The Forgotten Role of Technology: One Step Away from Magic

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I’ve noticed an increasingly more prevalent theme this year. The core theme is the concept of technology that is so ubiquitous and elegant that it appears to work like magic. For most of us that is rarely our experience. Often technology, whether we’re using an electronic tool that performs some physical work, or a piece of software that executes a virtual action, rarely seems like magic.

Some of this is simply due to the fact that most of us have developed a specific level of expectation over time through gradual changes that occur across the span of decades. There are certainly many things that might be perceived as magical to someone from an earlier time, whether it was someone from five hundred years ago or only a decade ago.  Perhaps magic, in this context, might be defined as something that is done for you that you didn’t even think about when you made it happen. Like turning on a light switch or opening a door, except the level of interaction is subtler.

Earlier this year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to join a college at a conference where Josh Clark, a user interface design expert, presented along with several other experts. While there we also had the opportunity to speak with him directly at one of the lunches, where he joined our table. Much of our discussion was on this very subject as was his presentation. His topic, of technology functioning like magic, was engaging and, in my opinion, a change heading toward us rather quickly.

I love technology. I enjoy learning about new innovations and gadgets and I have spent several late nights and weekends just tinkering with devices and software, sometimes without a defined goal. Some of those projects were dead ends. Others were successes. I learned from each one.

Yet, over the years, I continue to notice one problem with much of the technology that we have at our disposal.

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Upgrade Impressions: Replacing MacBook Pro and ASUS Eee PC Hard Drives with Seagate Hybrid Drives

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Early last month I replaced the hard drive in my ASUS home automation PC with a Seagate Hybrid Drive (1 TB, 5,400 RPM, 2.5″). Since then I’ve noticed a slight improvement in performance.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to replace the drive in my work laptop with a Seagate hybrid drive as well. I was so impressed with the performance boost and wake-from-hybernate speed that I decided to purchase two drives for home use (one for my laptop, which is a mid-2012 13″ MacBook Pro and one for my wife’s laptop that is probably a 2010 13″ MacBook Pro).

For the personal laptops I purchase two drives (Seagate Momentus XT 750 GB 7200RPM SATA 6Gb/s 32 MB Cache 2.5 Inch Solid State Hybrid Drive ST750LX003) from Amazon for around $100 each.

I’m very impressed with these hybrid drives. I never expected to see a noticeable improvement in performance. It’s comparable to the difference experienced when adding a significant amount of RAM to a system. Even my wife’s older MacBook Pro seems a bit faster.

Plugable USB 2.0 to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter

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Several months ago I lost some network ports on different devices due to a power surge from a nearby lightning strike. Unfortunately, one of the devices that took a hit was the ASUS system I’m using for managing home automation. After the surge I configured the system to use wifi but it was struggling to keep up with network traffic (the system does more than just manage my home automation setup).

After I while I decided to purchase a Plugable USB 2.0 to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter. It’s worked great ever since and as far as I can tell I haven’t had any new problems with the system (and bandwidth has clearly improved over the wifi connection). The device retails from Amazon for about $25.

Waking Wireless Speakers from Standby for Audio Output (Windows 7)

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I recently purchased a set of wireless speakers, which I’ve connected to my ASUS EeeBox PC. They work well but I have encountered a problem that is common to wireless speakers – they go into a standby mode and require a few seconds to initialize. For playing music this isn’t a problem. However, using the speakers for text-to-speech can be a problem as the speakers may not initialize before the computer has finished speaking. In addition, Windows text-to-speech output doesn’t seem to have a signal strong enough to wake up the speakers anyway.

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Moving an iTunes Library from OS X to Windows

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This was done using OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard), Windows 7 Professional, and iTunes 10 on both systems. It may work just fine on different versions of the operating systems and iTunes, but I don’t know for certain.

I wanted to move a copy of my rather large iTunes library from the Mac over to the Windows system, which is always on. While it’s easy to setup Home Sharing and then initiate an import of all music over the network, there doesn’t seem to be a way to sync the playlists. I may be mistaken, but I could have sworn that when I first enabled Home Sharing I was able to sync my entire library and playlists from an OS X 10.6 system over to another system running 10.5 (with both running the latest version of iTunes at the time).

Unfortunately, only the files synced with the Windows system. I couldn’t find an easy method for copying playlists that didn’t involve a third-party program.

I decided to take a more direct route and just copy my entire iTunes library manually. To do this I pushed a copy of everything within the iTunes folder to a network drive, deleted everything within the Music\iTunes folder under the Windows account, and then pasted a copy of my library into the Windows iTunes folder.

Note: This will only work if your media is stored within the iTunes folder. If you’ve always had have the option under Advanced to Copy files to iTunes Media Folder when adding to library then you may already be in good shape.

The next time I fired up iTunes in Windows I had my media and the playlists I had setup on the Mac. The only thing I had to change after copying was the name of the iTunes library – it had also copied that from the Mac.

The information and artwork for my movies transferred, but the movie files did not because they were not stored within the iTunes folder. This was expected and preferred – the ASUS hard drive isn’t large enough to also accommodate the movies (I may upgrade the drive in a few months so I can also store the movies there).

I haven’t used the library much but it appears to be working fine.

Schooners II – Weatherproof Wireless Full Range Speakers (Grace Digital Audio)

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Almost four years ago I dabbled in a brief project with the goal of using a set of wireless speakers so I could hear notifications from my computer. That project failed, mostly due to the hardware I chose. Admittedly, I never put much effort into it.

Recently, I decided to revive this concept to enhance my interaction the new ASUS EeeBox PC, especially since I’m planning to use Speech Recognition and Text-to-Speech for various tasks and notifications. Having just one set of speakers at the computer wouldn’t do. I wanted to have at least a couple of speakers around the house.

On the old home automation system I had a setup that, when a motion sensor was first triggered after a certain time on a weekday, would cause the computer to play a one minute clip from a different 80s song. It was just a bit of fun to help the two of us relax after long days at work. The combination of software did work. However, the audio could only be played from the one room, on the far side of the house. With my new speaker setup this would have more of an impact.

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ASUS EeeBox PC (EB1006), Boxee and Netflix Experience (Unacceptable)

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I have three projects for the ASUS EeeBox PC that I have yet to spend much time on: speech recognition, text-to-speech, and serving media files as an HTPC. Tonight I finally spent a few minutes with Boxee. This was the first night that I attempted to play any kind of video using Boxee and in this case I only used the Netflix app. I have yet to try ripped DVDs or other video content in Boxee, iTunes, or XBMC.

The Netflix Boxee app didn’t perform well on my system. The audio didn’t sound great, though I had set Boxee to play audio through the HDMI connection but for some reason it only used the speakers. The video streaming was very bad. It was choppy and stuttered a lot.

It’s difficult to know whether the problem is the Boxee Netflix app, using Boxee itself, or simply the fact that the ASUS EeeBox PC just may not have enough horsepower. After all, the ASUS isn’t a high-end system and running additional software on it probably doesn’t help.

I’ll continue this experiment and post updates as I learn more. However, I may jump ahead to working with XBMC and go back to Boxee if I don’t like the results.

Updated 08/24/2011: I briefly tested Netflix Instant Watch from Internet Explorer on the ASUS EeeBox PC and it seemed to run fine. The streaming problem I experienced appears to be limited to Boxee or the Netflix plugin for Boxee. There may be other factors involved, but it’s unlikely I’ll spend any time in the immediate future to identify the specific problem.