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.

Certification Revision: A Technique

I get a lot of people email me asking me how to revise, or produce cram sheets for certification exams they are going to sit, they refer to my CCNA exam cram notes.
There are of course many ways to revise and learn the nuggets of knowledge needed to pass exams, but this post is about the technique I use.

Know the Exam Syllabus

If you are just intending to pass the exam and not learn the subject fully, make sure you only learn topics which are covered by the exam.
Most certifications have exam topics or syllabi on the web. These topics will form the basis for your revision. As an example, here are the topics covered by the Cisco CCNA exam.

Personalise Your Revision

Glance through the course/exam topics and highlight the areas you think you'll need to concentrate on more. These will be topics you know nothing about or not confident in.

Get a Good Certification Book

Buy and good book on the certification making sure you read reviews left by other readers to make sure the book is good, and covers the topic in the way that suits your learning style.

Peoples' minds work in different ways; you may be a very visual person, who likes lots of diagrams and examples so you can "see" the topic, or you may be very auditory and just prefer text heavy books, the other type is kinesthetic, these types of people learn by doing. You can discover what kind of thinking style suits you by reading more about learning styles.

Summarise Your Revision Notes

Set aside a letter-size piece of paper and write each main topic/chapter (from the syllabus of your chosen certification) at the top of each page. You should now work your way through the exam topics, reading, practicing and learning as you go along. When you come across a formula, important piece of information, table of data or picture, if you think it will be useful for your revision then add it to the appropriate revision sheet. Once you've covered all the topics you'll have a sheet of revision notes per topic.
The important thing here is that you try and stick to 1 page per topic. That way you'll find the condense part much easier.

The easier option is to purchase a good CCNA cheatsheet.

Get a Good Exam Simulator

There are a lot of exam simulators on the market, so it may be worth your while investing in one of these to help test your knowledge as you go along. It will also boost your confidence and point out areas where you need to concentrate your efforts.  Check out for free CCNA practice tests and CCNA flash cards.

Review Your Revision Notes & Learn

If you don't review your revision notes then what was the point of making them in the first place? Just reading a book from cover-to-cover will not enable you to pass an exam, unless you already know the topic very well.
Learn the notes you've made ready in preparation for the next phase.

If you want to retain the information beyond the exam, then forget about cramming for the exam the night before. The best method is to spread out your revision into small revision periods of up to 40 minutes, with breaks in between. Go back to topics frequently to allow them to sink into your long term memory.

Condense Your Notes

The condense phase will aim to condense your revision notes from 1 page per topic to 1 page in total!
You should aim to create your exam cram sheet about a week or so before the exam, since it will contain only the last pieces of info you're having trouble remembering. It will also contain little sketches, diagrams and mnemonics to jog your memory.
The reason why you should only aim to have one page, is so that you can quickly glance at it before the exam and not overwhelm yourself with info. You want your mind to be fresh and reading 20 pages of revision notes prior to an exam isn't easy or recommended.

For ready-made revision notes have a look at Internetwork Training CCNA cheatsheet.

Revision Motivation

I find a good way to motivate yourself to revise, is to book the exam. This then sets you a deadline to work to and enables you to focus on your objectives.

Good Luck!

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

Sellers Banned on eBay for Feedback Abuse

BBC Watchdog, a consumer rights TV programme in the UK ran a special report on eBay last night.
The report highlighted issues with how the eBay feedback system has, and is being abused by sellers using the site.

The eBay feedback system is a crucial component of the market place, and gives confidence to buyers when they are about to buy a product. Its in sellers' interests therefore to have a high feedback rating to reassure buyers.

What the programme investigates, is the situation where buyers are forced to remove truthful comments that the seller does not like in order to get product refunds etc.

Essentially, in order to get refunds on products bought through eBay, some traders are asking buyers to retract negative or neutral comments. Some of the sellers even have similar policies written into their eBay shop terms and conditions.

As a result of this programme, some sellers have been banned from selling on eBay, as this clearly undermines the confidence users have in the feedback system, and therefore eBay itself.

High Definition DVD War: Good for Consumers in the Long Run?

To get the best out of your high definition TV you'll quite possibly want to invest in a next generation DVD format, but the manufacturers' unfortunately for us (the consumer) couldn't agree on a single disk format, so we are currently watching the HD-DVD and Blu-ray camps fight it out.

The consumer doesn't really care what format wins, all the consumer cares about is being able to watch high definition content. What makes matters worse is that the film studios are not releasing their movies on both formats. So no matter which one you choose, you'll only be able to get a selection of the current movies available. That is unless you purchase an expensive dual format HD-DVD and Blu-ray player.

The possible outcomes of this battle are:

  1. HD-DVD wins, we throw out our existing Blu-ray players and buy HD-DVD, but continue to pay for Blu-ray when we buy a Playstation 3.
  2. Blu-ray wins, we throw out our existing HD-DVD players and buy Blu-ray.
  3. Neither win, we all have to buy dual format machines.

One Good Outcome of the High-Def DVD Battle For Consumers

One point that Oliver Van Wynendaele, a manager at Toshiba made on a recent episode of BBC Click, is that the next-gen DVD war is causes the prices of players to drop far quicker than the cost of current standard definition DVD players did when they were first released.

"Last year we launched our product at 600 euros (£428), I knew the price would go down within a year but I didn't expect it to be so fast."
"We are half the price of where we were one year ago. The DVD took three years to cut the price in half," ~ Oliver Van Wynendaele, Toshiba

BBC Panorama programme 'Wi-Fi: A Health Warning' was unfair

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have said that a Panorama television programme they aired back in May 2007 concerning the possible health effects of WiFi, or wireless internet was unfair, and that it was presented in such a way that it was deemed by some viewers as misleading and in some cases pure scaremongering.
The episode followed a call by the Health Protection Agency pressing for a formal investigation back in April 2007.

If you missed it you can watch the programme here, Wi-Fi: a warning signal. Due to the amount of complains sent in by viewers of the programme the BBC interviewed the journalist behind the controversial programme on NewsWatch below.

UK Reg Encourage Users to Buy Domains for 10 years Citing Google Patent

UK Reg, a domain registrar in the United Kingdom is using text written in one of Google's patent applications to help sell 10 year domain name registrations!
I was quite surprised to see a marketing technique used to sell a search engine marketing benefit.

Here's a screenshot from the site below:

UK Reg - Secure your domain
Clicking on the "Google patent application" link produces a pop-up which quotes the following sentence from the patent application Google made, with a link to the application in full:

"Certain signals may be used to distinguish between illegitimate and legitimate domains. For example, domains can be renewed up to a period of 10 years. Valuable (legitimate) domains are often paid for several years in advance, while doorway (illegitimate) domains rarely are used for more than a year. Therefore, the date when a domain expires in the future can be used as a factor in predicting the legitimacy of a domain and, thus, the documents associated therewith."

Google Paid Link Policing and other more Democratic Ranking Methods

Google's Webmaster Help Center explains Google's policy on paid links and encourages people to report them to Google. Here's a snippet from Google's statement:

"Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results.

Not all paid links violate our guidelines. Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results. Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such."

Google essentially want websites to designate paid links with rel="nofollow" anchor tags, so link juice or PageRank is not passed on to the website who bought the link. The use of rel="nofollow" anchor tag was originally conceived to stop comment SPAM on blogs and discussion boards, but its use has now spread to the policing of paid links.

I understand the difficulties Google and the other search engines must have in determining when to pass link juice between websites, but leaving the webmaster in control of this is like asking Google to start ranking sites by meta keywords again.

I'm beginning to believe the future of web search lies in the democratic nature of the StumbleUpon, Digg and other social bookmarking methods like ( and my favourite ma.gnolia), whereby users vote, tag and bookmark sites. Surely a combination of popularity and search algorithm is the way forward?

Updated: Shortly after I posted this blog entry, Google has been spotted testing Digg-style voting buttons on their results pages!

Updated: Matt Cutts and Maile Ohye posted on The Official Google Webmaster Central blog on 1 Dec 2007 a post that intends to clarify Google's stance on paid links.

Choosing a Flat-Screen TV: Built-in TV Tuners

Continuing my series of posts about choosing a High Definition TV (HDTV), I read an article today that could potentially make some people put off making an HDTV purchase for the time being.

In the UK there are 4 ways to get TV (excluding via broadband):

  1. Terrestrial
  2. Freeview (Digital Terrestrial)
  3. Sky (Satelite)
  4. Virgin Media (Cable)

Currently only Sky and Virgin Media have HD channels that allow you to enjoy television broadcasts that exploit a High Def TV. Both services require you to have special HD set-top boxes to receive these broadcasts, you also get charged more than the standard definition (SD) package cost for the privilege.

Terrestrial analogue signals are gradually being phased out between (2007-2012) to clear up the spectrum for HD over Freeview. Ofcom published a news release on 21 November 2007 detailing the Freeview upgrade.

Built-in Tuners

Now back to choosing an HDTV. It is becoming more common for HDTVs in the UK to come with built-in Freeview tuners. This means you don't need an external set-top box top get Freeview broadcasts, this is good since analogue terrestrial tuners won't be much use to us for too much longer. The problem is that HD Freeview will require a set-top box upgrade, it also uses a more advanced coding standard which isn't compatible with the current coding standard.

So unless current HDTV built-in tuners can be upgraded via a firmware upgrade at a later date, then you'll be needing to add an HD Freeview set-top box to your set-up when they become available.

Here's the paragraph from the Ofcom new release:

"Viewers who wanted to access the new services on offer would need to buy a new DTT set-top box or integrated television, which was compatible with MPEG4 and DVB-T2."

"However, viewers with existing DTT set-top boxes or integrated televisions would still be able to access Freeview services with their current equipment."

Choosing a Flat-Screen TV: Screen Size

It's coming up to Christmas time again, and lots of people are thinking of splashing out on a new flat screen TV. Prices are becoming cheaper all the time which is a good thing, but the sheer range available can make it a daunting task. Even though prices are falling each month, deciding which make, model and size is one thing, but what about resolution, high-definition (HD) readiness, connections, built-in tuners, plasma or LCD etc?

I'm going to start by finding the most suitable screen size.

What HDTV Screen Size Should I Buy?

Choosing a suitable screen size will depend on where the television will be going, and how far away from the screen you'll be sitting. Obviously for a home theatre set-up you'll be wanting a big screen, whereas for a bedroom or kitchen you'll want a smaller size.

You don't want to give yourself eyestrain, or be so close that you can see individual pixels on the screen, but on the other-hand you don't want to be so far away that you don't become immersed in the content. Luckily there are size charts available on the web that can help determine the appropriate size for different rooms and TV placements.