Miniature Computers

Last week I ordered in a couple of the newest miniature computers. This last weekend I took a few hours to put them through their paces. The minix NEO Z64 I knew what to expect from and the newest release of that didn’t disappoint. If you really push it hard, it can overheat (particularly if you put it in an insulated box so it can’t radiate heat while playing video intensive games and simultaneously streaming a movie in 1080p) but under the loads it was built for and out where it can radiate heat, it worked flawlessly. This class of machine represents a great way to turn a TV into an advertising kiosk, a nice internet station and a myriad of applications in between. Its small size, square shape and variety of ports (hdmi, ethernet jack, headphone jack, 2 full size usb ports, sd/mmc reader slot) plus built in wireless n, bluetooth with windows 10 pre-installed on a 28gb ssd and 2gb ram connected to a quad core intel atom cpu (1.33-1.8 ghz) allow it to run most windows programs flawlessly and surprisingly quickly. minix neo 64 Perhaps pushing my luck, I also ordered my second “stick” computer; these self-contained computers, fit easily into a pocket or purse and can be powered off the usb port on a television. The AWOW Intel Atom Z3735f is one of many attempts at evolutionary steps forward from the first 2 generations of pc sticks. This one has an internal fan (very quiet) to deal with complaints of early models overheating, 2 usb ports + 1 usb power port to deal with complaints that all ports are taken after you connect a wireless keyboard and mouse combo and dual band ac networking to remedy a number of issues with the early units and their g or n wireless networking. Also in the packaging came a short HDMI cable (in case you don’t want it physically attached to your TV) and an adapter from micro usb to full size usb. Still included on this model from earlier designs is an MMC card slot for up to 64gb memory modules and bluetooth 4.0.

The AWOW pc stick
small, with fan, ac networking

Just think about going to a presentation with a gyro mouse/keyboard combo and this stick in your pocket; any modern tv becomes an instant presentation device with a computer you are familiar with and confident using. Performance is in keeping with its Atom quad core cpu’s capabilities; but when coupled with the 32gb MMC hard drive (solid state), it is surprisingly responsive handling the Microsoft Office 2010 and 2016 apps with ease and all of the web apps I have tried run flawlessly on it. Movies streamed from Netflix and Amazon as well as a variety of shows streamed from Hulu all run in smooth video up to full HD (dependent on your internet speed). Both of these miniature computers are simple representatives of a whole family of new products from a wide range of suppliers. I selected these 2 from the 100 plus choices I found when I started shopping based on my ideas about what I wanted them to do. You may have very different applications for computing power that goes anywhere with you or can be put into a very small niche or used to turn any tv into whatever. There are also many specialty items in the same form factor to provide a wide variety of services; one unit that caught my eye has two digital cable / satellite / over the air tuners in it so that it adds record while viewing a different show ability to a tv, another had multiple ethernet ports and ac wireless built in so it could be a network bridge or switch and access point. As a final thought, imagine that you routinely move between 2 or more “stations” where you use a computer and you have frustrations with using the cloud to keep all of your “stuff” handy. On top of that, who wants to have to configure multiple computers to work the way you find comfortable and have all the tools you want? Instead, you could pop the computer into your pocket and always use the same computer wherever you are working. I know this was the dream of laptop computers, but you can’t just pop a laptop into your pocket and you are constrained to the laptop screen, keyboard and so forth. Keyboards and mice are inexpensive and it would be easy to have your favorite model waiting for you at each station. Walk up, plug in your miniature computer to the tv and turn on the power; in under a minute you are working at your workstation. Enjoy!

Data Centers are not perfect

I recently had the experience of having to run down the cause of a few clients not being able to access their email systems.  I quickly learned that the servers which hosted those email systems had been taken down by the hosting company.  Further checking revealed that the issue was a failure of a large multiply redundant array.  This was not the failure of a single drive nor even that of a single array; but, rather, it was a simultaneous failure of two synchronized arrays.  The likelihood of such a failure would seem to be astronomically rare; but, it was the second such failure in this particular data center in just over 2 years.  Because of the size and complexity of the arrays, it took over 8 hours to get a full backup and then another 16 hours to build a replacement array and restore the data before the servers could start to be brought back online (and the hosted email systems to become accessible once again).

This event highlights an important point about trusting the cloud to securely protect your personal or business data.  The cloud does represent a far more reliable storage technique than your hard drive in your computer but it is not perfect; failures can and do happen.  As a result, I continue to recommend that all users of electronic devices personally backup their data and store the media in a cool, dry, safe location.  Backup often (any time you have worked an amount that you do not want to have to repeat) using appropriate media (CD’s, DVD’s, USB sticks, button drives, etc.).

Apple stole my music? What?

Over the years there have been a number of complaints regarding how Apple protects the services it sells through iTunes and now through Apple Music. I too have run afoul of their surprising requirements to move purchased music or even stored music (that is stored in and by iTunes) from one computer to another. Now I see posts from folks claiming that Apple Music deleted or stole their music.

So, I read a couple of the complaints, then dialed up and read their take on the complaints, and then I looked at the website and their description of what Apple Music does and how it does it.

Let us start at the end of this story and Apple Music. This is a service aimed at providing a convenient solution to the problems people like myself have had with iTunes; it will gather up all of your music into your icloud account using their “match” system to identify which songs you have pruchased and / or added (perhaps from CD’s or other music downloads) and convert them to a single format. Any of your devices, once logged in to your account, then have full access to play back or download for off-line playback any of that content. Sounds wonderful, right?

What could possibly go wrong? Well, for most folks, nothing; however, if you happen to favor a particular version of a given song, there is no way (yet) to guarantee that Apple Music will store that version. Thus far there have been some issues with Apple Music picking what it deems to be a superior version (newer, recorded at higher sampling rate, etc.) and storing that version for you instead of your favorite version. I suspect that versions already stored in Apple Music’s master store are favored in this situation over other versions. A second issue appears to be the result of a combination of settings in your local copy of iTunes combined with the efforts that iTunes in conjunction with Apple Music to remove duplicates, unlicensed media, replace damaged copies, etc. The result is that some “song files” may be moved to your recycle bin. The combination of these attempts to improve your iTunes stored music seems to have really upset some folks.

It seems to me (and, I believe, Snopes’ report on this issue agrees) that much of the problem is the result of misunderstandings on the part of many users. Apple’s website has a pretty clear description of what Apple Music will do when you choose to use the service (assuming the user chooses to read that description before agreeing to the terms of the service); combine that with a little common sense, and I think most folks will see that Apple Music behaves as described. If you don’t want “that” done to your devices, and stored music, don’t agree to use the service and don’t use the service. It should not affect your choice that the service is free for 3 months; if it, in its normal operations, is likely to mess up your music, don’t start it. This appears to be where most people get caught; they want to try it even though it looks like it does some stuff they don’t need or don’t want and, sure enough, a mess results.

In a far more general sense, I caution users considering any service that automatically helps organize, store, or backup, anything you do with electronic equipment to make certain you understand what that service will do. If you don’t understand, find out or get help understanding BEFORE you turn “it” loose on your devices.

Similarly, if someone calls you and tells you there is something wrong with your computer and they will fix it for you, think twice and maybe ask yourself a couple questions: How did they know my computer has issues and how did they get my phone number? Who are these people and why should I trust them? Odds are extremely high that someone calling you “out of the blue” and offering to fix your computer are scamming you and will make a mess of your computer while taking your money. As always, the private data on your computer is valuable to you; protect it by backing it up and storing the backup safely and don’t invite scammers to “help” you.