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Sunday, December 27, 2009

I'm dreaming of an Apple iSlate

Mock-up of an Apple tablet computer
While the Apple iPhone has become a ubiquitous device in Singapore, there are still persistent rumours about an Apple tablet computer. And just before Christmas, new rumours swirled around about just such a device, including its alleged name.

Over at Mocca's "Techie Monster" tribe, I've provided a quick recap of what went down recently in "I'm dreaming of an Apple iSlate ". Hopefully, our dreams won't be dashed come January 2010.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Solution: overcoming black screen single user mode and missing "/etc/hostconfig"

One of the worst things to happen upon starting a Mac is to find yourself at a black screen with white text, instead of the familiar Finder. That's what happened to me recently. I had found myself in the (dreaded) "single user mode". Worse, I was later to discover that my Mac was missing a required file, "/etc/hostconfig" (i.e. the "hostconfig" file that's located at the "etc" folder).

I've detailed how I overcame my problem at Mocca's "Techie Monster" tribe. Hop on over to "Mac Solution: Mac starts into black screen ". Read on to find out how I restored my "/etc/hostconfig" file and successfully got out of single user mode!

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Lab: HTC Magic

HTC Magic
Thanks to the Apple iPhone, suddenly everyone wants to have a touchscreen smartphone to call their own. And phone manufacturers are answering the call by rolling out such devices to meet demand. It also helps that Google has jumped in the fray by providing its free Android software for these smartphones.

HTC is one such manufacturer that has produced a few Android-based phones. I had the chance to try out its HTC Magic recently. Over at Mocca's "Techie Monster" tribe, I've written a review of this Google Android-based smartphone, "The Lab: HTC Magic". My biggest problem with it: typing. Read on to find out!

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hack your Apple TV 2.4

Apple TV
For a long time, I've been resisting the urge to upgrade my Apple TV to version 2.4 of the firmware. That's because I watch videos that don't necessarily come through iTunes. As such, anything that removes the hacks that I've already applied would be very unwelcome.

But as luck would have it, after accidentally pressing the "Update Now" button, I was forced to re-hack my Apple TV. It took some research and trial-and-error, but I've pretty much succeeded in "restoring" my Apple TV to its hacked glory.

Over at Mocca's "Techie Monster" tribe, I provided a recount of my experience with hacking my newly upgraded Apple TV, "Hack your Apple TV 2.4". Hopefully, I help to reassure any other upgrade-wary Apple TV user as well!

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Lab: Targus USB Hub for Mac

Targus USB hub for Mac
A long time back, I was given the chance to try out one of Targus' Mac-targeted products, a USB hub for notebooks. With its rubber exterior and four USB ports, it's designed for maximum connectivity while ensuring that it can survive the hard knocks of mobile usage.

Over at Mocca's "Techie Monster" tribe, I've written a review of this computer peripheral, "The Lab: Targus USB Hub for Mac". Did I give it the thumbs up or thumbs down? Read on to find out!

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Lab: Canon Legria HF200

By now, if you still watch television shows, you'd probably have seen the Canon advertisements for the Legria series of camcorders. These products supposedly give a superior image quality that's as good as what you get in modern still cameras, but for a video recording device.

I had the chance to put this claim to the test recently. Based on a short experience, the results do uphold this claim. For one thing, this is a high definition (HD) camcorder, so of course the picture quality would be far better than standard definition camcorders.

But aside from the HD resolution, the colours and sharpness were as good as anything that Canon has produced, and maybe even better. Under ideal settings, like recording under bright sunlight, colours were captured as real as to the naked eye. But even in an indoor environment, lit only by fluorescent lights, images were still captured very well in terms of colours and sharpness, though of course, things were a darker shade due to less light.

The Legria camcorders can also function as still cameras, but I didn't test this out.

Startup time takes no more than 5 seconds, which is standard for consumer digital camcorders. Video (and still images) are recorded to an SDHC card. (The HF200 does not have any internal storage memory, so you must have an SDHC card.) An 8GB card should be sufficient to record a half hour's worth of video at the maximum resolution. If you're worried about the battery power running out before then, fret not. The included battery lasts for more than an hour at full charge.

(Note: the above are estimates. Your usage may vary.)

Video is captured in MTS format. This was the first time I had come across this format, so I don't know much about it. On a Mac, the free VLC player can play these MTS files natively. But if you want to play them with Quicktime, then you'd need to convert the videos to the standard MPEG-4 or Quicktime MOV format. Fortunately, you can also connect the camcorder to your Mac via the USB cable and import the videos into iMovie for editing.

(I don't have a Windows computer, so I couldn't test the Windows connectivity.)

Another thing I liked was its compact size. This is a camcorder that you could carry in a handbag easily. And with its small form factor, it would fit small hands comfortably. I don't know if Canon purposely designed the Legria for the female segment, but its design certainly seems to point that way.

One thing that I had to get used to was with the viewfinder -- or the lack of it. Almost all camcorders come with an LCD screen and a small viewfinder. The Legria HF200 has an LCD screen only. For users who record for long periods of time and are worried about power consumption, this might be a negative factor.

The LCD screen's power consumption could lead to a shorter battery life, which means shorter recording time. Of course, you can still record with the screen closed, but that would only be useful if you never need to move the camcorder, which is almost unlikely in all situations.

Personally, I've always had a good impression of Canon's digital camcorders. The picture quality was almost always on par with Sony's, but at a lower price. And this was validated by expert reviews. (Panasonic camcorders also score well in picture quality.) The Legria HF200 continues to reinforce this impression and I feel comforted by this. Definitely a worthwhile recording device to get. And with PC Show just around the corner in June, you might be able to get one with a few freebies!

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Monday, May 18, 2009

The Lab: X-Mini portable speakers

Some time back, I had a chance to test the X-Mini portable speakers. But since I'm not the kind who listens to music all day every day, I didn't have a chance to really test it out until recently. And I must say that the X-Mini's small size is hugely deceiving.

The X-Mini is a small, spherical object that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. To use it, you need to flick the power switch, then twist the shell open. The centre piece, known as the "accordion", is supposedly the secret behind the X-Mini's audio quality. Apparently, it delivers a superior bass experience to amplify your enjoyment.

Using it with my iPod, the music played about as well as through the earphones, based on my non-audiophilic test. In other words, I can tell that the quality is good enough for me to enjoy my music. True audiophiles may find it wanting, though, but then, what would you expect from portable speakers?

From the manual and website, I couldn't tell if the audio that came out was in true stereo quality. Nonetheless, what came out of the speakers sounded like stereo. The music definitely sounded richer, compared to my other portable speaker, which only plays mono sound.


Such sound quality would require a lot of energy. Fortunately, you don't have to weigh yourself down with AA batteries, since the X-Mini comes with its own built-in rechargeable battery. Recharging is done through a USB connection.

A word of caution: charge the battery before using the speakers. When I used the speakers with the USB wire still plugged to my laptop, I got static after a minute of iPod playback. This bug has probably been fixed in newer versions of the X-Mini.

To find out more about this made-in-Singapore product or to browse the rest of the range, visit the X-Mini website.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Lab: HTC Dream (Google Android phone)

To compete with Apple's iPhone, Google produced its Android platform for smartphones. Unlike Apple, though, Google doesn't make its phones. Instead, it has made Android an open source system that can be used by 3rd party phone manufacturers. Like HTC.

The HTC Dream is a bulky, heavy black coloured smartphone that contains the Google Android goodness. Unlike the slim and sexy Apple iPhone, the Dream is a device that was clearly not designed for handbags or trouser pockets. Instead, its size and weight suggest that it's meant as a desktop alternative, i.e. something you carry in a bag.

Which is pitiful because other phone manufacturers, like Nokia, have been able to cram a full-sized, slide out QWERTY keyboard without compromising on weight. This suspiciously makes the Dream seem like a first generation device that's being beta tested on the public.

Fortunately, most of the rest of the phone is top notch. Like any good smartphone, it features a touchscreen that I found to be responsive to my fingers. There were a few times when it thought that I'd pressed another button or required a firmer push on the screen to react, but overall, I found it a pleasant experience. Though it did take me a while to realise that I could scroll by flicking my finger across the screen, instead of relying on the physical scroll ball at the bottom.

Unlike the iPhone, though, the Dream does not have any on-screen touch-based keyboard. Instead, all typing has to be done through the keyboard. You flip the phone to the side, slide the screen out, and you now have access to the keyboard. Meanwhile, the screen's display flips to landscape view automatically. Unfortunately, typing wasn't as easy as I found it to be, especially for the right hand. This is because of the navigation buttons found at the bottom/right of the phone. This bulky area hindered my right hand from typing smoothly, unlike how it was for my left hand. So right-handed people, which is more than 50% of the population: beware!

Overall, I found it quite easy to navigate the device. Application buttons were generally big enough to press comfortably, scrolling was smooth and even Web browsing was a breeze. Regarding Internet connectivity, the Dream comes with Wifi and 3G. Unfortunately, since I'm not a Singtel user and didn't know how to setup the 3G access point for my telco, I didn't have a chance to test the 3G connectivity. But Wifi connectivity was definitely hassle-free.

The Google Android system provides a seamless experience in connecting to all of your Google services. By setting up my Google Account, I now had access to Gmail, Google Calendar, and more. If I read an email in the Dream, my desktop Gmail would almost automatically be updated to reflect the message's read status. I suspect, though, that this means that there's a lot of background data transfer, so 3G users would have to keep an eye on their data usage (= higher cost = money).

I could also access the Google App Store to download programs. Of course, I only downloaded the free stuff -- to mixed results. Since these apps aren't provided by Google, my success with them was hit-and-miss.

For example, I downloaded two Twitter apps. One made it easy to send updates, but for some reason refused to show my full Twitter history. The other was a pain in typing, but was otherwise a very slick program. As the warning goes: your mileage may vary.

Another problem I had with the Dream was with Bluetooth. Bluetooth support is apparently limited only to connecting with accessories, like earphones, which is similar to the iPhone. As such, I couldn't transfer files nor sync contacts with my Mac. The latter led to another issue: my contact list was limited to what was in my SIM card and in my online Google contact list, which I don't use for privacy reasons.

The bottomline is that this is a relatively nifty phone, if you can get past three things:

  1. Bulkiness
  2. Right hand unfriendliness
  3. Bluetooth limited to connecting with accessories only
If I were to get a Dream, though, I'd wait for the next version, so that HTC can iron out the kinks.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Apple reaches 1 billion App Store downloads!

On April 24, 2009, Apple announced that its App Store had surpassed the one billionth download mark. It achieved this feat in just nine months. (Put another way, that's the amount of time between sex and birth.)

That's quite a milestone for an online-only store. Not only that, it also indicates the voracious downloading appetite of iPhone users. Just as the iTunes Store benefited iPod users in getting music legally and easily, the App Store has clearly been a boon for iPhone users to expand the usefulness of their device.

As a result, other device makers are rolling out their copycat stores. E.g. Microsoft supposedly has one in the works (presumably for a souped up Zune or ZunePhone) and Research in Motion has its store for Blackberry users. Palm is also probably getting into the game once it releases its Palm Pre.

On the other hand, history hasn't been kind to Apple Store copycats. Thought the iTunes Store has been a success from day one, other online stores, like MSN Music, MTV's venture, the revamped Napster, etc. have mostly failed or are on life support.

The way I see it, download stores are a natural evolution in the way we consume media and content on our portable devices. But the way Apple is doing it is clearly a revolution that few have managed to replicate successfully.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

I use this: Apple TV

Apple TV
When I bought my new full HD TV, I knew that I'd need something else to be able to enjoy the high-definition experience. And since most of my media files were on my computer, I also needed something that would let me watch those shows on my TV.

Enter the Apple TV. It's a media device that connects to both my TV (via HDMI cable) and Mac (via wireless network) that lets me enjoy the best of both worlds. Setup and syncing were a breeze, allowing me to enjoy my shows without much pain.

(The only downside appears to be some HDMI handshake issue between my Samsung TV and the Apple TV. My current workaround is to unplug the HDMI cable, then replug it back.)

Here's my full review:

Like most people of my age group, I consume a lot of movies and TV shows on my computer or iPod. I'm not saying where I get these shows, only that I watch enough of these to spend more time in front of my computer screen than the TV screen.

So I decided to get a device that would be able to let me watch on a TV set the shows that are stored in my computer. And the device that provided the solution was the Apple TV . Made by Apple, the Apple TV is a sleek grey box that lets me enjoy my digital content -- movies, TV shows, photos, music -- on my TV.

Apple TV - contents
Out of the box, the Apple TV comes with almost everything you need to enjoy it straight away. Apple TV, check. Power cable, check. Remote control unit, check. Manuals, check. TV cable... hmm... get your own. I bought a $26 HDMI version 1.3 cable.

Setup is done in two parts: initially with the Apple TV, then through iTunes.
  1. Apple TV setup:
    Remove from box, connect HDMI cable, connect power cable, turn on power (there's no power switch on the Apple TV, so the wall outlet becomes the on/off switch), then setup the wireless network.
  2. iTunes setup:
    Let iTunes detect the Apple TV through the wireless network. Register the Apple TV, name the Apple TV (mine's called "Mapple TV"), then sync my content.
Apple TV - menu screen
After that, the Apple TV is ready for use! But wait, there's more! In addition to being tethered (figuratively) to my computer, it could also download network content from other services. These are Apple's own movie trailer site, YouTube and Flickr.

The movie trailers are not as updated as what you'd find on the website. For example, as of this writing, Apple featured the trailer for "Fame" on its website, but this couldn't be found in Apple TV's list.

The YouTube feature lets me watch any YouTube content. Besides categories like "Most Viewed" and "Most Recent", I can also search for content. If I enter my YouTube/Google Account name and password, Apple TV will also let me watch my favourites and subscriptions. Strangely, it doesn't let me watch my own videos! That's a very blatant omission.

The Flickr feature, on the other hand, doesn't require me to enter my name/password. Instead, it pulls the public photos from any Flickr account. I can add as many accounts as I wish, including those of my friends and/or strangers, to see their photos.

Downloading of content is surprisingly very fast, or maybe I'm used to slow speeds. For example, loading a 2-minute HD trailer took less than a minute, letting me enjoy it almost as soon as I pressed the "Play" button. YouTube videos take slightly longer, e.g. long enough for me to take a toilet break. Flickr photos appear almost instantaneously, which is useful for the screensaver.

What I really enjoy from my Apple TV is the HD experience. With my aging computer, I've never been able to watch a 1080p HD film without stuttering or pauses. But with my Apple TV and Full HD TV, I can watch them with crystal clarity. HD is really mind-blowing, and the fast downloads through Apple TV make such content even more available and appreciable.

One strange quibble: I constantly have to unplug then replug the HDMI cable on my Apple TV in order for my Samsung TV to detect it. From what I've read, it's a "HDMI handshake" problem between the two devices. Some say it's Samsung's fault, others point the finger at Apple. I've yet to find another workable solution, so in the meantime, I'll continue the unplug/replug ritual.

As a TV device, the Apple TV shines in seamlessly enabling you to watch content on your computer or at popular Internet services on your TV. Just don't expect anything more out of it, unless you're willing to void your warranty!

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

I use this: Samsung 32inch Series 6 Full HD LCD TV

(Almost) Front view
At the recent March 2009 IT Show, I made one of my biggest ticket items ever: a brand new Full HD (high-definition) television set. I had narrowed my choices down to a few, and finally signed on the dotted line for a Samsung Series 6 Full HD LCD TV. It's the smallest size at 32" because that's all the physical space and budget that I could afford!

The Series 6 is supposed to be one of the newer models from Samsung, though I have to admit that I didn't really know about that. For me, it was a toss-up between Sony and Samsung. After judging the picture quality based on my naked eye, I went with the Samsung. (Surprisingly, Sony's 32" W series TV had a less vivid picture than the 40" or larger W series TVs.)

From the side
As expected with any Full HD TV, the Series 6 model comes with 16:9 aspect ratio, HDMI ports and Dolby 5.1 audio. All that is greek to me. As far as I am bothered, the picture and audio look/sound just great! It also supposedly boasts a 15,000:1 contrast ratio, though to me, black is black, and colour is colour.

What do I like about it, in particular? There are a few things:

  • Full HD with 1080p resolution, bay-bee!
  • four HDMI ports! Though I only use one right now, haha
  • two RCA-type AV connectors, including one set handily at the side - both are useful, since my old DVD player and Nintendo Wii depend on those connections
  • different picture modes: normal, sports, cinema, game. Most of the time, my display mode is set to "cinema", switching to "game" only when I'm Wii-ing
Of course, nothing is perfect:
  • no integrated HD tuner! Darn it, if I knew about this extra component, I would've waited for the Series 8! Without this tuner, I can't enjoy full HD programs through the TV antenna. Which means I'm stuck with watching standard definition programmes on a HD TV, damn it!
  • the border is a tad bigger than I'd prefer.
  • for those who are concerned about power consumption, the Series 6 supposedly uses 200W, more than earlier Samsung models or the Sony W series.
  • no buttons/switches on the TV, e.g. on/off, channel switching, volume control, etc. Everything is through the remote control unit, which means if the latter goes bust, my TV is basically useless!
Remote control unit
Talking about the remote control unit, it's one monster! Definitely one of the biggest remote control units I've ever seen for an electronics device. But it's not because it's jam-packed with buttons. Rather, the buttons are bigger than on other units, so this one is actually more user friendly in that aspect! And since there aren't many extra (read: nonsensical) buttons, this unit is a breeze to use for people who don't like buttons.

So if you're looking for a Full HD TV because your current set is looking aged, then you may want to consider the Series 6 TV. In spite of not having an integrated HD tuner, it is really a worthwhile upgrade for those who want the high-def experience.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Symantec keeping quiet at customer complaints

Last week, Symantec officially announced its latest utilities suite, Norton 360. This product purports to be the latest, greatest, and most optimised Norton product ever released. Clearly, Symantec hopes that its upgraded line of utilities will bring in new customers who are looking for that sweet spot between protection and performance.

So it doesn't bode well when Symantec is apparently refusing to respond to customer complaints. The built-in defensive agent, Norton Internet Protection, constantly pops up a warning that PIFTS.EXE is trying to access the Internet. However, users are unable to find this file in the folder that NIP refers to.

It turns out that PIFTS.EXE is a file in Symantec's Live Update. So it looks like this component in a Symantec product is prompting another Symantec product to issue an alert to the user. That's not a good sign of how things are working.

The worst part, apparently, is that Symantec is remaining quiet about this. This is to the point where support messages are seemingly deleted! I won't go into possible "conspiracy theories" behind this move. But if this goes on for too long and if enough people notice, then this might become a major PR disaster for Symantec, especially so soon after its much-heralded utilities announcement.

Assuming that the problems reported are correct, then Symantec needs to take action to remedy the problem AND inform its customers appropriately and in a timely manner. Ignoring its customers would go against what the company is trying to do in employing so-called "crowd sourcing" to improve its products.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Norton 360 - Office for antivirus and utilities

On Thursday, Symantec finally announced its latest version of Norton 360, its suite of anti-virus and computer utilities. I had had the privilege of attending a pre-announcement preview of the product and had been quite impressed by what Symantec brought to the table.

Norton 360, now in its third release, combines tools that are essential for a (Windows-based) computer's well-being. Building from Symantec's legacy of anti-virus and utilities software, it protects and enhances computers without compromising on performance.

The thing about Norton 360, as the "360" in its name implies, is that it's an all-round solution. Instead of buying separate anti-virus and/or utilities software, you just need to buy this one product to get everything you need. It's like the familiar office suites, e.g. MS Office, which brings together Word, Excel, PowerPoint and more under one umbrella. This means greater convenience for you in managing your software.

Key components of Norton 360 are:

Norton Safe Web - a browser plug-in that warns you about possibly malicious websites and prevents "bad" software from being loaded into your computer. It also protects against the so-called "drive-by downloads", in which a trusted website may have been compromised, e.g. its background wallpaper had been replaced with something that would send bugs to your computer.

Norton Identity Safe - for storing your usernames and passwords securely, warning you against phising sites, and protecting you from keyloggers (which can capture what you type on your keyboard, useful for protecting against accidentally leaking out your username/password as you type)

Backup - the familiar backup tool that has been a stalwart of Norton Utilities, it now allows you to backup to Symantec's online storage for off-site backup. (Online storage is available at an additional fee.)

Tuneup - similar to Windows built-in Services control panel, this tool allows you to configure whether to launch startup items when you switch on your computer, delay the launch, or just not launch at all. (A delayed launch basically occurs after your desktop appears.) Unlike Windows' Services, Symantec thoughtfully indicates how much time that a startup item will require to launch. Interestingly, during the demo, Norton Utilies showed up as something that would have "Moderate" impact on startup time!

In addition to this, Symantec makes extensive use of community support, or so-called "crowd sourcing". For example, if one Norton user encounters a malicious website that Symantec had not known about, that information will be instantly propogated to every Norton user (at the next Live Update).

Aside: Live Update now checks for new updates about every 10-15 minutes. And it can be configured to work when the computer is idle. During the demo, several updates occurred without affecting the presentation!

Another use of crowd sourcing is with anti-virus checks. Symantec makes use of signatures to identify files that don't need to be scanned. Internally, it maintains a database of known "good" files. But when another program, e.g. "XYZ", is scanned as safe by other users, that information will be sent out to everyone as "Community approved" and will be skipped during anti-virus scans.

The above is an example of how Symantec is able to drastically reduce the performance impact on users' computers. Scanning fewer files means less CPU power devoted to anti-virus checks and less time spent on scanning. Other enhancements have also been made to other parts of the Norton tools to dramatically improve the overall experience.

These product enhancements and new features make Norton 360 even more "must have", especially for those who don't already have anti-virus or utilities software. Its convenience as an all-in-one package combined with its tremendous enhancements and support make it extremely valuable.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Lab: Nokia 5800 XpressMusic - phone + music

At the media event for the launch of Nokia's Comes With Music program last Friday at Velvet Underground, I had the opportunity to try out the company's new music phone, 5800 XpressMusic. This is the first phone that incorporates Comes With Music, where the owner is entitled to unlimited downloads from the Nokia Music Store for one year after phone purchase.

The first obvious feature of the phone is its touchscreen. Like Apple's iPhone, there is no physical keyboard at all. Almost all interaction is done through the touchscreen. (There are physical buttons for the volume, camera and lock/unlock.) Also like the iPhone, most of the times, you'll only need your finger to interact with your phone.

A stylus is provided, and I needed it for pressing on small UI elements. One of these was the on-screen keyboard. The 5800 XpressMusic comes with three kinds of typed entry: a full QWERTY keypad, a mini QWERTY keypad, and the familiar numeric keypad. The full keypad always appears in landscape mode, and the numeric keypad always appears in portrait mode, while the mini keypad can be used with either modes. I found that I needed the stylus to properly type with the mini keypad. On the other hand, after using it for a while, I found it so limited that I preferred the full keypad or numeric one.

The full-sized QWERTY keypad was a delight to use. I found that I could type almost as fast as my finger found the key. That means I didn't have to wait for the phone to realise that I'd pressed a button before responding. In other words, typing was almost as easy as on a physical keyboard. It was the same experience with the numeric keypad.

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic -  Web browsing
Since I'm more interested in the Internet functions, I launched the web browser and found myself in a similar environment as found in other Nokia phones. That meant its interface wasn't really designed for fingers and I had to resort to tapping with the stylus. But typing, as usual, was done through the previously mentioned keypads.

As mentioned, the phone can function is landscape or portrait mode. Either mode can be activated by turning the phone, just like its done with the iPhone. I suppose it won't be long before there are third party apps to take advantage of this function, just like with the iPhone.

Camera-wise, I think there had been some improvement in the picture quality from previous models. Compared to my trusty Sony Ericsson K800i, the 5800 XpressMusic produced pictures that looked sufficiently sharp and rich, even in low light conditions.

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic
Nokia 5800 XpressMusic camera photo

Sony Ericsson K800i
Sony Ericsson K800i camera photo

At the end, this is, after all, a music phone. So how did it fare in this department? The music player is the same one a found in other Nokia phones, so most Nokia owners should be familiar with it. Nokia also encourages noise pollution by providing stereo speakers with the phone. The sound quality isn't tinny, as you'd expect from small speakers, but something that could reasonably rival a normal consumer music player. So please make sure you're playing something pleasant if you insist on blasting your music through the speakers.

One issue I had was with scrolling. I guess Apple has patented the flicking gesture, because that's not available here. Instead, scrolling is done by keeping the finger on the screen and moving it up/down. I even found that I had to press slightly harder on the screen as I moved my finger, otherwise the interface would refuse to scroll. I don't know if this was because I was using a test version of the phone.

Overall, the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic seemed like a well built phone that should have a lot of fans.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

I use this: Vuze - outstanding BitTorrent client

Before I begin, I want to state categorically that this is not about how to use BitTorrent nor what files you can get with BitTorrent. You can get that information elsewhere.

Vuze is a BitTorrent program to handle file sharing with that protocol and works on both Windows and Mac OS X. (I think there's a version for Linux too.) It's written in Java, though, so the non-native code causes the program to run slower than natively written programs would.

In spite of its poor comparative performance, I still choose it over other (Mac-based) BitTorrent clients. Vuze gives three reasons for using its software:

  1. intuitive design
  2. free HD content within the Vuze network
  3. subscribe to RSS feeds
I've never really found a need for those three reasons (the first one is debatable). Instead, here are my top three reasons for using Vuze instead of another BitTorrent client.

1. Download only the files you want
Often times, a single torrent file will be actually a collection of files. But there are times when you don't want to download all of the files. That's especially useful if the final download is gigabytes in size, but all you need is a file that's 1MB big.

When you open a torrent in Vuze, you're instantly shown all of the available files in that torrent. You can then choose to download all or select the ones you don't want. Buttons are available to select all or select none, which are useful when you want to include or remove one or two files from the list.

2. Rename files inside Vuze
This is a feature that's difficult to find in other BitTorrent clients. Instead of waiting for a download to complete before renaming it in your file system, Vuze lets you rename the file immediately. When the download begins, you'll find the file with your specified name. That's very useful for personalising your downloads, especially when you have a lot of downloads with similar names.

3. Specify unique settings per torrent
As you would expect to find in BitTorrent programs, Vuze lets you specify the number of connections and speed of each torrent in your list. But Vuze goes a step further from this global setting. For each torrent, you can further specify its maximum upload and download speeds.

For example, you may specify in the program's Preferences that each torrent can have a maximum upload speed of 20KB/s. But then, you decide that one particular torrent isn't very important, so you want to lower its upload speed. Vuze allows you to do that. Right-click (or Control-click in OS X) on the torrent, then select Advanced --> Set Upload Speed, and enter your desired upload speed, e.g. 5KB/s. Ta-da! While all of the other torrents upload at a maximum of 20KB/s, this particular one will be stuck at 5KB/s.

There are some other features that I like about Vuze, but those are my top three reasons for sticking with it rather than another BitTorrent client.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Lab: Apple Safari 4 beta

In the middle of this past week, Apple released a beta version of a new release of its Internet browser, Safari 4. The software promised plenty of flashy enhancements while improving browsing performance. However, after using it exclusively since its launch, I have to drop it and return to familiar ol' Firefox.

1. Browsing performance
Safari 4's biggest achievement is its browsing performance, particularly with JavaScript. Working in Gmail has never been more pleasant or smoother. I liked how the Gmail interface responded quickly, as if I was working on a program in my machine. I also experienced much improved performance with other JavaScript-heavy sites, like Google Reader and Plurk.

Even with regular web pages, rendering was so fast that content appeared almost as soon as I clicked a link or pressed Enter after typing in a URL. Of course, how soon a page appears also depends on your Internet connection. I certainly wouldn't expect such fast performance on dial-up!

Disclaimer: I'm writing this in Safari 4, and the Java-based image uploader is definitely faster in performance too! Uploading pictures never felt this breezy in Firefox.

2. Developer tools
Safari - developer tools
If you're a web developer, then you'll appreciate Safari 4's developer tools. This set of tools let you peek at the CSS of page elements, the amount of system resources (CPU power, memory) used by a page, and debugging of JavaScript. You can also change the browser's user agent string.

I didn't use these tools extensively, but from my brief experience, these look as useful as what you'd find with the Firefox plug-in, Firebug, or with Google Chrome.

Unfortunately, these two features were the only good things that I could say about Safari 4. Here's a rundown of why I didn't enjoy the other new features.

3. Top Sites
Safari - Top Sites
This feature allows you to see your most browsed pages in a display that resembles the Apple TV interface. It gives you quick access to these pages, which you can identify easily through "live" thumbnails of the pages.

However, for some reason, even with a broadband connection, the thumbnails took a very long time to load. It was faster for me to read the page title of a page and click on it, than to wait for the thumbnail to load.

I also found this feature to be pretty useless to me for 2 reasons:

  1. I already bookmark my most browsed pages
  2. I had configured Top Sites to appear when I opened a new tab or window is opened (you can configure it yourself). But I later found that my behaviour is such that I'm unlikely to open a most browsed page in a new tab, but rather to do something else, like do a Google search.
4. History Search
Safari - history
Within Top Sites, you can search your history of browsed pages. Safari 4 not only lets you search by page title, but also by page content . That's useful if you're the type who remembers the page's content but nothing else. As you search, Safari 4 whittles down the matched pages with its Cover Flow interface. Again, "live" thumbnails of the pages help you identify these pages.

In the end, though, as useful as this sounded, I didn't use it at all. Firstly, history search can only be initiated through Top Sites. Secondly, there's the problem with "live" thumbnails.

Thirdly, I usually remember page titles, so my normal searching behaviour is with the address bar. Like Firefox 3, Safari 4 lets you search page titles in its address bar, and you can search by URL or page title -- but not both! That's something I found to be a step back.

Let's say I had visited a page at www.example.com and the page title was "Foo bar". In Safari 4, I could search for "example" or "foo" to find the page. But if I searched for "example foo", no results would be returned. Firefox 3, on the other hand, would show me this page.

5. Cover Flow
Safari - Cover Flow
Talking about Cover Flow, this feature was more eye candy than useful. Cover Flow is used with bookmarks and history search. But due to the problem with loading of "live" thumbnails, I was more likely to see a "cover flow" of blank pages. As a result, I would have to resort to the bookmark list to find what I was looking for.

Assuming the thumbnails did load, I found that I couldn't "flow" through folders or, in the case with history, pages viewed in a day. I had to open the folder, then step through the bookmarks/pages. Again, two steps forward, one step back.

6. Tab Placements
Safari - tabs
Like Google Chrome, Safari 4 now displays its tabs in place of the title bar, instead of below the bookmarks bar. I suppose some people would like that. I could get used to it, if not for some nagging irritations.

For one thing, clicking on a tab didn't necessarily bring it to the front. I don't know if it was slow system performance or a mis-click, but I often found myself having to click a tab twice to bring it to the front. And if I clicked too fast, I would minimise the window, since Safari 4 would think that I had double-clicked its title bar.

To move a tab, I had to place my mouse at the right corner of the tab to "activate" this feature. This was unlike Firefox 3, where I could click on any part of the tab to drag it around. I suppose this limitation in Safari 4 has its benefits, but I'm not a fan of it.

Another thing that I thought was a UI puzzle: now that the tabs have moved, I thought that things like back/forward buttons and address bar would function only for that tab. They do for the most part. Now let's say I open a set of bookmarks. Each bookmark appears in its own tab. That's what I expected.

What I didn't expect was that when I pressed the back button, all of the tabs closed and I was returned to the previous page of the current tab. That didn't make sense to me. I expected the other tabs to remain open while the tab in which I had pressed the back button to return to its previous page. That's how it is in Firefox 3 and that's what makes sense to me, especially given the placement of the tabs.

Other irritations
  • Safari 4 still only lets me save one login per website. There are some sites where I have multiple logins. Firefox 3 would let me save all of them. Safari 4 asks if I want to replace the previously saved login.
  • I can't re-open a recently closed tab. This is especially important if I accidentally close a tab (e.g. due to itchy fingers). Safari 4 allows me to open closed tabs from a previous session or the most recently closed window . But there's no option for the most recently closed tab in the current session.
  • if I open a bookmark, Safari 4 displays the name that I use in the bookmark, not the actual page title. To make sure I wasn't going crazy, I bookmarked the Google homepage and called it "Ozymandias". True enough, when I opened the bookmark, the Google homepage appeared but the tab title was "Ozymandias". That's not a feature, especially since many web services use dynamic titles, e.g. Gmail, Google Reader, etc.
  • for some reason, Safari 4's performance deteriorated the longer I used it. I don't know if it's because it doesn't free up system resources or its history gets cluttered when trying to track every page that I've been to or something else. But it's darn irritating to see the spinning beach ball (in OS X) so often. Of course, since this is a beta, I'll let this slide.
  • I had to remember that the Reload button was in the address bar, not together with the back/forward buttons. And how come there's no Stop button?
  • I missed the progress bar to indicate the loading of a page. There's a hack to get it back, but I chose not to implement it in favour of a more "virgin" experience with Safari 4.
And I miss my plug-ins in Firefox. I've come to appreciate the little things, like Firebug and HTTPFox.

So after using Safari 4 for these few days, I have to give it up in favour of Firefox 3. If only Firefox 3's performance was as good (or better!) than Safari 4's, then I'd be extremely pleased. (Firefox 3.1 is supposed to promise that enhanced performance.)

Disclaimer: all pictures are from Apple's website.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Lab: Nokia E75 - phone + email + keyboard

Recently, Nokia has made quite a few important announcements. The first was the launch of the local version of its "Comes with Music" program, where the owner of a new compatible Nokia phone could get one year's worth of (legal) music downloads for free.

Most recently, Nokia announced a new focus on messaging. And not just familiar SMS or MMS, but email as well. Sure, most modern phones have supported email, but Nokia has extended its support by providing a new email user interface. And I had a chance to try out one of these phones, the Nokia E75.

Nokia claims to be able to provide out-of-the-box support for Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes, two common email systems in businesses. It also supports regular protocols like POP3, SMTP and IMAP. Though I didn't attempt to add an email account to the display phone, I did see in its user interface that it not only supported those protocols, but allowed you to see your email from different service providers within the same inbox. This shoud make it convenient for a person on-the-go to view his personal- and work-related emails at a glance. If there are too many messages, you can view only those from a particular service through a drop-down menu.

Of course, providing email support is only one part of the equation. The other important part is the hardware for composing emails. The Nokia E75 solves this with a slide-out keyboard. This is a full-sized QWERTY keyboard, like a mini version of what you'd find in notebooks. This means you get all of the alphabets and punctuation marks, and numbers are a function key-press away.

Typing on this keyboard was a snap. The keys are made of a material that feels like metal and produce sufficient tactile feedback. The closest analogy that I can think of about the keyboard is like what you get at ATMs. The buttons are solid to the touch and depress nicely within their fixed rectangle spaces. There was little chance of me accidentally pressing the wrong key with this keyboard.

Since the phone is turned sideways when used with the keyboard, the screen not only turns correspondingly, but the directional keypad also changes. What used to be the up-down buttons become left-right, and vice versa.

Nokia E75 photo
Besides these, the phone also packs a 3-megapixel camera. Normally, I would expect low quality pictures on an E-series phone, since it's not meant to be used for taking pictures. But with the E75, I was pleasantly surprised. Pictures not only came out clear and rich, but they also looked pretty clear! So now business-type people have no reason to say that their phones take crappy pictures.

The Nokia E75 comes in three colours: silver black, red, and copper yellow. (I found the red to be very trendy!) It is expected to ship in March 2009.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Test drive: Samsung SGH-D980

Samsung SGH-D980
Over Chinese New Year, I had the opportunity to try out Samsung's SGH-D980. It's a dual SIM (i.e. it can accommodate two SIM cards without the need to swap between them), touchscreen handphone with a five-megapixel camera and handwriting recognition.

Unfortunately, after two weeks of using it, I felt underwhelmed by it. This was in spite of the "high-tech" touchscreen. Sure, touchscreen smartphones have been around for a long time, like the early Sony Ericsson P-series. But it was the Apple iPhone that made people really sit up and take note of the technology. And its user interface has become the "de facto" standard.

It seems that people are more inclined to swipe a finger (or stylus, if really necessary) across the screen to scroll, rather than rely on a dedicated scrollbar -- especially one that is as mediocre as the one found in the SGH-D980! It was just impossible to scroll even with the stylus, and its implementation across applications, e.g. SMS and web browser, was inconsistent.

Here's my full review:

Thanks to Samsung and Cheil, I had the opportunity to try out the new Samsung SGH-D980. And good timing too, since it was Chinese New Year, so I could really make use of the camera and camcorder features!

However, the phone's key selling points are its dual SIM capability, handwriting recognition through its touchscreen, and 5-megapixel camera. The dual SIM function means that you can use two SIM cards with the same phone. Useful for home + work or home + leisure (or wife + mistress...). Unfortunately, I only have one SIM card, so I didn't get a chance to test this out.

Like most other Samsung phones, the SGH-D980 features a touchscreen that responds to fingers or the included stylus. While that feature is nifty, I felt that there was still lots of room for improvement. The touchscreen responded perfectly with the stylus, but not so with fingers. I found that a gentle tap would garner no results, so I had to press harder on the screen. And that caused me to worry that too much forceful pressing would one day cause the screen to crack. Where you pressed also made a difference, depending on what you were pressing (icon, keypad, web page link, etc). There were times when I'm sure that I pressed a button correctly, only to see that nothing happened or I got the wrong response.

Where the touchscreen -- and the built-in software -- shone was with handwriting recognition. As an ex-Palm user, I knew that I didn't want to learn a brand new way of writing just to work with a gadget. And thankfully, I didn't need to with the SGH-D980. As long as I wrote in large characters (even bigger than what primary school kids would write), the phone would recognise them. And even if I got them wrong, the software always provided suggestions that were close to what I had written.

In the end, though, I reverted to typing the letters rather than writing them out. It was much faster to type them with the on-screen keypad.

Chinese writers are not left out either. The software recognises Chinese characters as well. Since I only know simplified Chinese, that was what I wrote, and the software recognised my characters very well, again, as long as I wrote large and clearly. I don't know if the software works with traditional Chinese characters.

Its other key feature is its 5-megapixel camera. Having used only a 3-megapixel camera phone, I was eager to see what kind of results I would get with the larger resolution. The pictures I got were certainly larger, so I was better able to appreciate the results. But at that large size, I also noticed something else. Even under bright light conditions when indoors, the pictures looked grainy.

Take a look at this steamboat. Or this table of oranges. (Flickr has resized the images, but the picture qualities are the same as the originals.) Notice the graininess of the steamboat pot at top-left. And see how the white chairs around the table of oranges are speckled. This graininess was definitely not something I expected for an electronics company. I suspect that it is more due to the image processing software rather than the camera hardware (lens, etc) itself. Compared to Sony Ericsson's line of camera phones, the SGH-D980 doesn't hold a candle in terms of picture clarity.

The camera can also take videos at 640x480 size. Personally, I was just glad to finally be able to record such decently sized videos with a camera phone, so I've no issues there. The picture quality was similar to what you'd expect from other camera phones, i.e. don't expect crystal clear images or lack of jerkiness.

I had other peeves with this phone. The most glaring one was its user interface, in particular, the scrollbar. Firstly, I had to find out by trial-and-error that I could scroll only by pressing the up/down button at the side of the phone. Scrolling with the touchscreen is impossible with fingers and ridiculously difficult with the stylus. Why? Because the scrollbar is so narrow! On the screen, it's only about 1mm -- that's millimetre! -- wide. I barely noticed it the first time I used the phone, and when I tapped on it with the stylus, I had to tap so close to the screen's edge that most of the time, I had tapped outside of the touchscreen area.

But it was the lack of consistent application of the scrolling function that really frustrated me. In menus, the up/down button worked as expected. With SMS messages, pressing the up/down button caused the screen to zoom out, not scroll. And the up/down button simply didn't work in the web browser.

On a sidenote, here's a free tip that you won't find in the manual. To use a widget in the sidebar on the home screen, you need to drag it out of the bar to "activate" it. Tapping on a widget does nothing. I feel that this user interface goes against what is implemented with other widgets, i.e. you only need to tap a widget like any other icon/button to activate it.

Other specifications: 3G + Bluetooth (no Wifi), microSD memory card slot, music player (MP3 and AAC formats), video player (MPEG-4 format only). At 97.5x55x16.3mm and 117g, it fits comfortably in a jeans pocket, though ladies might find it a tad bulky and heavy.

Mac users, beware! In spite of the Bluetooth feature, the phone is not supported by iSync, nor is there a plug-in to make it work with iSync. Bluetooth File Transfer works, but the transfer has to be initialised from the phone, i.e. you can't use OS X's built-in Bluetooth File Exchange to transfer files.

Windows XP users: for some reason, I couldn't get Bluetooth file transfer to work with XP, whether initialised by the phone or computer.

Personally, I wouldn't recommend this phone. Sure, the dual SIM and touchscreen handwriting features sound extraordinary, even unique. But all of its other features are sub-par. The scrollbar was already a huge turn-off for me.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nokia launches Comes With Music in Singapore

For about a year, Nokia has had a music program called "Comes With Music". In a nutshell, it allows owners of certain music-enabled handphones to download music from the Nokia Music Store -- for free! No hidden charges, no subscriptions, nothing (except for normal telco data charges).

Now, Comes With Music has been launched in Singapore, making this the first Asian country to enjoy this program. At the launch, new owners of Nokia 5320 XpressMusic and 5220 XpressMusic will be able to download as many songs as they want for the first year after purchase. There are apparently no catches, and everything is as legal as can be.

Find out more at www.nokia.com.sg/comeswithmusic.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Measurement Lab - test your Internet connection

Google now offers a range of tests to check your Internet connection. Recently, it had partnered with a range of independent research institutitions to launch Measurement Lab, a central location that links to these tests.

There are two main sets of tests: for end users and for researchers. For end users, you'll find a list of tests, e.g. for network speed, problems in broadband connections, and BitTorrent traffic manipulation.

The test that will probably most interest techies is the Glasnost test for BitTorrent traffic manipulation, or "shaping". BitTorrent is a common method for downloading large files. It has its legitimate use, but it is its illegitimate usage for downloading movies and software that has most authorities concerned.

In response, many ISPs have been known to meddle with BitTorrent traffic. Through "shaping", these ISPs attempt to limit the bandwidth available, thus hindering the flow of downloads.

With the Glasnost test, you can now check whether your ISP is shaping your BitTorrent traffic to your detriment. The test is relatively painless. Through your web browser, a Java applet is run which simulates BitTorrent data transfers. If you get the "all clear", then your ISP is probably not shaping your BitTorrent traffic. But if you get any red warnings, then there's a chance that something is happening behind the scenes.

Besides the Glasnost test, I tried using the other ones, but all of the servers that operate them appear to be overloaded. As a result, I either had to join very long queues or the servers simply refused to let me get on. Hopefully, this situation will improve with time.

But for now, I'll be content with the Glasnost test.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

SOLUTION: misconfigured "TemporaryItems" folder makes Office:Mac 2004 inoperable

This soluion has to do with a bad Mac OS X "TemporaryItems" folder that causes Microsoft Office:Mac 2004, including Word 2004 and Excel 2004, to consistently give error messages and refuse to work normally. I'm writing this down because it's a solution that I was unable to locate through a Google search or haven't seen documented anywhere by anyone. (If it's the latter, I'd be really surprised!)

(Note: the error messages listed are mostly correct in wording/phrasing as what the programs reported. Unfortunately, I didn't screenshot or write them down.)

My computer set-up: PowerPC-based Mac running Mac OS X 10.4.11.

Problem:
A. Microsoft Excel:Mac 2004
A few days ago, when I started Excel:Mac 2004 by double-clicking an XLS file, it gave this error:

'filename.xls' could not be found.

Check the spelling of the file name and verify that the file location is correct.

If you are trying to open the file from your list of most recently used files on the File menu, make sure that the file has not been renamed, moved or deleted.
This was particularly distressing because it's a file that I use everyday and Excel had never had an hang-ups about opening it.

When I tried to open the file manually in Excel (i.e. through File->Open), I got the same error upon pressing the "Open" button.

I decided to try and create a new file. This time, I got a new error message:
Microsoft Excel cannot open or save any more documents because there is not enough available memory or disk space.

To make more memory available, close workbooks of programs you may no longer need.

To free disk space, delete files you no longer need from the disk you are saving to.
This was even stranger because I had gigabytes of space in my hard disk. Something else was wrong here.

B. Microsoft Word:Mac 2004
To double-check, I tried using Word:Mac 2004. Starting it up was fine, but when I tried to open a file, I encountered this error message:
'filename.doc' is being used by 'another user'. Do you want to make a copy?
This was impossible since I was using the one-and-only OS X user account and the file I was opening had never been opened by anyone else or been closed improperly. Like before, I tried creating a new file, and now Word complained:
Do you want to replace the existing "Normal"?
I hit "Cancel" to skip the error, which leaves me in Word. So I closed Word again and now it said:
Changes have been made that affect the global template "Normal". Do you want to save those changes?
Of course, I pressed "Don't save".

Based on the above experience, I surmised that my problem couldn't be restricted to Excel or Word (or PowerPoint, for that matter). It was something more global.

Solution: ensure that there is a working "Home/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems" folder
When working with its DOC/XLS/PPT/whatever files, Office:Mac 2004 needs a place to save the working copies for its own use. These working copies, or temporary files, reside in the location, "Home/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems". If this folder is misconfigured or corrupt, none of the Office:Mac 2004 programs (Word:Mac 2004, Excel:Mac 2004, PowerPoint:Mac 2004, etc) will work.

To recreate a working copy of "Home/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems",
  1. Delete "TemporaryItems" folder in "Home/Library/Caches", if it's there.
  2. Delete "Home/Documents/Microsoft User Data/Entourage Temp"
  3. Start any Office:Mac 2004 program (Word:Mac 2004, Excel:Mac 2004, PowerPoint:Mac 2004. etc.)
You should now have a working "Home/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems" folder and Office:Mac 2004's programs (Word:Mac 2004, Excel:Mac 2004, PowerPoint:Mac 2004, etc.) should not give any error messages.

You can stop reading here, if you want to. What follows is my (long!) list of attempted solutions.

Attempted Solution #1: delete preference files
In Mac OS, deleting the preference files is usually the first and easiest step to solve any problem. So I deleted the Office-related files in "Home/Library/Preferences" and "Home/Documents". No luck there.

Attempted Solution #2: check for corrupt fonts
When I had encountered weird Office:Mac 2004 errors previously, the culprit was usually some corrupt font. So I used Mac OS X's Font Book to deactivate all fonts, then restarted Word or Excel. Nope, the problem was still there.

Attempted Solution #3: repair system permissions and repair disk
Another cure-all in the Mac OS X world: use Disk Utility to repair permissions and the disk itself. Though it's never been proven, repairing sometimes solves problems. Unfortunately, though Disk Utility found a problem with my disk's volume header, Word and Excel still refused to run.

Attempted Solution #4: re-install Office:Mac 2004
Based on some searches, a problem in a required Office installation file could be a problem-maker. The easiest way to solve it was to re-install the whole software. So I did. Luckily, it didn't take more than half an hour. Alas, the problem persisted with this clean installation, even after adding the updates.

Attempted Solution #5: re-install Mac OS X 10.4
This was the last resort and it took me about three hours to get my Mac OS X environment restored to the way it was originally. (Reinstalling the operating system, including the updates, took about an hour. Copying files and reinstalling other software took about another hour.)

And success! It worked! No more error messages in Word:Mac or Excel:Mac. My trusty ol' DOC and XLS files opened as usual with no problems. And no other weird messages on quitting.

I was content to leave this as it was... until it happened again. Aaargh!

Now I had to remember what I'd done since it stopped working properly. Had I installed any new software in the last few days?

Attempted Solution #6: downgrade QuickTime from 7.6 to 7.5.5
QuickTime 7.6 was one new software. I had read of some software conflicts with it, but nothing related to Office:Mac 2004. Still, there was no harm in downgrading and trying it. Alas, it did not eliminate the problem.

Attempted Solution #7: create a new OS X user
Another "last resort" solution. I created a new user, logged into it, then started Excel and Word. Both worked flawlessly! This narrowed the problem down to some files within my "Home/Library" folder, since each user has its own Library.

Comparing files/folders between the two, I couldn't find anything that was different. My original "Library" folder had the same essential contents as the new user's. So I copied files/folders out of my original "Library" folder. No luck, I still had the Excel and Word errors.

Attempted Solution #8: delete contents of "Home/Library/Caches"
And then I stumbled upon this quite by accident: while copying files back into my original "Library" folder, I decided to not copy the "Home/Library/Caches" folder. Which meant that the "Caches" folder in my original "Library" folder was now empty.

And Word and Excel started with nary a complaint!

I then used a couple of other programs, then tried to start Excel. The problem returned! I went through the programs I'd used and two stuck out: Safari and Firefox.

Attempted Solution #9: remove Safari's caches
Safari had recently been upgraded to version 3.2.1, another new piece of software. Unfortunately, removing its stuff in the "Caches" folder did not eliminate the problem.

Attempted Solution #10: disable Firefox's add-ons/plug-ins
Starting Firefox 3.0.5, I disabled all of its add-ons. In its "virgin" state, I knew from past experience that it couldn't be messing up the "Caches" folder. Unfortunately, this didn't work... until I decided to just see what was inside the "Caches" folder itself.

Attempted Solution #11: delete misconfigured "TemporaryItems"
I found one strange item: "TemporaryItems". It was a folder, but was not "working" as a folder, i.e. I couldn't list its contents. So I deleted it, then restarted Excel. No go. However, I found through trial-and-error that I could recreate a "proper" "TemporaryItems" folder by deleting "Home/Documents/Microsoft User Data/Entourage Temp". I don't know how/why it works, but it does.

While leaving the "TemporaryItems" folder open, I started Excel by double-clicking an XLS file. Excel worked perfectly well again! And now I noticed that it had creating a temporary file in the "TemporaryItems" folder.

Breakthrough:
Of course! Word and Excel had complained of low memory or all of the other crap errors because it couldn't save its temporary working files!

True Solution: remove software that misconfigure "TemporaryItems"
I later found out that it was an erroneous Firefox add-on, Weave 0.2.7, which had caused all of these problems. Apparently, it was either deleting incompletely the "TemporaryItems" folder or was creating it improperly. Whatever the reason, it was messing up my system badly. Needless to say, I'm keeping it disabled.

I hope the above is useful for anyone who encounters the same problems as me. Hopefully, I've stuffed enough keywords to make it easily searchable.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

When the phone battery dies...

(I had wanted to write a product review, but that will have to wait while I deal with this little "crisis".)

Just last night, I had one of those moments when I realised I was truly a citizen of the mobile phone world. When the phone suddenly stopped charging and the device itself refused to start up, I had a real moment of panic. Not because the phone (or, most likely, its battery) was possibly dead, but because all of the data that was stored in it couldn't be accessed.

And I needed to access that data NOW!

The mobile phone has become a really indispensible device and it's due to its convenience. SMS makes sending and receiving short messages relatively painless. New numbers can be saved to the phone with a few keystrokes. And with phones doubling up as cameras and music players, lots of favourite pictures and tunes are stored in phone memory and/or memory cards.

And all of these can be lost when the power dies. Almost all phones require a working battery to operate. Even if a battery-less phone is connected to a wall outlet, it usually will not work. And that means that the data stored in the phone is effectively locked up. Without a working power source, my phone essentially became a data-filled brick, useless and useful at the same time.

Of course, I could easily buy a new battery, pray that nothing else in the phone's circuitry had given up the ghost, and stop ranting on my blog. But this was in the middle of the night, when the shops were closed, and I needed to find a contact number urgently. And though I sync my contacts with my computer regularly, this particular number had been saved to my phone after my most recent sync.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has faced this problem of a powerless, inaccessible mobile device. As the mobile phone becomes more and more ubiquitous, I think there has to be a better alternative to retrieve its data without needing a working battery inside it.

While I take a moment to find a new phone battery, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Have you encountered this issue (powerless mobile phone with inaccessible data) before? How did you overcome it, short of getting a new battery?

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Apple and Steve Jobs - tied at the hip

Steve Jobs recently wrote a letter to his colleagues stating that he'll be on sick leave for the next few months. Almost immediately, the stock market reacted negatively and Apple's share price fell.

Look, I know Steve Jobs is pretty awesome at his job. He is deserving of his cult-like attraction due to this marketing genius. And he's been able to lead a company that makes its own path, rather than follow the one most travelled.

But this recent news has to make you wonder about the long-term viability of Apple. The last time Steve Jobs left Apple, the company basically floundered with a few missteps (Newton? eWorld?). Luckily, it already had its loyal followers and was able to stay afloat till Steve Jobs returned and re-galvanised the company.

Today, Apple is in a safer position with three strong product lines - Macintosh, iPod and iPhone. Yet, industry observers still think of Apple only in terms of its CEO.

So what's gonna happen when Steve Jobs quits -- or worse? After all, no one lives forever.

I'm sure that Apple's management is already working on this issue. At least the company appears to be in the safe hands of Tim Cook. Now it just needs to convince the rest of the world that Apple does not depend on one man.

Wishing Steve Jobs a quick and painless recovery!

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Palm Pre - the (i)Phone for the rest of us

Every once in a while, a device comes along that captures the public's attention. Last week, it was the Palm Pre. Amid all of the new-fangled devices introduced at CES in Las Vegas, the one that broke through the media clutter was the Palm Pre.

Already, tech pundits are calling it the device that will save Palm and its ailing namesake mobile platform. Of course, people still remember when the name "Palm" was synonymous with Star Trek-like personal digital assistants (PDAs) that made it easy to record contacts, appointments, notes, etc.

Now, the Palm Pre looks set to re-capture that legacy. Its webOS is supposed to make it easy for anyone with Web programming skills to design apps for it. Of course, that's what people also said about Apple's Widgets and Microsoft's Gadgets, and I've yet to see these apps from the average Web designer.

Nokia, too, is already pursuing this Web technology-based platform for mobile apps with its Web Runtime (WRT) platform (for S60-based phones). So perhaps such apps are nothing new to serious mobile app developers.

But just as it's not rudimentary to port a Windows program to the Mac, I expect that developing for Palm's webOS won't be trivial. What will make a difference, though, is if Palm is able to enforce that its webOS-based apps employ the familiar ease-of-use of long-time Palm apps.

The Palm platform has always had this quirky nature of being simple (or even simplistic) to use. Even as Microsoft churned out advanced versions of Windows Mobile and the Symbian platform matured and now with the iPhone and Google Android, the Palm generally remained the same.

Of course, critics will say that that's what held the Palm back as the smartphone market took off. (That and basically poor management at Palm.) On the other hand, I think that if Palm can make its Pre really easy for even grandparents to use, then it will totally change the smartphone landscape. It may even have the potential to make smartphones a mainstream platform, rather than reserved for the geeks.

Here's wishing the Palm Pre in making a dent in the (smartphone) universe!

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New iPhoto features - Facebook/Flickr tagging

I'm quite excited by iPhoto's new feature that incorporates Facebook and Flickr tagging. I think most people would dismiss this feature as trivial, but I see it as very useful for consumers.

For a long time, Flickr has provided an unsupported plugin for iPhoto, so that we could upload photos directly to Flickr. And in spite of Facebook's pervasiveness, I don't remember seeing an iPhoto plugin for photo uploads.

Now, Apple has delivered... and more! I enjoy tagging, for one thing, it'll be easier for me to refer back to old photos and recall the faces there. The normal method has been to store the photos in my computer, manage them through iPhoto, then upload them to Facebook/Flickr, switch to Facebook/Flickr, open the photo, then tag them.

Yeah, it's such a pain, I'm surprised no one had complained about it!

So now I can tag my photos in iPhoto directly, and when I upload them to Facebook/Flickr, the tags get passed along as well! And apparently, iPhoto can sync the tags with Facebook (and maybe Flickr too? I don't recall that bit in the keynote.)

With iPhoto's Faces feature, I think that will make tagging easier and more fun than ever. For Mac consumers everywhere, I think that this will be a boon!

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