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Broadband Update

Yes, well, apparently it’s not an instantaneous bump up in speed as I’d hoped it would be. Yesterday (3 days after my official regrade date) the only difference I saw was a 15kB improvement uploading and 3 or 4kB downloading. At first I thought it was my router. I’d decided not to go with buying one from BT whilst ordering the regrade since I’d only recently bought my Netgear DG834G.

My wireless router happily reported that I have a Downstream Connection Speed of 8128 kbps and an Upstream Connection Speed of 448 kbps, but this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll get 8Mb downloads. What actually happens is that they do a regrade, which mostly likely consists of a monkey flicking a switch from 2Mb to 8Mb. Then over the next 10 days they run a series of tests that tweak various settings to try and get the maximum possible speed my phone line can handle without setting on fire and burning down telegraph poles.

Given the crusty old technology involved (which I’m starting to understand, thanks to Computer Comms at college) this varies depending on how far you are from the exchange and whether or not your phone line is made of string. The thing is, BT are a bit vague are the details of this.

Yes, I’ll give them credit that they do tell you this in a round about way, but only on the day of the regrade, not in advance. I suspect that if they did, not as many people would regrade. Effectively you’re looking at so many weeks til regrade plus 10 days. Anyhoo, a marketing speak floaty light description of this wasn’t really good enough, and on my travels I found this scarily technical article that does tell you what the heck BT is doing.

Of course I didn’t know this at the time (bah, who reads emails!) so started tweaking my poor router. In fact I spent fecking ages trying various versions of firmware thinking it was that. But it wasn’t a total waste of time because I was able to upgrade the last “stable” firmware, v3.01.25, with the latest beta version, v3.01.31 (funny that I have to use an obscure Australian messageboard to find firmware updates) which has been great. It no longer goes tits up and require the power yanking out the back of it when you tweak the odd setting.

In my stupidity I even went to the trouble of browsing the wonderful BT Broadband help site and downloading the BT Broadband Desktop Help software, but I think by virtue of the fact that I…

  1. managed to open a web browser,
  2. load up BT’s site and
  3. download the software…

…showed that I was way beyond it being any use to me! It’s a horrible little program that seems to think it’s important enough to be running all the time in the background checking your connection! Yuck.

Whilst fettling I kept hammering the Speakeasy speed test (for Washington DC) looking for the slightest change. Not a sausage. Until a couple of hours ago! My best initial speed test came in at:

  • Download Speed: 1853 kbps (231.6 KB/sec transfer rate)
  • Upload Speed: 367 kbps (45.9 KB/sec transfer rate)

Now it comes in at:

  • Download Speed: 4900 kbps (612.5 KB/sec transfer rate)
  • Upload Speed: 369 kbps (46.1 KB/sec transfer rate)

OK, so I’m not exactly rivalling the 1Gb you can get in Hong Kong, but it’s a nice speed jump. Hopefully over the next few days it’ll just inch up a bit more. The moral of the story here is, don’t go tweaking a damn thing!

Stop Windows wanting to reboot after updates

Yay for LifeHacker (again).

  • Start menu
  • Select Run
  • Type gpedit.msc, hit enter
  • Select and open folders:
    • Local Computer Policy
    • Computer Configuration
    • Administrative Templates
    • Windows Components
    • Windows Update
  • Double click Re-prompt for restart with scheduled installations
  • Select Disabled then click OK

Only supported on Windows 2003, XP SP1, 2000 SP3

Speedfiler – Outlook plugin

I mentioned this chap in passing earlier in the week. Even with all my waffling on about Outlook 2007, I’m not it’s biggest fan. Far from it. Outlook can be a royal pain in the arse at times. Specifically when it comes to filing emails.

I have various rules and wotnot set up, but half of them don’t work so most of my emails just stack up in the my inbox… or at least they used to until I started using Speedfiler. The name pretty much explains what it does, it files emails fast.

It overrides the oh so obvious Outlook shortcut of Ctrl + Shift + V with the following dialog box:

SpeedFilerJump

You then start to type in the name of the folder you want (it automatically focuses on the Folder name contains: box) and it’ll search as you type. If you have more than one folder it’ll list them, but usually you’ll have just the one folder. In which case, it’ll go to it for you so you can hit Enter to file. That’s it. Job done. It’s all via the keyboard so it’s very quick.

Say I want to file an email into a folder called Firewall that’s just come in my Inbox. I hit Ctrl + Shift + V, type fir and hit Enter. Done. It is that quick to use!

I do have one niggle with it and that’s how long it takes to load. It fires up a splash screen whilst Outlook is loading and it goes and checks the various folders it has access to. It does this every time Outlook starts and is a real pain for me when I’m opening Outlook over the VPN. It’s a good couple of minutes before I can use it. On the plus side it seems to be compatibile with Outlook 2007, however the option screens don’t appear to display properly.

Another cool option is that it also overrides the Go To Folder shortcut, Ctrl + Y, with the same dialog. So hopping about Outlook is even easier. Dare I say it, it makes Outlook fun!

There is a 30 day trial available and it costs $19.95 to register. I’ve just found out that Scott Hanselman also has a write up on it.

Sysinternals to the rescue

I was trying to load Outlook 2007 when I got the following error message:

Outlook2007Error

Cannot start Microsoft Office Outlook. Cannot open Outlook window. The set of folders cannot be opened. The file <C:\…\Outlook.pst> in use and cannot be accessed. Close any application that is using this file, and then try again.

Microsoft are getting pretty good at descriptive error messages. After drawing a blank on Google groups with that, I thought, well I should be able to find what program has it open by looking at file handles and a search for that found Handle from Sysinternals. A quick 130 KB download later and a jump to a command prompt gave me the answer:

C:\Utils>handle “C:\…\outlook\outlook.pst”

Handle v3.11

Copyright (C) 1997-2005 Mark Russinovich

Sysinternals – www.sysinternals.com

YahooDesktopSearch.exe pid: 3844    B70: C:\…\Outlook\Outlook.pst

YahooDesktopSearch.exe pid: 3844    BC8: C:\…\Outlook\Outlook.pst

YahooDesktopSearch.exe pid: 3844    D5C: C:\…\Outlook\Outlook.pst

Closing down Yahoo Desktop Search, and then opening Outlook did the trick. Good old DOS to the rescue!

Apologies for the crappy looking Command Prompt listing. The paths were trimmed on purpose just to tidy it up a bit.

PetrolPrices.com

Now this is cool (and geeky). Not only is a damn useful but a good use of Google Maps. You can do basic searches that tell you the cheapest price within a distance of a postcode but to get full details of where that is, you need to sign up, which is free.

PetrolPricesCom

You’re allowed 20 unique searches a week which is fine. I can’t see me wanting to do more than and it stops spamming of the service. Its also pretty useful for finding petrol stations in an area you’re visiting too.

Browsing the web with the PSP

I’ve had a long standing opinion that the web and small portable devices (E.g. PDA’s, Mobile Phones, PSP, etc) just don’t mix with the web. The majority of sites have a hard time working properly in IE, Firefox and Opera, what chance has a PSP?

Well I thought I’d try a few of my usual sites on the PSP browser (Gmail, Ars Technica, Shacknews, BBC and eBay). The majority work ok, with, as I mentioned before, the BBC offering the best accessible site. The width restriction wasn’t too much of a problem since you can scroll around the screen. The view options to set it to the screen width don’t really work, I preferred leaving it to sort itself out.

Unfortunately anything with lots of graphics seemed to fire up Out of Memory error messages, with no obvious way to get round. Closing pages doesn’t always work. I’ve had to close the browser entirely on several occasions.

I use FeedDemon for reading RSS feeds which links to a NewsGator account. So for a laugh I tried to logon to NewsGator online to read my RSS feeds… hmmmm yes, it wasn’t very successful. I got lots of error messages about not supporting the AJAX engine they use. Oh well, it would have been really cool. I know the PSP now has a RSS reader, but I have like 200+ feeds and I don’t really want to have to set them up again.

Perhaps in future browser revisions that’ll get sorted. I’ve seen a few sites and discussions showing support for getting Opera on the PSP. Given they already have a mobile phone version (Opera Mini), it doesn’t seem so unlikely.

So I still think for serious browsing you need a PC in one form or another. For quick casual browsing to say check your email or news updates, its fine, but the screen size restriction and lack of a proper input device hinder it. Maybe a mini USB keyboard would be useful?

Viewing PDF Files on the PSP

So I’ve had my PSP a couple of days now and I’ve been fiddling around with various bits and bats. One thing I really wanted to do was to read PDF files. I found various readers but they require various things to be installed and compiled, which I’m not interested in doing.

But I found a pretty easy workaround to do what I wanted. Using a copy of Adobe Acrobat Professional installed on a machine at work I was able to take a PDF and do as Save As to JPEG. It took a while to convert a 180+ page file but once done I created a folder on my memory stick of n:\PSP\PHOTO (n being the drive letter of your PSP / memory stick) and copied the files into that. Note that the folders have to be in upper case.

I actually created a further subfolder in mixed case containing my book. When copied I used the built in photo viewer. Its not prefect, since I need to zoom in to read them and when changing files it resets the zoom level I was at. Hopefully in a future version of the firmware they’ll sort that. But it does work.

Copying music across is similar, you need a folder of n:\PSP\MUSIC (again in upper case) to which you can then copy pretty much whatever you like over. The player picks them up straight away.

After much persuading I bought one

A PSP that is… and I didn’t take much persuading. I got the Giga pack which due to some funky special offer at Game came with a free game. I picked Wipeout Pure and a pre-owned copy of Ridge Racer. On a side note, the staff at Game were actually very helpful. They showed an interest in helping instead of just trying to fleece me. I was given a few tips on how to use it and how to update it etc, all very useful.

My initial thoughts, the screen is amazing. For such a small piece of tech its incredibly crisp and bright. I watched the music videos and Spiderman 2 trailer on the demo disc and was seriously impressed. The menu system is very slick and getting it to connect to my new wifi set up was easy. I noticed that it uses wireless B so the range isn’t as good as G, but with my new router, I had no trouble connecting. One problem I did have was that with prolonged use I found it uncomfortable, which I suppose is a good incentive to take a break.

Once the battery had charged up I was able to upgrade to 2.60 firmware and starting fiddling with net access. The web browser is relatively easy to use. The BBC site is excellent for browsing with its low graphics / text option. Gmail was also usable (in HTML mode) but really only for reading, I don’t think I’ll be sending emails! On a couple of sites I got out of memory errors (mostly on eBay) which was annoying. A quick search showed it to be browser tab related (i.e. too many open). I’ll have to read up on how to switch between them and close them. I didn’t even know it had tabs! (If the PSP can manage them, why can’t IE?)

Both games took me back 10 years, and I mean that in a good way. They’re remixes essentially of the best bits from previous games. I had a blast playing Ridge Racer, actually more than with Wipeout. I think thats down to airbrakes in Wipeout. I’ve not quite got the grasp of them yet, where as Ridge Racer is just point and squirt (if you’re on Auto gears). I’m seriously addicted!

The next step is to see if I can get various eBooks and PDF’s converted so I can view them. I’ve copied various photos and mp3s over and they’re very easy to get at. Movies seem a bit of pain since you need to convert them tp MPEG4. Its kind of odd actually since the files I was trying were saved on a Sony camera… you’d have thought it would be able to read files from other Sony devices?

Anyhoo, all in all, I’m well chuffed with it!

Finally, I have a proper wireless network

Yep, I finally replaced my aging P3-450 with its ADSL modem and a Linksys WRT54G wireless hub with one tidy box from NetGear, a DG834G. Within a couple of minutes of unpacking it I had it connected to the net and after 15-20 minutes of tweaking I had it secured down.

YeOldeNetSetup transformed into DG834G

All I had to do was connect a couple of cables and on start up I logged in via IE where it asked if it wanted to autodetect my connection type. I thought Yeah right, that’ll work. But it did (PPPoA apparently). It then asked for my user name and password and it was away. The interface was pretty obvious I was able to change the SSID and encryption method and then went about adding in the various MAC addresses of my machines just to really tighten things up.

The signal strength is damn sight better than the WRT54G with my main machine (up a floor and across the other side of the house from it) getting a couple bars more signal. However the nicest thing about is how it looks. The V2 model has an Apple sort of style to it with its slim curved proportions and white casing. Its currently perched on top of a surround sound speaker until we find it a better home. The only thing I can say against it is that the version 3 firmware seems a little flaky. The box came with version 1 and I upgraded for ADSL2 support, but I’m tempted to downgrade again.

The reason I got the Netgear was because I was annoyed with the constant humming of the PC used to run the old setup thats been tucked away at the side of our sofa for the last couple of years. The PC was always on and connected to the net via a USB ADSL modem and the WRT54G was hooked up to it to allow it to act as a gateway. At the time I bought the WRT54G you couldn’t get wireless boxes that were also ADSL modems. You could get them with cable modems (which the WRT54G is incidentally), but thats a different beast from ADSL. I needed to set up a wireless network due to moving stuff round and that was the only way I could see to do it.

I was tempted to get one of the new Netgear MIMO boxes (DG834PN), but one of the main reasons I picked the DG834G was due to VPN access. Not its VPN access as such, but its VPN passthrough capability. Others at work had tried offerings from Belkin and Linksys but the VPN client we use (from Sonicwall) refused to work with them. With this NetGear box though, it just works and since I work from home on occasion, it is important. The MIMO box may work, but I don’t really need anything that fancy.

Noise in the Workplace

I stumbled across this interesting blog post about coping with noise in the workplace. I can totally relate to what’s it says. I’m pretty sensitive when it comes to background noise and tend to program with headphones on and music blaring.

One comment in particular stood out, #44 by Alex Leonard (emphasis mine):

Take for example street level noise. Cars and buses driving by – general city noise – this comes out averaging 80-85dbA, which you can listen to continuously for about 8 hours without incurring any hearing damage. <snip>

The thing that really scared me was finding out that club music levels frequently reach 105-120dbA. You can listen to 120dbA for a maximum of about 15 mins before you start to incur hearing damage. Repeated exposure is a problem too. The hairs in your ears that vibrate back and forth in sympathy with the sound waves actually get knocked over with loud level exposure.

Thats a scary thought. I’ve read various articles of late saying my generation and younger are likely to suffer from hearing loss early due to listening to our MP3’s too loud. Although as this BBC article points out, they’ve been saying that since the Walkman came out in the early 1980’s!

Getting back to the original link, there are a ton of useful comments and the authors comment, highlighted in yellow half way down, gives a nice summary. The majority suggest using active noise reduction headphones. Up until a couple of weeks ago I was reluctant to even think about getting a pair. However a chap at work brought in his portable Sennheiser’s, which I believe were PXC300’s

They’re meant for use on planes but I tried them in our office. I had a small fan heater going and my laptop fan had kicked in and it all but cancelled the noise out. Its quite surreal. I know it sounds odd, but you hear it being quiet.

I also tried them in our server room and it was noticeably quieter. It managed to cut out all low frequency PSU fan hums and whirls. Some high pitched noises were still there, but they were subdued. The neat side effect is that it means you can hear the music clearer and don’t need the volume as high.

They work by having a microphone that records the incoming sound which then inverts it and sends that signal to the headphones. It does mean the mic part needs a couple of batteries, but thats not a big deal. The noise also needs to be repetitive, it doesn’t work for people talking.

A bit of reading up seems to show that Sennheiser’s are the best to go for. I don’t think I’d get the PXC250’s, which were very popular in the blog comments, or the PXC300’s since I prefer proper closed ear headphones. I’ve yet to settle on anything since Amazon’s range is a bit limited. A bit more searching is required me thinks!

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