Bluetooth to the rescue

As anyone who has spent enough time with electronics knows, computers and mobile phones are delicate, fragile devices that are prone to malfunctioning or breaking. And often it takes just the loss of one essential component to render an entire device useless.

That’s what happened to me at the beginning of the month when I discovered, to my chagrin, that my BlackBerry would no longer charge when it was plugged in. I took the phone to the Verizon Store to find out what was wrong with it. Lo and behold, the USB port that allows the phone to charge and exchange data with other devices was broken. The only way to get it fixed, according to the Verizon employee I talked to, was to replace the whole phone.

Fortunately, the phone was still under warranty, so I was offered a free replacement. Taking the replacement, however, would have meant surrendering my old BlackBerry to Verizon, along with all of my settings, messages, and other data which I didn’t want to lose.

I ended up declining the replacement initially, so that I could figure out a way to back up my BlackBerry’s data first. I knew I could use my micro SD card to transfer off the pictures and music that were on the phone, but wasn’t sure how to save anything else. Neither were the unimaginative folks at the Verizon Store…  they had no ideas or suggestions to give me. The most they could offer was to simply go ahead and replace my phone.

I decided to leave my phone at the store so I could at least get the battery charged (it was almost completely dead when I brought the phone in).

When I got home I started researching the problem. I soon found a potential solution while browsing the CrackBerry forums. It turns out that BlackBerries can be backed up wirelessly using Bluetooth – no cables required. It sounded like Bluetooth could come to my rescue.

So I headed back to the Verizon Store. On my way there I stopped at Best Buy to purchase a Bluetooth desktop adapter for my notebook computer, which doesn’t have one built in. I had misgivings about going to Best Buy but didn’t want to drive all the way to Fry’s in Renton to get what I needed.

Turns out I should have.

The “Rocketfish” Bluetooth adapter I got from Best Buy refused to work, even after I had installed the drivers. I kept getting an error message telling me “Bluetooth license check failed. Please make sure that the bluetooth device you are using is licensed”.

As a result, I was unable to connect to my phone to back it up. But at least I was able to take my phone home with me, freshly charged, to keep trying. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the Rocketfish adapter to work (Rocketfish, incidentally, is one of Best Buy’s house brands. Figures).

So the next morning, I returned it to Best Buy and did what I should have done in the first place: go to Fry’s.

At Fry’s I found a Belkin adapter that was less expensive than the Rocketfish adapter, and better supported. (The Rocketfish website is awful, there’s almost nothing there. No drivers, no real support).

I installed the Belkin adapter successfully but was unable to connect my BlackBerry. I returned to CrackBerry to find out why and found out that BlackBerry Desktop Manager only works with the native Windows drivers. I followed the instructions to register the Belkin adapter with Windows and then uninstalled the third party Broadcom drivers.

When I restarted my computer, the Found New Hardware screen came up. This situation wasn’t addressed in the CrackBerry instructions so I wasn’t sure what to do. I chose Install from a list or specific location (Advanced) and clicked Next. At the next screen I decided to try Option Number Three: Don’t search. I will choose the driver to install. I clicked Next.

To my amazement, Windows detected its own drivers and promptly finished the hardware configuration correctly.

I set my BlackBerry to listen for a Bluetooth connection and initiated the Add Device wizard in Windows. Sure enough, it came up. After creating a passkey, I was able to successfully connect. I then opened BlackBerry Desktop Manager. Thankfully, the Bluetooth options in the Connection Type selector were no longer grayed out. I checked the boxes to use Bluetooth and then Yes when the Desktop Manager asked me if I wanted to connect now.

Then, at long last, I was able to back up my BlackBerry.

Less than forty eight hours I had restored the backup onto the new replacement BlackBerry, plugged in my micro SD card, and I was back in business, with all my data intact. That is, except for applications, which I quickly was able to reload with the help of App World. And I now have a charging cradle to further reduce the wear and tear on my BlackBerry’s USB port. (It charges the battery via the gold contacts on the bottom of the phone).

Moral of the story: Just because someone tells you something is hopeless doesn’t mean it really is. I was able to save my data and save myself from a lot of trouble because I was persistent.

Safari for Windows: it just doesn’t work

When Apple announced it would offer Safari for Windows last June, I was curious to see how the browser would compare to Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer…so I downloaded it and tried it out. I was quite surprised to find that the browser functioned like an alpha product. It was buggy, slow, and extremely unpleasant to use. I related this experience to a friend of mine who practically worships Apple (yet chooses to live in Microsoft’s backyard), and I was assured Safari would improve, because it was just the first public beta.

Well, almost seven months later, Safari for Windows is still in “beta” (version 3.04) and it’s just as horrible as the day I first tried it. It boots up slowly, stupidly attempts to mimic the font rendering of its Mac OS X brother, has trouble processing Javascript and can’t open files in protected folders. (It will return the error Safari can’t connect to the server). Apple boasts on its website that Safari is “the fastest web browser on any platform” stating specifically:

Safari loads pages up to 2 times faster than Internet Explorer 7 and up to 1.7 times faster than Firefox 2.

And it executes JavaScript up to 3 times faster than Internet Explorer 7 and up to 2 times faster than Firefox 2.What does all that mean for you? Less time loading pages and more time enjoying them.

This is complete bogus. On my Windows XP SP2 machine, Safari struggles just to render web pages, let alone attempt to best Firefox, Opera, or IE in a speed competition. And it fails to execute Javascript consistently. It’s not in the same ballpark as the many mature browsers available for Windows.

I don’t know how Apple achieved the results it brags about in its own testing environment. Maybe there’s something on my machine that’s interfering with Safari, but I keep my system in good order, and other non-Microsoft browsers (Opera, Firefox) work well. But regardless, Safari’s performance in an Apple testing environment is a useless benchmark for end users. What matters is how well the browser works for the user, and that’s not the measurement the company is using in its marketing.

Even if Safari is improved, I doubt users of other browsers will switch to it. There’s no reason for them to do so. As far as I’m concerned, Mozilla Firefox remains the best browser available – for Windows, Mac, or Linux.

HP MediaSmart Server software and support far from stellar

A couple of weeks ago, after waiting nearly a month, I finally took delivery of HP’s MediaSmart ex475 Server, which I’ve been wanting to try out ever since I heard about it in early 2007.

The system, which is based on Microsoft’s Windows Home Server, comes with a terabyte of storage, a 1.8 GHz processor (an AMD Sempron 64 bit) and 512 MB of RAM. While I’ve found the product to be very useful (centralized data storage, automatic backups, cool add-ins) HP’s software and support has left a lot to be desired.

I had reasonable expectations for the product, and I’ve been mostly happy with it.

What I did not expect, however, was that I would encounter a major error after using the product for only fourteen days.

This morning, while logging in to my Windows Home Server, I was greeted by this error:

Input string was not in a correct format. At system.Number.StringToNumber(String st, NumberStyles options, NumberBuffer & number, NumberFormat.Info.info, Boolean parseDecimal)
At System.Number.ParseInt64(String value, NumberStyles options, NumberFormatInto numfmt)
At HPConfiguration.IniFile.GetLong(String key, Int64 defaultVal)
At MediaSmartUpdate.MediaSmartUpdate.GetiniConfig()
At MediaSmartUpdate.MediaSmartUpdater.GetSettingsValues()
At Microsoft.HomeServer.HomeServerConsoleTab.HPSU. HomeServerSettingsExtender.initializeMembers(IConsoleServices.svc)

The console loaded after I clicked okay, but under “HP MediaSmart Software Updates”, where I’ve previously seen the date of the last update, there were instead six Xs:

MediaSmart Server - HP Update Blanks

It seems the error is a malfunction in HP’s own software, which essentially runs on top of the Windows Home Server platform. The problem seem to be affecting the performance of the operating system, fortunately, but it is certainly annoying.

Thinking I should report the problem, I went to the ex475’s support page, and was surprised to find that email and live chat support for the MediaSmart server are not available:

E-mail HP

Support E-mail not available
» E-mail questions before you buy

So I called HP instead – the only provided option for contacting the company in regards to the ex475. The representative that I spoke with had not heard of the problem, and all he could suggest was doing a server recovery, which would result in losing operating system settings, including user accounts. I suggested that HP take the opportunity to investigate the problem, and he fortunately saw the wisdom in that, so I have sent a copy of the error message to HP.

It’s frustrating, though, that HP’s bundled software should just abruptly stop working. I certainly appreciate not having any bloatware on the system (trial offers, third party products, and the like) but why not just ship a clean version of Windows Home Server on a compact and sleek package of hardware, and let customers download the optional extras (like iTunes synchronization across home PCs, or the photo Webshare) only if they want them?

(There are great alternatives to HP’s offerings – if I want to easily share photos, for example, I could install the Windows Home Server Flickr synchronization plugin, and not bother with the Webshare).

My call to HP was the second time I had called the company about the ex475. The first time I called, I was curious to see if HP could tell me how to get into the desktop of my home server. (The ex475 doesn’t come with any peripherals, and the provided console software doesn’t have any kind of shortcut for desktop access).

After going through two people, including what sounded like someone at an outsourced Indian call center, I was told by the third that my simple question was “outside of his support boundary” and that if I wanted an answer, I would have to pay to talk to a product support specialist. Incredulously, I said no thanks. I managed to configure my router to support a Remote Desktop connection to the server on my own. I was able to run the .exe installer for Avast! Windows Home Server edition. (As far as I know, Avast! is the only vendor to be offering a security solution specifically for WHS).

There was of course nothing in the product’s manual that relates to the error I saw, although when I was flipping through, I noticed that HP had failed to properly proof the document before sending it to the printer. Take a look at this excerpt, Table 15 from the “Troubleshooting Tips for DRM” section of the manual:

Question/Issue: Why can I play and stream DRM content [from] my home computer but I can not stream it from my HP MediaSmart Server?

Answer/Resolution: The HP MediaSmart Server includes a media server for streaming iTunes music to PCs running iTunes through[out] the hous. See the section in the User’s Guide on iTunes.

For Windows Media DRM (WMDRM) content (protected .wma music and .wmv videos) the HP MediaSmart server does not support streaming of this content to DMAs at this time [do we want the “at this time”? we will support it after the February update; should we say that?]. Playing (and streaming) of WMDRM protected content requires that the device that is playing the content have a license for that content. When you downloaded the content to your PC, you also received a license to play that content on the PC. If you copy the files to the HP MediaSmart Server, you cannot copy or transfer the license to the server. The server must obtain its own license, and we do not provide for this feature in the current product.

As you can see from the bolded sentence in brackets above – which appears verbatim in the table! – somebody at HP forgot to remove a comment from the draft out of the copy that was sent to the printer. Oops. Pretty funny, too.

Perhaps more importantly, the paragraph above shows one of the fundamental flaws of digital restrictions management (DRM) – crippling a user’s freedom to move and back up their own legally acquired content (like a music library). HP’s MediaSmart Server cannot (yet) play or stream .wmas for people who have faithfully followed the encouragement of Microsoft and the RIAA and paid money for crippled digital music. You’re punished if you do what the record industry executives want you to do…funny how that works. I’m glad my music is DRM free.

Bottom line: if you’re thinking about spending several hundred bucks on a MediaSmart server, you want might want to consider another product preinstalled with the Windows Home Server OS, because HP’s MediaSmart Server software and its technical support have a good likelihood of giving you a headache, unless you’re really patient and enjoy solving computer problems.