Archive for the ‘Computers’ Category

Android VS iOS… Round 1

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Recently I decided to pick up a new Android tablet as I’d been using it on my phone for some time, and while I absolutely adore my iPad 2, I wanted to see how far Android had come as far as providing a real challenge to the market domination held by Apple.

My choice was the ASUS Transformer TF300T.  It’s a 10.1″ tablet with the NVidia Tegra 4 processor, 1gb of RAM, 32gb of built-in storage, and an available microSD card slot.  It’s a few ticks lighter than my iPad2 with a higher resolution as well.  I looked over the other options but I felt that short of going online and ordering a Nexus, this was my best option as far as a balance of performance and price.  The option of an attachable dock -w- keyboard was also nice but wasn’t something I picked up at the time.

Now some folks might say it’d be better to compare this against an iPad3, but to be perfectly honest if you’ve got an iPad3 – how likely are you to switch?  Sure, the cost savings are obvious, but if you’re already in the tablet game the big question for you would be whether to stay with Apple or to try something new.

Now lets get my complaints out of the way right off the get go here…

* Power jack is on the long-edge of the tablet.  One thing I didn’t realize was great about my iPad until I got the TF300T was the location of the power jack.  Generally I use my tablet in a seated position or while laying down in bed.  That leaves the jack pressing into my chest, stomach, or against the table which puts undue stress on the joint between the plug and the cable.  I foresee this wearing out sooner rather than later, which leads me to my next complaint…

* Power cable is unreasonably short.  I’d guess it is 3-4′ in length, so if you enjoy using it while plugged in to maintain the battery, plan on buying a longer cable or only sitting intimately close to the nearest outlet.  Good news is that a 3M charging cable is less than $3, but this leads me to my next complaint…

* Cannot charge / use the tablet when connected to a PC via the USB cable.  I generally kept my iPad jacked in to my PC unless I had the power adapter available.  After installing a 3rd party app from Asus I was able to both maintain the charge as well as use the device.  It seems that the TF300T is specifically designed that when connected to anything BUT the available charger, it will only charge when the screen is off.  LAME.

* Apps?  The only way to really get the full experience of any modern tablet is by downloading and installing apps to the device.  Personally, my priority is on gaming but I also require other apps to allow me to do my job remotely.  I’ve never paid much attention to the Google Play store until now, and when compared to the Apple App store – there is very little to actually compare.  The whole Play store interface is generally cumbersome.  Searching for various keywords results in a long list of Apps with a small number that actually provide what the user is looking for.  Other app stores (such as Amazon) are available but as they’re based on providing app’s to the same Android system, you may get more flexibility but IMHO – much less convenience.  It should be able to provide greater granularity to the store without being sued by Apple for copyright infringement.

* Games.  Like I said, I’m an avid gamer.  You don’t have a gaming laptop, Xbox 360, Wii, and iPad 2 each with an obscene catalog of games if your hobby is fly fishing.  I love to game.  I love to explore, conquer, and generally bake the workday out of my brain in new games.  There’s a pretty large collection available, and the HD titles look prettier overall than their sister titles on iOS, but I’ve discovered that there’s just way too much … CRAP in the Android app store.  There’s no real distinction between what plays best on a tablet vs a phone beyond “HD” or “THD” branded titles, so the global availability of Android across many different hardware platforms has drastically cut the price point of owning an Android based tablet but it has also contributed to the general confusion of making the most of the tablet with new apps.  As far as my current addiction – sandbox titles – there are a handful, but none of the 2D staples that I’ve enjoyed on my iPad.

Now for the pros.

* Performance.  This thing is FAST.  Loading the same App on the TF300T vs my iPad 2 indicates that the TF300T spanks it, hands down, as far as loading Apps and booting the device.

* Options.  The TF300T has a GPS, a standard mini-HDMI port, expandable storage, and ‘rooting’ the device allows the user to install any number of custom ROM’s, apparently some folks even install Ubuntu linux on these.  I’ve already rooted it so I can fully explore what it is capable of, I even tried a custom (and popular) ROM known as “Cyanogenmod.”  I ended up removing it shortly after as I found that the performance rapidly degraded with that ROM.  I may try some others but for now the stock ROM, rooted, appears to work just fine for me.

* Price.  With tax, the TF300T cost me $374 at Best Buy.  My iPad2 64GB Wifi cost about $800 new, and an iPad3 with 32gb of storage will run you about $600 and generally lock you in to the “Apple” universe while the TF300T offers many more options for expansion and utilization.

Overall, Android is the best option for a new tablet user IF you’ve never owned an iPad.  When it comes to apps, Apple wins hands down.  Jailbreak the device, and Apple still holds the lead.  If I could make a simple metaphor here, Android is like the wild west of portable computing where iOS is the shining city on a hill.  Not without its flaws mind you, and unless Apple retires its legal department and dusts off its innovation department, I don’t see a future where Android will not dominate… but it’s not there yet.

Here’s hoping that Google gets off its ass and tightens up that app store so there will be a day where I don’t need to switch between my iPad and my Transformer anymore, until then – I’ve got the best of both worlds.

Guerrilla Tech Support

Monday, July 9th, 2012

I have a bad habit.  If I’m out and about, and pick up a wireless network on my phone, I try to poke around.  It’s amazing how many people set up a wireless network and just forget about it, or try to get a little more advanced and do it completely wrong.

Where I stayed, the network was setup with a single DSL connection feeding the 4-unit condominium.  That connection had a single Buffalo router running DD-WRT.  All in all, not a bad setup.  The problem was that it absolutely ran like garbage.  No signal was strong enough, and when you got a strong signal – the connection between the main router and the access-point you were connecting to was shaky at best.

I’ve been working with DD-WRT for some time now, so when I was able to get in with the default admin credentials, I realized that not only had they put 4 routers on the same channel, they throttled back the Tx power.  DD-WRT defaults at 71mW, and Buffalo recommends running their units at 30mW due to some form of built-in amplifier.  These were all set to 20mW using channel 7.

The problem with running all of these devices on the same channel is interference, so I’m guessing they cut the transmit power to try and lessen how crappy everything ran, but in the process lessened the performance when communicating with the main router.  I proceeded to turn up the transmit power to 30mW, and then put the devices on separate channels.

The main router went to channel 9, and the rest were set to 7, 5, and 3 (you generally want to keep a free channel open both before and after the channel being used).  As a result, every wifi network I connected to ran well enough that I could watch Netflix on my phone without any buffering.

Sure, running multiple AP’s is nice and avoids having to run wire or multiple broadband connections… but if you’re going to do it, at least GOOGLE the best way to set things up, and even if you decide NOT to encrypt the connection, at least change the default admin credentials.  Not everyone is going to be as helpful as me…

Hacking the Checkpoint UTM-1 Firewall for Performance

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Checkpoint is a company that creates firewalls for computer networks.  Many years ago I decided to phase out our antiquated Cisco PIX firewalls and implement something more robust which could provide more services than just basic firewalling.  For the longest time, Checkpoint just sold the software which could be installed on anything.  The problem was that its software was already vastly more expensive than its competitors, and the hardware required to run the software wasn’t cheap either.

When they began to offer a full package, both hardware and software, I just about leapt at it after comparing it to several competitors including Cisco, Sonicwall, and Watchguard.  It cost the most, but provided the most features that I could actually use.  As time progressed, they released new software versions, added new features, and at the point of this writing – the firewall not only controls inbound and outbound connections, it also protects us from spam, viruses, worms, spyware, exploits, etc…  There isn’t much that can get past one of these things.

From the start, I did have some reservations regarding the UTM-1 450.  At its core, it was an Intel Celeron based system with 1gb of ram and a standard 80GB Seagate hard disk.  From my experience, Celeron CPU’s sucked, and putting a standard hard disk in such a critical network component added a point of failure that other systems which stored data in solid state memory didn’t have.  Still, the Linux based operating system was efficient enough to get the job done on the hardware we had.  In order to mitigate the drive failure, I went ahead and created “clusters” of these firewalls so that in the event one failed – the other could take over until I fixed the problem.

Over the years though, the ability of the hardware to support what the software could provide decreased dramatically. One of the most common tasks with these firewalls involves updating the rules and then copying or “pushing” those rules out to the firewalls.  That process which used to take a few minutes now took over 10 minutes.  Adding insult to injury, the level of resource starvation due to the software requirements would make all network traffic grind to a halt until the update completed.  I had looked into upgrading to the latest comparable offering from Checkpoint, but the pricing had me looking for other options…  I finally decided to do some research, and see if I could pull some greater performance from what I had.

I had gone into this thinking the biggest bottleneck of all was the CPU, and while it was a contributing factor, the main problem was that the standard hard drive couldn’t keep up with what Checkpoint’s R75.10 needed.

In order for the CPU to be recognized, I installed a fresh copy of R75 SPLAT (instead of the Appliance version).  The old CPU supported PAE (Physical Address Extension) but the new one did not, after tinkering with a stock 2.6.18 kernel to make it look like Checkpoint’s for a while, I decided to try the fresh installation route which worked splendidly.  Also, after cloning the hard disk to the SSD, I had to re-install the grub boot loader to the MBR.

Now from what I’ve read, the Nexcom-1042 system board behind the 450 has a hardware limit of 1gb of RAM.  I’m going to pick up a stick of 2gb DDR and see for myself though.  If I can get 2gb in there, I may be able to mount the /tmp/ directory on a ram drive instead of the SSD.

Some other tweaks I have made enable the management server to use certificate based authentication to access the root account on the enforcement points, which allows me to not only back up the management server via upgrade_export, but to also backup the individual enforcement points.  Lastly, I’ve been exploring the ‘etherlike’ mibs and have written a basic Nagios plugin for the UTM which allows me to calculate the current bandwidth (so I can generate and maintain historical data on the firewall’s bandwidth utilization via nagios).  I’m going to expand the plugin to provide even more data, none of the plugins currently available really gave me what I want.

Just to summarize what I did here:

  • Replaced the Celeron 1.5ghz CPU with a Pentium M 2.0ghz CPU.  On paper, you get .5ghz more clock speed and an extra 1MB of L2 Cache.  In reality there is a marginal boost in performance, the greatest bump comes from the extra L2 cache.
  • Replaced the standard Seagate 80gb 7200RPM IDE hard disk with a Crucial 64gb SATA SSD (running through a SATA to IDE adapter).  I needed to make a few tweaks to the kernel settings to optimize the SSD, but once done, it had some blazing performance.

As far as hard disk benchmarks are concerned:

 

Seagate:

  • Read: 63 MB/s
  • Write: 32 MB/s

 Crucial SSD:

 

  • Read: 89 MB/s
  • Write: 134 MB/s

That’s a 41% improvement in read speed, and a 318% percent improvement in write speed.  Those rule updates which took over 10 minutes and thrashed network connectivity now complete in under a minute, and there’s no impact on network connectivity… for about $150 worth of parts.

1.       Replaced the Celeron 1.5ghz CPU with a Pentium M 2.0ghz CPU.  On paper, you get .5ghz more clock speed and an extra 1MB of L2 Cache.  In reality there is a marginal boost in performance, the greatest bump comes from the extra L2 cache.

2.       Replaced the standard Seagate 80gb 7200RPM IDE hard disk with a Crucial 64gb SATA SSD (running through a SATA to IDE adapter).  I needed to make a few tweaks to the kernel settings to optimize the SSD, but once done, it had some blazing performance.

GPS for Android

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

I’m a big fan of GPS, even when I know where to go, I like to keep an eye on the statistics of my current trip.  My first experience was with a Garmin Nuvi, which still works fine – but mainly I use the Google Navigation on my Incredible.  Problem is, Google Navigation isn’t very smart.  The app doesn’t allow you to choose between the ‘shortest’ or the ‘fastest’ route to a location, instead it simply believes that the route it suggest is what is best for you.  Most times, that may not be a big deal, however in the case of my recent drive to North Carolina, it added nearly 2 hours to the drive.

Instead of keeping me on the highway for a majority of the trip, it sent me on back roads which shortened the overall drive by about 100 miles.  This would have been fine if the short cut wasn’t packed with 30mph zones and traffic lights.  Pretty much every other GPS and mapping application out there skipped the back roads and sent me on a more direct route.  100 more miles, nearly 2 hours less to drive.  That lead me to the Android Market to find a suitable replacement that provided more accurate routing.

Right now my top 2 are Waze and Sygic.

Waze is free, and community based.  So far its directions aren’t the best (a recent trip from North Jersey to my house skipped 3 other routes that I know for a fact are faster) – but it has a large user base and they constantly keep other users up to date on traffic, hazards, speed traps, etc… in the area.    The graphics are basic but effective, the navigation voice appears to be human (instead of the robot used by Google Nav), and the vehicle tracking is accurate.  That’s one thing I like about most GPS units, it shows you where your car is… something lacking in the next option, Sygic.

Sygic is a paid application, it runs $15.99 in Euros and has the bonus of being able to download updated maps directly to the SD storage on the phone.  Sygic attempts to bring a more traditional GPS interface to the Android phone, multiple map packages, voices, etc…  Its directions are accurate, and its short/fast options are also well implemented.  My biggest complaints are that Sygic will take the turn for you – and then auto-correct.  Meaning if it asks you take a left, and you continue straight, the mini-map will take the turn and for a few moments continue on before it corrects.  I’ve found other GPS options handle recalculating much quicker.  My other complaint is that the icon for your current location is a HUGE ORANGE ARROW that takes up a VERY large portion of the screen unless you’re driving very fast.  I want a small icon, that’s it.  Voice navigation is computerized, but also better than the Google Nav option.

I attempted to purchase Sygic the other day but had some trouble with the card processing…. going to give it another shot.  As much as I am enjoying Waze, I need a GPS app I can count on, and Sygic is it.

Zen and the art of laptop cooling…

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

For about the past 2 years I’ve done a majority of my home computing on laptops.  Initially I used an Acer netbook which my wife still uses – but my need for gaming in a house where I couldn’t really use my 360 as much as I’d like anymore lead me to pick up an ASUS G51Jx gaming laptop from Newegg.  Great system, plenty of power – a year later I can still run most games on max detail settings and get an acceptable frame rate.

The problem is that from day one, this thing has generated some wicked heat.  Recently I’d started to experience graphics glitches and lockups.  I don’t exactly have the money to buy a new machine right now so I need to get as much life out of this one as I can.  That lead me down the road of active cooling for my system.

I looked at a bunch of the options online and in stores, all had varying reviews.  Eventually I ended up buying a “Gearhead” 15.4 cooling pad for $20 at Computer Discount of West Milford.  It has a pair of thin fans that pulls cooler air from below to aid in feeding fresh air to the existing cooling system on the machine.  It works fairly well – but I still find it a little cumbersome, and am anticipating either the USB cable or fans wearing out at some point.

My plan in the interim is to build a simple USB powered accessory cooling unit for the system.  Basically, I’m going to build/buy a small plastic box capable of holding two or more standard high-speed cooling fans that pull its air from the side of the unit.  On top of the box, I’m going to have an aluminum sheet (good for heat transfer) that either will or will not be perforated.  I figure with one fan pulling in and one pushing air out, it may be able to offer a fairly cool surface for the laptop to rest on, allowing the existing feet on the system to provide adequate clearance for air to move by the laptops built in fans.

Another option would be to use a perforated aluminum sheet that the laptop would rest on, and the side-fans would pull air into the box and route it to the built-in vents under the laptop.  It’d likely be thicker than normal pads – but it would keep both my lap and laptop more than a little cooler.  Also, I would avoid the whole ‘pull air from the bottom’ issue whcih isn’t really effective when I’ve got the system resting on my lap, or a bed… anything but a hard flat surface.

Queue Macgyver theme….

NVIDIA 360M & The BSOD from HELL.

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

My laptop (ASUS G51x) is my baby, I use it mainly for work and gaming (emphasis on the latter) – since I use the STEAM service to purchase most of my games, occasionally they’ll bark at me if a driver is too old.  Such was the case with Batman – Arkham Asylum GOTY edition.  No big deal, right?  I fire up the browser, visit Nvidia.com, and grab the latest driver for my 360M.  Problem was, any time I would use a driver newer than what came with my laptop (1.6x) – I would get random BSOD’s while watching Netflix, Hulu, or playing a game.  I spent weeks online looking up the cause, be it DirectX, or the driver itself.  As it turns out – it wasn’t the video driver at all, but the audio driver that ships with the new Nvidia driver.  I left the audio driver at the earlier release, updated everything else, and so far no problems.  I know this post isn’t very descriptive but with all of the posts online in regard to this very common problem, nobody seemed to be using trial and error to find the exact culprit.

So, if you’re running Nvidia hardware, and after a driver update you’re getting BSOD’s – restore the earlier audio driver. 🙂

Dell Tech Support Chat

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I cannot express how FRUSTRATING some online chat support is.  Normally I will give it a shot as my first round of getting help on an issue, some companies have a very good setup – like Checkpoint – where you contact them, and if the problem is too complex for a chat session, they’ll open a ticket for you.  Others, in this case Dell – simply vanish into the ether and end the session after waiting 20+ minutes for a response.

10:01:26 AM        System      System
You are now being connected to an agent. Thank you for using Dell Chat
10:01:27 AM        System      System
Connected with AES Amanda Schreiber
10:01:31 AM        Agent      AES Amanda Schreiber
Hello, thank you for contacting Dell’s Enterprise Chat Support. My name is AES Amanda Schreiber. Once the chat session is completed, a transcript will be sent to sstanaitis@dpsource.com.

Please give me 2 to 3 minutes to access your system details and contact information.
10:01:39 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
ok
10:02:36 AM        Agent      AES Amanda Schreiber
Thank you for your patience while we verified your information. Before we get started, can you please provide the following information:

1. What is the specific Operating System and version (Windows 2003, RedHat 4 , etc), and is it the 32 bit or 64 bit version?
2. What is the problem?
3. What specific steps have you taken to try and resolve it?
4. For troubleshooting purposes, are you in front of the server or remote into it?
5. What is the role of this server, is part of a SAN or Cluster?

Please answer those questions as detailed as possible, in order to help us resolve your issue in the most efficient manner possible.
10:02:50 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
operating system is fedora core 11 32-bit (not an OS issue btw)
10:03:23 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
problem is that when accessing the RAC console via the web portal, the keyboard stops working. rac/bios are at the current release version
10:03:32 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
accessing it from a windows 7 64-bit system running the latest version of java
10:03:48 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
happens regardless of browser version (firefox 4, ie9)
10:04:28 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
keyboard works fine if its booted into the OS, but after a certain number of keystrokes, no more entry is accepted, the screen is still live (for instance if i’m in the BIOS, i can see the clock still counting) but there is no response to the keyboard anymore
10:05:22 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
as far as troubleshooting, i’ve tried a few different java settings, as well as compatibility mode in the browser
10:06:22 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
server is a standalone box that i only access remotely
10:11:47 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
hello? 🙂
10:17:32 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
are you still there?
10:23:12 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
can you please confirm that you got this?
10:30:05 AM        Customer      SJ Stanaitis
you haven’t responded in over 20 minutes, please respond.
10:35:09 AM        System      System
AES Amanda Schreiber has left this session!
10:35:09 AM        System      System
The session has ended!

 

I fired off an email to my account rep, and left a comment on the Dell site.  Right now I’m connected to another rep “AES Justin Ballard” who is actively responding and trying to help.  Definitely relieves some of my frustration, but still…