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Top Gadgets 2008

Posted by Mark Harrison 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.)


Posted in ASUS, Drobo, EEE PC, Just for fun, Open Source, Technology | 4 Comments »

Life on the move… (techy post)

Posted by Mark Harrison on July 26, 2008

Well, it’s time for another of my irregular techy posts.

At home, I have a fairly sophisticated office (3-6 servers, depending on how you count virtual hosts, 3 laptops, a variety of operating systems.)

On the road, however, it’s a different story.

I bought a Dell Inspiron 9400 about 2 years ago. It’s a huge beast, with a 17″ widescreen screen that really was a desktop-replacement PC. It also runs Windows Media Centre 2005, which I needed because I was running the training courses on Harmony, which had a plugin for that version of Media Centre, and running a training course from a laptop is much easier than running around with a desktop setup.

The trouble is, a laptop big enough to have that size screen takes up a lot of space, so I was pondering the replacement.

On my desk, I have a Mac Mini, which I am liking more and more as time goes by – it has a lot of stuff that “just works out of the box” – not just the normal stuff, but quite esoteric things like terminal SSH clients. Even better, the quality of free third-party applications for the Mac seems very high – so I have not only mainstream things like instant messenger (Adium) and Skype running, but also fairly odd stuff like FTP clients (the oddly-named Cyberduck) and a MySQL admin tool (Navicat Lite) that seem to be pretty painless. I was already using on the Windows boxes, so a move to NeoOffice – the Mac version – was painless, and Firefox is about as cross-platform as anything you can possibly think of. [As an aside, I could do with a free code editor that did highlighting like notepad2 does on Windows – suggestions welcome.]

Because of my experience on the desktop of stuff “just working”, and a similar experience with my iPod which works a lot better than the Rio it replaced every did, I was tempted by the Apple route.

The problem is, of course, the size. The MacBook Air is very, very thin (in the sense of wafer-thin-mint-M.-Creosote? thin) but the screen was too big (as in, imposing) to really be something I could use easily on a train on plane. The standard MacBook was better, but I’ve heard too many stories of people getting them, and then buying MacBook Pros because the standard models aren’t fast enough, and the MBP has the same size issue.

Enter the ASUS EEEPC. The downside is that the screen is only 7″, and runs at a miserly 800×600. But the upside is that the machine is, well, the size you can build a machine to if you only have to fit in a 7″ screen. It runs a version of Linux (Xandros) under the hood, which gives an odd-looking but easy-to-use interface. Oh, and it has built in wifi (but not Bluetooth) AND a wired network port, so I could use it anywhere in the house.

So that was part one – a machine that I could use anywhere… including in meetings without the “I’m building a wall of laptops down the desk” problem I often see.

Part two was Internet access. I use Google Mail (known internationally as GMail, but here in the UK as Google Mail, apparently for copyright reasons) as my main email client. I find the rules engine outstanding (better than either Outlook or Thunderbird) and the Ajax interface is good enough. (Plus, if I really wanted a rich client, I could point one at it, though I don’t find a need to at the moment.) I also use Google Reader extensively (I subscribe to a whole bunch of Economics and Property blogs.)

Mobile Internet access has got a LOT better since last time I tried. (1997-2000, when I ran IT for a “small” JV (only 17 countries!) between two enormous giants.)

I ended up, on the recommendation of a fried (thank you, Patrick) with the Vodafone “mobile broadband” solution. It arrived within 24 hours of ordering, and pretty much just worked. While linux isn’t officially supported, there are not only plenty of results from Google about which buttons to press (which was, frankly, a lot easier than in Windows!) but several of the Vodafone support people seem to answer esoteric Linux questions on their forums, albeit with a “this isn’t an official answer, but try XXX” feel. I didn’t need any esoteric answers, but the fact that they were clearly making the effort was a reassurance point.

So, it pretty much just works.

Mobile Internet, albeit on a small screen (but not as small as an iPhone)… and a solution that has a keyboard I can touchtype on 🙂

Posted in ASUS, EEE PC, Technology, Vodafone | 1 Comment »