to see a wider view. If you’re not a fan of the letter boxing you can zoom to fill the screen. You can also change to Anamorphic view which allows you to see the entire wide view in the frame. It doesn’t look all that great so I’d recommend sticking with the letter boxing or zooming.

A couple of other notable features are the ratings and emergency alerts. If you have children and don’t want them to view inappropriate content you can set up ratings for acceptable viewing and assign a pin number to keep them from changing the ratings. I won’t go into how stupid I think this is but I will say that I’m sure there are ways around this. Most of the converter boxes, the Digital Stream being no exception, allows you to view emergency alerts. I have not saw one of these come across the television (hopefully I won’t anytime soon) but I am guessing these would be for Amber and other emergency alerts (fire, weather, police). I don’t fully understand how the alerts would work or be shown on the screen, if you know feel free to leave a comment.

I have heard a lot of people say that they think this is a government conspiracy to get more money. I don’t agree with that. The government is freeing up the analog spectrum for other purposes and is giving you two coupons worth $40 each. The government doesn’t force you to watch television and they didn’t give you money to purchase your analog antenna or television. Besides that, digital television is truly a lot better in many ways.

Speaking of costs. The DTX9950 from Radio Shack is $59.99 ($65.84 after tax in Oak Ridge, TN). You have to pay taxes on the coupon (maybe this is a government conspiracy). After the coupon and taxes were applied I paid $25.84 for the converter box.

In conclusion I have to say I am very pleased with the DTX9950 (and the DTX9900). Like I have mentioned in this post already I think it’s one of the better converter boxes out there. I have read a lot of great things about it and in my experience with using it over the past couple of weeks I really do like it a lot. I think the features of the Digital Stream brand are far beyond those of other brands. I think it would be great if you’re someone like me who doesn’t pay for cable or satellite television and wants to receive free, local programming after the switch in February 2009. I could see this being used in campers for those who don’t want to sign up for mobile satellite television. Check out the Digital TV 2009 website to learn more about the switch to digital, sign up for two free $40 coupons from the government and find out what programming you can receive in your area with a digital television converter box.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography

June 2nd, 2008

I have been seeing a lot of articles lately about high dynamic range (HDR) photography. I’ve always been fascinated by it. I read through a couple of blog entries and decided that I should try it myself. In the past I have said that I couldn’t do things like HDR due to the limitations of me only having a point and shoot camera. However, I have since learned that there is a lot that I can do with my camera it just takes a lot of practice, patience and a good eye. I went out and I took some photos and I wanted to make an entry about how I took the photos as well as show you how I got the final image.

Striped outdoor carpet Striped outdoor carpet Striped outdoor carpet

The images above are as follows. The first image is a photo of the scene taken at normal exposure. The second image is a composited image created from 3 images at different exposures. The last image is after adjustments have been made to the composited image to make it look more like what I saw while I was taking the photo. If you click on the photos you can see a larger version of each in a light box.

Selecting a scene

The first thing you’ll want to do is to select something to take a photograph of, duh! Taking photos using the HDR process is a little bit more time consuming. I’ve noticed that since I have been using this process I’ve taken photos of fewer scenes. This also means that I have taken better photographs because I’m thinking about what would look best in the final output image.

Spring Sunset Spring Sunset Spring Sunset

Choose a scene that is not going to change for about 2-5 minutes. This time of course depends on how fast you can change the exposure of your camera to take the next photo. Some point & shoot cameras and dSLR cameras give you the ability to take photos at multiple exposures at the same time. If you have this feature you’ll definitely want to take advantage of it so you can take photos of objects that aren’t completely still. In the example below you’ll see an HDR image of the top of a tree. You’ll notice there is quite a bit of blur. Silly me wasn’t thinking about the tree moving whenever I took the photo. I think the photo is interesting but not of the highest quality.

HDR Tree Blur HDR Tree Blur HDR Tree Blur

Shoot something that you have shot in the past but it didn’t turn out the way you had hoped. Look for shadows and anything that will have detail in the final image. Taking the photos at multiple exposure values will allow many of the details that you see with your eyes to come out in the final image. I like to look for shadows cast onto the ground, rolling hills or a gorgeous blue sky.

Shooting the scene at multiple exposures

Although my camera has a manual mode I have been taking my shots using “Program auto shooting” which on other cameras is called “Aperture priority.” Using this setting the camera gives me more options for adjusting the focus and fine tuning the capture options. Once in Program auto shooting I set up the scene: zoom, white balance, ISO, etc. I would highly recommend taking your photos in this mode or a similar mode on your camera since you have more control over the photos. Don’t use the auto mode, your photos will never turn out all that great in my opinion.

Look for a setting that allows you to change the exposure compensation. On my camera it is in the menu options and is called “EV.” Most cameras allow you to go all the way up to +2.0 and down to -2.0. In the several photos that I have taken and used the HDR technique I have found taking shots at 0EV, +1EV and -1EV is plenty. The more images you take the more likely the images will be blurred due to something in the scene moving. If you want to take your photos by adjusting the shutter speed have a look at this tutorial.

Some cameras (even point and shoot) have a setting that will allow you to take multiple photos at different exposures at the same time. If you are lucky enough to have this on your camera take advantage of it.

As you are taking a photo of each scene you might want to make a new folder on your memory card for each scene. This will allow you to organize your scenes a little better and keep the multiple exposures of the scene in the same folder. If you take multiple sets of photos of the same scene this really helps.

Always shoot with a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod you’ll definitely want to get one. It is crucial. When you are shooting the photos at multiple exposures you’ll want to take a photo of exactly the same thing. During the compositing process the photos will be merged, any slight movement will show a blur. Along with using a tripod you’ll also want to use an auto timer of a few seconds to minimize camera shake.

Combining the images

Once you have got the images off of your camera you’ll need to combine them. I am using FDR Tools Basic on Windows which is also available for Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later.. I am using the basic free version which seems to do really well. Another freeware tool for Windows is HDRShop or Qtpfsgui. Qtpfsgui also works with Linux or the Mac. If you have Adobe Photoshop you can use the “Merge to HDR” function.

To edit the final output image you’ll need an image editing tool. If you have Photoshop definitely take advantage of it as you’ll be able to work with more than 8 bits which will give you a better output image. Although the GIMP only offers 8 bits I’ve been using it to edit the final output image and getting decent results. If you don’t have Photoshop I would highly recommend The GIMP, since it’s free and works on Mac (using X11), Windows and Linux. You could also use CinePaint which is capable of handling 8, 16 and 32 bit images.

Open images into FDR Tools Basic

Open up FDRTools Basic, click on Images >> Open, navigate to your set of 3 images, highlight them and click on Open. FDRTools will then begin to put the images together. Once the images are combined you can tone map the image (tone mapping button at the top) but I’d recommend simply saving the image out as a JPEG and editing the final image in The GIMP, Photoshop, CinePaint or another program of your choice.

Adjusting the composited image

Before you start editing the image that you saved out of FDRTools make a copy of it somewhere. On my computer I keep a folder for “Originals” and another folder for “Edited” photos. If you make a mistake or later decide you don’t like the adjustments you have made you can change them later. If you’re using Aperture, Lightroom, Picasa or another non-destructive editing program you won’t have to worry about this unless you are just a fussy person like myself who likes keeping things tidy!

When you open the image in The GIMP it will ask you if you want to convert the image to the RGB working space. You should always work with your photos in the RGB color space so I always have the image converted from whatever embedded format the photo has.

Once the image has been converted and opened the first thing I do is go to Colors >> Levels. Under “Input Levels” I move the sliders around until I get something that I like. You may have to add contrast or adjust the white balance but usually just moving the input level sliders around will give me a great result.

Another quick way of getting the colors right is by adjusting the white balance. In the Levels dialog box select the “white” dropper and choose a white spot on the photo. Then choose the “black” dropper and choose a completely black spot on the photo. This is usually better than adjusting the levels with the input levels slider but sometimes it’s very hard to find a white spot on a photo.

Once you have adjusted the image to your liking simply save the photo and share it! There are many groups for HDR photography on Flickr that you could join and post your images to and get tips on them for the next time.

I recorded a video tutorial for this post which you can download a high resolution version of using the link below. If you prefer to stream the video tutorial use the Vimeo player at the bottom of this post.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography (MP4) (127 MB)

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography from andymelton on Vimeo.

DiscountLinuxDVD.com

November 30th, 2007

A couple of weeks ago my DVD burner decided to kick the bucket. I was wanting to download Fedora 8 and burn it to a DVD so I could install it onto my computer. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen. I decided that I would seek out a website that sold pressed copies of Linux distributions. I found DiscountLinuxDVD.com and am very pleased with their services.

Discount Linux DVD

I was only going to buy Fedora 8 but I wound up purchasing several others because they were a good price and I have been wanting to play with some of the updated distributions. I also prefer carrying around a pressed copy of some of the live Linux distributions that I use. People get weary sometimes of you putting in a home burned CD or DVD. I ordered the following: CentOS 5 DVD, CentOS 5 Live CD, Feespire 2.0, Slax 5.1.8 Live CD, openSUSE 10.3 DVD (i386 32-bit), openSUSE 10.3 (DVD x86_64 64-bit), openSUSE 10.3 (DVD PPC), Mandriva One 2008 Live/Install CD (KDE), Mandriva Free 2008 DVD, Ubuntu Studio 7.10, Fedora 8 (DVD PPC), Fedora 8 (DVD x86_64 64-bit), Fedora 8 (DVD i386 32-bit). All of that for $25.12. I thought that was a great deal to have pressed copies of all those distributions and different versions.

The other reason I enjoyed making my purchase at this site instead of the other sites out there was the fact that I did not have to order with a credit card. I simply ordered with my PayPal account and the funds were automatically deducted from my balance on PayPal. That’s how I like it and I greatly appreciate any company that allows me to do that.

If you’re looking for a easy way to play around with Linux and see what all the fuss is about I would highly recommend going over to DiscountLinuxDVD.com and purchasing a live CD. Slax, Puppy or Damm Small Linux (DSL) are great for older machines.


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