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Top Gadgets 2008

Posted by markharrison on December 30, 2008

It’s odd, but despite becoming Europe’s number 1 real estate blog, the post that attracted the most comment off-line have been the occasional “technology in the real world” ones.

I realise that it’s been two years since I wrote a Top Gadgets post – so while we had Top Gadgets 2006, there was no similar thing last year. Later on in this post, I’m going to go back and see which of the 2006 list I’m still using…

However, firstly, my top gadgets 2008.

I only really have 5 to make it onto the list this year (since some of the most useful things are still from the 2006 list.)

1: The Mac Mini. You know how irritating those Mac users get, forever banging on about how much better their computers are compared to Windows PCs. Well, I spent about ten years arguing with them that, while I was willing to believe this was true, their PCs cost so much more than ones with the Microsoft O/S that the point was moot. Then Nik Butler made the simple observation that I didn’t base my car choice on specs and price, but on a whole bunch of intangibles, and that I should consider the Mac Mini as a sort of Jaguar. I tried a Mac Mini, and I’m hooked. We’re now a 2-Mac family, since Mary has a Mini also. In the words of Tom Peters, it’s about design! (It’s also about productivity, and, less tangibly, how I feel when using it.)

2: The Drobo. I wrote a long review of the Drobo back in September. Basically, it’s an external enclosure that takes up to 4 hard drives, and applies a RAID-like algorithm to them, so that even if one drive completely fails, your data is safe. High-end servers have done this (expensively) for years, but this takes cheap, standard, SATA drives, and just works.

3: The ASUS EEE Pc. At the opposite end of the computing spectrum to Apple lies ASUS. The EEE Pc is a small laptop, with a tiny screen, and a fiddly keyboard… that is nonetheless the size of a hardback novel, runs on battery for “sufficiently longer than I need that I really can’t tell you how long it lasts”, and has built in wifi. It also creates far less of a psychological barrier than a big laptop when I’m in a meeting, and I can use it on a plane or a departure lounge. OK, it runs Xandros Linux, but it comes with Firefox (qv), and OpenOffice, so does pretty much 90% of what I need. As a result, I don’t really have a “real laptop” any more.

4: The DVD Duplicator. Bought from the ever-reliable APR Media, this beast has saved me a whole bunch of time, since I can just stick in a DVD or CD in the top tray, up to 5 blanks in the lower trays, and press the “duplicate” button. It meant that, this Christmas, we were able to get the playgroup nativity DVDs out to all parents who pre-ordered before Christmas… wheras last year we had to write them from my laptop, and they didn’t come out until the new year. (The playgroup is a charity of which I’m a trustee, and the Christmas nativity DVDs are a big fundraiser for us.) Plus, work-wise, it’s made a huge difference to our ability to run off 50-60 CDs for corporate orders.

5: A normal, non-smart Nokia handset that is just wonderfully designed and optimised for talking to people. I do not have a smartphone. I do not want a smartphone… for the same reason that I don’t have voicemail. My clients know that I’m busy, that when I’m working for them, I’m focussed on their needs, not on checking my email in case other clients want my time… but that cuts both ways. If it’s important enough to interrupt me, phone me! If it’s for general info, and can wait a few days, email me! The last thing I want, however, is for clients to believe that I’m just sitting around waiting for their crucial message to come in – hence, no smartphone, no voicemail.

Now, what happened to the 2006 list:

1: The iPod. Hardly use it any more – I tend to read on the train, and use the car stereo.

2: The Dell laptop is still in use, but the battery has long since failed, and the replacement cost of batteries is, well, ludicrous. Hence, it’s now in use as if it were a desktop PC.

3: The Domia Lite system. Still working well, still in everyday use. However, I ought to point out that the system is now known as “Bye Bye Standy”, and the energy-saving features are what are promoted.

4: The “Skype headset”. Honestly, I’ve lost it. From time to time, I wish I could find it, not least because my brother has a Skype-enabled mobile. I, however, use it for IM rather than voice!

5: Software choices… Firefox, now on version 3 is still what I’m using (even on the Mac) – I used Flock for a while, which was great, but not optimised for what I do. I’m also running NeoOffice, a Mac version of OpenOffice. (I’m told that OpenOffice 3 for the Mac is probably better, and still free, but what I have works, and I’m loathe to change it.)

6: The aircon unit now has a friend, so we have aircon upstairs and down. Truth be told, we only ran it for a couple of weeks in 2008, but who knows what 2009 will bring.

7: Another year with paper diaries 🙂

8: Really Useful Company 35 litre crates. These have moved out to the garage. We had someone build some shelving that takes about 20 of them. Works very, very, well.

9: The Satnav. How did I live without one? We now have his and hers.

10:  The cars. Both of the 2006 cars have gone – the Morgan 4-seater was, alas, written off when someone drove into the back of it in September 2007. The Bentley just got too expensive to justify – it was costing over a grand a month to keep running, so we now have a Volvo Estate that runs on LPG (49.9p/litre.)

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Drobo – More technology that just works.

Posted by markharrison on September 24, 2008

Time for another of my irregular posts about technology.

Like many people who run their own businesses, it’s more than me who needs to get at our files, so we need some kind of “server”. Of course, the machines sold as servers cost an arm and a leg, because what you’re actually paying for is resilience, not only, but mainly in hard disks (on the basis that moving parts are the bits that fail, and a typical PC has moving parts only in the fan and the disks) – if one hard disk fails, the machine flashes up a warning, but keeps on working, because the data is stored in more than one place.

The technology that does is called RAID. RAID stands for “Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks”, which is all very well up to a point… except that the majority of server manufacturers seem to think that the word “Inexpensive” is intended as a gag, and use expensive SCSI or even SAS disks.

Apart from using expensive disks, the other problem with nigh on all of these RAID solutions is that you need to set the “disk arrays” up once, and then not touch them. It’s typically hard (read, expensive, specialist IT support person) to make arrays larger.

Those of us with normal PCs use the much cheaper IDE disks, of which the most recent generations are called SATA1 and SATA2 (the previous generations were called things like ATA-133, ATA-100 and so on.)

So, wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a solution that did three things:

  1. Use the cheaper SATA disks
  2. Allow you to upgrade it easily, just by adding an extra disk
  3. Sit as an EXTERNAL drive, connected by USB or FireWire, rather than being something that involved taking apart the PC [Yes, I know that nice servers have caddy-mounted disks that can be removed without a screwdriver, but these fall into the “expensive” end of servers]

Enter Data Robotics – who make a product called the Drobo.

I was put on Drobo by two different people I trust. Firstly, Nik Butler of LoudmouthMan had raved about it when we met up a few months ago.  Nik’s got a long-term supportability mindset, as a result of having worked in IT for many years, so I knew that anything he recommended was going to be good. However, he is willing to spend long periods getting stuff to work in the first place, so a recommendation from him didn’t give “just works” cred. Enter Mark McCall of AutomatedHome, who’s no technological dunce, but does have an “I don’t want to waste time getting stuff working – I like it just to work” mindset. His review of the Drobo also gave a thumbs up.

This meets my three requirements, and it has a funky feature that most high-end RAID arrays don’t – you can upgrade it very easily.

Basically, it’s a black box that plugs into your PC – it works whether you run Windows, Linux or use a Mac. The version I bought last week is the newer one that has a Firewire option, although I use USB. The front is magnetic (I assume), in that it pulls off without any fiddling, and slips back into place nicely. Once the front is off, there are four slots, and you have to put a (SATA) hard disk into at least two of them. The good news is that the drives slide straight in – there’s no messing with cables or finding that you need a power adaptor cable because the power supply in your PC has the wrong fitting!

I put in a couple of Seagate drives, because I’ve had good experiences with Seagate in the past, though there’s no particular reason why the drives should be from the same manufacturer – Drobo lets you mix and match.

Because it’s copying the data onto multiple drives, the combination of two drives, each 500Gb, only gave me a total of 500Gb usable space… but the reassurance that I would never have to shell out hundreds to a data recovery firm again (I only did once!) to get back data after a disk crash makes me OK with that.

Another nice feature of the Drobo is that to upgrade the capacity, I just need to insert an extra disk, and (after flashing its lights for a while), Drobo just sorts it out – no new drivers, no reconfiguration – just insert the drive and wait (oh, and you can use the PC while it’s doing it – just don’t pull the disk back out until the light’s stopped flashing.)

A result of this means that the economics are upside down compared to traditional RAID arrays – with them, you tend to buy the biggest disks avaialable, because the expensive part is the downtime and technician time required to upgrade. With Drobo, I stuck in a couple of 500Gb disks because they were enough, and cheap… and I can buy a 1Tb disk to add when prices have fallen another 50%… and a 2Tb disk after that when prices have fallen again…

… at that point, the Drobo’s slot will be full, which is where the REALLY clever bit comes in… To upgrade beyond that, I can simply pull out the smallest drive, and replace it with a bigger one… and again, Drobo will just sort everything out.

Overall, it’s an amazing bit of kit – it’s “Apple-like” (in a good way), in that the packaging is well thought out, the instructions are very, very straightforward, and the product’s straightforward enough that actually I was able to plug it straight in WITHOUT needing to use the instructions 🙂

Full marks to Umesh at Data Robotics UK, who answered my questions, and was helpful throughout. I bought mine from CanCom, who were likewise good on the phone pre-sales, and delivered well and fast. The hard disks came from regular Mark Harrison supplier –
Overall, well recommended.

Oh, and as an aside – it’s plugged into my Mac Mini, which I’m finding great. My only reservation about plugging it into the Mac had been that the Mac formats the drives in a Mac-specific way, rather than in standard NTFS, like the Linux and Windows boxes can use. Hence, with only one Mac in the house, I had been tempted to put the Drobo on a Windows PC… However, Mary announced that she’d like a new PC, and would prefer a Mac, so we’re now a two Mac household… This of course means that if mine were ever to fail, I could just plug the Drobo into her’s 🙂

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