Archive for October, 2007

Leopard’s Spotlight

Serious Performance.  I’ve read about how much better Spotlight performs on Leopard than Tiger.  But, it’s one of those things that doesn’t quite sink in until you’ve tried it out yourself.

Launcher?  Back shortly after I got Tiger, I used Spotlight as a poor man’s version of Launchbar.  Well, for a while, at least.  The truth is that Spotlight under Tiger just wasn’t up to snuff.  I’d start searching for an app and it would take several seconds to get it in the list.  I tried QuickSilver, but honestly didn’t like it.  I settled on Launchbar (even though it costs a bit of money), and it worked well for me.

Enter Leopard.  If Tiger’s Spotlight was as fast as Leopard, I doubt I would have ever purchased Launchbar.  Launchbar might be a little better at figuring out what application you are looking for, but Spotlight is no longer way behind in the speed department.

Safari Indexing.  Ever remember reading a web page from a few weeks ago about some obscure technology and later want to refer back to it?  If you are good at googling, you might find it, but if you surfed the site in Safari, you won’t have to use Google at all.  Just use Spotlight!  Whenever you surf a page in Safari (except, I’m sure, in “private browsing” mode), the contents of the page are indexed.  This is something that I’ve wanted for quite some time as I occasionally read something in passing, then want to refer back to it later.  Now, if I can only get the guys at OmniGroup to add this feature to OmniWeb too.  (It’s only the best browser on any platform)

Advanced search capabilities.  Open Finder in Leopard and start typing something in the Spotlight search field.  By default, this will search “This Mac”.  Using the “+” sign at the end of the field will let you create quite a specific search.  You can even save the resultant search.

Easy math with Spotlight.   You know how Google’s search page allows you to enter a math problem, like 12.5 * 3.1416, and it will give you the answer?  No need to hit the web for help with math anymore – Just key the problem into Spotlight.  Heck, you can even put in Sin, Cos, Tan, Log, factorials, and other operators and Leopard will do all the heavy lifting for you.

Spotlight has a bright future.   With Tiger, I really only used Spotlight a few times a month.  With the performance improvements Leopard included, along with the additional capabilities it now has, I honestly expect to use Spotlight at least weekly, if not practically everyday.

October 30, 2007 at 7:23 pm Leave a comment

Back to the future with Time Machine

After some trials, it appears that Time Machine doesn’t work as well when you “trick it” into running on a NAS.  My testing thus far shows that it will back up to  NAS (after telling it to back up to a partition on an external drive, then naming a share on the NAS the same as the backup drive and copying the contents of that drive over to the NAS)…  But, when you actually try to use Time Machine in this way, it only shows the most recent backup.  You can browse to the share and mount the sparse-image there, then tell Time Machine to “browse other Time Machine disks” (via right click of the TM icon on the dock), and that does seem to force it to see the other backups, though, so that’s something.

But, you know…  Something makes me feel uneasy (and perhaps a bit queasy) about trying to use this as my backup strategy as described above…

Yes, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that relying on an unsupported “hack” to backup your important data is about as crazy as trying to build a time machine out of a sports car…  Well, perhaps not quite that crazy, but you get my point.

I’m not in with the conspiracy theorists that think Apple pulled the AirDisk support from Time Machine because they want to sell more Macs, more copies of Leopard, etc, etc.  I think they pulled it because performing a backup over 802.11g (which is much more common than 802.11n) is a really bad idea.  I tried doing this over 802.11g from my Mac mini to an external drive on my iMac, and it’s so terribly slow that I can easily imagine hordes of angry users who thought their systems were safely backed up, only to find out that their data is gone forever.

Nope…  I’ve decided that I don’t want to play russian roulette with my data.  So, I’ve decided to use external drives.  I happen to have a pair not doing too much, and when the Leopard version of SuperDuper comes out, I’ll probably back up once a week to a disk image on my NAS, or something…

In a few more days, I should have something more concrete to share with you regarding my Time Machine experiences.  I will say that the idea of a Drobo is looking better and better…

October 29, 2007 at 11:42 pm Leave a comment

Leopard experiences

Rule #1 of Upgrading to Leopard.  Don’t perform an “upgrade”.  I did this on my iMac and ran into a few issues.  First, Safari wouldn’t launch, but instead crashed repeatedly.  Figuring that now would be a good time to clean up the cruft that had built up in about two years and 9 months (from Panther on my original Mac mini, upgraded to Tiger), I decided to perform a clean install and just migrate my user settings (not apps) over from my SuperDuper! clone.

Wow!  It just hit me when I wrote that last sentence.  It has been almost three years since I did clean install on my DAILY use machine!  I don’t think I’ve ever had a Windows install that has lasted that long before I’ve had to wipe and start over.  It’s pretty incredible, now that I think about it.

Back to Leopard installation commentary:   Anyhow, I went ahead and did a clean install.  As it completed, I had one unusual issue.  After registering with Apple, my machine seemed to hang.  It wasn’t locked hard or anything, but stayed stuck on the Registration screen.  After waiting several minutes, I decided to reboot.  It rebooted and I was at my login.  This migration of my user settings gave me a good opportunity to go back and install the latest versions of all the apps that I regularly use.  For ones that I need that weren’t installed by Leopard for me (like Quicken 2006), I just copied the app from my SuperDuper! clone.

New Finder in three words:  I like it.  The fact that is shows all the local servers on the sidebar is very nice.  On a corporate network I’d probably disable that feature, though, as I might have a hundred machines or more listed there.  The new look does mirror iTunes, and I think it is suitable to a small network.  It would be nice to be able to “turn off” certain machines in the list, though.

Feature that surprises me the most (in a good way):  CoverFlow.  Yeah, coverflow!  I thought this was a nice eye-candy feature that was good for demos and not much more.  I was shocked to find out how useful it really is.  You see, in the last few years I had accumulated some 300+ files in my download directory.  And I do regularly delete stuff!  Honest!  In fact, a few days before I got Leopard, I thought I would try to get a jump start and look through the contents of my Downloads directory and clean it up.  Wow, that got boring fast!  You see, I had lots of files with titles that didn’t mean much to me.  Many of them looked like semi-random filenames.  Opening each file to look at the contents was painful.  Now that I had Leopard installed, I switched over to CoverFlow mode in Finder and started looking through the Downloads directory again.  To my shock, it made looking through this ton of files go extremely fast.  As of this writing, I have 16 things in my Downloads directory that I haven’t filed away, all thanks to CoverFlow and QuickLook.

Feature that surprises me the most (in a bad way):  Time Machine.  I’d read about using Time Machine and looked forward to an automatic backup that would let me stop using SuperDuper!  (No offense to the author- It’s a very good product!  I own two copies, in fact.)  Anyhow, I have a ReadyNAS NV+ with a pair of 500 GB drives and almost 200 GB of that is free.  I had ready in early posts that I’d be able to use Time Machine directly to my NV+.  Awesome!  But, apparently that feature was recently removed, as people all over are complaining about it.

UPDATE:  I just ran across a procedure that looks very promising for getting Time Machine to work on my NV+.   I’ll comment on it once I’ve had a chance to test it out.

October 27, 2007 at 11:34 pm Leave a comment

Mac OS X Leopard has arrived

My copy of the latest version of Mac OS X has arrived today…  I’ve been wrestling with the best way to install it.  You know, should I wipe my drive and install fresh, or wipe my drive and copy my profile from my Tiger backup, or just perform an upgrade install so I don’t have to bother with reinstalling anything?

My “Windows” side tells me that I should wipe and install, just like I would if I were installing a new copy of a Microsoft product.  I like the idea of a clean install, as that would get rid of any lingering issues in Tiger (due to corrupted configuration, etc.)  When I got my iMac, I copied my profile (apps and all) from my G4 mini.  Suprisingly, everything still worked, but for some time I had a modem listed in my iMac (that was carried over from my mini), even though the iMac doesn’t have one.  There’s also the side of  me that just wants to upgrade and not have to worry about registered software that I’d have to reinstall (and find the keys to), the possibility that my iTunes library might have problems, etc.

I’m still not sure what I’m going to do, but for the moment, I’m letting SuperDuper update my cloned drive image so if anything goes terribly wrong, I can just reboot to my cloned drive and be back in Tiger.

I’ll be sure to post more about my experiences after I’ve installed it and had a chance to play around with it a while.

October 26, 2007 at 4:26 pm Leave a comment

BeyondTV and SageTV on a 2.4 Ghz P4!

Uncle!

That’s what that P4 has been yelling for the last couple of days.  Yea – SageTV and BeyondTV each have their own dedicated tuners, so that’s not a problem, and they almost always record at different times of the day, so there would rarely be any situation where both SageTV and BeyondTV were recording at the same time.

While my first tests with both SageTV and BeyondTV running on the same machine seemed fine, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a good idea in the real world.  This may be a premature conclusion, but here’s the deal:

You see, my kids like watching the various shows we record for them as well as the DVD’s we rip and store on a ReadyNAS for their viewing pleasure.  I’ll often have one or two children watching one show on the Sage server itself, while another child is watching a different show via a Sage Client in another room.  It also happens that this situation peaks around 8PM, just when a few shows that the wife and I like to record (via BeyondTV).  If, while the above is going on, the wife is watching her soap opera via BeyondTV Link while two shows are recording via the SiliconDust network tuner, those shows end up looking… bad.

Let’s talk about the numbers.

If the SiliconDust software is right, each HD stream is about 19 Mbits per second.  Two of those coming in from the network at once is no sweat.  Add to that two or three similar streams exiting the machine at once and things get more interesting.  You end up with about 40 Mbits per second of incoming traffic and about 60 Mbits per second of outgoing traffic.  Since FastEthernet is full duplex (meaning you have theoretically 100 Mbits per second in both directions simultaneously), that shouldn’t be an issue, should it?  Alas, I fear this is a situation not even Gigabit ethernet would resolve.

It is my theory that the real issue lies in the disks.  Perhaps this poor machine can’t handle writing two 19 Mbit streams at the same time as it is streaming two or three files out at the rate of 19Mbit.  Sure, I have three drives in this machine for recording (not including the OS drive), but there is no telling where the files that are being read are stored.  Since these drives have been used for a while in “DVR” service, they are very fragmented as well, which is probably not helping things.

Anyhow, all this talk of Mbits and disks aside, I have a potential solution.  I’ve installed BeyondTV on another machine in the house.  Since it is no where near the incoming cable, it will only have the two network tuners to use.  This will allow the SageTV machine to serve several streams at once while (hopefully) not interfering with the recordings of BeyondTV.  Whether the issue is one of networking or disk access, this will probably take care of the problem.

A small kink in this plan is that the box in question only has a single 60GB drive.  About 35 GB are free, so I’m looking at a tad under 4 hours of actual capacity on it.  So, I’m moving files around on the Sage machine to free up a drive.  If all goes well, I can move that drive over tonight and BeyondTV will be left with about 450+ GB for shows.

BeyondTV Backup

On the plus side – BeyondTV has a great feature for migrating from one machine to another, or just backing up in general.  Right click on BeyondTV’s icon on your task bar and select About.  There, on the About screen (kinda odd spot for it) is a backup button and a restore button.  This saved me tons of time moving my favorites over from one install to another.

October 19, 2007 at 12:29 am Leave a comment

WPA Enterprise security at an actual Enterprise

I’m happy to announce that ZeroShell, which I’ve blogged about here, is now being used to authenticate WPA Enterprise security for approximately 30 users across about a dozen access points at my workplace. We’ve been using it for about three weeks now and we’re pretty happy with the results.

We were allowed to select ZeroShell for this because we could scrounge up a spare machine to run it on, the software itself was free, and lastly because this particular wireless network is one for consultants, and therefore only allows access to the Internet, not our internal corporate network. Had this been for our internal network, we almost certainly would have used a Windows AD controller, since our company is mainly a Windows shop.

As far as ZeroShell is concerned, there are only a few minor chinks in the armor, related to our implementation:

1. There can be only one! Admin user, that is. Only one person can be logged into the web interface as the Admin user at a time. If someone else signs in as Admin, the previous user is kicked out. This is particularly problematic if you have one department responsible for installing the certificates and setting up the laptops for the end-users (and setting their password at the same time), and another group responsible for general user maintenance. Which brings be to my second issue…

2. Roles and a Dynamic Admin Interface. If ZeroShell did allow multiple Admin users, it should also allow those admin users to have different roles and the web interface should change to reflect the role of the active user. For example, a Security department might be responsible for adding and deleting users, but nothing else, so the web interface should limit someone signed in with that role to those few web pages.

3. No User Expiration – If this were added, I’m sure our security department would love it. As it stands now, once a user is added, they have access, period. If  possible, our security department would like to be able to set an expiration date on a user so that if the user attempts to log in beyond that date, it will fail as if the password is incorrect.

Now, in a small business network, issues #1 and #2 are probably not issues to be concerned with since there may only be one or two technical/security people in the entire company, but in a large corporate environment, I think these issues will make ZeroShell a much less attractive option. Item #2 sounds particularly difficult to add to ZeroShell. But, I know it can be done. I added this very feature to Monowall back about two years ago (when we were looking to add Monowall to our network initially). Now, my addition did not perform locking to make sure that two people weren’t editing the same user, etc. at the same time, but it gets the job done.

Here’s one other issue with ZeroShell:

Captive Portal login page can not be customized via web interface beyond the title of the page, the “powered by” line, and a picture. I didn’t see anywhere to put any sort of TOS language, as required by our legal department. Now, technically, I’ve read on the forum that you can actually go into the raw ISO image and edit the captive portal page, but that’s not practical for most end users. Also makes upgrading to the latest version a major pain since you’d have to reapply your changes and hope you don’t break anything in the process.

In fact, if ZeroShell corrected the above issues, we could use it to replace our Captive Portal for this network (currently, Monowall). Zeroshell has all the other features we need (DHCP, DNS, Firewall). The biggest down side is that the ZeroShell interface isn’t as easy to use as Monowall.

October 14, 2007 at 3:04 pm 2 comments

Favorite VM of the week

What with all the DVR and HD TV posts I’ve been making lately, you might have thought I should rename the blog to “Jack of all T.V.” 😛 Here’s more of that I.T. stuff (with a home flavor) that you’ve been coming here for:

Tonight, I’m starting a new feature “Favorite VM of the week”. In it, I’ll highlight a VMware virtual machine that you may find useful. Oh, and just because the feature has “the week” in the title doesn’t mean it’s going to run every week. For that matter, it may only run a couple of weeks. 😛

Since Fulvio recently released a pre-loaded VMware Virtual Machine image of Zeroshell, I decided to try it out. I’m been running ZeroShell since about March of this year to handle my WPA Enterprise wireless security. I’ve been using this new VM version without any issue now for about a week. During that time, I’ve had zero WPA Enterprise issues on my home wireless network. Previously, I ran Zeroshell on a spare Soekris net4801, but I thought that using it solely for WPA was a bit of a waste of the potential of these little boxes. I mean, the capacity I was using it for was to handle a few Radius requests per hour. That’s hardly a challenge for a net4801.

Anyhow, Zeroshell is a linux distribution with the aim of being an embedded system type distro that doesn’t require any use of the command-line shell (hence, the name). It can be used as a router, a firewall, a captive portal, a DNS server, a DHCP server, an LDAP server, a radius server, a VPN server, to generate certificates, and probably even more. On Fulvio’s todo list is to make Zeroshell a Net balancer, a web proxy, an access-point, an IMAP server, and an SMTP server. You might say “Big deal, I can do all that on [insert favorite Linux distro here]”. But, can you do all of that through a web interface and without editing a single configuration file? Zeroshell can!

Best of all, with Zeroshell you can backup and restore the configuration of the ENTIRE Zeroshell box, all at once, in a single file. When I moved Zeroshell from my net4801 to the virtual machine, I simply backed up my configuration via the web interface, then loaded that configuration on the VM via the web interface and told it to activate. Within minutes, I was done. WPA clients were authenticating with it, and all was right in the world.

Disclosure: I wrote the WPA2 Enterprise HowTo for Zeroshell, so I may be a little partial. It really is a great little distro, though.

October 12, 2007 at 11:46 pm Leave a comment

HDHomeRunner for Mac

I haven’t posted much about the HDHomeRun that I got last week, partially because I’m still trying to figure out how much I like it.

Though, I’m still not posting about the HDHomeRun, I suppose…  Tonight, I ran across an app called HDHomeRunner for the Mac platform in the Silicon Dust forums.  Since I have a Mac, I figured I’d test it out.

First, it is very basic and the user interface is not the most intuitive.  I was very unsure how to start using it, as nothing I tried seemed to result in anything good happening for about the first 3 minutes that I tried.  Ultimately, I figured out that you need to AutoScan Channels (via the menu item) to get started.

It’s not going to replace any of the commercial DVR apps out there any time soon, but it is a good FREE way to watch HD TV on your Mac.  It doesn’t support recording yet, but does allow you to stream live TV directly from the HDHomeRun to your Mac (using VLC), and if you hit the “i” button, you’ll get some useful signal strength info about the currently selected TV station.

October 12, 2007 at 11:08 pm Leave a comment

New HD Antenna Arrives

Today, I took delivery of a model DB4 antenna from http://antennasdirect.com/.  I was a bit skeptical of the antenna design when I first saw it, but had read some good things about it elsewhere.  Of course, Murphy’s Law kicked in.  Tonight, while reading up a bit on antennas, I ran across this website that sells a very similar antenna for about 1/2 the price that I paid (when you include shipping).

I assembled it (there’s nothing to it) and scurried up the tower behind my home to put it a bit below the Stealthtenna that I have.  Within about 20 minutes, I had it installed.

The picture quality?  Well, it is a UHF antenna, but I had read that it picked up the upper VHF channels fairly well.  In reality, the signal strength that it gets for channels 10 and 13 (the two local stations that broadcast HD on VHF) come in around 63% signal strength, but when watching the live stream, it looks fine.  I’ll have to give it about a week or two to see for sure, but it looks like we may have a winner.

October 12, 2007 at 10:44 pm Leave a comment

BeyondTV Follow-up

Thanks to the helpful folks at SnapStream, we’ve figured out the problem that I had with the video conversion failure (showsqueeze to H264 format) that I mentioned in my SageTV vs. BeyondTV entry.

Windows Update. Yes, this was completely my fault. I could have sworn that I had previously disabled automatic updates (perhaps another update enabled it?), but the cause of my showsqueeze failure was that Windows decided to reboot to finish the update process. I also admit here that I am prone to procrastination. I shouldn’t have, but I avoided the few clicks needed to stop this problem by making the change to my Windows Update setting. I found out later that my procrastination would catch up with me.

So, I tried the showsqueeze again. My target this time was an episode of Journeyman that I hadn’t watch yet. A few hours into the operation, my wife and I started watching the show. One nice thing about the way BeyondTV does these showsqueeze conversions is that they run at Low priority, so your processor will show pretty much 100% usage, but in reality your machine is still very responsive. Even though it was using all its spare cycles to convert the show, it was still able to record another show and serve up this episode of Journeyman to my upstairs PC.

On to my problem this time… When I was done watching the episode of Journeyman, I absentmindedly hit “Delete” within BeyondTV Link (their app that lets me watch my recordings on another PC). That caused BTV Link to lock up. This is a bug in my eyes. Yes, the end-user started a showsqueeze on an episode, then watched it, and told BeyondTV to delete it before the showsqueeze had completed, but that seems like a reasonable thing that could happen to anyone. In fact, how would one avoid this problem if one has certain shows set to automatically showsqueeze? Anyhow, back to the problem. After giving it a bit of time to recover, I killed the task and restarted BTV Link. This time, it locked up just after selecting the “Recordings” screen. I ended up having to stop BeyondTV on the server (which took probably 3-4 minutes, but eventually worked). Of course, this killed the showsqueeze that had been underway. I restarted BTV and BTV Link and all seemed well again. So, I restarted the showsqueeze operation. By this time, it had ran for over 4 hours and it was now a bit after 11 PM. I figured that I’d just get some sleep and check on it in the morning.

Woops! Windows Update strikes again! Yes, it is true. When I awoke the next morning and checked on the status, it had failed, and it was due to an automatic reboot. My procrastination in making that small configuration change had wasted several more hours of processor time. I hadn’t done it because I figured “Hey – Windows just applied updates a couple of days ago with a reboot. What’s the chance that it will apply more tonight?”. Apparently, the answer is 100%. Anyhow, I restarted the showsqueeze once again and headed out to work.

Finally! Success! When I arrived home that evening, I checked the status and it was done! Now, I found both great news, and terrible news.

Amazing space reduction! The conversion reduced the filesize of the episode from approximately 8.5 GB to just over 500 MB. That’s about 1/17th the size. I was blown away at how tiny the file was compared to the original. What makes it even more amazing is that when I played back the resultant file, it looked awesome. If I had the H264 version playing side-by-side with the original, I don’t know that I’d be able to tell them apart. This was with the AppleTV pre-set profile that comes with BeyondTV.

Now, the terrible news… It took almost 10 hours to convert that one hour show with my 2.4 Ghz P4 machine with 512 MB of ram. Mind you, a few shows were recorded during the conversion process (probably about 2.5 hours worth), but I don’t think this is very practical. Perhaps the iPod setting reduces this time to something a bit more reasonable, but I haven’t made another attempt yet.

More good news: The integrated iTunes support worked. Since I had already clicked on the link in iTunes to subscribe to the RSS feed offered by BeyondTV, the 500+ megabyte file transfered over to iTunes.

More bad news: Playback within iTunes did not work. Snapstream support said that iTunes playback is a bit flaky and suggested that I try watching it on the AppleTV, so I tried. Perhaps this wasn’t a test scenario of theirs, but suffice it to say, I ran into problems. I don’t actually sync content to my AppleTV, but rather stream it from my iMac. I tried going to my iMac (as a Source in AppleTV), but each time it attempted to connect, it waited for some minutes, only to fail to display the list of TV Shows, Podcasts, etc. to watch, returning me to the Source screen of my AppleTV. After trying several times, rebooting the AppleTV and trying again, I finally deleted the “Podcast” that iTunes was subscribed to for BeyondTV content. When I returned to my AppleTV moments later (in another room), it had connected to my iMac. No converted show was there, though, so I knew it didn’t pop up until after that entry had been deleted. I haven’t tried to replicate these results again, as odd as they sound.

In conclusion, I would have to say that BeyondTV is a very good product that is only getting better. The long showsqueeze time would be very suitable to use for a show that you wanted to keep long-term, since the resultant file looks great and ended up being smaller than a single CD.  Perhaps a bit more time will let Snapstream iron out the other odd issues I ran into.

October 12, 2007 at 10:31 pm Leave a comment

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