22 July, 2011

Proposal: Select Bootable Images from USB


A major deciding factor for the size laptops is the types of media readers they possess. Storage media such as SD cards, optical discs such as CD / DVD / BD (BluRay Disks), and of course, hard disks. If some of them could be removed from the chassis, laptops could be made more portable. Card readers can be replaced by USB ports, as almost every modern media recording device comes with the option. Hard disks are harder to substitute, but solid state drives are a move in the right direction. That leaves optical media.

Why Optical Media can't compete

I, for one, don't trust optical media for several reasons - They are:
  • Non-reliable: They get scratched easily
  • A Waste of money: They are much costlier than hard disks per GB of storage
  • Inconvenient: It's not easy (if even possible) to stop copying data to them once the process has started and then resume copying later. You can't rearrange files in it after you're done, either.
  • Non-Reusable: The most affordable - therefore popular - versions of optical media are read-only, and can only be dumped after their intended purpose. (You'd think there is a case for movie rentals - no, streaming is better. NETFLIX seems to understand the idea.)
The only possible situation where downloads can't be used as a replacement for optical media is in the case of bootable devices. If you have a recovery program that creates bootable disks, how do you boot from it without an optical drive?

Available Options

The only reason I use my DVD±RW drive has been to burn Ubuntu installer images onto CDs. Over the years, I've built up a whole stack of them. But recently, I stumbled upon UNetBootIn which enables the creation of bootable partitions on USB drives. Now, there is a 700MB partition on my external hard disk which I can boot from, to install or try out Ubuntu. The drive letter associated with that partition was removed, so that the drive doesn't show up in my drives list or start auto-play every time I plug it into my computer.

But there must be a better way than to have a dedicated partition for each image you want to boot from. Someone who happens to have a handful of bootable images shouldn't be forced to create dedicated partitions for each image. Given the delicacy required when changing partition tables, the chances of messing up are considerable. I should be able to plug in my hard disk, choose a bootable image from the disk, and boot from it!

Software Emulator

There are many ways to create multi-boot USB drives, such as Plop Boot Manager. However, they tend to be too complicated to set up. The simplest way of setting up a multi-boot USB hard disk that I can think of would work like this:
  1. A software installer creates a small bootable partition on USB hard disk or thumbdrive,
  2. Reboot and choose the USB as the boot device,
  3. A file browser window opens with which you can select an ISO file stored anywhere on the USB, the computer, or a local network share and add it as a boot option 
  4. Reboot and select the option to boot from it.

Dedicated Hardware

A little more involved, but much easier-to-use way of doing it would be to have a USB bridge with software on it to emulate a bootable disk, with the option to browse for ISOs as before. This proposed device would look like a USB thumbdrive, but will have a USB port on it into which storage devices could be plugged in. An adapter, if you will. If you want to boot from an ISO,
  1. Copy the ISO to a thumbdrive or an external/portable hard disk,
  2. Connect the drive/disk via the adapter to the computer,
  3. Reboot and choose the adapter as the boot device,
  4. Browse for the image and add it as an option,
  5. Reboot and select the option to boot from it.

End Notes

  1. Instead of a device, the circuitry and software could be integrated into the drives/disks themselves, but by using an adapter, the functionality could be used to boot from legacy USB storage devices as well.
  2. A writeable virtual CD/DVD/BD burner would come in quite handy when dealing with software which directly write to the optical disks instead of giving an ISO you can burn yourself. The virtual disk driver should spit out ISO images, like how virtual PDF printers spit out PDF files when printed to. Ever heard of one?

Do let me know if you have come across something that is as easy as (or better) than this idea.

17 March, 2011

Free / Open-Source Software (FOSS) for Windows

List of Software I use on my computer. For an average computer user who only does these things, the list will give you everything you'll need -

  • Browse web pages
  • Chat with friends (text / audio / video)
  • View / Touch-up / Manage Photos
  • Watch downloaded/online movies
  • Listen to music
  • Create / Edit Office files ( Text files, SpreadSheets & Presentations - for you MSOffice addicts, that's .doc, .xls & .ppt :p )
  • Other miscellaneous things which don't correspond to a line of work.

Note 1: Win -> Windows XP/Vista/7, Lin -> Linux, any modern distro, Mac -> OSX 10.4 or later
Note 2: You may notice that many of these tools are from Google. I'm a fan, yes. But if you can find better tools, do tell me.
Note 3: When installing any software, always choose the 'Custom'/'Advanced' option (where available) and deselect anything with the words 'toolbar', 'search' or anything else you didn't intend to install when you downloaded the software. However, always enable automatic update checks.

Basic List

Intermediate List

Advanced List

  • CrossLoop - Remote Support - Win - www.crossloop.com/ Note: Click on 'download' link at the top of the site to get the installer. You don't need to sign-up to use it - click 'skip' if it prompts you to, when run (after install).
  • Speccy - System Information Tool - Win - www.piriform.com/speccy
Developer Tool

End Note: I do have much, much more. But this should get you started :)

27 January, 2011

[Wishful Thinking] The perfect mobile device?

I want a mobile device (not just a 'phone') that:

  • Supports reception and transmission all radio frequencies used worldwide (that means WiFi, radio, all the mobile phone freq.s, all the data freq.s (2G/3G/3.5G/4G/LTE et. al.)
  • Captures 1080p ('Full HD') videos at 60fps and 12MP images with perfect low-light capture (output as clear as what a human eye could see at night), with extra bright flash (Infra-red capture? nah, v2.0, maybe),
  • Captures HD audio with background noise elimination,
  • Has fingerprint and retina scanners,
  • Is rugged enough to keep working from -100 to +120 degrees celcius or under water upto 100m under the surface and immune to household chemicals of any sort,
  • Has batteries that last 48 hours on a single charge on average normal use or 2 weeks on stand-by and charges from 0% to 100% in 2 minutes,
  • Has 400dpi, 4-inch, 16:9 multitouch display,
  • Can support up to 10TB of external storage (HDDs & such) through a USB (3.0) cable (For >64GB, may require connection to external power),
  • Has SD card support upto 256GB and internal storage of 64GB
  • Weighs under 200g and is less than 1.5cm thick
  • has Physical buttons for camera, volume, screen lock, silent mode, media playback - all designed to prevent accidental presses,
  • Has temperature sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity, ambient light, GPS, compass.
  • Supports all media formats used in more than 1 million files worldwide (that should cover everything you would ever use)AND,
  • Has hardware required to run all this fast and efficiently (at the same time, where applicable.)

Would you call it the perfect mobile device?

13 November, 2010

How to Export Contacts from Facebook

Please Note: This post is almost two years old! In internet times, it's ancient, and thus, outdated. You may find newer links at this link [Google Search]

TechCrunch had an article earlier this week, complaining how Facebook denies access to our friends' email addresses. Its true of course, and even its recently debuted tool to download information off the site doesn't include email addresses. (To use the tool, go to FB Account Settings and click the 'learn more' link next to 'Download your Information'.) Without email addresses, the friends list cannot be imported into other sites, which means FB is making it hard for its users to move to a different site, taking their friends list with them.

FB claims to be protecting our friends' privacy, but they actually have deals with Yahoo! and Microsoft to share exactly that so-called 'private information' with them! Talk about hypocrisy!

As a follow-up, TC is suggesting that we can use the FB deal with Yahoo! to our advantage, by
  1. Creating a new Yahoo! Mail account,
  2. Importing our FB friends' email addresses data on to Yahoo! mail,
  3. Exporting that as a CSV file, and then
  4. Importing the CSV into Gmail or Outlook or wherever.
Sneaky, yes, and its a middle finger to Facebook's so-called commitment to protecting users' privacy, but I think step one can be skipped.

Sign-in to your Y!Mail account - Yeah, I know, you've probably not used that crap for a while since getting addicted to the awesomeness of Gmail.. but at least its good for tricks like this!

Now, click this link: Import Contacts to Yahoo!

There you can import contacts from FB, Gmail or Windows Live to your Y! account.

21 November, 2009

Google Chrome OS - First Impressions (or should I say, Disappointments!)

An early prototype of the much awaited Google Chrome OS was released a couple of days back, and as expected of any product announcement from Google, everyone in the tech world was excited, including me. This is a very early version of the Operating System, and the initial demo wasn't that impressive, but I wanted to have a go at it. Following TechCrunch's simple guide to install Chrome OS on a virtual machine, I loaded it up yesterday in VirtualBox.

The boot time of 7 seconds was indeed quite a feat (the intend to halve that by next year!), and I had no problems logging in with a Gmail/Google account (Warning: don't use your primary Gmail address if you intend to try it out yourself. Its a prototype, after all.). Chromium browser (the open-source counterpart of Google Chrome) loaded up, with a few changes to the UI to make it handle some things that traditional OSes have dealt with as a separate affair, like options to turn networks on & off, a rudimentary digital clock and a battery monitor.

Here is what's different (or rather, missing) in ChromeOS, compared to Windows, Linux et al. :
  • Cannot install applications; all applications are web services (websites)
  • Need Internet connectivity to even login, as ChromeOS uses your Gmail account for login and the app panel (its version of 'Quick-Launch' in Windows, and is like a tab inside the browser - but its not). Furthermore, as all apps are web apps, you can't do zilch without a decent net connection.
  • Does not (and will not) support existing desktops/ laptops/ netbooks/ smartphones, and requires specialized hardware designed specifically to run ChromeOS. If you want to run it somewhere other than a virtual machine, you need to wait for year for ChromeOS to be released as pre-installed OS on specialized netbooks with solid state hard drives (SSDs). ChromeOS is free, but the netbooks surely won't be.
  • There are no options to log out, shut down or restart, except using the power button. I guess logout is not really needed, all you have to do is logout of your browser session. But come on, a simple shut down button?
On the plus side, you'll never need to update anything - everything is stored online, including your data & customizations/settings, and you can access your data and programs from anywhere in the world, provided you have a stable connection to the net. For example, the app panel required a google.com login when I tried it out yesterday. But when I opened up the OS today, they had switched it to a regular google account, which meant that I could login with my Gmail username and password instead. To update the UI, all they have to do is change it at the server, and all users will instantly be upgraded to the latest version.

Some other things I noticed:
  • The file manager, accessible through the browser's open/save dialogues, is a chrome-less window, and reveals the Linux file system, on which it is based.
  • No desktop, no icons. Well, there is the app panel. None outside the browser - which is the OS, by the way. Technically, no other OSes have icons or wallpapers outside the OS, so its a moot point. Its a new way to look at it. (Saying 'paradigm shift' is such a clich√© :p )
  • If you close the last tab (the app panel is not really a tab, so it doesn't count), the whole browser restarts, reopening the closed tab.
Its UI is also very choppy. I had given 1GB RAM to the virtual machine, with 128MB of video memory. But then, my hard disk is not an SSD, and the OS is not even at beta stage.

What I don't understand is, when you have free OSes like Ubuntu which works on every computer (at least every one of the dozen or so I've tried on), and features like hibernate which can reduce the need for a restart/boot to the rare occasions of a kernel/system update, what exactly is the need for such an OS? They are polished (unlike ChromeOS, in its current state), works with a huge number of devices (unlike ChromeOS), can be installed on any computer used today (unlike ChromeOS), and can choose from tens of thousands of applications to be installed on them, taking advantage of the local processing power.

If you can suggest a valid reason why I should use this OS, please, enlighten me in the comments.

05 November, 2009

New Orkut design copies many of Facebook's features

New Orkut

Orkut has rolled out a new design to some users, and has given the ability to invite others to it, à la Gmail / Google-Wave. There is an entry in the Orkut Support Section which claims that the new interface is faster & simpler, and will make it easier to follow your friends' updates. From the listing of features, it appears that Orkut has copied many of Facebook's features to make the UI more streamlined. And I'm glad they did!

The upgrade adds the ability to comment on friends' updates, and to change the colour scheme of your profile page. But here is the most exciting feature that they are adding to Orkut : with the new version, you will be able to do Audio/Video Chat with your friends! This will probably require the installation of a plugin like the one used in Gmail. There is also the option to do a conference chat.

(Update: The plugin is needed, but if you have it installed and working in Gmail, you don't need to do that again. It just works. No option to set status though. Only the pre-set statuses 'Available', 'Busy' & 'Invisible' and the option to sign out of chat are available.)

Orkuteers will be able to select multiple photos for uploading at once, and also rotate them if needed. All your contacts' activity notifications will be available through a unified what's new section, which will also have the ability to play the videos added by your contacts - exactly how Facebook's 'News Feed' works.

The new version also adds a link header on top like the ones on top of Gmail & Google Docs, allowing users to navigate to other Google properties.

It also looks like they are integrating the scrapbook into the home page, thus making it more like Facebook's wall posts, but I'm not sure about this. The help page says that "The 'scrap' feature lets you post directly to their profile pages". What exactly that means is yours to figure out; your guess would be as good as mine. (See Update below)

As a web developer, I'm happy to hear that in the new version, Orkut has also joined the growing list of large sites which have stopped supporting the IE6 (Internet Explorer 6) browser. They suggest that users should "upgrade to a supported browser" by "download[ing] the latest versions of Google Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer 8".

Update: I'm in! Using the new design now. They have 'Ajax'-ified the interface, so all sections (scraps, photo albums, fav. videos, testimonials etc.) appear in the home page itself. The friends list and communities list are now scrollable, and shows all your friends/communities. You can also narrow-down the list with search-as-you-type. Aesthetics could have been better though.. I miss the old Orkut already.

Update 2: Apparently, this isn't news. The orkut blog had announced it last week. Can't believe I missed that... :p

17 July, 2009

Blog Upgrade!

Hi all,

Upgraded to New Blogger Template (Finally!), added a few widgets. Still have the same design, so yes, I was converting for the last few hours..

Has Google FriendConnect enabled, so signup here if you like my posts..

I've been on Twitter for a while now, so smaller updates are going up there instead of a full-blown blog post.

Follow me on Twitter! @lifenstein

P.S.: Will add more posts here soon.