I’ve been trying for a while now to find a reasonably priced way to play video files that live on my computers on our TV or projector with acceptable quality while still being easy to use. Finding a solution has proven more difficult than I initially thought. I could never really find anything that gave me everything I wanted without some major compromise and didn’t cost a lot in terms of price or time spent configuring. I simply want to be able to take a file from the computer and play it on my TV or projector on a device that feels integrated with the rest of my setup.

Enter Western Digital’s WD TV Live. The WD TV Live does exactly what I want and does it in a tiny and silent, remote controlled package. It is able to stream virtually every common video or audio format in use today from a network share or from a locally attached USB drive. As an added bonus, it can also access YouTube, Pandora, Flickr as well as a couple of other online services. You can read more about the WD TV Live at http://www.wdtvlive.com/products/wdtv_live#highlights.

There are some isues with the device right now that are supposed to be cleared up in a soon to be released firmware update. It will play DVDs ripped to .iso format but doesn’t support menus, or even chapters, at all. This makes it nearly impossible to watch a TV series on DVD. The other issue the player currently has is with h264 files but oddly enough it is all in the name. A file with the extension .m4v will most likely have audio sync issues. Renaming the file to .mp4 will resolve the audio sync issue but will do nothing with the stuttering playback for all but the most basic of h264 encoded files. Incredibly, taking the same h264 file and putting it into mkv format will fix all of the issues and the file will play perfectly.

Despite these very easily fixed issues, this is the best device I’ve come across for playing videos at this price point. Yes, there are probably more capable devices available and there is certainly more capable software available (XBMC for one) but for the money, it’s hard to beat the WD TV Live. My next few blog posts will focus on how I’ve integrated the WDTV into my home network including how I’m encoding files for it using HandBrake, Linux and Automator in OS X.

A while back I installed Windows 7 on my work laptop so I could give it a real trial. Since installing it I’ve been using it to some capacity almost daily and now after a couple of months I thought I’d write out a few of the things Windows 7 gets right and a few of the things that could use some fixing.

What Windows 7 Gets Right

Windows 7 is a big improvement over Vista. It boots quicker, introduces a remixed taskbar, better window management, fixes a number of interfaces issues that Vista had like managing wireless networks and it makes Windows Explorer much more useful. And, while there are a lot of tests out there that show Windows 7 isn’t actually faster than Vista, Windows 7 certainly feels faster and that is arguably much more important.

Start Up and Shutdown
Improved start up and shutdown speeds have been a selling point of most Windows releases since Windows 95 but no release has ever really delivered on that promise. If anything, better start up and shutdown speeds have been because of hardware improvements over the years, not the OS. Vista promised to bring with it improved start up and shutdown as well but it would seem the engineers had trouble actually delivering on that promise once again. Instead, Vista cheated by using sleep and suspend to mask the amount of time it took the OS to start up and shutdown. So, once Vista had been booted up choosing shutdown would put the computer to sleep or suspend. To truly shutdown or reboot the computer the user had to visit a secondary menu.

Of course, Windows isn’t the only operating system promising better start up and shutdown speeds but it wasn’t until this year that someone was finally able to really deliver on the promise of faster start up and shutdown. When Ubuntu 9.04 arrived, it shattered the status quo delivering start up times that seemed much more inline with the amount of power modern computers offer. While Windows 7 doesn’t seem to quite match Ubuntu’s speed it does seem that Microsoft was able to actually improve things enough that they no longer had to rely on the tricks that they used in Vista. Clicking shutdown now causes the OS to actually shutdown.

The Taskbar
The Windows taskbar isn’t something I’ve felt was an issue. In fact, I’ve always thought it was just fine. I’d typically expand the bar so it was a bit taller and put the quick launch icons under the application buttons. In Windows 7 however Microsoft has dramatically changed how it works and the end result works very well. It is clearly superior to the taskbar model it replaces by offering real time previews of running apps or even Internet Explorer tabs by simply hovering over a running application’s icon. From there you can hover your mouse over a preview and Windows will make all other Windows transparent so you can see the full version where ever it might be on your monitor. You can easily pin new applications to the taskbar by dragging them or right clicking the icon of a running application and choosing “pin to taskbar.”

There are however a couple of issues worth pointing out, both of which could probably be fixed in an update or service pack. Installing an updated version of an application will break the icon on the taskbar. It simply won’t work until you remove the old icon and place it there again. The other problem is that using the taskbar beyond it’s obvious functions is difficult to discover. Clicking the application icon always displays the running application, but what if you want a new window? The secret is to hold down the shift key while clicking the application icon. This will cause a new instance or window of the application to launch instead of simply showing the running version. If you want to launch an application and run it as Administrator, hold control and shift while clicking the application icon. Microsoft would do well by providing some way to educate the user on how to use the new taskbar.

Window Management
Microsoft is always being accused of stealing features and ideas from Apple and sometimes I believe they do. The new taskbar for instance is very dock like but does add an innovative new twist to the idea. But in the case of window management Microsoft has, for once, truly one upped Apple and Apple should really consider implementing a similar if not exactly the same set of features.

Windows 7 introduces several new ways of sizing windows automatically. A user has always been able to resize a window by dragging it bigger on any corner or side of the application window. Windows 7 however now allows you to simply drag the entire window to a sort of hot spot to resize it. Drag a window to the top of the screen and Windows 7 will maximize the window. Drag it to the left or right and Windows will resize it to the full height of the screen but only 50% of the width. This makes it extremely easy get two applications side by side on a single monitor.

Interface Tweaks
One of the things I simply couldn’t get over in Windows Vista was how poorly implemented the wireless network interface was. In fact, the entire networking interface was overly complicated. While most of the networking interface is just complicated as it was in Vista, the part that you’ll use the most is much improved and now works exactly as it does under OS X or Linux. You simply click the icon and choose an available wireless network.

The Explorer was another item in Vista I found awful. It was cluttered and confusing. Windows 7 again seems to have taken one from the Apple playbook and Explorer is now much more usable. A number of sensible default shortcuts are available on the left side and you can easily add more. Over all, Explorer feels much less confusing and cluttered.

What Windows 7 Gets Wrong
Despite all of the things Windows 7 gets right, there are a few things that simply don’t work or just aren’t useful. Below I’ve listed a couple of my biggest Windows 7 gripes.

Aero Peek and Show Desktop
Of all the new features of Windows 7, Aero Peek is arguably the most pointless. Placing the mouse in the lower right corner causes Windows to make all of the windows translucent so that you can see through them and see the desktop. This is great, except now that I can see the desktop I want to be able to access what is there. Moving your mouse away from the bottom right causes all of the windows to become opaque again. In order to actually access what is on the desktop you have to click the bottom right corner. This causes all application windows to simply go away, as if they’re minimized. Why bother with Aero Peek at all?

Also, show desktop is still a broken feature when compared to Exposé on OS X. Clicking show desktop causes all application windows to go away. If you click it again all application windows will, usually, appear back where they were with the right application in focus. If you click an application icon before clicking show desktop again, the whole “set” is lost. You can’t return your desktop they way it was unless you now manually click each application icon.

Aero Shake
Another new feature is Aero Shake. Aero Shake mimics an OS X feature that allows you to hide all other Applications. The problem with Aero Shake is that it is an awkward gesture. You activate Aero Shake by clicking and holding on the Window you want and then shaking it for a bit. In theory it seems sound and simple, in practice it feels awkward.

Another issue with Aero Shake is that it reveals a key difference between Windows and OS X. Under OS X, an application is NOT the same as the window. It’s entirely possible (and very useful) for an application to be running but not have any visible windows. When an application has focus in OS X you can hide that application by pressing command+H or by choosing “Hide ApplicationName” from the application menu where ApplicationName is the name of the application. The opposite of that is similar to Aero Shake does. From the same menu you have the option to hide all other applications, leaving any windows that belong to that application still visible.

Windows however doesn’t differentiate between a window and an application because in Windows, the window IS the application. This makes Aero Shake, aside from the goofy gesture, less useful in my opinion.

Conclusion
Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been. If you’re Windows fan then Windows 7 is something to truly be excited about. If you’re an XP user and you’ve been hanging on to it because of all the bad things you heard about Vista, wait no more. Especially if you bought a Vista “capable” or “ready” machine and then downgraded to XP. If you truly need XP for compatibility be sure to pick up at least the professional version and then download the XP mode package from Microsoft. XP mode is a preconfigured Windows XP system running in Microsofts VirtualPC and the end result is fantastic. You can upgrade to a modern Windows system and still run apps or hardware that will only work under XP.

Recently I removed Fedora 10 from my Linux server at home and installed Ubuntu 9.10 Server. I did this partly because I was tired of finding packages that weren’t available on Fedora but were available in Ubuntu. Ironically I ended up trading one mess for another. Under Fedora I was compiling software that simply wasn’t available, but under Ubuntu I need to recompile the provided netatalk package in order to enable support for newer versions of OS X.

Netatalk is the Linux package for providing the native file sharing protocol to Macs and also provides better performance than Samba under most conditions. The missing feature in this case seems like quite the over site considering it makes the software virtually useless on networks with modern Macs as it prevents them from authenticating. Lucky for me, someone else has gone through the work of figuring out what it takes to get things working again.

The information is Debian/Ubuntu centric but you should be able to apply the same fix on other distributions. Here’s the link http://www.kremalicious.com/2008/06/ubuntu-as-mac-file-server-and-time-machine-volume/

Lately I’ve been talking a lot of talk about how great the Mac platform is. At work I go back and forth with a coworker on the merits of Linux and OS X. Of course he claims that Linux is all you need and I’m confident that the Mac is where it’s at. The reality is that OS X suffers its own set of issues which I have talked about in the past. No OS is perfect, just a matter of which one best fits your needs.

Anyway, through no fault of my own I managed to royally screw up my iTunes library to the point where some of the files were pointing to random objects in my backup drive. I have no idea how. At the same time my iPod Touch would simply not cooperate. Many files that I normally sync were listed as missing including over half of my largest play list which is still just a small subset of my entire collection.

So anyway, what’s my point right? My point is that I was able to save myself a ton of work simply because I turned on Time Machine.

Everybody says, “make sure you make a backup” but lets be serious, who actually does? This is one of the many reasons I claim OS X to be one of the best operating systems available for “normal” people. No other system that I am aware of provides such a simple, easy to use and surprisingly robust backup AND restore system. It is so easy you might actually forget it is there.

Restoring my iTunes library to normality was as easy as entering the Time Machine interface, going to the previous point in time, clicking the iTunes library files in my Music folder and clicking the restore button. Done deal. I plugged my iPod in and all of my files were copied back to it as if nothing had happened.

If you own an iPod Touch or iPhone and you the web at all make sure you upgrade to the latest firmware. I’ve always assumed it was a lack of CPU in the iPod Touch that caused larger and more complex sites to be so slow. Turns out Safari just needed to get fixed.

I’m watching the election results on msnbc.com and they’re actually putting the full 16:9 aspect ratio to proper use. Most of the time they shoot things in widescreen but virtually all shots are framed to fit the older 4:3 format. Along with election results msnbc is showing poll closing data on either side of the screen. While the data isn’t extremely useful it is nice to see the space is getting put to use.

If you’ve spent any time at all on this site then you know that VIM is my preferred text editor. Even though I’ve been using it for years I still learn something new about the editor from time to time. Here is something that I just figured out a couple of weeks ago. It turns out VIM provides a simple way to repeat exactly what you last did. By simply pressing the period key, VIM will repeat whatever command -or- text you last entered.

For example, lets say you’re editing an HTML file that has a list of links. Before each link you want to add a generic image. You could do this a few ways; type in the text each time, use a search and replace or copy and paste. Using period is just one more method to add to your toolbox. To use this trick, enter INSERT mode by pressing i. Enter in the text you want to enter before each link (or whatever it is you need to repeat a few times) and when you’re done press ESC. Move to the next line and press the period key. Whatever you typed previously will be inserted to the right of the cursor. You can do this as often as you like but as soon as you delete a letter, line, insert different text or whatever the “period key” shortcut will begin to do that action instead.

Another way to use this is if you’re deleting lines of text over and over. Say you want to delete 10 rows of text at a time until you’ve deleted what ever it is you need to delete. You could press d 10 down arrow and then each time you press the period key you’ll repeat the same action.

After a week with the iPod touch here is what I have learned. Keep in mind I have a first gen model with the 2.1 upgrade. This stuff is probably documented somewhere but I generraly skip the dogs.

While using mail, if you swipe left on a message in the message list you are given the option to delete it.

While in any app you can double tap the home button to get a volume control and ability to pause/play or skip tracks.

The keyboard will auto correct a lot of things yet it can’t spell check.

I think that is it for now. If there is something you know about that I didn’t list here leave iron the comments area.

Although I’ve had the hardware and software for a little while the setup had never been put to too much of test until tonight. Tonight was the start of the new season of Heroes but it also overlapped with an episode of Sarah Conner Chronicles. I am quite pleased to report that EyeTV handled the whole process very well. It managed to record both shows and deal the overlapping shows (it is configured to record 2 minutes before and after the show) by swapping which tuner it was recording from.

Virtualization. Despite being around for years it has suddenly become a hot topic today and it seems that everyone is trying to get a piece of the action. Sun is no different.

Virtualization has been around since the mainframe days but virtualization as we usually see today started with VMware (to the best of my knowledge). VMware has had available for years a few different products that allowed you to dedicate and entire machine to hosting virtual machines or simply run other operating systems on your desktop PC. Today’s computers are more powerful than ever before and even the cheapest of computers today typically has some power to spare. With the abundance of computers with excess power continuing to grow, it is no wonder virtualization has gotten to popular.

About a year ago VMware noticed that virtualization was getting more popular and decided that then was the time to really hook people. They released a free virtualization product (and since then some more) allowing people to run virtual machines on their computer for free.

Soon other virtualization techniques came to market, many of them also free. VirtualBox is one of them and is a relatively new entry into the virtualization market but is already showing some great promise. Unlike some other virtualization products, VirtualBox is cross platform covering the usual suspects like Windows, Linux and Mac. Of course, being from Sun it also runs on Sun’s Solaris and OpenSolaris operating systems.

VirtualBox, while young, shows great promise and it is available for free (for personal using and testing). It brings together some of the things I love about VMware. Simple to manage, cross platform and easy migration from one host machine to another. Some of what VirtualBox adds is native iSCSI initiator support, Remote Desktop Protocol support for running virtual machines and the ability to run on Windows, Linux, Mac and Solaris. It even supports the seemless mode seen in VMware’s Fusion and Parallels.

If you’re looking for a free way to get into virtualization then give VirtualBox a shot. I think you’ll be impressed.