Nik's Technology Blog

Travels through programming, networks, and computers

USB U3 Smart Drives: Drives That Make Your Applications & Data Portable

USB flash drives have increased in capacity in leaps and bounds since I last purchased one. In the few years since I bought a Crucial 128MB Gizmo!, the price of flash memory has been literally free-falling, due partly to economies of scale and the mass adoption of flash-based mp3 players.
The size and sheer variety of these devices is astounding, but what I wasn't expecting when I inserted the drive was for a Launchpad application to start running, pre-loaded with special software!

SanDisk u3 Smart Drive - Cruzer Micro 4GB

I had in fact purchased a 4GB SanDisk U3 Smart Drive. U3 is a technology developed by SanDisk which effectively creates a platform for developers to build applications that install directly onto the flash drive rather than the host computer. This means that not only can you take your data with you, but you can take your applications too!

U3 Smart Drive Launchpad

When you insert your U3 Smart Drive into a USB slot on any computer, the U3 Launchpad is loaded, which is effectively like the Window's start menu, but instead contains menus to configure the drive, run installed applications and access your data. Nothing is installed on the host PC, so you can take your applications and data with you and its all secure and synced with your data on your PC back home.

The software that's available includes Skype, Firefox, Opera, various password safes, Thunderbird, OpenOffice... The list goes on. Some applications are free, while others cost a small amount of money, but most have downloadable trials. Here's a full list of U3 software.

Watch the video below for a quick guide to the U3 Smart Drive technology.

MS Visual Web Developer 2008 Express Removes Support for Mobile Forms

I recently downloaded Microsoft's new Visual Web Developer 2008 Express Edition, which is a cut-down free version of Visual Studio aimed specifically at ASP.NET web developers. It supersedes the last version (VWD 2005) and adds new functionality.

I didn't remove the old version before installing, and in doing so noticed, and was able to verify (with screen shots below) that support for building mobile websites has been removed in the latest version, at least that's what appears to have happened!

Visual Web Developer 2005 - Add new item dialog box
Visual Web Developer 2005 - Add new item dialog box

Visual Web Developer 2008 - Add new item dialog box
Visual Web Developer 2008 - Add new item dialog box

Worried about potential health effects of wireless networks? Six easy steps to setting up an alternative

You may have read the scare stories about wireless networks in the press recently, and you may be wondering what you can do to avoid the potential health effects and still have a home which is fairly wire-free.
You may also have recently been given a free wireless router from your ISP.
Sky broadband, AOL broadband, BT broadband, Pipex, they nearly all bundle a wireless router in with your broadband contract these days, so what do you do?

Upgrade to a Powerline Network

Whether you believe the scare stories or not. I'll show you how you can still keep your wireless router but without the potential side-effects.

The answer? Upgrade to a Powerline network. A lesser known technology that uses your mains electrical wiring to distribute your broadband connection, which will allow you to connect a computer anywhere you have a power socket, and turn off the wireless signals so you don't have to worry about "WiFi smog".

Six Steps to Avoid Using WiFi

  1. Purchase at least 2 Powerline wall-plugged adapters (Netgear, Devolo and Dlink all have Powerline products). This is enough to connect one computer to the Internet.
  2. Plug 1 adapter into a wall socket near the wireless router, and connect your existing router to the Powerline adapter using an Ethernet patch cable.
  3. Plug the other Powerline adapter into a wall socket near the computer you want to connect to the Internet and connect your computer to the second Powerline adapter using an Ethernet patch cable.
  4. You should now be online!
  5. Now you'll need to log-in to your wireless router console, usually via a web browser (see your router manual for details) and disable the wireless access point on the router. See the screen-shot below for a visual, obviously your router console may look completely different, but usually the instruction manuals are fairly good.
  6. You can now surf the web anywhere in your home wire-free and without using WiFi!

Still confused? Check out Devolo's Powerline flash presentation, which explains all about Powerline networking simply and with animation.

Powerline Networking Now Fast Enough For Streaming HD Content

I've decided to give up waiting for the 802.11n standard to be ratified. When you spend hard earned cash on a piece of kit, you want to have some confidence that it will work in a year or so. Most of the high-end routers on sale today use a proprietary pre-802.11n or draft 802.11n, which may or may not be compatible with devices that meet the standard, when the IEEE pull their finger out.

What is Powerline networking?

Powerline networking has been around for sometime. Essentially it uses your electrical mains wiring as the media to send data over as if it were category 5 cable. You simply plug a box into the wall socket, which converts these signals that multiplex over the mains wiring to Ethernet. Typically you'd have one next to your router, which connects to your routers Ethernet socket, and the other in the room where your computer is located.

Advantages of Powerline over Wireless networking?

One of the main advantages of Powerline networking over Wi-Fi is that there are no dead spots where you can't get a good connection. As long as you are near a mains outlet, you can have a connection; Albeit with an Ethernet cable connected to the wall.

The latest batch of Powerline networking kits are sporting theoretical speeds of up to 200Mbps! Although in practice, overhead in the system, mains wiring and the 100Base-T outputs limit this maximum throughput; However, I have been getting speeds of over 100Mbps along my mains wiring, easily more than 802.11g, and more reliable too.

Installation does not require software drivers, it literally is a case of plugging them into the wall sockets, and connecting up the Ethernet cables and turning them on. This also means out-of-the-box Linux, Vista and OSX support! They'll also work with games machines and media extenders, or any other piece of kit that has an Ethernet port.

I purchased the Devolo HomePlug dLAN 200 AVDesk Starter Kit, which comes with two HomePlug adapters. They include Quality of Service for uninterrupted Internet TV and IP telephony circuitry, and they were given a "best buy" from PC Pro magazine.

There are other manufacturers who produce Powerline networking equipment, like Netgear's HD Powerline adapters, but after reading this review in PC Pro I decided to opt for the devices that conform to the Powerline AV standard.

Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor and Hardware Incompatibility

Just to recap, I bought Windows XP Media Center edition with an upgrade voucher to Windows Vista Home Premium last year. After sending off all my details to claim my Vista DVD and receiving it, I thought it best to clear some room on one of my hard disks and run Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor before I go any further.
I had previously ran a beta version of the upgrade advisor prior to upgrading my OS from Windows XP Pro to Media Center edition and as far as I can remember all my hardware was compatible (software was another story!).

Problems!

However... While upgrading my machine to Media Center I also upgraded some of my hardware. I upgraded my wireless 802.11b Netgear MA111 USB stick to a US Robotics 5418 802.11g PCI adapter (This allows for video streaming around my house via my Xbox 360, and also reduces the amount of USB devices I have hanging off the back of my machine).
I was also severely running out of disk space, so I added a SATA RAID card and bought two SATA HDDs so I could set up a mirrored (RAID 1) configuration for a little peace of mind).

After running the upgrade advisor you can now probably guess what devices weren't supported in Windows Vista...Yep, the USR5418 wireless PCI adapter and the Adaptec 1210SA SATA RAID controller, typical I thought!

I have checked the manufacturers' support sections for these devices, but future Vista drivers for them don't look promising. So unless I can find a driver that will work with these devices I don't see much point in upgrading to Vista at the moment. Can you imagine the Aero interface in all it's glory, but no data to access and no web to surf on!! The only other solution is to upgrade these components again, but I am reluctant to spend anymore money on my aging computer.

Hardware Manufacturers or Microsoft?

So who is to blame for this lack of compatibility? The devices aren't exactly that old, Microsoft has had numerous beta versions of Vista available for hardware and software companies to test and develop for, but it seems they want you to buy the latest product instead. Even big companies like Apple had problems with iTunes after the Vista launch.

Windows Vista Upgrade

I finally received my Vista Home Premium upgrade DVD this morning. I got an email claiming it was being shipped earlier this month and commented on my thoughts here.

Unlike the retail versions of Vista you don't get the snazzy clear box with the rounded corner. I can't complain though, it came in a clear DVD case with a quick start guide and a new OEM Certificate of Authenticity (CoA). You may remember I bought a copy of Media Center 2005 with a Vista Upgrade voucher last year.

It also comes with a slip of paper that states the following:

Licensed Device. This Windows Vista software replaces the Microsoft Windows XP software that is eligible for the upgrade to this software. You may install and use this software only on the device on which you acquired the Windows XP software.

Reassignment to Another Device.

You may not reassign the license for this software to another device.

It also goes on to talk about transferring to a third party and support services.

This goes someway to answering some of my questions. When I get around to installing Vista I'll no doubt be adding some more posts here. I need to give my hard drives a spring clean before I can do that though ;-)

Site Redesign and Upgrade

I've finally decided to give my site a face-lift. I first built it in 2002 when the web was a different place, just recovering from a boom and bust. Since then we've seen the dominance of Internet Explorer errode slightly somewhat with the emergence of Firefox/Mozilla, Safari and Opera. Browsers have also become more standards compliant, which has made it easier to build cross-browser sites.

Advances in browser rendering engines have made it possible for more and more sites to adopt XHTML with CSS 2.0 stylesheets with presentation specific HTML consigned to the dustbin.

Moving all presentation logic to CSS is a liberating step to take, but it requires different skills and techniques compared with using tables. It's very powerful, but it also has its faults. Where before you had no option but to use JavaScript to create certain effects, often called Dynamic HTML, now a lot of those rollovers etc can be handled by a Cascading Style Sheet.

I've created a design that follows the current web vogue often associated with so called Web 2.0 sites, I'm still testing and fine tuning the design and initial template, but it will encompass this blog and my whole site, it'll be XHTML compliant using the WC3 strict DTD, my CSS will handle all presentation logic and I will aim to make it as accessible as possible to screen reading devices.

Vista Home Premium Upgrade Voucher

I finally received an email yesterday confirming my Vista Home Premium upgrade has been dispatched.

Way back in October 2006 I upgraded my main machine from XP Professional to Windows Media Center Edition in order to be able to stream content to my Xbox 360 in my living room. I bought an OEM version of the operating system with a Vista Home Premium upgrade voucher included.

On receiving it though I discovered what was needed to claim my upgrade. Microsoft don't make it easy I can tell you that now! Firstly the offer was restricted to system builders registered with Microsoft, this wasn't made clear on the site I purchased it from. It didn't phase me though, I registered and now receive lots of system builder spam :-)
I went ahead anyway and fingers crossed it's paid off and I'll get my hands on the new OS shortly.

My next problem is going to be installing it on my aging computer and trying to understand what pieces of hardware I can upgrade without having to re-validate my OEM copy of Vista. Oh what have I got myself in to?? :-)