EZQuest Monsoon Firewire/USB Hard Disk Review

The EZQuest Monsoon is an excellent quality, compact, high performance disk drive. It comes preformatted for Mac OS 9 or X, but you can easily reformat it for Windows or Linux.

You can permanently attach the Monsoon hard drive to your computer for storing extra music, video, and photos. The Monsoon is also small enough that you can carry it with you so you can share your files with your friends. While its not as small as an iPod, this version I got is 320 GB, which holds 4 times more than the largest iPod. Accessing your files will also be much faster due to the high-performance 7200 RPM disk.

There are lots of hard drives out there, and only a few things which differentiate them. The main factors which should cause you to choose one over another are the included accessories, and the build quality (of course, price helps too).

The EZQuest comes with both USB and Firewire data cables. There is a plastic stand which you can use if you want to stand your drive vertically. They include a Quick Install Guide / product catalog. We have the hard disk itself, and the power brick. Finally, they include a quick instruction card for Windows users, which we’ll talk about in a bit.

This is a pretty complete set of attachments, and there isn’t anything else they could have reasonably provided. If you plan on using firewire, you’ll notice that there is a firewire pass-through port. This means that you can connect up more drives through this one. Suprisingly, not all external drives support this, and its a nice feature.

One thing you’ll notice is that the drive is heavy for its size. The case of the Monsoon is made out of aluminum, and is much better quality than the cheaper plastic cases sold by some of their competitors. Aluminum also transmits heat much better than plastic, which means that the Monsoon doesn’t need an active fan. Consequently, the Monsoon runs much quieter than a plastic drive with a fan.

Inside the Monsoon is a standard ATA hard drive. The one I received was a Hitachi Desk Star, but you may get a different one depending on what production run you get. Because it is a standard ATA disk, you can upgrade the drive in the future. Please note, however, that opening up the case will void your warranty.

An interesting thing about the EZQuest is that it comes formatted for Macintosh computers. Most disks come formatted for either Windows or Mac, and I think its a shame that they it that way. If you have a Windows PC, you’ll have to reformat the disk so that you can use it. This doesn’t take long, but Windows will only let you format it in a Windows-specific way. If you want to be able to use your Monsoon on any computer (Linux, Windows, or Mac), you’ll need to format it as Fat32. You can find instructions to do so for OS X, or Windows.

Overall, the EZQuest Monsoon drive is a compact, high performance drive. It has good build quality, runs quietly, and can work with any sort of personal computer. If you are looking for an external hard drive, this one should be on your short list.

There Are Some Things Money Can’t Buy: Innovation

Something too prevalent in the marketplace today is the complete lack of innovation which seems to plague some companies. On the one hand, you have companies like Apple and Nintendo which truly bring something new to the table; from product packaging to human-electronic interfaces. On the other hand, you have companies like Dell and Sony who just keep pushing out more of the same. Yet, the latter seem more likely to hold big press events and tout their “next big thing.” It seems as if they don’t even know that their products are “me too’s” instead of market leaders.

Keep in mind that there are some items for which a large number of similar products is okay. A perfect example is in USB flash storage. There are dozens of products available, and they’re all basically the same — about the same size, the same range of storage, roughly the same speed, and even the same price, give or take. Just about the only thing you can really choose with a USB flash drive today is the color. This sort of market is generally known as a “commodity.” If you think about it, you can buy [and sell] USB flash storage about as easily as you can buy and sell just about anything. The individual products are completely interchangeable (and undifferentiated).

Then there are near-commodity products. These are items which are commodities, but don’t necessarily have to be. The only thing preventing one product from “breaking out” of the pack is a lack of innovation. Look at USB hard drives. They’re nearly identical, except for capacity. One brand is as good as another. But what if one company decided to put a headphone jack on theirs, and let you listen to any MP3’s you had stored without needing a computer? What if one came with bluetooth support, or wi-fi? For an extra $30 or so, that would be a pretty cool product, and I’d be likely to buy it instead of a “plain” one. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be many companies who make USB hard drives with any imagination. I’m not sure what their executive management meetings are like — probably something along the lines of “Hey, these things seem to sell well, let’s sell some.”

There will always be commodity items, and near-commodity items, and that’s a good thing. Its what drives prices down. But let’s talk about the breakaway hits. Like, say, the Apple iPod. The iPod is really good for a bunch of reasons. It plays your existing music and movies. It provides a store where you can buy movies, music, and tv shows easily. You don’t feel like the iTunes store is trying to trick you or deceive you in any way — if you buy something there, you can watch/listen to it on your devices. The iPod itself is nice — good quality, small, and light.

There are certainly a lot of other personal music players out there, but the iPod sells better than its competitors because it is a better product — it was the definition of innovation when it was first released, and it continued to add new features as it went along (like video). Now, along comes Microsoft looking to compete with the iPod. So, they decide to develop a product now known as the Zune. Up until its launch, Steve Balmer has touted the Zune as an iPod-killer. In other words, “better than an iPod.” In fact, Matt Jubelirer , the Microsoft project lead for Zune development, talked at length about how innovative the Zune was. Microsoft spend millions upon millions of dollars in advertizing, got retail stores to feature it, and raved about their online store, and how the face of personal music players will be changed forever.

Then the Zune was released. Without making any judgments on how good the Zune is or whether you should get one, it only had one feature that was new: wi-fi support. OK, that sounds innovative. I can imagine lots of cool things I might be able to do with my music player over wifi! Yet, the only thing you can actually do is share a “preview” of your music files to people in the area, which expires after 3 days or 3 plays. And, even though the Zune sports this single, although crippled innovation, there are a multitude of things which it doesn’t do, many of which even “me too” music players can: It won’t play your existing music, even if you bought it from Microsoft (!). It won’t let you subscribe to podcasts. It attaches DRM to your existing music. It’s bigger and heavier than most compareable music players. They have an online store which is difficult and confusing to use, with DRM rules which are not straightforward, and leave the user with the clear impression that they do not control the items they buy.

The strange part? After the Zune was released, Microsoft’s tune suddenly changed. Instead of touting how revolutionary and outstanding their new product was, Bill Gates was calling it a “modest competitor” to the iPod. So, did management really have no idea that their product wasn’t really anything special? Most probably, of course they did, but they were hoping that if they pushed it hard enough, they would be able to sell anyway. And probably, it did sell better than it would have if they didn’t push it so hard. However, the thing that really starts hurting the manufacturer is that the next time they release a product (like, Zune 2.0), no one is going to pay attention to their marketing, even if it really can do what it advertises.

Even though Microsoft seems to be aware of the problem, at least in theory, it hasn’t stopped them from releasing a long line of unremarkable products (any version of office or Windows, or the MSN search site, for example). So, why do things like this happen? Why do companies release “me too” products, when they themselves want to bring innovation as much (or probably more) than consumers want them to?

The real answer, of course, is complicated. Internal politics (Manager A wants Wi-Fi, but Manager B doesn’t. The compromise — Wi-fi goes in, but is limitted in scope). Counter-intuitive interests from business partners (Warner Music/RIAA, anyone?). Adversity to taking risks (“what if they don’t like it?”). Senior management who doesn’t understand the product or the target audience (cough, Steve Balmer).

The reality is that there are all some of the ungainly aspects of how big companies work — including at the “innovative” companies like Apple and Nintendo. The successful ones, however, are able to move past these issues, and focus on the one thing that differentiates them from their competition: What is it that the consumers want?

Mac Mini (core duo): 6 Month Review

I’ve been running the Mac Mini for more than 6 months now. Its time to check in for a 6-month review of all the quirks and perks.

This is the Intel Core Duo 1.6Ghz Mac mini. This is the latest Mac Mini available as of today. The product line can be a little confusing — be careful about which reviews you read, as earlier Mac Mini’s were based on the PowerPC chip, and later on single-core Intel chips. The current line is significantly faster than those earlier models.

Some other improvements from earlier versions are that it now has 4 hi-speed usb 2.0 ports, in addition to a Firewire 400 port for connecting additional devices. Since you can’t really upgrade this computer, you’ll use these ports to connect any addon devices. While there are plenty of ports, I am a little disappointed that the Mini does not yet include a Firewire 800 port, or an external SATA II port. Since the first thing people will add is an external disk, the faster interfaces would have been a nice addition. Still, for the Mini’s target audience, the supplied firewire and USB ports are completely sufficient.

While I would consider myself a “power user,” I’m using 3 external hard drives, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and an Elgato EyeTV Hybrid to watch HD TV. I use the external drives mostly for DVR video storage and music. I have a single 500GB drive (on Firewire), and 2 250 GB drives on USB set up as a RAID Stripe using OS X’s built-in software RAID. I was a little bit skeptical about using software RAID over USB, but it works flawlessly. Moving the drives to different USB sockets doesn’t affect the RAID. Another interesting drive tidbit is that the Firewire port is much faster than USB for disks. If you have a choice, use that.

So, what has it been like using a Mac? One thing I found surprising coming from the PC world is that most of those apple ads are actually true – most things “just work.” Its something that you can hear, but not really appreciate until you try it. For example, menus and configuration choices for almost all programs are a lot simpler than they are on the PC. It isn’t that they are less capable, its just that things don’t need to be tweaked as much as they do in most PC applications. It’s definitely been a pleasure to use, and I’m looking forward to when I have to replace my next laptop – it’ll probably
be with a Mac.

While this was the main reason I bought it, I was happy to find that the Mac Mini makes a perfect Home-Theater PC. One reason is that it can attach to a lot of different outputs. With a small adapter, it can use VGA, DVI, svideo, or RCA, although it only supports one output at a time. No matter which inputs you have free on your TV, you’ll be able to connect your Mac Mini to it.

Another great aspect of the Mac Mini is that it’s extremely small. That’s probably why they call it “Mini” :). For example, it’s only marginally bigger than my external hard drives. It’s even smaller (although slightly taller) than just about any laptop, and easily fits into a component shelf in your TV stand. It can also be mounted behind your TV, and there are companies which sell brackets to do so. The Mini is also virtually silent, an important aspect of a device going into your entertainment cabinet. If you put your ear to it, you can just barely hear the fan. I’ve never been able to hear it from the couch, even with the TV off.

The final touch for the home theater PC case is the software: Apple Front Row. This application is driven by a remote which comes with your Mini. The remote is attractive, in classic Apple fashion, and quite useful. Using Front Row, you can browse everything in your iTunes collection right from your couch – including Music and Videos. If you have an Ipod, this’ll be very familiar to you, as they’re almost identical.

The Mini has lots of other software too. You can download a free office suite called “Neo Office,” which is a version of Open Office adapted to run on the Mac. If you haven’t tried Open Office or Neo Office yet, you absolutely should. It is basically a free clone of Microsoft Office. It provides almost the same exact functionality as Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint but is completely free.

For web browsing, there is Apple’s native browser called Safari, or of course, you can download Firefox. The Mini also comes with Apple’s creative suite called iLife, which has applications for making movies, DVD’s, cartoons, and music recordings. iLife is what I use, for example, to make my video reviews.

About the only thing that the Mini doesn’t do so well is play the latest PC games. First of all, most games will only run on Microsoft Windows anyway. However, one of the ways they got the Mini to be so small is by skimping on the graphics hardware. It’s plenty fast for HD video editing, but it’s terrible at any kind of 3d game.

Overall, I’ve found the Mac Mini to be an exciting introduction to Apple’s computer products. If you’re still not convinced you might be glad to know that you can install either Windows or Linux on the Mini. After using it for a few days, however, you’ll probably find that you have no reason to.

Fighting Spyware for the Average Man

I’m planning a trip to visit my friends for a holiday party. They have a computer which always gets infested so badly with spyware that it takes 10 minutes or more to boot up and is virtually unusable. I’ve reloaded Windows on it twice for them so far, but whatever they’re doing that gets it infected, they can’t seem to stop. So, I’m taking a new tactic.

Although I am a huge Linux fan myself, I hadn’t thought it was really ready for the average person until recently. So, here’s the experiment: install Ubuntu Linux 6.10 on their computer as a dual-boot solution, and see how it goes. My friends are a perfect test case: they know how to use a computer but aren’t programmers or system admins. I think that Linux will work just fine for them, and solve all their spyware and “slow computer” problems.

If you’ve never tried Linux, or haven’t in a while, now is a good time to. I recommend Ubuntu specifically — It’s great for both beginners and experienced Linux users. It has very cool eye-candy (if you computer is new enough), a simple user interface, and a helpful user community. You can find videos of the installation online if you’re worried about what to expect. Also, a big benefit is that you can run Linux withough even installing it, or alternatively, you can install it so that when your computer boots you can choose whether to go into Windows or Linux (which is how I’ll set it up for my friends).

Today, Linux can do just about everything Windows can … the question is whether it can do it simply enough to not cause trouble for the average Windows user. That’s what I’ll find out after this weekend. :)

Oh no! Microsoft does it again!

In an unbelievable response to my post yesterday, Microsoft warned this morning that they have an even more serious problem with Microsoft Word. Apparently, simply opening any word document in any Microsoft product capable of opening word documents is enough for you to get a virus.

Their solution: “exercise extreme caution when opening unsolicited attachments from both known and unknown sources.”