24 January 2007

What is it with PC component categorisation?

Like many geeks I buy my computers as components and assemble them myself, taking great care to make sure the quality and compatibility of kit is as good as i can afford. One thing of constant annoyance however is the inadequacy of online PC component retailer's product categorisation and searching facilities.

With all the different types of processor, RAM, hard disks etc that are available accurate categorisation is essential for you to find what you're looking for. Why is it then that so many of the online component retailers have these lacklustre categorisation schemes in place, often repeating categories of product e.g. "Core 2 Duo" and "Core Duo 2".

It does seem to be CPUs that suffer the worst, probably because of the many different ways you can group them; by manufacturer, product line, socket type, number of cores etc. A lot of these retailers only allow a product to be in one category rather than "tagging" products with all their relevant information and allowing a user to group by anything. Because of this one category restriction each retailer has gone with what they see as the best categorisation, the problem being that none of them are the same and most of them are inflexible.

The result of this is a very poor user experience making it difficult for the consumer wanting to shop around. What's needed is an open data initiative between the component industry and retailers to standardise on these categorisations thus empowering the consumer to find what they're looking for more easily.

As much as this sounds like a massive plug, the only online component retailer i regularly use is dabs.com as they're the only one i know of that implements a good product categorisation scheme. So take note ebuyer et al - proper categorisation pays!

22 January 2007

Is it time for a thin-client resurrection?

Microsoft is making much of the performance benefits flash memory brings to Windows Vista. Two items on the performance features page utilise it; ReadyBoost as an extension to the RAM and ReadyDrive as a large hard disk cache - part of hybrid drive technology.

Hybrid drive hard disks cache frequently used data in flash memory attached to the disk. Surely this just means the operating system is cached so why then don't we just go the whole hog and give the OS its own flash drive to run from? But wait, we can go further than this, Office Live removes the need for having Office installed on a local disk. On a lot of home PCs that is the only application installed.

We still need a hard disk for bulk storage of documents, media etc but a NAS over gigabit ethernet can potentially have an access time of 125MB/s which is comparible to a local hard disk. We've reached the point where the only people who need a hard disk are those who rely on consistant real-time access to disk i.e. audio and video editing and the like and these folk tend to use firewire disks anyway.

Processor, RAM, a load of Compact Flash and maybe an optical drive is all that's needed - hopefully it's not going to be long until desktop PCs look like this:

18 January 2007

A convenient falsehood

This was supposed to be a post about thin-clients but that will just have to wait...Mike's power supply problems have struck a nerve.

His problem stemmed from the fact that computers are becoming more power hungry thus necessitating ever higher wattage power supplies. 4GHz CPUs and double height graphics cards requiring their own power connector all come at a price. It's not a case of "they don't make them like they used to", it's a case of "my CPU requires a 500W PSU where my last computer only needed 200W". On average the 500W would burn out 2.5 times faster than the 200W.

It raises the question, is there really a need for this much horsepower in a desktop PC? I'd suggest there isn't; the majority of users could probably get by with a 2GHz machine and onboard graphics. Obviously gamers are a different matter but hardware enthusiast and overclocker types make up a small percentage of PC users.

I've lost count of the number of times i've heard a PC salesman say "...and you've got the latest graphics card so the kids can play their games...". These kids who've probably already got one of the latest consoles so aren't going to be bothered that the family PC's packing a behemoth. It'll be there anyway, sucking the life out of the planet like the crystalline entity from TNG.

It's a sorry state of affairs, considering all this "climate change" stuff component manufacturers should be concentrating on making their fare more efficient and and PC retailers should be advising customers to buy greener PCs.

15 January 2007

Apple's iPod/phone mashup

I'm purposefully steering clear of Cisco's iPhone brand name in the title of this post in the event that Apple lose the impending court battle. Not that this will make much difference now that every reference to Cisco's product is now buried underneath a mountain of links to Apple's. Anyway i will hereafter refer to Apple's product as the iPhone although i recognise this is Cisco's brand name yada yada...

I wasn't going to blog anything about the iPhone because there seems to be plenty of that going around already, all along the lines of "The 10 worst things about the iPhone (but i'm still going to buy one)". However the comments in an article on the BBC News website entitled From iPhone to iGroan have prompted me to get writing.

It occurs to me that a lot of the contributors to the article haven't really considered their comments and are just complaining for the sake of it, the TV show "Grumpy Old Men" springs to mind, however...

I'll start my deconstruction of these arguments with this excert from one of the contributors:

The functionality really doesn't differ that much from some of the mobiles already on the market. It's just another example of how well Apple have mastered the use of brand loyalty.

When the iPod came out it didn't differ in functionality from other MP3 players on the market. The things that set it apart were its design and Apple's meticulous attention to detail making it perform those functions in the best way possible. You just need to look at the number of units sold to know that it's not just the loyal Apple fans who appreciated that and bought one. Its success had nothing to do with brand loyalty and everything to do with the fact that Apple had created a great product.

Older people seem to miss the point of convergence devices, saying things like "Why do i want to take photos on my mobile phone?". The point is convenience. Your mobile phone, by its nature, is something you have with you most of the time. By building functions like cameras and music players into them it means that with no extra effort you can also take photos or listen to music when you want to. How many time have you wished you'd had a camera with you? How many times have you remembered a favorite song and wanted to listen to it straight away?

Several contributors allude to the fact that they have somehwhat of a love/hate relationship with their phone. They can make calls but all the other features are hidden away behind a labyrinth of menu screens. Convergence devices are all well and good but as Apple know there's no point making something unless it looks nice and is easy to use. Just as with the iPod, it's these two factors that will set the iPhone apart from the crowd and it's these two factors that will ensure it's a hit with not only the iPod generation but also the skeptics.

This leaves me asking one question - in this day and age, where cultural misunderstanding and racial hatred are rife, how can anything that facilitates better communication be a bad thing?

11 January 2007

Windows Script Components as an alternative to COM

Windows Script Components provide VBScript and JScript developers with the ability to create COM style components. They can wrap up shared functionality into a component which can be registered on a server and instantiated using a CreateObject call just like other COM.

Defining a component

<?xml version="1.0"?>
      <property name="Forename" internalName="strForename" />
      <property name="Surname">
      <method name="Save" />
   <script language="VBScript">
   Dim strForename, strSurname

   Function get_Surname()
      get_Surname = strSurname
   End Function

   Function put_Surname(strValue)
      strSurname = strValue
   End Function

   Function Save()
      If IsEmpty(strForename) Or IsEmpty(strSurname) Then
         Save = False
         Save = True
      End If
   End Function



Set myObj = Server.CreateObject("MyApp.MyClass")
myObj.Forename = "Derek"
myObj.Surname = "Fowler"
Set myObj = Nothing


  • You don't need to server-side include anything to use them, once they're registered they're available from anywhere
  • Like other COM you can use them Application or Session scoped in ASP which means you can use a tailored object rather than abusing Arrays or a Recordset to create your shopping basket
  • Anywhere you can use a COM component you can use a WSC - even within a .NET application


  • You don't get the performance benefits of proper compiled COM components
  • They don't support destructors which can make clearing up a pain
  • You can't do proper locking in VBScript or JScript so it's difficult to avoid concurrancy issues such as when using them Application scoped in ASP

Having said all that for the majority of applications the advantages certainly outway the disadvantages. Creating your data access and business tiers using WSCs allow you to work outside the confines of ASP environment and create components you can use anywhere that supports COM.

For anyone working in a company that is resisting the adoption of .NET this ability to write functionality to use in ASP but which you can then reuse in ASP.NET provides you with a clear upgrade path.


Microsoft downloads

06 January 2007

Freeing your digital media


Ever since MP3 came about and the prospect of storing my entire music collection on my computer became reality i've ripped CDs and downloaded tracks with much rejoicing. At the time i spent a large proportion of my time in front of a computer and it was great to have any music i felt like listening to either right there or a couple of minutes of downloading away. The iPod came along and added a whole other dimension, allowing me to venture forth into the world with my record collection tucked neatly in my pocket.

These days however i work in the computer industry and the last thing i want to do when i get home is have to sit in front of the computer to listen to my music.

I'd investigated the whole network music thing a while back when Slim Devices was the only kid on the block with their SLIMP3. Although it was a nice design it was rather expensive and the prospect of having to turn on my computer to use it wasn't all that appealing.

Movies too?!

These days video has gone the way of audio to the detriment of the MPAA. You have the two original industry standards MPEG 1 & 2 but with MPEG-1's poor picture quality and MPEG-2's large file sizes they're not really viable options in the way MP3 is for audio. There are a number of other formats which are however:

MPEG-4 Part 2
Is an improvement upon MPEG-1 which produces similar file sizes but with images closer to that of MPEG-2. There are several implementations of this but the main two are the commercial DivX and the open source XviD. Both of which you may have seen support for on some new DVD players.
Windows Media Video
Now in it's ninth incarnation, Microsoft's video compression format is good and has quite wide support even if it does leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Real video
Has been around almost as long as MPEG-1 and is used for vidcasts by, among others, the BBC. That doesn't stop it being the worst of the three however.

With these compression formats able to fit a DVD on to a CD (4.7GB down to 700MB) and ever more massive hard disks available it starts looking like not only can we store and stream all our music but all our movies and TV shows too!

Affordable Network Storage

Network Attached Storage (NAS) appliances are similar to an external USB or FireWire hard disk apart from that they plug into your network and can be accessed by any computer on it. Recently companies have started making NAS apliances targeted at the home user and i've seen these popping up on Amazon for under £130 for 250GB.

One importat point missed out of the product specs on Amazon however is that some of these NAS units are DLNA-compliant, indeed it was only after looking on some other sites for price comparisons that i even discovered DLNA existed.

DLNA - The Keystone

DLNA is the Digital Living Network Alliance (formerly the Digital Home Working Group) and it's been around since 2003 coming up with a set of guidelines for interoperability between networked devices.

Although i'd never heard of it before, if you look at the roster, the list of companies involved is huge.

So what exactly does a NAS appliance being DLNA-compliant mean?

It means the NAS has the ability to not only store digital media and any other file but that it can also stream that media to any DLNA-compliant player connected to the network - that being something similar to the SLIMP3.

Some of these products are already on the market and more are in development. They include things like set top boxes such as Buffalo's LinkTheatre and Philip's Wireless Multi-media Adapter which will allow you to browse and watch media from your DLNA-compliant NAS or any Windows PC on your normal TV. You'll soon be able to buy TVs with a build in ethernet port that do the same and portable wireless devices that let you listen to music and watch video anywhere in the house over your network.

Exciting stuff

All this means that our digital media is about to be set free. A NAS for £150 and a media player to sit under the TV for £150 and you can watch all your digital video on your tv and listen to all your digital music on your hifi all without needing your computer on. What's more if you have HD video on your NAS you can stream that to your HD TV.

If your HiFi is in another room and you want to stream music there as well then just buy a music player that features a remove control and screen for browsing through your music collection to sit on top of it.

It seems DLNA has all the bases covered and i'll look forward to seeing more products coming to market with a DLNA Certified logo on. Now all they need to do is tell people about it which may be easier said than done with Microsoft pushing Windows Media Connect and Intel pussing Viiv. DLNA may still have the edge however as both of these require you to buy an expensive media centre PC to go under your TV. We'll have to wait and see.

Update - CES 2007

A recent article from the BBC's Click technology programme on the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show has this to say about DLNA:

Many companies are supporting a set of standardised formats through industry groups like the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA).
Not much admittedly but it's a start.