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Scott's Column
iPod Touch, Zune Issues, GoToMyPC, VPN, Laptop and More

July 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis

Introductory paragraph goes here.

Current Topics:

  • "New" laptop  
  • Goodbye GoToMyPC, I Will Miss You  
  • SugarSync  
  • Microsoft Money  
  • Zune Troubles  
  • iPod Touch  

"New" laptop

I received a "new" laptop at work. Like the saying goes... it is "new" to me. It is an old IBM ThinkPad T42 laptop. Notice I said IBM, not Lenovo. Which tells you how old this laptop is. It seems to be about 4 years old if I had to put a date on it. Its processor is a Pentium M 1.7 GHz with 1 GB of memory. That's a bit slower than my own personal laptop's Core Duo 2.0 GHz processor with 2 GB, which is right at 3 years old.

In general the laptop is decent. The case is sturdy and the screen bright. There are two sets of mouse buttons, one below the touch pad and one above. Since it has one of those eraser head pointing sticks between the keys it is expected you would use the mouse buttons above the touch pad while using the pointing stick.

The screen becomes the limiting factor. It is a 15" screen. Yes, the old 4:3 15" screen. The resolution is 1024 x 768. For those of you that have been following my tails of looking for a new laptop you know I want something higher than the typical 1280 x 800 that comes in all 13.3" laptops.

At home my current laptop (which is, for all intents and purposes, now my youngest son's "new" laptop, new to him) has a resolution of 1440 x 900. My desktop at home is 1680 x 1050. Going backwards to 1024 x 768 is going to be hard.

But it get's worse. My desktop at work has two monitors. Each monitor is 1280 x 1024 for a combined desktop resolution of 2560 x 1024. When I use Remote Desktop to connect to my desktop at work the desktop is reduced to 1024 x 768. The first time I did this all the icons from both monitors were squished into this 1024 x 768 size, and all open windows were resized to this smaller size. Turning off Remote Desktop and returning to my actual desktop showed that all was still squished to 1024 x 768.

I have found no way around this. Remote Desktop locks the host to the remote client's resolution. As a programmer accustomed to having many windows open across two monitors, it is nearly impossible for me to function efficiently with such a small screen.

The laptops were given to us as our only means to access work from home. It is loaded with VPN software that puts the laptop on the network, from which we can Remote Desktop to our main computers which have all of our development tools. Joy!

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Goodbye GoToMyPC, I Will Miss You

Prior to the VPN solution we were using GoToMyPC for remote access to our workstations. GoToMyPC makes a remote connection to the host computer from any computer on the Internet. It works quite well in my opinion. I am not a security expert, but it seems that the three passwords I need to provide to get to my desktop should be secure enough.

GotoMyPC will scale the host's screen to the remote computer's screen. For a remote computer with a 1024 x 768 display it would scale the 1280 x 1024 host screen making everything small, but complete. You also have the option of setting the screen to be fixed, which would have you panning the remote computer to match the resolution of the client.

With my dual monitors I always used the panning. I would see my entire desktop unaltered on a remote computer. At home my widescreen laptop and desktop would see a widescreen's worth of my workstation's two screens, and panning left and right would move the desktop around.

Overall this was an excellent screen to screen solution. I was easily able to get vast amounts of productivity when working from home. Alas, that is no more. Looks like there is no way to save myself the 75 mile round trip to work and the high mileage it puts on my car.

Farewell GotoMyPC... I will truly miss you.

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SugarSync

GoToMyPC had a nice file transfer feature. I could easily transfer files from my computer at home to my computer at work and vice-versa. This made it easy to keep notes on both computers and sync them up from time to time. It also made working on spreadsheets easier, as I could copy it to the computer that was doing the editing.

With VPN and Remote Desktop there is no easy way to get files from my desktop computer to my home PC. Oh, I can setup "local" drives on the laptop. This would allow me to transfer a spreadsheet or some other document to the local hard drive of the laptop. Then I could edit the file on the laptop without being connected to work.

The problem with this is that the laptop is setup to be on a domain. I cannot connect it to my home network for file sharing. I cannot share files from the laptop to my home computers, and I cannot share files from my home computers to the laptop. At home we are on a workgroup, which is incompatible with a domain.

That leaves USB drives and sneaker net. Or does it?

I looked at a couple of file syncing options. There are a few free alternatives out there. I settled on SugarSync for two reasons. 1) It was relatively easy to setup, and 2) They offer a great web based solution to editing files without installing any software, called WebSync.

You launch your browser and point to a web address for your files. When you click on a file it pops up a menu and the first option is to Edit with WebSync. Click on that and a Java based utility launches and you are editing the file. When you save the file it is re-synced back to your main computer. It really is as simple as that.

I keep a small folder of files at home to allow me to keep notes between work and home. I am barely scratching the surface of what SugarSync can do. You can sync up to 2 GB of files for free. I haven't even exceeded 40 MB, and I am usually at under 5 MB unless I am uploading something for a one way journey from one computer to the other.

Overall SugarSync makes it very easy for me to edit a dozen or so files from either location and without installing any software on my work computer.

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Microsoft Money

Wow! Microsoft is going to stop selling MS Money at the end of June. I use Microsoft Money… the 95 edition. I started using it in the Windows 3.1 days. Here’s the story…

I originally wrote my own “checkbook” program in the DOS days because Quicken couldn’t do a couple of things I needed. In Quicken 3.0… when you reconciled your checking account against your bank's statement, if you found an entry in error you could not edit it. You had to leave the reconcile function, find the order to edit it, and then start the reconcile process all over. Or… you could let Quicken enter an adjustment transaction. Neither of these options were good enough for me. Also, Quicken 3.0 had limited text “graphics.” I liked entering checks in a form that looked like a check on screen.

So I wrote my own check book program that used the extended ASCII characters to draw forms on the DOS text screens of the day. I enabled editing transactions while reconciling, and could run the entire program off a floppy if I had to (someone asked for a copy and needed to run it this way).

After 6 years of daily use the program started to loose transactions. I may have hit a DOS memory limit or something. I was now programming in Windows, but did not have the time to invest in writing a program in Windows, so I bought MS Money… I think it was the first or second version for Windows 3.0/3.1. It did everything my program did, but it did it in Windows' graphical world. Forms for data entry and editing amounts as you reconcile. Cool!

When Windows 95 came out I was beta testing it. I also got a beta MSN account. MSN beta testers were given a free download to the Windows 95 version of MS Money… if you downloaded it from MSN within the first 60 days of Windows 95 going live.

I downloaded the setup program and I am still using it today. That’s right… I am running Microsoft Money 95 (actually version 4.1, but the first for 32-bit Windows 95).

I tried buying Money 2000 in case the Y2K bug was going to be an issue. I struggled with Money 2000 and its browser interface until I was blue in the face. It was a huge step backward in usability. So I reloaded Money 95, restored my Money 95 data file (it was converted to the 2000 format, a one way conversion) and re-entered two months worth of transactions from my bank statements.

From February to March 2007 I compared Quicken to Money. I really, really wanted to make use of online banking. My goals were simple. 1) Connect to my credit union to balance my check book so I didn’t have to manually reconcile to the monthly statements I get in the mail, and 2) setup budgets so I can see how much money I have left to spend as the month progresses. The budget part was super easy as I setup only two categories, Bills and Other.

Both failed my very simple budget requirements. All I wanted to know was home much money I had left to spend of my monthly budget as I entered transactions. This was beyond either capability. Feel free to read the gory details yourself.

Quicken stopped connecting to my credit union and I was forced to use Money 2007. It did not last. I was too frustrated with the reconciling of transactions. Money 07 did not allow easy tagging of categories to certain transactions it found in my credit union’s data. It would not do a good job matching up transactions I entered manually to those it got from my credit union, causing double entries and other strange anomalies. In the end it was actually easier when I manually reconciled my paper statement to Money 95. Plus the budget feature was worthless requiring me to do double entry with my spreadsheet. Back to… Money 95.

When I abandoned Money 2007 I switch back to Money 95. I did not go back to a saved copy of my Money 95 data file. All that would get me was 12 years worth of historical transactions with no categories and no budget information. So I started a new data file.

I have been using Money 95 ever since. Things are easier though. My credit union has redesigned their statements so that it is very easy to reconcile to Money 95. And I have gone to a new budget system that eliminates the need to keep track of our spending.

I call it the Cash Budget. At the beginning of the month I withdraw the cash we would use for all non-bills. Bills are mortgage, credit cards, electric, water, cable, phone, etc. Groceries also fit in with bills. I budget these only, so when I am already sitting at my desk writing checks I just enter the checks in Money 95 and my budget spreadsheet.

The cash is the key. We have a budget for how much we can spend on other things. Other things is everything that is not a regular bill. Clothes, dinners out, movies, ice cream at Sonic. Name it and it is in this section of the budget. I take the cash at the beginning of the month and put it on the dresser. We just pay cash for everything. When the cash runs out there is nothing left and we have to stop spending.

It is so simple, but so effective. I wish I had thought of it sooner. Actually, I had thought of it years ago, but was never bold enough to do it. Now we are doing it and our miscellaneous spending is much better controlled.

So… to recap… 1) the paper statements are simpler making reconciling easier, 2) the budget spreadsheet is easier with only a couple dozen items a month to enter, and 3) the cash spending is easier. All this is easier and it is now more effective than ever at managing our money.

MS Money 95, an Excel Spreadsheet, and a pile of cash each month makes for a great way to manage finances.

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Zune Troubles

Well, June is the time of year we head to the coast (Rockport, TX) for our annual vacation. That means its time to load up a bunch of movies on my Zune.

I initially grabbed a bunch of movies listed in the Zune Desktop Application and set it to sync. The software told me that I chose too much to fit on the device. I tried to grab everything and select the "never Sync..." option but that was not available. I tried deleting stuff from the Zune, but it still wanted to sync what I had already chosen. (Note: I later learned how to get to the Sync Groups to remove items to prevent the syncing operation.)

I decided it was time I just wipe the device and fill it with movies (this would clear up over 35 GB of music). After wiping it I selected a bunch of movies to sync while at the same time I had grabbed some movies in formats other than the MP4 format I use with the Zune. So, with Format Factory converting movies to MP4 and the Zune set to sync a bunch of movie I left.

I came back and the Zune software was hung after only a couple of movies. I tried to start it again and got similar results. At this point I suspected this might have something to do with the fact that I dropped my Zune 80 a couple of months ago. Not hard, it just slipped out of my hand and hit the tile floor. I had been having songs stop playing, but it would always start working again after a few minutes. No such luck with the syncing, even waiting a few hours.

Now I was get worried. I started this operation on Friday night and come Saturday afternoon I had only three or four movies on the Zune. We were leaving first thing Monday morning.

I found instructions on how to completely wipe the Zune and reload the firmware. (the steps are: press and hold the back button and the down part of the pad until the Zune turns off. Then press the back button, then the main part of the touch pad and then the play button. Hold all three until you see the instructions come up on the Zune's screen. Note once you turn on your Zune this way you are in the process of wiping it, there is no turning back.)

I tried this and it seemed to help... for a bit. I got about a dozen movies on it and it froze again. I tried it again and again but it kept hanging on the same movie. So I skipped the "bad" movie and it started going. I noticed the movie it was getting stuck on was one converted by Format Factory, and not one I ripped directly to MP4 format. Maybe that was it. Nope.

It failed again on another movie. It seemed that whenever it would fail I was stuck and had to wipe the device again. I tried loading one movie at a time. This worked better, though I don't know why. I eventually got the following movies loaded (listed in no particular order):

The Adventures of Robin Hood
The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Cannonball Run
The Devil Wears Prada
Get Smart
Gran Torino
He's Just Not that Into You
The League of Extraordinary Gentleman
Rocky III
Smokey and the Bandit
Star Wars - ALL
Apollo 13
Hooper
The Fugitive
Hitch
Harry Potter - ALL
Jaws
The Man In The iron Mask
New In Town
Night At the Museum
The Ron Clark Story
Paul Blart - Mall Cop
The Three Musketeers
Transformers
Vantage Point
The Sting
The Bucket List
Evan Almighty
Die Hard - ALL
The Italian Job
The Negotiator
Support Your Local Sheriff
National Treasure 1 & 2
Runaway Bride
Sweet Home Alabama
You've Got Mail
Pretty Woman

I was most looking forward to watching Gran Torino with my father-in-law.

When I got back from the coast it was time to put my TV shows back on the Zune (I am in the process of watching all 7 seasons of Star Trek Voyager), and putting my 35 GB of music back on.

I wiped the device and set it to load some TV shows. Sure enough it would fail after a short time. I eventually tried to skip the "bad" episodes. I did notice something. When it would hang in the middle of a TV episode and I had to disconnect it and do a hard reset of the Zune the "reserved space" went up. So I tried to continue where I left off, minus the "bad" episode. I got one season of Voyager on the Zune and went back and tried the missing episodes. They synced.

I did this one season at a time until the 7th season was on the Zune. The 7th season loaded completely with no trouble. I then loaded all my music. I did a little at first because it would be a lot harder to find one trouble song. I didn't have to worry, all my music synced just fine.

Why? I think I know what is going on. When I dropped the Zune I must have caused some damage to the hard drive inside. When the Zune software tries to copy a file to a damaged part of the drive it hangs. I thought wiping the device would reformat the hard drive inside to mark off any bad sectors. But that does not happen. I suspect the expanding reserved space did the job of blocking the bad sectors. The device was short 2.5 GB once Voyager and all my music was loaded.

I can live with this.

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iPod Touch

My son and I bought a used iPod Touch 16 GB for $125... from by boss/friend.

I made a deal with my son that if he saved for the iPod touch I would match him dollar for dollar. He was up to $66 when my boss offered me his when he bought an iPhone. He told me $125 and my sons said, "Sweet!" I expected the 8 GB version, so the extra memory was a bonus.

Since I will not be using the iPod Touch (why don't they just call it the iTouch) exclusively, I will be writing about it sporadically. But I will write about it. I may make it a semi regular piece of this column, much like how I write about gaming (nothing to report on gaming this month).

I plan on making a list of "required" applications, as well as giving quick opinions an any application I try, whether I continue using it or not. I know my biggest concern will be video. I have spent a great deal of time formatting video for my Zune 80. I am not giving up my Zune. The screen resolution of the iPod Touch is half way between the Zune's 4:3 and a true wide screen of 16:9. I believe it is 1.5:1. A mild wide screen. I will have to see how my movies encoded at 320x240 will look on the iPod Touch's 480x320 screen. Since it is not a dedicated device for me I will not re-rip my movies in the Touch's resolution, but it may impact how I handle future videos.

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Conclusion

That's all for this month. I need time to play with the iTouch more and plan how I want to write about it. Stay tuned if you are a fan of this device. I hope to have something worthwhile each month... at least for the next few months.

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