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Tools Tile

The OS Quest Trail Log #76: What I Use – October 2012

It’s been 5 months since I last wrote about what I use. Now’s a good time to recap what I currently use since I expect some big changes between now and the year end. Not much has changed with the  iPad apps I use so I’ve updated th original article. Changes are mainly removing apps I no longer use. Likewise, there haven’t been any changes with what keeps this website running other than version upgrades to keep things current. Now it’s time to update the big list. What I use in the home.

Servers/NAS

I continue to be addicted to servers and hard drives. I actually reduced the number of spinning drives from 28 drives spinning 24 X 7 down to fourteen. This doesn’t include a couple SSDs in a NAS.

Windows Home Server 2011

My WHS 2011 has been a solid, steady performer so there haven’t been any changes. My main home server is HP MicroServer running Windows Home Server 2011 is at the center of my home network. It has four 3 TB drives for data (no RAID) and a 160GB drive for the OS. It has an AMD N36L processor with 8 GB of RAM. The only add-in I run is Cloudberry Backup for Windows Home Server 2011 to backup to Amazon S3 and locally. I also use CrashPlan for additional offsite backup.

Synology NAS

There’s been some changes here. I have a Synology 1511+ NAS with two expansion bays. There are fifteen 3 TB Seagate Barracuda ST3000DM001 drives. I’ve done some digital cleanup so one of these expansion bays is kept powered off to save electricity. This NAS is dedicated to various backup functions. My WHS 2011 box backs up to it via an iSCSI drive. It serves as a Time Machine backup destination for my Macs. I also backup this web server to it using Rsync. Finally, it syncs files with my other Synology NAS as a backup for them.

I added a Synology DS212+ NAS back in late May. This has two mirrored (technically Synology Hybrid RAID) 256GB SSD drives in it. This is used as a file sharing and application server. I have an encrypted file share for personal file storage. This is basically anything that isn’t media or old file archives. I also have Synology CloudStation set up on it for syncing files among my devices. PhotoStation is also running as this NAS is now my primary photo storage location. I’ve also just begun testing Audio Station on it.

I still have my original Synology NAS, a DS212J NAS which has been relegated to testing and experimentation.

Small Business Server 2011 Essentials Windows Storage Server

I’ve retired my Western Digital DX4000 which had been running SBS 2011e Windows Storage Server 2008 R2

Desktop & Laptop Computers

No hardware changes here, just a OS upgrade on the Mac side to Mountain Lion.

Mac OS X

Measured by the time I use it, my primary computer would be my mid-2011 MacBook Air with Core i7 processor and 4 GB RAM along with a 256 Gb SSD drive. It runs OS X 10.8 Lion.

My desk has a late 2009 Mac Mini with a 2.66 GHz Core Two Duo, 4 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard drive. It’s connected to a old 20” Apple Cinema Display. I use Synergy to share the mouse/keyboard that’s on my Windows 7 desktop PC. It runs OS X 10.8 Lion.

Windows 7

My home built desktop is a Windows 7 Pro PC with with a AMD Athlon II x6 1090T processor and 16 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD drive. There’s also a 160 GB Velociraptor drive along with two 7200 rpm 1 GB drives. The SSD and Velociraptor are the primary drives while the 1GB drives are used primarily for Virtual Machines. Data is kept on my Windows How Server. For graphics it has a Radeon HD 6870 video card connected to a Acer H213H 21.5” monitor. I’ve been planning a monitor upgrade but never pulled the trigger. With two monitors on my desk going bigger would cramp things on my desk (or require wall mounts or stands) and I use the laptop more these days.

Portable, Mobile & Media Devices

No changes here since May, so to recap…

My phone is a 64GB iPhone 4S on Verizon. I’ve been with Verizon as long as I can remember (my least objectionable telecom) and had an iPhone since there’s been one on Verizon. My iPhone is also my podcast and music player. I also have tethering on this phone.

I have an 64GB iPad 3rd Gen, also on Verizon. I only use the data plan a few months a year, such as when I’m on vacation or on extended business travels. Since tethering is currently free with the data plan I dropped my iPhone tethering for awhile to see if the iPad data was worth it. It wasn’t beneficial enough for me so I dropped the data plan and went back to iPhone tethering. I already covered the iPad apps I use.

I also have a Kindle Fire that’s mainly used for Video and short reading sessions. My Kindle Reader is used for longer, leisure reading sessions.

I have a LG BD670 Blu-ray player connected to my TV. It has built in wireless. I can view Amazon video using an app (bad, bad UI). There are other apps but I don’t use them. I can view video from my Windows Home Server over wireless or plug in a USB stick or drive.

The TV is a Vizio 42” TV that was inexpensive and works great. My only complaint is it’s annoying tendency to reboot when I’m watching something so it can apply a firmware update.

Home Network

Things have been stable since May, so again, no changes here.

My router is pfSense 2 running on an HP MicroServer. It’s reliable and I like it. This is connected to a HP ProCurve J9450A Gigabit switch. The switch supports link aggregation which I can use with my Synology 1511+ in addition to being a managed switch with a lot of features I’ll never need. It was the lowest cost Gigabit switch I found that did link aggregation and I’ve been happy with it’s performance.

For my wireless network I use a Netgear WNDR3700 router. I don’t use it as a router (since switching to pfSense), just a wireless access point. It’s dual band so I have a 2.4 GHz and a 5 GHz network set up. I use the 5 GHz network whenever possible since it’s less common and therefore has less interference from nearby apartments. I also have a D-Link DAP-1522 Wireless Bridge on my workbench so I can plug in non-wireless computers.

My ISP is Comcast. They’ve been reliable and performance is good. I’ve bumped against their data cap a few times thanks to backups but recent news has them finally re-evaluating the caps. It does seem that every time I actually have to talk to a person it causes a problem and an outage (new modem, moving, etc…) but luckily they’ve been reliable so I rarely have to talk to them.

Software

Since I run both OS X and Windows I gravitate to cross-platform apps and web apps. Back in May I was using Wakoopa to track my actual app usage, but that service has been shut down.

Productivity & Communication

I primarily use Google Apps for Domains for my email. I moved one account to Microsoft’s new Outlook.com. I no longer use Mailplane as my mail client, sticking to the web browser now that GAFD does a good job of handling multiple logons.

My primary browser is now Google Chrome. It’s back to being temperamental again so I’m spending more time back in Firefox. LastPass is still my choice to manage passwords and secure notes. I’ve been a LastPass user since the early days and subscribe to their premium service. LastPass works on all my browsers and iOS devices. I no longer use XMarks (or anything else) to sync bookmarks.

I make occasional use of Skype and I do use Twitter.

I moved from Office 2010 to the Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium Preview. I’ll probably subscribe when it goes to production although that depends on pricing.

Windows Live Mesh and Skydrive have been replaced by Synology CloudStation. Skydrive is still around but not used much. Dropbox is also used for those times it’s the only choice. Both my Skydrive and Dropbox accounts are the free subscriptions. I also have a Spideroak account (free subscription level) that I wanted to like for cloud storage but it had problems syncing OS X package files (Bento specifically) so I haven’t trusted it on the Mac side.

My finance/checkbook app has switched from YNAB to Money Dance after a terrible upgrade experience. Money Dance also runs on Windows and OS X.

Backup & Security Software and Services

I use Amazon S3 for critical files. I pay a bit more than I did in May, just under $7/mth now with over 60GB on S3. Amazon is one of the few services I trust to not lose my files. They’ve been doing it awhile and they’re truly “cloud”, with the files stored across multiple data centers.

Cloudberry and CrashPlan remain my backup solutions for Windows Home Server 2011. Cloudberry for local and critical files to Amazon S3 while CrashPlan is for bulk offsite backup.

For Mac backups I use Arq Backup which backs up to Amazon S3 using a Time Machine metaphor. It’s a well thought out, great piece of software. I don’t keep much data on my Macs so this is mainly for settings and when I travel with my latop. I also use Time Machine on my Macs with the Synology NAS as my destination.

I use Microsoft Security Essentials on my Windows PCs and nothing on my Macs. I use the NoScript add-in for Firefox and NotScripts for Chrome to limit what web pages can do. I also have a copy of MalwareBytes but that’s mainly because I’ve needed it for other PCs. For the most part I rely on safe computing habits rather than software for security.

Digital Media & Entertainment

I stopped using iTunes Match shortly after signing up in May due to sync and other issues. I hate iTunes as an application but like it as a music manager. These days I mainly purchase music through Amazon but will still buy through the iTunes Store and even a few albums on sale through Google Play. I don’t use any cloud service for music beyond Amazon and Google for the music I’ve bought from them.

Video is either from my own DVD library or Amazon Online Video. I’m a Prime member so have access to their Prime Video library. For online video I’m generally looking for “something to watch” rather than something specific and Amazon Prime works for this. I only have basic cable (the real basic cable with over the air channels only) so I do buy videos I want through Amazon. I recently re-subscribed to the Netflix DVD service to expand my options. All this is still cheaper than a cable subscription.

VLC Media Player is my player of choice for Windows and Mac. I use Slysoft AnyDVD  along with Handbrake to rip DVDs from my library and encode them for playing on my various devices. I use Slysoft CloneDVD to make backups of my DVDs. I only do this for DVDs I own. This makes them more convenient to watch and protects me when a DVD goes bad (which they frequently do, especially the two-sided ones). It also makes it easier to store them since they can go in boxes and be stored in a closet.

I still organize Photos using a folder structure but I now store them on my Synology DS212+ NAS and use PhotoStation. Other photo management software can still access them since they are just files. I did upgrade to Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 but I’m still trying to get the hang of it. Acorn is still my primary editor.

I’ve been using Aperture for new photos I’ve been taking, I use a reference library that points to the photos on the NAS,

Misc Apps

I use Sumatra PDF rather than Adobe’s Acrobat Reader. I also use Evernote for information capture and storage. I use Instapaper as my read later service and PinBoard as my bookmarking service.

I use LogMeIn for remote access. I have the paid account from my Windows Home Server and free counts everywhere else. I may not renew the paid account when it expires in June.

I use VirtualBox for virtual machines on Windows. I run several on my Windows 7 desktop. I use VMWare for virtual machines on my MacBook Air.

 

Handbrake icon graphic

The New Handbrake Rocks

Handbrake icon graphicI’ve been using Handbrake to encode video for a couple years and love it. The open source Handbrake works on Windows, OS X and Linux. I’ve always preferred and used the OS X version. It had been about a year without a new version of Handbrake but the drought was ended in November 2009 with the release of Handbrake 0.94.

I was a bit slow to upgrade since the old version was working fine for me. Finally I upgraded. I had an issue (it wouldn’t encode) and kept using the old version when needed. Finally I researched the problem and found the simple solution – just delete the old presets in the Library/Application Support/Handbrake folder.

At first I was bummed because I’d lose my settings. But I soon realized that those settings were useless anything. The changes in Handbrake were significant which made it worthwhile to retest and come up with some new settings. The built-in presets now centered around getting the best quality while maintaining device compatibility.

I did a bunch of testing and ended up using the “Normal” preset with a Minor change to maintain Apple TV compatibility. I still have the Apple TV and while I don’t use it as frequently as I used to, I still do use it and want the video to work with it. I added the parameter weightp=0 to the Normal profile to maintain Apple TV compatibility.

The big benefit is the smaller file size that’s created for the video, yet the quality is maintained. The change has been so significant that I am re-encoding all my video in order to recover disk space. In general, my disk usage is shrinking about 50%. Some files are less than a quarter of the size while most are about 60% their previous size. There are some videos that shrink less and even a couple that have gotten larger so mileage will vary.

The new Handbrake is faster too. In general I assumed 1 hour to encode every 45 minutes of video using the previous Handbrake. On the same hardware Handbrake 0.94 as reduced these estimates t0 being able to encode 1 hour of video in 1 hour. Again, these are rough estimates which vary with the video. Also, different hardware will yield different speeds. My new Mac Mini only needs about 30 minutes to encode an hour’s worth of video.

If you already use Handbrake you need to upgrade to Handbrake 0.94 even if it means taking some time to evaluate the settings. If you haven’t been using Handbrake and want to encode video you should check it out.

Windows & Mac Synergy

Now that my iMac problems seem to be behind me it’s time to get my desk optimized. In the past my iMac was my primary computer and the Windows PC was used for for specific tasks. My Asus monitor was setup as a dual monitor for my iMac. If I needed it I would remote desktop from my iMac to the Windows PCs. In a pinch there was a cable from my Windows 7 box to a second input port on the Asus monitor so I could hook up a keyboard and mouse and use it directly.

This time I’ve decided to give Synergy a try before returning to the old ways. Synergy is open source software which allows sharing a single keyboard/mouse across different PCs which can be on different operating systems.

I had expected to have problems setting things about, after all this was a device driver for multiple OS’s. But it couldn’t have been easier. I setup my Windows 7 machine as the Synergy server and run the client on my iMac. Right now I have to start the client manually on my Mac but once I’m comfortable with it I’ll set up the script to start it on boot.

It’s been less than a day, but so far no problems. I had been hesitant about doing this but I should have done it sooner.

Picture of a Rolleiflex Camera

iPhoto vs. Windows Live Photo Gallery

Picture of a Rolleiflex CameraI recently moved my photos from iPhoto on my iMac to Windows Live Photo Gallery (WLPG) on my Windows 7 PC so I figured I’d compare the two. The short version is that iPhoto is a mature application that has gone through many iterations of enhancements while WLPG is newer and less feature rich. I used iPhoto mainly as an organizing tool for any images I didn’t take – screenshots for my website, graphics for the website, pictures from others and from the web. I rarely edited those images and organization was mainly why I used iPhoto.

Organization

My main reason for moving my images out of iPhoto was to move them to a directory structure on disk that would provide some basic organization without tying me to any specific app. iPhoto can either pull your images into it’s own library and organization method when you import or it can keep the image exactly where it was when you imported. I was using the first method as that was the only option when I started and I never changed – until now. I can import the images back into iPhoto if I want and just keep them where they are. I wasn’t big on tagging since I used albums for organization.

I also maintained multiple iPhoto libraries (either hold down the option key when starting iPhoto or  doe what I did and use iPhoto Library Manager) to keep things seperated. For the way I work I prefer to have my libraries by broad topic so my searches are limited to the topic.

Tags

iPhoto tags apply across the entire library but the ability to have completely separate libraries makes tags more useful in iPhoto in my opinion.

While WLPG allows you to keep images in separate directories and even on separate drives at the highest level the directories merge. If you tag photos the tags will be shared across galleries and when you click on a tag it will return matches across all folders. If the tag matches across folders there’s no easy way to drill down into the folders. You’ll have to search through all the images that match the tag.

One benefit that WLPG has over iPhoto is a command to remove all unused tags. Doing this in iPhoto can be tedious but WLPG makes it easy.

One big advantage WLPG has over iPhoto is that tags are added as meta-data to the image itself. This means if I tag an image in WLPG and later import it into another app (or another WLPG instance) the tags will go with it.

Arrange by Date Taken

WLPG has some built in folders (searches actually) that will organize images by the date they were taken. iPhoto has no such ability unless you organize the events by day which excludes other uses of events. I used events for, well, events like Christmas, birthday party, vacation, etc… This meant I couldn’t organize photos by date.

Organization Summary

Windows Live Photo Gallery’s use of the file system without having to explicitly import the images makes it easier to get images into it. Just define a top level directory in the gallery and any image added to it or a subdirectory will appear in WLPG. With iPhoto you have to import them and then organize them into albums, even if you’re using the file system and not copying them into the library itself.

iPhoto’s ability to have distinct libraries may be an advantage to some, including myself. WLPG has one big library.

At this point I’m giving the organization advantage to WLPG because it takes little effort to get images in. I just copy them to the directory I want and they appear. In iPhoto, even if they are in the same directory I would have to import new images and add them to the appropriate albums or events. I also like that tags get added to the file meta data making me less tied to WLPG than I would be to iPhoto. So while iPhoto’s ability to have multiple libraries is an advantage, WLPG’s ease of import and organization maintenance gives it the edge.

I haven’t done a lot of testing, but I don’t see any problems using WLPG and iPhoto on the same set of images. I do have some images in both WLPG and iPhoto.

Editing

As I said, I don’t use iPhoto for a lot of editing and wouldn’t use WLPG for editing much either. I only do occasional cropping and image wide exposure adjustment. Both programs seemed to work fine. I found iPhoto a bit easier to use but that may be because I’m more used to it. Both use similar methods of using sliders to set adjustments.

Both apps allow you to easily open the photo in an external editor and save it back to the library. Both also save the original image and allow you to restore the original image at any time in the future.

I found iPhoto’s original image restore easier to use. I always want to keep the original image as the one displayed in the library. Any edits are for one time use and I immediately restore the original. WLPG requires me to exit the image edit screen and go back to the gallery and then open the image for editing again. At that point the original image can be restored. Also, WLPG doesn’t allow any mass original restore. In iPhoto I can select all images and restore the original for them all. Something I did occasionally to avoid wasting space. In WLPG the original restore is one at a time.

I don’t know if it’s a bug (I’m using Windows 7 RC1 with WLPG) or intended to work this way but when an original is restored the original backup stays in it’s backup directory, wasting space. (C:Users<user>AppDataLocalMicrosoftWindows Photo GalleryOriginal Images). This also has the side effect of keeping the “Restore Original” menu item active even after an original is restored. The restore does work tho’. There is an option to delete these originals after a configurable length of time but the default is not to never delete them.

Online Features

Both iPhoto and WLPG include online integration with the iPhoto integration being more mature. I haven’t used any of the features but iPhoto includes integration with MobileMe, Facebook and Flickr. WLPG just integrates with the online WLPG. For both apps the online features are optional.

Conclusion

Neither application strikes me as being head and shoulders above the others. Few people will have to chose between the two and they’ll probably be quit happy with whichever they use. And if one doesn’t meet your needs switching to the other probably won’t give you want you want either. For me WLPG gets the nod because there’s little time investment getting images into it and it’s easy to move the images to another app if I find something better. Neither one is so good as to keep me from looking at Picasa which I’ll be doing as soon as I get a chance.

Use IZarc To Read ISO Image Files

I recently downloaded a software DVD ISO image from a vendor’s website, burned it to DVD, and tried copying it to a server. No luck, the DVD was bad. That was the second DVD, the burn on the first DVD failed outright. Since I didn’t really need a physical DVD except as a way to get the files I decided to finally take the time and look for a program that would extract the files from the ISO image. Some paid programs came up at the beginning of the search results but I finally came across the free iZarc. IZarc is freeware (not open source) and donations are requested.

IZarc is a file archiver that handles all the common archive formats. It supports over 40 file formats, with ISO among them. It also supports 256-bit AES encryption.

IZarc is a full featured file archiving utility. There’s a command line add-in available along with a “2Go” version that can be run from a USB flash drive. There’s a long list of supported languages and the uer interface was very clean.

I only used it to extract the files from the ISO image. For that it was quick and easy. I highly recommend it for that use.