Category Archives: Reviews

VOX External Hard Drive (v1)

The VOX External Hard Drive (v1) is a solid is a great and near-silent external hard drive for almost any purpose. Like other external hard drives, it will work with all the major operating systems: Linux, OS X, Windows XP, and Windows Vista without any problems. It comes pre-formatted as a single NTFS partition. The model I got was a 750 GB drive, and had 698.64 GB available, and of course you can reformat it using whatever filesystem is convenient to you. Nowadays, there are generally no problems reading and writing from an NTFS drive from OS X or Linux, so you may find no reason to do so. In fact, there’s a lot to like about this drive, and the only real problem I found was that there isn’t a clear model name to refer to it, and “VOX External Hard Drive v1 USB 2.0 & SATA” is a mouthful, so I’ll be referring to it as the “V1” throughout this review.

First, there are currently two types of external hard drives in the market today. The first kind use laptop hard drives, which offer less storage and slower performance, but are physically small, light, and silent. The second type, which the V1 belongs to, use desktop hard drives. These offer much larger capacity and much higher performance than the first kind, but the tradeoff is that they are physically larger, usually more noisy, and require an external power plug in addition to a USB connection. The VOX V1 however bucks this generality. It is smaller than other external desktop drives (you can see a comparison picture in the photos), and also runs nearly silent. This is partially because the VOX V1 is a sealed case. There is no fan for airflow, and heat is dissipated through the walls of the enclosure. While I wouldn’t recommend putting the V1 in a desk drawer, this does mean that you generally don’t need to worry about available airflow where you place it as much as you would have to with a different brand.

The external hard drive market is very crowded, and vendors have to try to differentiate themselves from the competition. While the V1 supports all the standard things you would expect from a modern external enclosure, including an SATA connector, VOX also supplies a Windows-only backup software package. This software installs on Windows XP or Vista and allows you to push the (only) button on the V1 to initiate a system backup. This is a nice feature, and one really shouldn’t mind that this software is Windows-only as OS X has Time Machine, which is just about the best backup software for home computers in existence. Linux users are unfortunately left to find their own software solution for backups, although there are several solutions available for free.

As mentioned earlier, the VOX V1 includes both USB and E-SATA connectors. It’s nice to see the E-SATA connector as USB2 can’t supply data as fast as the drive can. Unfortunately, E-SATA was a standard that never really took off. It would have been better to include a newer SATA2 connector. Having said that, for whatever reason most modern laptops and desktops do not include external E-SATA or SATA2 ports, so either way you either need to purcahase an adapter card, or simply wait for the standard to catch on. What would have been really exciting was if the V1 included a Firewire 800 port, as those are much more common (especially on laptops) that any sort of SATA port. Regardless, this isn’t a problem just with the VOX V1, but with most external hard drives today. The takeaway here is that it is probably worth the investment for you to purchase an external SATA card rather than rely on the USB connection.

One additional comment is that, while the drive does come with a complete set of E-SATA, USB, and power cables, the included cables are on the short side. Even the power cable, which is typically the logest of the bunch, was under 6 feet long, including the power brick. This makes it a little annoying when using the V1 with a laptop, as you may not be that close to a socket (if the cord is 6 feet you need to be within 4 feet or less of the socket).

Another small note is that the manual said it was supposed to come with a screw driver and screw set, which mine didn’t. However, as there’s no reason to open the case, I don’t see why you would need one anyway. The only reason I mention it is because the manual said it should. Probably, they should just change the manual to not say that.

The above are relatively minor complaints however, and overall the V1 is a pleasure to work with. It is by far the quietest of the 7 other external drives I use, and 750GB of capacity provides a lot of space to use. The fact that it is more compact than my other drives is good (although it is a little bit taller), and the E-SATA port means that the drive will probably last me until my next computer. In fact, in several years or whenever it has reached the end of its lifetime, I’ll probably be able to upgrade the disk inside of it and re-use the case, which is a good thing.

Overall, the VOX External Hard Drive V1 USB 2.0 & SATA has a silly (but descriptive) name. More importantly, it does exactly what it says it does by providing a compact, quiet, and high performing external hard drive. The build quality is excellent, and I look forward to using the V1 for a long time to come.

Mozy ing along …

About a month ago, I started using Mozy, an online backup service which was endorsed by several respectable publications, including the Wall Street Journal. I immediately ran into problems. After posting about those on my blog, Mozy representatives contacted me and helped to resolve them. Please read that previous post for a background on my experiences with Mozy so far. The current question is, however, now that all those issues have been resolved, how has Mozy been over the past 45 days?

The answer, unfortunately, is not good.

I’ll preface this by saying that I would really like for Mozy to be a great service. I think that they certainly have the potential to be a significant player in the backup market, especially for home and small office users. Also, their ownership by EMC should provide them with a lot of internal leverage to build out a very solid technical infrastructure.

Despite having developed an almost-perfect local client, a very simple to use interface, and a phenomenal price, Mozy has completely goofed their execution. There are a few components to this, but the end result is that Mozy becomes completely useless as a backup solution for any customers who have an actual need for one.

One issue, a relatively minor one, is that they lead you to believe that their client can automatically back up your computer. Now I can only speak for the Mac client, as my Mozy account is a tied to my Mac. Their client installs seamlessly, and puts a little icon in the menu bar. So far, so good. It even goes ahead and starts to back up your computer. Unfortunately, the client can’t be trusted to actually do an unattended backup. If the client runs into any sort of problem, it just stops, and pops up an error box. And it won’t retry the backup until you click ok! This might not seem like a big deal at first, but now consider that it might take weeks or months to make a backup (more on that later). If you go away on a Friday night, and there is an error, Mozy will just sit and do nothing all weekend until you get back and click ‘ok.’

This is a relatively benign issue, and clearly the Mozy developers can easily fix it with a software update, so I wouldn’t use this as a reason not to use Mozy. The next two issues are a bit more serious, however. Let’s tackle the most obvious one: Mozy doesn’t have sufficient bandwidth.

I have Verizon FIOS, with a 10 mbit upload speed. I’ve tested this at various places around the Internet, and I know that I can upload to anywhere that can handle it at the full speed. The Mozy client, however, *averages* about 35k/s uploading to the Mozy servers. This is fairly ridiculous. I have been trying to make a *single* backup since purchasing the service. That was around 45 days ago. In 45 days, Mozy has backed up 200 out of 450 GB. At this rate, it will take me more than 1/4 of a *year* just to make a single backup. While you may have more or less data to back up, this is not an acceptable rate.

And finally, the other big issue with Mozy is that they have no support infrastructure whatsoever. When I contacted them prior to my last blog post, I used their online chat support on their web site several times, speaking with several different technicians (who I then exchanged emails with). I later exchanged emails with their Support Operations Manager.

The interesting thing is that none of these people knew that I was speaking with the others. There was no internal ticketing or CRM system which let them track my issue. Each person I was speaking with tracked my issue separately (or forgot to, as the case may be, and didn’t follow up). Additionally, although I was told Mozy was looking into it, Mozy doesn’t communicate with their customers over Known Issues, or service outages, or anything of that nature. There are no user forums on their web site so that you can ping the community knowledge base. As I’ve said in my previous post, this lack of communication flow from Mozy is unacceptable in a backup company.

I purchased a 1-year subscription to Mozy, thinking that at the price they were offering, how could I go wrong? While I am stuck with my never-ending backup for the next 10 months, I recommend you look elsewhere. I have no knowledge how the other online-backup solutions are, but at this rate your money would be better spend on a USB harddrive.

Mozy, backup-and-forget. Or, Forget-to-backup? (updated)

When it comes to my personal computer, I’m like Robin Harris — I believe in making as many copies of my data as I can, as often as I can.

Why? I’m 29 now. I have files on my hard drive that include BASIC software I wrote when I was 13, short stories I wrote when I was in high school, and projects I worked on in college. I’ve got an iTunes library that took 10 years to build, and gigs upon gigs of photographs of me and my wife. If my house were to burn down today, my biggest loss would be my hard drive, because it is literally irreplaceable.

And so while I started using Apple’s Time Machine recently to keep local backups, I was looking for a second way to do it — preferably one that is off-site and automatic, so I don’t need to worry about it. Essentially, something like Mozy.

Mozy is an online service which provides backups for your home computer. There are plenty of reviews (both good and bad, as well as indifferent) which describe Mozy’s pros and cons, so I won’t go into super detail on that. Basically, there is a little program that runs in the background and backs up your files every now and then to their servers. If you need to restore a file, you can do it through their web site or else through the program you download.

This is a great service for me, because I can count on Apple Time Machine to provide most of my backup needs (like, “oops, accidentally deleted a file”), while Mozy provides a second layer of protection (like “oops, my baby nephew tried to make all my USB drives bounce on the floor”).

The cost also makes a lot of sense for me. For $60/year, I get unlimited backups. Since I am looking to back up around 500 GB of stuff, this is cheaper than purchasing a new hard drive, like I need to do for Time Machine.

So, about 2 weeks ago, after giving all this thought to signing up for Mozy, I decided to go for it. And quickly ran into my first problem. After paying them through their web site, I found out that the Mac client isn’t available! The weird thing is that it was still listed on their site as a download … which just went to an error 404 page. After contacting tech support, I was told that “this is a known issue, and it should be available again shortly.” There was no message of any kind on their web site. Nevertheless, I tried again the next day, and was able to download the client.

At this point, I was a bit on edge. Not because they took the Mac client offline, but because they made no attempt to notify their clients! Backup companies should have a full-disclosure policy. If I am counting on them to keep my files safe, I need to know if there is a problem. What happens if they simply don’t mention that they lost my latest backup, and I decide to wipe my computer and restore it from them at that time? This is obviously unacceptable.

However, if that were the only issue I ran into, it would have been OK. After all, the Mac client was marked as “beta,” and I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that this was a one-time oversight.

So, I used the downloaded client to start creating a backup. I should note that creating a 500 GB backup takes quite some time, even over Verizon FIOS. Mozy seems to limit their incoming bandwidth to around 100 KB/s, at least for my client. I know from other things that my connection is capable of at least 10 times that.

About 40 GB into the backup (about two days), the Mozy client gave me an error. It said “ServerError11.” Not very descriptive, so I looked at the log file, which said “Server Error. Disconnecting.” Also not very descriptive. Despite multiple reboots and retries at this point, I could no longer get the Mozy client to continue its backup.

I contacted tech support again, and told them the problem. They said that there was probably a “lock” on my account, and they would have it cleared within 24 hours. They didn’t tell me what a “lock meant.” 24 hours later, it still wasn’t working. This was on a Thursday. I gave them the weekend, and contacted them again on Tuesday. Again, I was told the same thing, and that they must escalate the issue to a developer, and it would be cleared within 24 hours. OK. Again, 24 hours go by, and the issue hadn’t gone away. I contacted tech support a fourth time. When I mentioned that I had been told twice that it would be fixed within 24 hours, the guy told me “there are other people with the same problem, and they haven’t been helped yet.” Ouch.

So, what’s the conclusion here? It has now been more than a week since I haven’t been able to back up. In fact, since signing on to Mozy I have not been able to complete a single complete backup. The staff seems unable to resolve any problems in a timely fashion. What’s much more important than even those issues, however, is that Mozy seems unable or unwilling to freely communicate with its customers.

Mozy, I understand that you may be going through some growing pains with all the press coverage you’ve gotten lately. That’s OK. But, as a backup company, your name and reputation DEPEND on being reliable. Reliable doesn’t mean you don’t ever have operating issues. What it does mean is that you disclose those issues when you do, so that people who rely on you can adjust their plans and expectations accordingly.

Until the issue of communication with customers is resolved, I would need to recommend for people that they steer clear of Mozy. You wouldn’t want to rely on a backup company which may or may not be functioning as advertised, and which you can’t trust to even tell you which is the case.

If someone from Mozy wants to contact me, and address this issue, I would be happy to update this blog post. Given their track history so far (when I was chasing them for info), I’m not holding my breath.

* Update *
Within hours, I was contacted by David Dreyer, Support Operations Manager at Mozy. David is working to resolve my issue, and says that there is a general Mozy software update coming this weekend which should resolve similar issues for other users. David was very aggressive in addressing this problem, and that of notification I mentioned above. Sometimes it’s nice to be proven wrong :) I’ll have another update once my problems have been resolved.

Read on for the 45-day update.

Kodak EasyShare 5500 Review

Out of the Box Impressions and Experience

Overview

The Kodak EasyShare all-in-one printer is aimed at the Small or Home Office user, or those people who need to do a little bit more than average. As far as your paper-related needs go, this device can handle just about anything — printing (double-sided), scanning (up to 600 dpi), copying, faxing (complete with phone book), and photo printing.

Most of these things it can even do without a computer attached. Moreover, it features some advanced on board software, with an interactive LCD panel, which allows you to tweak the settings. This means that you can do things like set the print quality, zoom, number of copies, or even the duplex settings of a copy job without even using a computer at all. Frankly, this device is probably worth it just for those features alone, and the fact that it can also act as a printer is just a bonus.

There only technical problem with the 5500 is that while it does have a scanner/copier document feeder, the document feeder can only scan one side of a piece of paper. So, while you can print out documents in duplex, you can’t scan them back in without some manual intervention.

I also would have liked to see a network port on the back in addition to a USB port. This would allow you to put the printer further away from your computer, and also make it easier to share with all the computers in our house or office. With all the features that the 5500 provides, you won’t be the only one wanting to use it if there are any other computer users on your network.

img_0162.JPG

Unboxing

The trade off for all these features is that the EasyShare 5500 is a reasonably large device. This is probably not something you want to stick next to your monitor, unless you have one of the larger desks out there. You also won’t be able to put it on most shelves in a bookcase or desk, as it is pretty deep. The paper feeder for the multi-page copier/scanner, while an excellent feature, means that the top of the printer is delicate, and you won’t want it to be anywhere that things can fall on it (like some messy home offices I’ve seen).

Also, out of the box, the 5500 is one of the most intimidating printer’s I’ve had to set up, with lots and lots of tape to remove from delicate parts, and some reasonably forceful installation of the printer head marked “DELICATE” all over. However, Kodak does provide a nice and easy 9-step “getting started” guide. While the pictures make it very straightforward, you don’t even get to the software until step 9.

The Printer Experience

When first powering on, the 5500 lets you choose a language for its on-screen menu, and goes through a calibration routine. This involves it printing out a photograph, and then scanning it back in to check its work. This is much better than single-purpose printers, for which you have to manually correct the heads.

Another interesting note is that this printer didn’t come with a USB cable in order to connect it to a computer. This was a pretty glaring omission, as they couldn’t include an inexpensive cable on a several hundred dollar product.

The computer-less operation is really a breeze. You can print or scan items to a built-in compact-flash or SD-card slot, utilize the Fax or photocopy features without missing a beat. You can also connect your digital camera to one of two USB ports on the front.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to like the 2 GB SD-card I tried with it. It seemed to hang on “Reading. Please wait…” whenever I inserted it.

The OS Experience

Windows XP


I’m generally not a big fan of vendor-supplied software. I personally think that they tend to be quite bloated, and every vendor seems to want to load up their software in the System Tray.

So, I plugged the printer in without installing the provided CD. I let Windows check the “Software Update” site for the driver, and it found it and installed without problems. It shows up as 3 devices in Windows XP: A still camera, a scanner, and a printer.

Printing worked totally fine on the first try. One interesting thing to note, though, is that the printer will try to print on photo paper if the photo paper tray is pushed in — regardless of what you are trying to print. To print on 8 1/2 x 11, just pull out the photo tray.

Printing double-sided is a wonderful feature on a printer, and its entertaining to watch the printer spit out a completed page, only to suck it back in so that it can print the reverse side.

Although Kodak claims that the 5500 can get up to 32 pages per minute in black-and-white, I found that using the default settings (medium quality, “normal” ink drying time, double-sided pages), it was more like 6 or possibly 8. Even at “medium” print quality, however, the 5500 did an excellent job. I was unable to see any pixels or artifacts in printed Word document fonts with the naked eye. Ink Jet printers have come a long way — the quality of the 5500 easily rivals laser printers, and the ink was completely dry by the time it finished — no smudges.

Linux

Unfortunately, the Linux experience with the Kodak EasyShare 5500 was not as smooth. I tried it on a fully updated Ubuntu 7.04. Linux only recognized a digital camera, with no photos on it it import. It did not recognize it as either a scanner or a printer.

screenshot-no-devices-available.png

This wasn’t an auspicious start, and frankly, I haven’t run into a product which isn’t supported on Linux this blatantly in nearly 10 years. After some Internet searching though, it looks like Kodak just couldn’t care less about Linux support. Shame on them.

Mac OS


On the Mac, iPhoto comes up as soon as the 5500 is plugged in. That “digital camera” USB profile is pretty annoying, as each OS thinks there is actually a camera hooked up. I’m not sure what value it adds.

Although the Mac does recognize the printer from the print-menu, it doesn’t have a driver for the 5500 specifically. Installing the supplied Kodak CD will allow you to print and scan using Mac OS X.

For Home / Home Office


For personal use, there really isn’t much Kodak could have done to improve this printer. Especially in the home, the 5500 really can do everything you could possibly want from a printer, copier, or fax machine. The print quality is superb. Although I wasn’t able to confirm it, Kodak claims that this printer only uses half the ink of its competitors, driving down the cost per page. Whether that’s the case or not, the EasyShare 5500 will most definitely suite your needs, as long as you don’t use Linux.

For Small Office / Business


The 5500 is easily at the top of its class for a home printer. However, when looking at business printers for a small office (of more than 1 individual) it would have been nice if it had included a network port, so that it could easily be shared between workers (which the name “EasyShare” would seem to implicate). Unfortunately, with only a USB connector, the printer must be dedicated to one computer. Although Windows software can be used to share it on the network, this means that if the computer is shut down, no one else will be able to print. Further, the fact that this device isn’t supported under Linux means that you won’t be able to use a cheap Linux computer as a dedicated print server.

However, for the price of the all-in-one 5500, you could only get a very basic networked printer, without most of the color and scanning capabilities. Ultimately, if the issues related to sharing and Linux don’t dramatically affect your office environment, the Kodak EasyShare 5500 is the printer to get.

Photos


img_0158.JPG
img_0163.JPGimg_0164.JPGimg_0165.JPG

How Does iPhone Compare to Blackberry?

Along with 500,000 other consumers in the United States, I went out and bought myself an iPhone this past weekend. While by far this is the best phone, iPod, and mobile Internet Browser I’ve ever used (just like Steve Jobs said), there are plenty of reviews on the web which can tell you all about that.

What I am more interested in, is “Can I use it to replace my Blackberry?”

The main things I’m looking for is this:
1. Able to connect to Exchange
2. Push Email
3. Filtering which email folders I see from the phone
4. New emails in any folder appear on the main phone screen
5. Connecting to the corporate address book
6. Calendar Syncing

Before I start to describe my experience, I’d like to point out that this is based on the iPhone’s “1.0” software. Apple has indicated that it will be improving its software over time. As all the limitations I mention here can be resolved by a software update, I would hope that Apple will be able to address these issues quickly, which would have a huge impact on my conclusions.

Connect to Exchange

Let’s dispel a few common myths. The iPhone can connect to Microsoft Exchange at your company. However, a lot of companies only enable the proprietary Microsoft protocol “active sync” for their Exchange servers, and don’t allow the industry standard “IMAPS” protocol. Many companies claim that this is for security reasons, but in actuality this is not true at all. IMAPS is secured through SSL just like an encrypted web page. The reality is that many corporate IT departments are too lazy to set up the IMAPS protocol, which allows both the iPhone as well as other email clients (such as Thunderbird) to connect to Exchange. My company does have IMAPS enabled, so the iPhone had no problems connecting in my case.

Push Email

Apple is currently supporting push email from some sources, such as GMail and Yahoo Mail. They do not support push email yet from Microsoft Exchange, although the rumor is that support for that may be coming in a future software update. If you don’t have push email, you can set the iPhone to check mail every 15, 30, or 60 minutes. It will also check for new mail every time you open the mail app.

Mail Folders

I think this is one of the biggest problems with the iPhone’s mail app, the the only real reason I can’t use it to replace my Blackberry. You can’t choose which mail folders show up in the iPhone from your IMAP mail account. Many people use Microsoft Outlook/Exchange at work, and use its “rules” system to automatically separate incoming emails into different organizational folders. While the iPhone can see all of these folders, only messages in the “INBOX” will trigger the iPhone to alert you of a new message. If you have Exchange set to automatically place new emails in a sub folder, the iPhone will not tell you about them.

Connecting to Corporate Address Book

The standard way of doing this is via an LDAP connection to Microsoft Exchange or other LDAP directory. While the iPhone can (and will) sync to your Outlook address book, it will not sync your company directory, and it will not let you look up names against the company directory like Windows Mobile and Blackberry will. This comes in very handy when writing emails to co-workers, or simply looking up their phone number to call them. This is an area where it would be a very useful feature for current Blackberry users to have, but it’s not strictly necessary in order to switch to the iPhone

*UPDATE*
Calander Syncing

I don’t use the calander on my phone so much, but based on some feedback to this post, here’s a bit more info on it. Currently, you can sync your iPhone calender on either Windows or Mac, but only when you have it plugged in to your computer. This is unlike email, which gets synced wirelessly. Also, this is unlike the Blackberry or Windows Mobile, both of which can sync your calendar via wireless.

Conclusion

I encourage you to read more about the iPhone from other sources. It really is an excellent phone. For business users who don’t need instant email, but can settle for every 15 minutes, and who don’t use Microsoft Exchanges “rules and filters,” switching to the iPhone will be painless. For heavier Blackberry users who rely on the company directory integration, or who work in a frontline support role where getting emails instantly is a must, you probably want to wait for at least a few software revisions in the iPhone before switching.

While the iPhone is a great device, it really is geared towards consumers at the moment, and business use has been sidelined. However, it wouldn’t take much for Apple to address the biggest issues business users face, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them all resolved by the end of the year.