Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 1

This multi-part series will be an extensive review of the 3rd generation Drobo external hard drive enclosure and my experiences with it after migrating from a 2nd generation Drobo on a Mac. Thank you to Data Robotics for making this possible. My many years with Drobo have sometimes felt like an abusive relationship – I have had numerous instances of data loss and many other problems, but the “magic” of Drobo keeps pulling me back in. Hopefully, after another generation of product advancement, maybe this time things will be better. Drobo loves me. I know it does.

Most article writers seldom give you any indication of why they are qualified to speak on a subject. My experience with external hard drives began a long, long time ago . . . (Well, to you young folks. To me, it seems like only yesterday…) This will have nothing to do with the actual content, so please free to skip to Part 2 (once it is posted).

My Path to External Drives

In 1998, I purchased my first Apple product – an original bondi blue Apple iMac. It had no RS232 serial port, no parallel printer port, and no floppy drive. Instead, it used some weird port called a Universal Serial Bus (USB) to hook up to such devices. There was pretty much nothing available that used USB back then. Early USB devices included mice, keyboards, printers, RS232 serial ports, external floppy drives and hard drives.

In the next MacWorld keynote after the iMac was released, Steve Jobs gave a presentation where he unveiled “Firewire” (Apple’s re-branding of the IEEE-1394 standard). He demonstrated it by showing it used to hook up an external hard drive and a digital video camcorder. Back then, the only way I’d ever seen an external hard drive hooked up to a PC was via the parallel printer port (Iomega Zip drives, for example) or via a SCSI interface. The only way I’d ever seen a camera hooked up was by audio/video inputs to a video digitizing device. It was a very different world!

Seeing Firewire allow importing of digital video from a camcorder was revolutionary, and I instantly knew it was something I wanted to be able to do.

Digression:

Around 1981, my father had a video camera that hooked to a huge VHS recorder. I remember making silly home videos with it a kid. In 1982, we made a trip to Walt Disney World with a “portable” VHS recorder and camera. I guess we recorded some of the earliest vacation “home videos” long before everyone there was carrying around a camera. In the years that followed, things got smaller: all-in-one VHS camcorders would be introduced, and then tiny 8mm video tapes (and VHS-C). The home video revolution was in full swing, but the only way I ever edited video back then was with two video recorders hooked together. As video moved to digital (Digital8 on 8mm tapes, or DV tapes), a new world opened up. Seeing digital video being “imported” from tape in to a computer and then edited on screen non-linearly was magic. I bought a Sony Digital8 camcorder in preparation for having this editing capability at home.

Although Firewire was initially only available on the high-end (and expensive) PowerMac G3 desktop, Apple quickly added it to their next consumer computer when the iMac DV (digital video) was released in 1999. It took me weeks to get one at the local CompUSA, but soon I was set up with a digital camcorder and a computer with Firewire. The only problem was that an hour of digital video took about 13GB of hard drive space, and the iMac DV Special Edition I had only came with a 13GB drive.

This is what led to me purchasing my first external hard drive. (I am not counting the “big floppy” Iomega Zip drives or SyQuest EZ135 drives I used on PCs, my Radio Shack Color Computer or OS-9 MM/1 systems. I had been using those for years, but they weren’t hard drives.)

After filling up this first 30 gigabyte external drive (at least, I think it was 30), I moved on to many more drives over the years, each one larger than the last. Today on my desk I have four external drive enclosures (two 2-bay RAID systems, and two 2nd generation Drobos), a 3TB Seagate backup drive, and about four tiny pocket drives… Between all of those and the drives in my computers, I easily have over 20 terabytes of storage which, sadly, seems to be full at all times.

Over the years I have gone through brand after brand, including many that no longer exist. Western Digital makes up most of the drives I am currently using, though there was a time when their drives were considered bad and you’d have better luck with Seagate. There were other brands that, for awhile, were considered the most reliable. I have no brand loyalty. I just want my data to be protected. EVERY drive can and will fail. Always assume that day will be tomorrow and keep redundant copies of all your important data.

So am I an expect about external hard drives? Not at all . . . but I’ve probably used more of them over the years, and use more of them today, than most folks will in a lifetime.

Up next, why I chose Drobo and a look at the 2nd generation model versus the 3rd generation model.

 

More cheers for Otterbox, and jeers for Drobo

  • 11/11/2015 Update: I now have my Drobo (thanks, FedEx).
  • 11/17/2015 Update: Eden, an inside sales person at Drobo, seems to have gotten the issue with orders being stuck “unfulfilled” fixed. I wonder if this was just happening to me, or to everyone getting shipments from Drobo? Also, added link to “full review”.

As previously mentioned, Otterbox makes great protective cases for phones and tablets. They also have outstanding customer service and warranty support. Recently, I damaged my iPad Otterbox Defender stand and wanted to get a replacement. Otterbox currently does not sell one for my model iPad so I had to contact them to ask how I could get one. A few e-mail exchanges later and I was told to call in on Monday to pay a $2.99 shipping charge and they’d send me a replacement. Amazingly enough, even with the damage being entirely my fault, they still wanted to send me a replacement at no cost (other than shipping). Everyone I dealt with, e-mail or voice, was incredibly nice and even apologetic over the process. Beyond Disney and Apple, I don’t think I have ever encountered this level of customer service. Way to go, Otterbox.

Meanwhile, things are not going quite as well with Data Robotics, creators of the Drobo backup devices. I have had two of those units which I purchased many years ago. Both are sold old they have been end-of-lifed by Data Robotics. Due to various problems which I will cover in a future article, I am now waiting for a replacement unit to arrive. The order was entered last Monday, then still showed “unfulfilled” in their tracking system three days later. Has Amazon spoiled us so much that we now actually expect a company to ship same or next day for online orders? I had to contact them to ask what was up, and was given a tracking number. Apparently they did ship the next day, but the system didn’t show that.

One week later, and the item is still not here. Actually, FedEx tried to deliver it on Friday, but I work days so I was unable to sign for the package. Due to how Data Robotics ships, I am unable to have the shipment “held for pickup” at the FedEx centers. Instead, I can only have someone sign for it. I am unable to do this, so apparently I am unable to receive packages from Data Robotics… I can’t imagine why they don’t allow me to go to a FedEx office and show my ID there to pick up a package, but would allow a stranger to sign for it at my address.

Hopefully I will eventually be able to get this shipment.

UPDATE: Thanks to the wonderful Cindy at FedEx Ground in Grimes, Iowa, I was able to pick up my Drobo from them on Friday night. She says I should have been able to do that anyway, though the FedEx online system would not let me redirect, and a rep at 800-GO-FEDEX also said I could not due to shipper restrictions. I don’t really care who was right as long as I can get my package 😉

Eventually, my Drobo will finish rebuilding (it estimated as much as 440+ hours at one point) and I can move the drives in to this new unit for a full review.

Installing iOS apps direct without going through the App Store…

One of the features of Android is that you can install anything you want, from any source — such as a developer’s website. Until app stores made all of this obsolete, this was the way all software was distributed. Sure, there were always index sites, such as VersionTracker.com or Download.com, where you could find links to all the installers, but ultimately everything came direct from the developer.

By contrast, Apple’s iOS apps only install through Apple’s App Store. Except that’s never really been true. Even without jailbreaking an iPhone, you have always been able to install an app direct from a developer for testing purposes. The developer had to be registered with Apple, but beyond that there were no barriers. Downloader beware.

I recently came across what I believe is a misuse of this beta test capability… There is a computerized bicycle light I have been researching and it is programmed via an Android or iPhone app. Their app does not appear in Apple’s App Store. Instead, you get a QR code from their website which will take you to a special download website:

 
I don’t know why they don’t just post the link directly — I have a QR reader app, but most folks I know don’t. For those without a QR reader app, that location goes to:

http://fir.im/halowheelOversea

If you go there, you can download the iPhone app direct to your device, and your device will warn you:   

 

Do you trust this app? XuanWheel iOS app.

 

You can see the green app icon in the lower right of that screen shot.

So yes, a developer can do this… But isn’t supposed to. I assume they plan to get their app in the App Store at some point… Until then, I wonder how many are brave enouhg to directly install it?

Not me 🙂

 

Mac OS X Wireless Diagnostics to speed up WiFi

Did you know that Mac OS X has a hidden utility that will scan surrounding WiFi networks and suggest a better/faster channel for you to use?

Neither did I, until tonight.

After a few months of really slow Internet, I finally decided to contact CenturyLink to see what was wrong. My latency rates were over 800ms and, while speed tests showed good and Hulu and such would usually stream just fine, actual usage (web page loading) was SLOW SLOW SLOW. Anything with packets back and forth (not one way streaming, I guess) was SLOW.

After hooking my MacBook directly to the Actiontec Q1000 modem and shutting of WiFi, I found I was indeed getting fast speed… I then searched to see what could be the problem, and found this article:

http://osxdaily.com/2013/12/11/find-best-wi-fi-channel-wireless-tool-mac/

In it, it suggested the Wireless Diagnostics feature of Mac OS X. By holding down Option when you pull down the WiFi menu from the menu bar, you get more options:

Wireless Diagnostics in Mac OS X

Wireless Diagnostics in Mac OS X (hold down Option).

This brings up a neat little utility which has a Utilities menu with some cool features.

Wireless Diagnostics in Mac OS X

Wireless Diagnostics in Mac OS X is a cool “hidden” utility.

From the Utilities menu, I found Scan to be particularly useful. It will look at all the WiFi access points around you and recommend what channel you should set your WiFi base station/modem to for fastest performance:

Wireless Diagnostics in Mac OS X suggests the best channels to use.

Wireless Diagnostics in Mac OS X suggests the best channels to use.

And, most surprisingly to me, there is a WiFi packet sniffer built in! Enjoy!

Wireless Diagnostics in Mac OS X has a port sniffer!

Wireless Diagnostics in Mac OS X has a port sniffer!

P.S. – By switching from the “Automatic” channel 6 to channel 2, my latency went from 850ms to under 150ms. Still not great, but much better and maybe as much as I can do without moving my wireless devices around or building a Faraday cage around my home. 🙂

Unlimited iPhone data with no contract for $30?

I bought my first cell phone in 1994. It was a bag phone I kept in my car. It was just magical to be able to make a short (but expensive) phone call without being home or at a pay phone. Since then I have had a variety of phones, including one of the first “smart phones” (before we had such a name) – a Kyocera 6500 (a Palm Pilot with a phone built in). It was just magical to be able to download e-mail or pull up a website without being at home or work on a computer.

I went through three PalmOS-based phones (the Kyocera 6500, a color Samsung SPH-i500 and a Treo 650) before the iPhone came out in 2007 and made those devices look absolutely primitive.

The iPhone was the first device I ever signed a contract for. Back then, pushy cell phone sales folk would push 2-year contracts because it made them money commission money. The dirty little secret was that the carriers did not require 2-years and all had 1-year contracts available (and in some cases, no contract plans too). This was at least still the case around 2002 or so when I spent a year selling phones for T-Mobile (recently rebranded from VoiceStream), Sprint, Nextel and others. At some point, things change.

I had never had to sign a contract to activate any of my phones until the iPhone in 2007 — and that was WITHOUT getting any kind of reduced price like we are used to today. Initially, you bought the iPhone at full price from an Apple Store then took it home to activate via iTunes. There was no negotiating. You either signed up for 2-years with AT&T, or couldn’t use the iPhone. Yep, we paid FULL PRICE for the phone PLUS signed a contract. AT&T had to change quite a bit to work with Apple (visual voice mail support, no AT&T branding on the device, activation done through Apple). At least there was unlimited data!

Today, there is a new generation of cell phone owners that just assumes you get the phone free (or $99, or $199, or…) and sign a two year contract. Most phone owners only care about having a phone that works when they need it (coverage) and has enough data for what they do, and enough text or voice time for how much they type of talk. Sadly, most are getting ripped off since today you can go to a no-contract carrier, pay full price for a device and still end up saving hundreds of dollars over the course of two years. And, be able to sell your device and get a new model at any time you want. And no cancellation fees if you device they suck and want to switch to a new carrier.

With that said, I haven’t had a cell phone since 2009. I have my original iPhone, and after its two year contract was up, I got the iPhone 3GS with another two year contract. In 2011, once my contract was done, I shut off service because I decided paying rent and having food was more important than being able to check e-mail in my pocket.

Adjusting to life without a smartphone, especially after having one for so long, was hard at first. I did have an iPad with unlimited AT&T data plan (no contract) so I wasn’t completely shut off, but I wasn’t bringing the iPad with me when I went on a bike ride. Instead, I’d use my old iPhone 3GS as a biking computer (using b.iCycle, which can preload maps) and I would stop at WiFi points (like outside a Burger King) if I wanted to check messages.

I always ran the risk of getting lost and being on a trail somewhere with no map and not being able to figure out where I was on the always-out-of-date paper trail maps I had with me. It sure would be nice to have data service during a ride, but certainly not worth having a 2-year contract and $65/month bill.

I considered activating a cheap Android on Virgin Mobile or Boost or some similar no contract carrier. They had plans with “unlimited text and data” (basically) for $35 a month (some discounting $5 if you linked it to your bank account to pay each month). However, my frustrations with a cheap Samsung Galaxy Rush phone I picked up for $20 from Best Buy made me realize a crappy phone with data wouldn’t be that great.

Was there a way I could bring data to my old iPhone 3GS? It was GSM, so only carriers like AT&T or T-Mobile would support it. AT&T was too expensive, and T-Mobile didn’t look much better until I noticed this on the bottom of their prepaid plans page:

A no-contract $30 "unlimited data" plan?

A no-contract $30 “unlimited data” plan?

Assuming T-Mobile has service where you are, $35 seems like a great price for someone who talks and texts a ton. For data, the $30 plan (with only 100 minutes of talk time) would be great.

I tried to contact T-Mobile to find out how to buy this (there was no clickable link) since it did say “devices activated on T-Mobile.com.” (I was not going to buy a phone from Wal-Mart.) A phone call ended up in a transfer and being on hold, so I quickly gave up and looked for another approach.

I ended up using Twitter to reach out to their support team. Very quickly I had a response asking me to register an account so they could direct message me. A series of short exchanges followed over the next day or so as I asked questions about this plan and how to get it, and whether or not I could just get a T-Mobile SIM and stick it in my 5+ year old iPhone 3GS and use it. I was aware that early on iPhone owners were able to unlock their phones and use them on T-Mobile, but at reduced speeds since the frequencies between AT&T and T-Mobile were different. They only shared the low-speed 2G (AT&T EDGE network) frequencies. T-Mobile support didn’t seem completely to understand what I was getting at, but on their assurance this could be done, I planned to give it a try.

Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any way to by this plan online. They sent me to a Wal-Mart to pick up a $30 kit:

http://www.walmart.com/ip/T-Mobile-Complete-SIM-Kit/39081494

At the time, it was on sale for $29.82 so I did an online Walmart.com purchase so I could just walk in to Wal-Mart later and pick it up (and earn me some Swagbucks referral points as well, making it even cheaper).

That evening I was able to remove my old AT&T SIM (where’s a paperclip when you need one) and then fit the new mini SIM in a plastic adapter and put it in my 2009 iPhone. After a short registration online, I had a working iPhone 3GS with slow EDGE data. I would now have a phone for emergencies, and data to get maps while on a bike ride.

More to come…

Some praise for Otterbox

Every now and then, I run across some example of “above and beyond” customer service that inspires me to send in positive feedback. Recently, I had such an experience with the Otterbox protective case company and wanted to share it with you.

Shortly after the original iPad came out, I purchased one (and a second for a gift). I fell in love with the Apple iPad case which let me prop the device up for watching videos, or for use as a keyboard stand. Unfortunately, I dropped my iPad enough over the years I had it that it received some minor damage to the metal corners. That Apple case, while fantasticly functional (still my favorite), was not very protective. I was still able to sell this “lightly damaged” iPad for about $250 when I got rid of it, but I expect I could have gotten more if it did not have drop damage.

When I purchased a refurbished iPad 3, I wanted to ensure I could get a higher resell value later on so I looked in to protective cases that were actually protective. There were a few I considered, but it was seeing one in person at (I think) an AT&T store in a local mall that made me choose the Otterbox Defender. I was ready to buy it from the very helpful AT&T rep after he assured me prices were pretty much the same everywhere because no on discounted them. But, when I walked next door and saw RadioShack sold the same case for $10 less, I decided maybe I would shop around for an even better price since clearly discounts were to be had.

Amazon won:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007IV7KRU/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Today, this $90 case can be found for under $60, but I don’t recall how much I paid for it when I ordered it on January 1, 2013. It certainly is a bulky case that makes things heavier, but it provided the protection I needed.

The thing about Otterbox that makes this special is their customer service. During my first year of using it, I dropped it and broke the corner off the plastic cover that is used to snap on and protect the screen (when not in use). My fault, my bad. I wrote Otterbox to see how much a replacement would cost and they sent me one under warranty. Excellent.

A bit later, my plastic screen cover had enough scratches (leaving my glass iPad screen flawless) that I wanted to rpelace it. I wrote in to ask how much this would cost, and explained my unit was out of warranty. To my surprise, they sent me a replacement screen cover. Excellent.

Shortly after this, the rubber flap that covers the dock connector finally broke off. After two years of daily use, the material had just given out. I wrote in this week to ask how much it would cost to buy a replacement. Once again, Otterbox is sending me a replacement under warranty.

I am very impressed with how Otterbox has treated me. I have purchased four Otterbox items over the years (though this is the only one that has ever been used enough to need replacement parts), and I will continue turning to them when I need a protective solution due to their outstanding support.

Thank you, Otterbox.

Another Apple Maps win over Bing and Google

One of my hobbies is bicycle riding on my nearly 20-year old Trek bike. Today, an article popped up about a local bicyclist who was hit by a car. A location was given (63rd and Tyler Avenue) and I was curious if that was anywhere I frequently ride.

I have been using Bing rewards lately to earn gift cards ($5 so far; let me know if you want to sign up and you can use my referral link) so I headed to Bing Maps to search. Tyler Avenue was not found.

I checked Google Maps next and it also couldn’t find the location. When I tried to just find the street (Tyler Avenue), Google could find no reference at all.

I then loaded Apple Maps and it located the spot immediately.

As I go to type this up, I am redoing my searches. Now, Bing is finding it with no problem (which seems odd, unless it has adjusted from people searching for it today due to this being all over the news). Google doesn’t even show the road that both Bing and Apple maps show (no wonder Google can’t find it). Amusingly, the street sign is clearly in the Google Streetview image from the intersection.

At this point, Bing and Apple maps both can find it, but Google cannot. I am puzzled why Bing could not (unless it had something to do with me searching on a mobile device earlier in the day, versus desktop later).

I am glad we have choices. A month ago, I would have just searched in Google and if it wasn’t there, I’d assume the article was wrong.

Now if Bing and Apple could add bicycle trails to their maps, maybe I wouldn’t be using Google maps at all these days.

Macaw web design tool: not quite ready

If you have any interest in creating beautiful looking websites on a Mac or PC, you should check out Macaw, a new web tool that was just launched on March 31, 2014. I do not recall how I became aware of this tool a few weeks ago, but after watching a sneak preview video, it had my interest.

Macaw allows the easy creation of beautiful looking websites with very clean CSS, HTML and JavaScript code. As a Dreamweaver user (an older version), I have constantly been frustrated with how difficult it was to create a modern looking website. Apple’s iWeb made elegant sites with simple drag and drop, so why couldn’t a professional tool do the same? (iWeb made notoriously ugly code, and lacked the ability to customize templates or create library objects to use on multiple pages.)

Unfortunately, the 1.0 release of Macaw has a long way to go. While it does create beautiful code, there are so many bugs in the initial release that I have so-far found it practically unusable, spending hours trying to create a simple two page website. I have ran both the PC and Mac version, and each has its own quirks. (The PC version, for instance, can’t seem to remember my password and always launches with garbage characters in the login field. The Mac version has a nasty habit of going to a black screen and requiring a force-quit and restart.)

These bugs will no doubt be fixed in upcoming releases — it is version 1.0, after all.

But currently, the biggest issue is the complete lack of any kind of site templates. Every page you make is effectively an independent page. If you set up a page to be 800 pixels wide, and get it all perfect, then make a second page, that page is black and goes back to the default 1200 pixel width. (You can duplicate a page to work around this.)

If you create a perfect header and/or footer, then duplicate it on several other pages and decide you want to make a change to it (updating a copyright date or address), you have to manually go in and edit every page.

You can’t even make a simple list, numbered or otherwise.

There are currently huge items missing from Macaw that make it rather impractical for anything other than a very basic (but beautiful and elegantly coded) website. I might use it to replace all my one-off iWeb sites, but there is no way I can use it for anything large at this point.

My hope is I can use Macaw to create a beautiful single page, then open that page in Dreamweaver and convert it in to a template.

And if I can make that work, Macaw is going to be worth every penny.

Check out the trial. It has some mind blowing potential, but right now there are enough missing features that it’s not quite ready.

MacBook (late 2009) fan problem – solved!

For some time, my 4+ year old MacBook (late 2009 model) has had an issue with the fan spinning up and being really noisy. For awhile, I thought it was just newer software (like the current GarageBand) being more CPU intensive, but Activity Monitor seldom showed anything agressing going on.

I used things like smcFanControl to show the temperature and RMPs of the fan, and only last night did I do some further searching and realize my fan was running much faster, and the temperature was much higher, than it should be.

I did some searching and found various people reporting the same issue, and also some claims that Apple started using smarter hard drive firmware that the Macs could talk to and detect temperature. I had swapped out my hard drive twice, and wondered if I was just running an incompatible hard drive that was confusing the MacBook…

…turn out, it was far simpler. I ran across this post:

http://nofilmschool.com/2009/02/how-to-fix-a-noisy-macbook-pro-fan/

…and he suggested just cleaning the fan. I took my MacBook apart (eight screws on the bottom, then one micro tiny fan plug and another larger plug – be careful with the small one – VERY careful, tiny pins), and then took three screws out to release the fan and one more tiny screw to open it up. I used a can of compressed air from Radio Shack (which I bet I’ve had for 15 years) and cleaned it all out. The rear air vent (inside) was also clogged.

After reassembly, the MacBook is quiet like it used to be.

Excellent.

UltraProjector (v1) and Mac and ffmpeg

I have previously been able to convert video files to work with the UltraProjector using an old (2006) copy of “mencoder”. I now have been able to do it using the standard “ffmpeg” command. Here are the options, and I will try to clean them up and explain later:

I downloaded the “ffmpeg” command line utility from here:

http://www.evermeet.cx/ffmpeg/

And these are the options I was using to convert an MPEG4 video file to an AVI file that plays on the UltraProjector:

ffmpeg -i creepy.mp4 -c:v libxvid -vtag XVID -r 24 -b:a 128K -ar 44100 -acodec mp2 -b:v 512k -s qvga creepy.avi

  • -c:v libxvid … use the xvid video converter
  • -vtag XVID … put “XVID” as the video tag inside the file (not sure if this is necessary)
  • -r 24 … 24 fps (higher frame rate may work for simple videos, but may play slower)
  • -b:a 128k … audio quality 128kbits
  • -ar 44100 … audio sample rate 44khz
  • -acodec mp2 … audio codec MP2 (not sure if it handles other formats or not)
  • -b:v 512K … max video bitrate. Experiment with larger numbers for better video, but at some point it will break.
  • -s qvga … output size to 320×240