Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Samsung shamelessly copies IOS Passport

Ok, Let me get this straight. Many companies have "digital wallet" apps and features. I'm OK with that but let me share something with you guys.

Here we have Google's and Microsoft's digital wallet icons.

Now we have Apple's passbook and Samsung's new "Wallet" service.

Let me think. Someone in Korea thinks that a blacked squared bevelled stiched, leather pouch, with angled passes; including a movie ticket, plane ticket, and coffee ticket using the colors blue,green and yellow is the only obvious way to design an wallet icon.

This has been the line of defense. " There are so many different ways you can design an icon and obviously, this is the only way to design a wallet icon!"

Even some Android blogs, including Android Authority, thinks it is rather shameless.

Mute/Disable Notifications in Mountain Lion OSX

One of the most annoying thing is in OSX is when you are watching a full screen movie and an email notification slides in.

Notifications, in general are great, but sometimes, you want to temporary disable them.

Easy. Click on the option key while you mouse click the right pane notification bar.

 When notifications are off, you will see a grey graph bar outline.

When notifications are on, the icon will be back to black. You can easily toggle them on-and off.

It took me a while to actually look this up. I've been dealing with notifications interrupting my VLC video watching far too long.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chromebook Pixel or a Macbook Pro

The introduction of the Chromebook Pixel sure raised some eyebrows. I guess I'll pile on some of my own criticism.

For $1300 to $1450, you get yourself a nice laptop with a high res 2560x1700 resolution 3:2 touchscreen with a dual core ULV i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 32 to 64GB SSD and dual USB 2.0 ports. You get all of that for a starting price of $1300 in the year 2013. They also throw in 1TB cloud storage for 3 years.

I'm pretty sure the hardware is pretty dope but I rather spend the extra money for USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, a faster i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and expandable SSD storage up to 256GB on the 13" Retina Macbook Pro. In fact, you can get an Apple refurb for $1260. Some retailers are selling new ones for a hair over $1300 with Applecare. They are that close. Worst case scenario, you spend $200 more at full retail for a Retina Macbook Pro.

So, the ChromeOS fanboys will tell you it is all about the OS. OK, I can accept that.

But think about this for a second, you can get yourself a Class 10 MicroSDHC card and install Chrome OS yourself on a macbook. I prefer the microSD route because it is flushed and cleaner.
32GB and 64GB UH-S1 Class 10 cards are pretty cheap. 32GB for $20. If you are a good shopper, you may be able to pick up a 64GB for $40.

Then you get yourself a $30 nifty mini drive or even a cheaper 3rd party knock off mini drive flushed card reader.

Then you install Hexxah's Chromium OS by going to
Install on a Macbook which will allow sdcard booting into Chrome OS.

Then voila, you have yourself an Aluminum Chromebook with USB 3.0, the nice Thunderbolt ports, up to 256GB of SSD. You can 5-6 way boot off a Mac running: OSX Mountain Lion, Windows 8, any Linux Distro, Open Indiana (Solaris), FreeBSD, and ChromeOS in the sdcard slot. Do you still  feel limited by even a 128/256 GB SSD? Thunderbolt booting is extremely fast on Macs. They are just as fast as native SATA III internal drives as I've shown on my blog a few times. Have your "web browser" OS build on the default drive and come home or to the office with a bootable workstation build from a Thunderbolt RAID array.

So is that touchscreen really worth the premium? Considering that you can't pinch-n-zoom in the browser and there are very few multitouch gestures, Chrome OS is not touched optimized.
If you value the touch screen so much, the Chromebook Pixel makes the Microsoft Surface Pro a killer bargain at $999 ($1120 with keyboard).

Now, that 2560x1700 is pretty amazing. It trumps the Retina 13" 2560x1600. Well, not so fast. According to CNET reports, they both do pixel doubling but unlike the Macbook, the ChromeBook won't allow you to uprez. The Chromebook is unscaleable with a perceived pixel doubled 1,280x850 resolution.  Text will be sharper like it is on the iPad 3/4. However, UI elements and everything else is pixel doubled.

The Macbook 13 is also pixel doubled at 1440X900. The Macbook will still give you more visible desktop view if you compared side to side. 1440x900 will show more elements than a 1280x850 desktop. This includes running two browser side-by-side or doing things like Firebug. On the Mac, there are sliding scale-able options for more desktop resolution up to 1980x1200. However,  there is one important thing that seperates the Retina Macbook from the Chromebook Pixel. You can unlock the full resolution using various utilities or the command line terminal. You can unlock the full 2560x1600  on the 13 or 2880x1800 on the 15" to get what people call "true retina." True retina is native 100 % dpi with no pixel doubling. See the photo below.

Sure, there are reports of Chromebook booting into Linux Mint and Ubuntu. Booting into another Linux distro is probably the only way to unlock the full resolution. Those blog posts forget to emphasize the fact drivers have just been submitted to the Linux kernel and as of this writing, you won't get touch screen, nor trackpad, nor HiDPi with any Linux distro on the chromebook. You'll be hanging an external mouse off that Pixel. You will also have to hit CTRL-D a few times at boot since the boot process isn't that smooth and you only have 32 to 64 GB to play with.

Can someone tell me the $1300 value of the Chromebook Pixel? I'm always open to new computing paradigms. The $200-$250 Amazon best seller Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung make sense. There is nothing in that price bracket that is competitive at $200. This is the reason why they sell well at the low-end. They're disposable! At $1300, we have a lot of options over a Pixel. And $1300 is not disposable.

If this device had 8 to 16GB of RAM with expandable SSD storage, I would consider it despite the lack of I/O compared to an Apple product.

So who are these Cloud "power users" I read about? Apparently they are the intended market for this device.

Monday, February 25, 2013

STAE129 Seagate Thunderbolt Desktop Adapter Review

A few months ago, I reviewed the portable Seagate Go-Flex Thunderbolt adaper, the STAE121. Today, I am going to give a short review of the desktop version designed for the Backup Plus Desktop external drives from Seagate. The model is STAE129.

This dock/adapter is designed specifically for the Seagate external Backup Plus drives. I have about a dozen or so of these USB2/USB 3.0 drives in 3TB and 4TB configurations. They contained 7200 rpm Barracuda XT drives that are often way cheaper than buying internal versions. If you shop carefully, 3TB can be had for $100-120 whereas the 4TB can go for $150-180. I pretty much stock up when they go on sale.

The STAE129 is a pricey affair at $150 without thunderbolt cables (you can get cheap ones here).  Since I had a shelf full of these external Seagate drives, I figure, why not. I'll give this a spin. More importantly, my 2012 27" iMac does not have USB 3.0.  So this review will be based off a 27" Thunderbolt model iMac along with a brand new freshly HFS+ formatted 4TB Seagate drive. I will also compare USB 3.0 from my Macbook.

So here, I have a 4TB drive, STAE129 Thunderbolt adapter,  The USB 3.0 base that comes with the 4TB Seagate Backup plus, and the STAE121 2.5 portable Thunderbolt adapter for comparison.

You can use the dock with 3.5" bare drives if you are creative. However, I wouldn't recommend it.

Someone should make a 3.5" sliding cradle so you can use standard drives. 2.5" SSDs work fine (as I will show later). The power supply interchanges with the USB 3.0 base.

The main issue I have with the dock is the flimsy plastic pins that connect to the Backup Plus enclosures. They make a worrisome snapping sound when you dislodge the enclosures.
I was hoping to freely move my enclosures from USB 3 to Thunderbolt but I have to be extremely careful removing enclosures. There is a great likelihood you can easily snap them off.

After a few tries, it was best to gently dislodge from the front first.

Unlike the STAE121/128, the Desktop Thunderbolt adapter comes with two Thunderbolt ports for daisy chaining. Here I have 3 Thunderbolt daisy chained: Drobo 5D, STAE129, and the portable STAE121 at the end.

In order to use this drive, you need to install some drivers for both Mac and Windows. There is a USB stick supplied in the packaging. I opted to download the latest ones from Seagate's website.

The driver is only needed on the Mac if you wish to use 2TB with Thunderbolt which was the case with me. If you have data on an existing drive, I suggest you back it up. The Thunderbolt enclosure prompted me to re-format the drive before using.


So how does it perform? Well that depends on what you are using it with. If you are planning to use 2.5" SSDs, you are simply better off using the portable 2.5" Adapter. I tried a Samsung 830 SSD on both and the speeds were comparable.

Using Black Magic speed test, here is what I got with the Samsung 830 SSD.
 307 MB/sec Write, 360MB/sec Read on both the Desktop STAE129 and portable 2.5 STAE121.

So for SSDs, just save your save the cash and buy the STAE121/128 portable Thunderbolt Adapters.

Now, if you are like me and have a bunch of external Backup Plus drives, this is the adapter to get. And the point of this review is to see how it would perform in the most typical scenario - using the 7200 rpm HDD external enclosures.

With the 4TB Desktop enclosure, I was getting 177/176 MB/sec Write and Reads as shown below.

I would say this is pretty good. In fact, it performs better than the internal 7200 rpm 1TB internal drive, ST31000528AS, that came with my 27" iMac. The internal drive benches at 108/57 MB/sec Write and Read.

The internal drive is running at SATA II/3 Gb/s instead of SATA III / 6 Gb/s

I thought the benchmarking off the boot drive with a full OS may have caused some slowdowns. But that is not really the case as I cloned the internal drive onto the Thunderbolt drive and booted off the external Thunderbolt.

As you can see below, a full Mountain Lion clone install and boot did little to impact the performance of the 4TB Thunderbolt drive.In fact, booting and running off the drive via Thunderbolt was a pleasure. I clocked the boot time from fresh power to login screen at 29 seconds. That is not bad for a 7200 rpm HDD drive.

As you can see from the screenshots below, the first one shows the internal drive running at 3 Gigabit versus the Thunderbolt running at a full SATA III 6 Gigabit.

So it seems the Thunderbolt controller is running at full optimal speed. I was worried it might be a handicap device running at SATA I or II. This isn't the case with Seagate.

So how does it compare to USB 3.0? As I mentioned earlier, one of the incentive for me to get this was the fact my 27" iMac does not have USB 3.0. However, my newer Macbook does have USB 3.0.

Running Blackmagic off my Macbook, the USB 3.0 posts some good numbers. It is slightly slower than the Thunderbolt adapter. However, I probably attribute it to a slower USB 3.0 controller chipset. 

Hence, here lies the dilemma. Thunderbolt with standard platter hard drives are not a compelling sell over standard USB 3.0. The USB 3.0 connector comes free with practically every Backup Plus enclosures.There are advantages to Thunderbolt over USB 3.0. Most notably in smaller I/O operations. Booting off Thunderbolt and copying random files will be faster. In the case of boot time, it was 3X faster at 31 seconds versus 1 minute and 45 seconds for USB 3.0. Small I/O, random 4K seeks will suffer under USB 3.0. But for copying large files, E.G. movie rips and gigabyte files, it is a draw.

Now, if your computer doesn't have USB 3.0 as in the case of my 2012 27" iMac, it may be worthwhile to get this adapter. If you need proof, here is the exact same 4TB Backup Plus drive connected to the USB 2.0 ports of my iMac. 29 MB/sec Writes and 38 MB/sec Reads.

I think this last picture pretty much the reason for any pre-USB 3.0/Ivy Bridge Mac user who has Thunderbolt.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Zagg Keys Flex Tablet Keyboard

The Zagg Keys Flex keyboard may be one of the best keyboards for the iPad.

At the time of this writing, the Zagg has them on sale for $39.99 from the regular $80.

So what makes it so great? Answer: portability and flexibility.

I have a few iPad keyboards and they work great for the most part. Except, they tend to get bulky and negate the advantage of having a tablet. Next, when you get a different tablet, the keyboards are often form-fitting for a specific generation of devices. You end up buying a different one when you get a new tablet. Importantly, the bulk wears you down. You may not need a keyboard/case combo all the time. When you are watching Netflix, you definitely don't need a keyboard. Hence, many of keyboards tend to fall into my desk drawer.

The Zagg Flex keyboard is compact and there is a simple cover that is used as a kickstand. The kickstand can even carry the weight of some covers. I don't have to remove the existing cover to use the kickstand. As you can see below, it is smaller than even the Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

Now, I just leave the keyboard in my bag and use it whenever I want.

Like most tablet keyboards, this one uses micro USB for charging. There is a toggle for iOS/Android. I assume this is for the key mappings for certain functions like home and menu.

Overall, this is very flexible. I can easily use my 7" Galaxy tablet or various smart phones. Overall, I am happy with this purchase.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

War Games, 29 years later

War Games, released in June of 1983, is an instant 80's movie classic starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. This is probably the first hacker movie to depict hacking/phreaking in the early 80s.
It is now on NetFlix streaming and I've watched it again on my iPad during a lazy Sunday afternoon. 29 years later, the movie still resonates.

Set during the Cold War, this thriller is about how a Seattle teenager, Matthew Broderick, accidentally hacks his ways into NORAD's super computer.

Now, the film's technology seems a bit dated. The super computer,WOPR, is a Hollywood's contraption. There are  8 inch floppies and 1200 baud modems showcased in the film.
However, despite the dated tech and 29 years of technology advances, I still find the film remarkable for a geek.

Sure, the movie starts out very slowly. It takes about 30 minutes to get any traction. What surprised me with a revisited viewing is how many of the "hacking/phreaking" is still relevant today.
Broderick's character isn't some geek genius. He is more of a script kiddy who relies on a lot of  "social engineering."

He gets the school's password by getting himself in trouble and getting sent to the Principle's office. He finds the backdoor password of the Pentagon's super computer by old-fashion sleuthing at the local library and studying its creator. Even Symantec has a good article on Social engineering citing example from this movie.

At the time when the movie was first release, I was in junior high school, playing with my Amiga 500. I had no idea or concept of "backdoor" and the whole plot/storyline was riveting.

The movie has been very influential for a modern generation of geeks.Google even hosted a 25th anniversary screening a while back.

Wikipedia notes some of its influences. It coined the word Firewall and his brute-force dialing also coined the phrase "war dialing." The Hacker's DefCon annual summer hacking convention was aptly titled and influenced from War Games.

This film is a historical snapshot of what life was like in the 1980s. The large 5 1/2" floppies, the dial tone BBS dialing, the 25 cent Galaga arcade.
The stereotype of geeks is still relevant. 29 years later, in the scene where Broderick gets the advice of his friends, I can see the "bearded" fat UNIX guy.

The movie was definitely ahead of its time; recognizing the future of inter connectivity (the Internet) and the related security issues we now face. It also tells a moral story of not relying on technology too much. The scene where Broderick books a flight to Paris for Ally Sheedy online  was unfathomable in 1983. Today, we take that for granted.

It was a much different time back then and we forget that not every family had computers back then. The Intenet was still a military and academic network. How times has changed. I highly recommend you watch War Games (again or for the first time).

There is a reboot in the works and I fear it wont live up to the original (Footloose anyone?)

In closing, it was very interesting to revisit this 80's thriller armed with the knowledge of how technology has evolved in the past 30 years. If you can overlook the dated technical computers and concepts, this is actually a very good movie.

 Original Trailer

Windows 3.1 under VirtualBox

Words can't describe the nostalgic feeling. I was never really fond of Microsoft's original major Windows operating system, 3.1. It had its uses back in the day on those old dual-scan TFT Toshiba laptops I use to run in college. I can still remember the flickers and the side trackballs. I was always an Amiga guy back then. I was the only one in college to do all my homework and work on an Amiga 1200.

Here it is running in 2013 under VirtualBox.

Notice how DOS 6.22 even recognizes my AMD FX-8320 8 core processor.

The year 2013 doesn't seem to effect to operating system. Windows can go well past any Y2K fears.

Unlike Mac OS 9, I couldn't get Windows 3.11 to run 2560x1600 on a 30" screen. I don't know what to say about the 800x600 256 colors!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Locking and Unlocking Truecrypt Containers using KeyFiles

I've been using TrueCrypt more and more these days. The main allure of TrueCrypt is the ability to run on multiple operating systems from Windows, Mac to Linux. Since a large number of my readers are Mac users, TrueCrypt is analogous to a secured encrypted DMG container with the benefit of using on other computer platforms. I've also been sending files to clients and colleagues using TrueCrypt via FTP and email. One of the nicest features of TrueCrypt is the ability to use a keyfile instead of a standard password.

A Keyfile is essentially just a digital key that locks and unlocks the TrueCrypt containers. It can be pretty much anything you want; including MP3s, Images, Word Docs,etc. I use JPEG and PNG images as my "digital key." I send out the photos to others and they already have the key in their possession and don't even realize it. I'll send an encrypted  file and tell them to unlock it with the baby pictures I sent the week before.  Pretty stealthy, huh?

Well, to use keyfiles, it is pretty easy and requires just a few clicks.

First, make your new TrueCrypt Volume.

When you reach the Password screen, select "Use keyfiles." Note, you can also use Passwords in addition to keyfiles. If you are paranoid, you can use both. In my example, I just leave the passwords blank and rely completely on the keyfiles to lock and unlock my secured container.

Next, add your key file(s). You can use multiple files as your set of keys.  Here, I choose an jpeg image.

That is pretty much it.  To unlock a container, simply check the "Use keyfiles" when you try to mount the container. If you don't have the keyfiles in your bookmark, you can click on the button next to the checkbox labelled "Keyfiles..." to select your key file.

As you can see, TrueCrypt is an amazingly powerful and feature rich encryption. Using keyfiles gives us a novel way of sending and storing encrypted cointainers.