Category Archives: Review

Drobo Saved My Day for the Third Time

A few hours ago, I went home to see one of the lights on my Drobo blinking in red color: one of my hard drives in the Drobo has died. For those who don’t know, a Drobo is an external hard drive enclosure which houses five (in my model) 3.5-inch hard drives. Drobo offers protection against drive failures such as the one I am currently experienced.

In the old days, a failed hard drive meant data loss—that is how I lost several photographs and video clips of my family. When I lost my first batch of files due to hard drive failure, I got wiser and backed up my desktop’s hard drive. Sadly, when my hard drived failed the second time, I found out my back-up CDs (those old days) also turned bad. For years, I struggled with back-up solutions, none were reliable enough for my use. Then came Drobo.

The first time I saw this black box, I knew it should be part of my data storage and back up plan. The initial price for the empty Drobo S, my model, was nearly 700 USD—a very steep price indeed. However, the more I thought about my past incidents, the more sense the Drobo makes. Finally, I bit the bullet and purchased one. Let me cut right to the point: I experienced today’s episode twice before, and had not lost a single file due to hard drive failure. I believe that was the best $680 I have ever spent.

Tonight, I will replaced the doomed drive knowing that my Drobo is working hard to ensure my data integrity. My Drobo has saved my day yet again.

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Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Mini Review

The Problem

I would like to have a keyboard for my iPad mini that is compact and usable to bring with me.

The Review

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Mini is about the size of the iPad mini and a little lighter. It comes in black or white to match your iPad mini’s colors.

The keyboard has a hinge which attachs to the iPad mini and acts as a clam shell cover. This design has the advantage of offering two solutions in one piece of hardware: a cover and a keyboard. The disadvantage of this design is when I open up the keyboard, I still have to detach the iPad from it and place the iPad into a groove on the keyboard. I wish I can just open up the keyboard and start working right away.

The first time I turned on the keyboard, I went into the iPad mini’s bluetooth settings and saw the keyboard listed. By selecting they keyboard the two devices paired after a few seconds–a painless experience.

Performance is where I have issue with this keyboard. The keys are tiny, especially for such Delete, numbers, and symbols. After a couple of days of use, I started to get use to the keyboard layout and tiny keys become less annoying. The keys don’t repeat when held down–a behavior that is different from a computer’s keyboard. I found myself from time to time needing to repeatedly delete characters and it is a pain not being able to hold down the delete key to do so. Because of the small number keys. Their placement is a little out of place. For example, when I need to type number 3, I ended up with number 2 instead. Likewise, I often get a hash (#) instead of the intended dollar ($) sign.

The groove in the keyboard is designed to act as the iPad mini holder, which can hold it in portrait for landscape mode. In landscape mode, the goove has some magnets, which holds the iPad mini securely. One complain I have against this setting is the keyboard holds the iPad mini a a fix angle, which makes it usable on a desk setting, but not on my lap.

Summary

What I like about this keyboard

  • Thin, light
  • Acts as a cover for iPad mini
  • Easy pairing
  • iPad mini can be in portrait for landscape mode
  • Can act as a stand for the iPad mini

What I don’t like

  • Small keys
  • Fixed screen angle

Links

The iPad Stylus Socks GOLD Review

The Problem

I need a stylus to draw on the iPad, but don’t like the rubber-tip ones because of the lack of smoothness and they don’t last long.

The iPad Stylus Socks GOLD

My long research took me to this product. I wish I remember where I received the pointer from to send my thank, but I do not.

The iPad Stylus Sock is basically a “chopstick” stylus, wrapped in a conductive “sock”. I purchased a two-pack GOLD version with marble-like decoration. The stylii are of different sizes, which I will talk more about that later.

Because of the wooden construction, the stylus feels light in the hand. I wish it feels much heavier the way I prefer it. The sock which wraps one end of the stylus is a conductive fabric. As such, it feels much better to draw on the iPad glass surface than a rubber tip. The stylus glides effortlessly with just the right amount of friction. This is the one feature that draws me to this stylus. The sock seems to hold up well. On average, I use my stylus about one to three hours a week for two months now and don’t see any visible sign of wear.

I was curious while the stylus has the word “iPad” in its name as if it is designed just for the iPad. So, I tried it out on an iPhone and Android phone: it performs just as well. However, using a stylus on a phone is not something a phone owner would do.

Because the tip of the stylus is flat, as in a chopstick, I have to hold it vertically for the iPad to recognize. When holding the stylus at an angle to the iPad surface, the stylus sometimes miss register due to the small contact area. This could be a deal-breaker if you are not used to hold a stylus that way. Fortunately for me, I can write with my pen in nearly vertical so I can easily adapt my posture.

I purchase a set of two stylii, the smaller of the two is ideal for travel as it is small. The draw back is it is chopstick skinny to hold comfortably. For this reason, I keep the large stylus in my bag and the small, skinny one at home. The larger stylus’ body is wide at the tip, then heavily tapper in at the top. This shape of reminds me of the dip pens I used in elementary school in Vietnam.

Finally, I would like to mention about the price. I purchased the two stylii for $22, plus $6 shipping and handling; which makes it about $14 a piece. Compare to the other stylii I owned, the iPad stylus socks are inexpensive.

Summary

The large stylus is a keeper for me. The combination of smoothness, style, and price makes it a winner. I keep the smaller one at my desk for occasional use.

What I Like about this Stylus

  • Smooth writing, drawing
  • Comfortable in hand
  • Inexpensive
  • Beautiful style. The larger stylus looks like a dip pen.

What I don’t Like about it

  • Heavier. The stylus is too light for my taste.
  • Holding posture. I would be nice to be able to hold it at a natural writing angle.
  • The smaller stylus is too skinny to hold.

Where to Buy

I bought mine from Etsy

How to Create .ZIP Files without a __MACOSX Folder

The problem: I want to send a folder full of files from my Mac to my friend’s PC. When I right-click on the folder and choose the archive option, the resulting .ZIP file includes a folder called __MACOSX, along with several files that begin with a dot.

The solution: Use YemuZip, which has a PC-specific option that eliminates these files. Another option is Compress, which is a simpler application.Compress can handle many file types such as .ZIP, .7ZIP, and .TAR while YemuZip can only output to .ZIP files. However, YemuZip allows the user to specify the location of the output, while Compress does not.

EasyEnvelopes Does It

I found myself many times wanting to print an envelope, but do not want to spend the effort to do so. Who would want to fire up an application, fill out the return and mailing addresses, position them so they appear just right, then change the page layout, then print. Enters a free utility that handles this task in an easy and efficient way: EasyEnvelopes Ambrosia Software.

EasyEnvelopes (EE) is a Mac OS X widget. Installing it is as easy as double-clicking on the widget. After installation, I launched the widget for the first time and to my pleasant surprise, EE has filled out my return address using my home address. The magic lies in the integration with Address Book application.

The first thing I did was to configure the widget by clicking on the “i” at the bottom right corner of the envelope. From the configuration screen, I can change the envelope size, font size, USPS bar code, the return address and its placement (in front or in the back). Once configured, the fun began. The widget allow searching for entries in the Address Book, or I can enter a new address in. After that, clicking on the stamp to print. It could not be simpler.

Since the Address Book application also allow envelopes printing, why do I need this widget? First, EE allows printing an address that is not in the address book (think rebate address). In addition, EE gives more control over the the return address: home, custom, an image, or none. Finally, EE can optionally print the US Postal Service’s bar code, which should help speeding up mail sorting and increase accuracy.

In conclusion, EasyEnvelopes is one fine widget that performs only one task very well: printing envelopes. In addition to features, performance, and ease of use, EasyEnvelopes offers an unbeatable price: free. This tool will stay in my arsenal for a long time.

Personal Backup X4’s Synchronization Features Disappointed

I have wrote about this software in my previous post and did not like the experience. Now, as I drill deeper into one specific area: file and folder synchronization; I was disappointed one more time. The synchronization process lacks intelligence and does not automatically synchronize files based on the time stamp.

Background:

I have a USB key, which I partitioned into two separate drives: USB1 and USB2. I would like to synchronize the contents of these two drives with my two local folders Local1 and Local2, respectively.

The Process:

Since Personal Backup X4 (PBX4) can handle folder synchronization, I fired up the software and created a script with the following parameters:

  • Source: Local1
  • Destination: USB1
  • Automatically execute when the USB key is inserted
  • Quit PBX4 upon finish

Before I can trust this script with my real data, I carried out the following test. I loaded USB1 and Local1 with some text files as follow:

Local1: file1, file2, file3, file4
USB1: file1, file2, file3, file5

Bold filenames signify newer file based on the time stamp. After the synchronization, I expect both locations to carry the newer files, plus any newly created ones (file4 and file5). Therefore, I expect the following outcome:

Local1: file1, file2, file3, file4, file5
USB1: file1, file2, file3, file4, file5

However, after running the script, my outcome is:

Local1: file1, file2, file3, file4, file5
USB1: file1, file2, file3, file4, fle5

That means PBX4 did not synchronize changed files. How useful! Still, I did not give up and modified the script to synchronize manually with user intervention this time. Once started, PBX4 displayed each changed files and asked me which version to keep. All seems fine, except for the fact that PBX4 only displays the files’ dates, but not times. That means if the two files have identical dates, but different times, the user cannot tell which one to keep. In addition, manually selecting which files to keep can be tedious and error-prone if the user have more than a handful of files to compare. Do you want to sit down and do that for hundreds, if not thousands of files?

If you are looking for a utility to synchronize your files, look elsewhere. I am still searching for a good one myself. If you have any suggestion, please post your comment here. Thank you.

ADVC 110 and EyeTV 250

In my quest to convert my old analog tapes to DVD, I employed two different tools: the Canopus ADVC 110 and Elgato EyeTV 250.

Elgato EyeTV 250

Pros:

  • Easy to use, simple process
  • Works with Toast, iDVD, and other burning applications
  • Also records from cable and other sources
  • Smaller files

Cons:

  • Quality of the resulting DVD is not as good as that of ADVC 110

To turn my VCR tape into DVD, I use EyeTV 250 and Toast 7 Titanium. After hooking up my VCR to EyeTV 250 to my MacBook, I set the input to composit video input and started to import the tape. The import process happens in real time, so it took almost an hour to finish my tape. Next, I edit the tape to remove the irrelevant beginning and ending of the video clip; this part only takes about five minutes. Next, I export the clip to Toast for burning and have the finished disc in about twenty minutes. Overall, it took me about an hour and a half to convert a 55-minute tape to disc. The next step is to verify the result by playing the disc in my home stereo. Overall, the sound quality is excellent and the video quality is good. All is not well, however: the video is a little shaky, thrashing slightly from side to side. Without the ADVC 110 to compare, I would be happy with the result.

Canopus ADVC 110

Pros:

  • Better quality than EyeTV
  • Chapter marks via iMovie

Cons:

  • Large files
  • Single minded device: cannot record from cable
  • More complicated process

To accomplish my conversion, I employed three different pieces of hardware and software: ADVC 110, iMovie, and iDVD. For those who wants simplicity, they can skip the iMovie and import straight from the video source into iDVD. After hooking up the equipment, I started to import the video clip into iMovie. Again, the import process is real-time, so it took almost an hour to finish. Next, I edited out the irrelevant parts and added chapter marks to aid viewing; this process took about half an hour. If I did not add the chapter marks, then the editing would take only five minutes–same as the previous method. Next, I export the movie to iDVD for burning. After spending another five minutes customizing iDVD to my liking, I inserted a blank disc and started the burn process. iDVD took its sweet time to encode the video, which produced the final disc in about an hour. As the result, the process took me about two and a half hour to convert the same 55-minute tape to DVD. The reward for choosing this method is a better video without the shakiness found in previous method. Audio quality is about the same in both methods. One drawback of this method is the file size: the iMovie project demands 11GB of my disk space, while the iDVD project snatches another 3GB. In contrast, the video clip produced by EyeTV 250 weighs less than 2GB. I forgot to record the size of the Toast project, but I think it is from 3GB to 4GB.

Summary

If you want to record from cable and occasionally converts tapes to DVD, EyeTV 250 is hard to beat. However, if you demand quality, then go with ADVC 110.

Apple iPhone: How to Improve It

As of this moment, I am sure you have heard about Apple’s iPhone, which is an amazing product. since many people have focused on what they like about the iPhone, and I agree with most of them, I would like to focus on areas that need improvement. Before I begin, I would like to clarify my position: I love iPhone and will probably buy it, pending test-driving it in person. The reason I post these negative point is to point out the weakness and hopefully someone will listen and improve.

First off, I do not like the iPhone for its size and form factor. Based on the pictures, the phone seems large for a phone. Remember, this device is foremost a phone: I can afford to leave home without my iPod, but not my phone. Therefore, size matters. In my opinion, anything that is wider than the Razr will not do for me. That being said, the size seems excellent for a PDA/phone/iPod device.

After size, my next complain targets the lack of buttons. I agree that the iPhone without button is so sleek and beautiful; it is a piece of art. However, think about this scenario: you are driving and would like to make a call, what should you do? First, you take out your iPhone and unlock it, of course. Now, image yourself performing the “slide to unlock” operation with one hand. I hope that I don’t have to do that while driving. Without the button, the user cannot rely on the tactile feedback to operate the phone. Instead, he or she will have to actually look at the screen in order to make the correct choice. In addition, the touch screen seems to make it difficult to operate with one hand because the user cannot slide the thumb over the screen to reach the intended buttons.

The lack of buttons also brings another problem, namely the smudged screen syndrome. We can protect an iPod’s screen with cases, screen, or even thin protective films. The iPhone touch screen means the user cannot cover the screen, leaving it prone to scratches, dirt, and smudges.

Many people mentioned the fact that Apple has locked into Cingular is a big turn off. I think Apple should have sold the phone unlocked so the users can go on with their own carrier choices. Personally, I don’t use 3G data services, but for those who do, iPhone’s EDGE will surely disappoint them. Many people also express concern regarding the battery life, which might be fine for a phone, but seems short as far as PDA or music player is concerned.

As the owner of a 4th-generation 30GB iPod, I am disappointed at the iPhone’s tiny storage size. I hope Apple should address this issue with larger drives. I understand the use of flash memory reduces power consumption, along with saving weight. I hope that someday flash memory become cheap enough to see 20GB or even larger drive.

For me, the number one reason to buy the iPhone is not because it is cool, but because I expect that it just work seamlessly with my Mac. For that, I mean the synchronizing experience. I currently use a wonderful phone, the Sony Ericsson W810i. While I love this phone dearly, I still think that the synchronization process needs some improvement. Specifically, for years, I have been trying to synchronize notes between the phone and my MacBook. Funny that I can synchronize contacts, appointments, and tasks; but I cannot synchronize notes. My phone currently has more than 50 notes, and that list is growing. I keep note on many things: the dimension of my printer, so I can shop for a printer stand; the model number of my air filter, to name a couple. It would be nice if I do not have to manually synchronize them.

These are a few problems that I can see. I will update this article if I think up more. That being said, I am looking forward to try out the phone is my local Apple Store.

AudioBook Builder Simplifies Your Life

For the past few days, I have been looking for a way to simplify the process of importing audiobook from CDs to iTunes. Today, I found the solution, while not free ($10), it works very well: AudioBook Builder from Plasm Software.

Before discussing AudioBook Builder, let discuss the process of importing audiobooks from CDs. Say, I have an audiobook with 12 discs and I want to import it into iTunes. The first step is to configure iTunes to import at a lower rate instead of the usual 128kbps or 192kbps. So far so good, except for the fact that after I am finished importing the book, I often forgot to reset the sampling rate and ended up using that to import my music CDs. The result is not pretty. Next comes the issue of the CDs are often not recognized by iTunes, so I ended up with Track 01, Track 02, … These generic track names does not help me with ordering the chapters between discs. As the result, I often had to enter the disc information by hand for each disc (disc number, author, title, …) These two issues and many others prompted me to find a solution and that solution is AudioBook Builder (AB).

The first time I launched AB, I created a new book by entering the title, author, and optionally the album art cover. Note that I only need to enter these information once per book instead of having to enter them for each disc. Next, I inserted the first CD and click the Import CD button and AB went off to import. After importing all 12 discs, I clicked the “Finish” button at the bottom and clicked “Build Audiobook.” The process took a while to finish and the resulting audiobook is imported into iTunes. In my case, AB splitted the audiobook into two parts, probably to reduce the file size: part one takes 335MB off my hard disk and part two demands 77MB.

Overall, the program is very intuitive with very simple interface and not much options to mess around.

Easy Backup with SuperDuper

A couple of months ago, my 300GB external hard drive decided to bite the dust without a proper 30-day warning. I considered myself lucky since I have copied most of my family iMovie videos and photos to DVD discs prior to the incident. However, I still lost a good deal of files that I wish I have backed them up. This is not the first time I lost data due to hard drive failure, so why did I not learned from my previous experience? The short answer: backup is too time-consuming and painful to do. Right after the incident, I purchased a WD MyBook external hard drive with 500GB in capacity and a copy of Intego’s Personal Backup X4 (PBX4). However, PBX4 seems to cause me more troubles than solving my backup problem. You can read about my PBX4 experience here. Based on recommendations from other Mac users, I downloaded SuperDuper and after a couple of weeks of usage, I decided to register for it–a $31 ($28 + tax) well spent.

Pros:

  • Painlessly clone your hard drive
  • Cloned drives are bootable
  • Registered version allows for smart backup, which I will discuss later
  • Easy scheduling for unattended backup

Cons:

  • Does not backup to CD/DVD
  • Does not backup from a FAT32 volume
  • SuperDuper in itself not a complete backup plan

The first thing I noticed about SuperDuper is how simple the interface is. To get started, I went through the following steps:

  1. Choose a source drive
  2. Choose a destination drive
  3. Choose the “Backup – all files” pre-defined script
  4. Click “Copy Now”

After confirming my intention, SuperDuper was on its way copying files away. A word of warning: By default, SuperDuper will erase the destination drive before copying, so be sure to move those files you want to keep off this drive prior to the cloning process. The initial copy will take a while to finish due to the amount of data SuperDuper must copy. Subsequently, the copy process will take much shorter time, thank to the Smart Update feature. With Smart Update, SuperDuper only copy those files that have been created or modified since the last backup. This save significant amount of time.

To fine tune the copy process, you can click the “Options” button. One of my most used customization option is choosing between “Erase then copy” or Smart Update. As the name implies, “Erase then copy” means SuperDuper will first erase the destination drive (yes, all files), then copy. The Options screen also allow advanced user to run scripts before and after the copy process. For a normal user, choosing Smart Update will be enough. The Options screen also tell SuperDuper what to do after copying (nothing, quit the application, restart from the destination, set the destination drive as the boot drive, or shutdown/sleep the computer).

From the Options, the user can also tell SuperDuper what to do upon completion such as restart from the destination drive, or simply quit SuperDuper. The Advanced tab allows even more fine-tuning options such as the ability to run scripts before and/or after copying.

Overall, I like SuperDuper for its ease of use, yet powerful backup features. I highly recommend this software for every Mac users.