Backing up

Just read this post on Medium about backing up your data and I thought the setup was very similar to mine, so I felt like writing one to talk about my own.

My setup consists of:

An HP Proliant Microserver N36L which is a fantastic form factor for this purpose. Over time, I did add a graphics card to it so that I can get HDMI out to connect it to an external monitor for those times when I need to upgrade something that I cannot do over remote desktop, like when I moved from Windows Home Server 2011 to Windows 8 and then to Windows 8.1

The server is also great because in that compact form factor, it still allows for 4 hard drives. I had bought two 1TB hard drives and had let Windows Home Server run them in mirror mode. After I moved to Windows 8, I manually implemented that feature via File History. Not technically the same, but works for me in terms of keeping a copy of my data on a second hard drive in case it fails. Windows 8 also provides me the capability to restore to factory settings or to restore to a pre-determined point, in case I need to.

Since I have enough space on my hard drives, I haven’t deployed my other USB drives. Also, since this setup is in our closet, I also don’t want my wife to one day throw it all out of there :-) It would be nice to use Storage Spaces and make use of all my USB drives as a single shared pool of storage. After all, the server does provide a ton of USB ports on front and back.

I do not need VNC because I use the excellent Remote Desktop which now is available on iOS (and Mac and Android too but at this time I don’t have those devices).

Instead of Dropbox, I use SkyDrive for all types of file sync from and to multiple devices. Like Remote Desktop, the SkyDrive app exists on all the devices I use, and works quite well for me. In addition, on my home network, I have set up a HomeGroup and in Windows, I have set up all Libraries to point to the server’s respective locations (Documents, Photos, Music, Videos, etc.) and made that the default save location. That way, the need to sync is reduced when I am on the home network. Pictures from phones are backed up to SkyDrive from my iPhone as well as my Lumia automatically and show up on the server because of the SkyDrive app.

Finally, the best part: Crashplan automatic cloud backup running on the server, which is set to never sleep. In this way, I have multiple versions of all the files on the server, always backing up automatically to the cloud. I have been able to restore my backed up files on different PCs as and when I have needed to. It does not provide bare metal restore but I don’t need it because of the excellent Reset/Refresh features introduced in Windows 8. In fact, if I wanted to, I could even use Crashplan to do USB backups (it uses multiple “destinations” so cloud is the only destination I am using currently but there is no extra cost to add local USB as a destination).

One issue I have noticed and it comes as a result of using the server not just as a backup machine but also as a media server, is that videos take a long time to stream to tablets or TV. I suspect it is because the processor is quite old and slow and it is the server that is doing the CPU-intensive stuff so it ends up choking a bit. I also suspect the hard drives are a bottleneck as well in such cases. I don’t think I want to invest much into this setup at this point but I would love to see a modern version of this form factor. I haven’t found it yet. Most of the small form factor cases today skip the hard drive expansion slots and as a result make me afraid of losing the low-cost, big-sized storage capacity.

But that’s a separate story. I am just happy I have been able to get to a point where I don’t have to worry about losing my digital memories as well as important papers and hard work from my past several years. Huge thanks to Crashplan for making this happen via their inexpensive and unlimited backup service.

8″ Windows tablet

I recently purchased a Dell Venue 8 Pro, an 8″ Windows 8.1 tablet running on Intel Atom chip. I bought the 64GB version because I knew my app count (and size) would be high so it would be better to be n the safer side when it comes to storage. Besides, Amazon had a great deal on it, where I got it for $329 instead of the regular price of $399.

I kept the box because I was not sure if I needed another tablet (I have two iPads), or another Windows 8.1 touch device (I have a 27″ Lenovo A720 all in one). Surprisingly, I am loving the device and won’t be returning it. The following are just some of the reasons this is a great device *for me*:

  • Form factor: This thing is thin and light! I am talking in absolute terms, not comparing it to say, an iPad mini or a Nexus or a Kindle Fire. I can absolutely hold it in one hand for a long period of time. I was not able to do it with my iPad nor my Surface RT, despite both being relatively light.
  • Screen size and clarity: I feel 8″ screen is great for all my consumption activities and feel it is way better than my phone for quick Office/Excel work. I don’t care about the actual resolution, but what I see is pretty darn clear. There was an initial auto-dimming issue which was fixed by Dell via a firmware update.
  • Windows ecosystem: One may ask why I didn’t go for an iPad mini in the first place. The issue is that my home setup is based on Windows. I have a Windows PC (used to run Windows Home Server 2011, now runs Windows 8.1) in the closet with a large hard drive that has all our music, video, photos, documents, etc. This PC is also a part of a HomeGroup which enables it to share all that content easily with other devices in the HomeGroup. With an iPad, I would have to move the files to the cloud, or find some apps which can somehow read data off the network, or maybe trick iTunes into reading all those files as part of its Library. None of those seemed to be as elegant as simply adding a device to the HomeGroup. With my Dell, I have zero issues browsing our entire photo library or even more fun, watching some random old home videos of our kids.
  • User profiles: I didn’t do this until a few days ago, but I decided to add my kids accounts to the device because I realized my “games” area on the Start Screen was exploding in size and I wasn’t using any of them. I created two child accounts and added all the apps/games that they would care about on their Start Screen. They love logging in with their own Picture Password and their own game progress, achievements, etc. This is simply not possible, but highly desirable on an iPad.
  • Win32 fallback: I have not had to jump into the “old” Windows on this device much. Recently though, I wanted to play a DVD (ripped as an ISO, stored on my home “server”) but I couldn’t. Tried a few apps that promised that functionality but they couldn’t do it. Ultimately, I gave in and installed the ever reliable VLC player. I know they are working to bring it in a Windows Store app, but until then, the only option is to use their Win32 application. It worked flawlessly (no surprise) and I was able to stream the video on my device in seconds! Really handy to have that fallback, although the counter point could be the poor ecosystem that does not fill the gap. I believe the issue is DVD playback involves royalties which is perhaps one of the motivations Microsoft had in removing that feature from core Windows 8, and making it part of a “pro pack” on top of Windows 8 Pro which then includes Windows Media Center as well.
  • Office: Sure, this is not a touch-friendly version, and sure, it is dorky to use Excel on a small device but for quick updates like one or two entries on a common budget file my wife and I share, it is great to have a full version of Office connected to SkyDrive.
Bottom line, this device is actually so useful to me, I have used my iPad even lesser in the past few weeks than before. It also helps that Brandon Paddock (@BrandonLive on twitter) is actively iterating on his Metro twitter app Tweetium. It is a really nice app that works well in Metro, and more so, in portrait mode which is how I use this device most of the time. The official app is decent but Tweetium is way friendlier. Awaiting notifications support :-)
 
I admit, this may not be the device for everyone, much less everyone in the Windows ecosystem, but boy, at $250 or so, it is very close to a no-brainer.
 
Highly recommended.

Windows Phone app problem

Over the weekend, I had a twitter conversation with the Wordboxer developers, trying to get them to port their game to Windows Phone. It brought to light an important point about the Windows Phone (and for that matter, Blackberry) app problem: most cool games and apps are being built by small shops or single developers who just don’t have the time to build and maintain more than one or maybe two versions of their app/game. I really hope the Windows Phone (and Windows 8) teams realize this and create ways and means to reach these folks and help them out with the education needed to have them port their apps.

I know with the addition to C++ and support for cross-platform game engines on both Windows Phone and Windows 8, things are easier in terms of porting, but the point is most devs look at market share numbers and shy away from the platform. Of course, the market share going up and reaching some level of respectability (10% in the US?) may automatically help, but until then, Microsoft has a tough problem on their hands. They have to increase sales of devices, they have to attract the big brands and they have to make sure the indie devs also consider Windows Phone, if not at launch, at least soon after.

Fingers are crossed.

Windows Phone app problem

Small devs really don’t have time to develop and maintain code for more than one or two platforms. Even though Windows Phone dev tools are arguably better than anything else out there, and porting is easier with Windows Phone 8, it comes down to resources. Here is a great example of that.

  1. @wordboxer My friends want me to play your game with them, but you don’t have your app on Windows Phone. Please help :-(
  2. I got an invite to play this game from someone on iOS. As usual, after not finding the game in the Windows Phone Store, I ping the developer twitter account.
  3. @TheRomit Unfortunately we have no plans to develop WordBoxer for Windows Phone…
  4. As is usually the case, developer says “no plans”. :-(
  5. @WordBoxer :-( That’s terrible news. Can I make a desperate plea?
  6. Again as usual, I start begging. :-)
  7. @WordBoxer porting to Windows Phone 8 is relatively easy. Looks like you already have Android, may as well attempt WP? :-(
  8. And then prodding.
  9. @TheRomit We’re not a big game company but just three friends who build WB in their spare time, and it takes lots of spare time already ;-)
  10. Then …. reality. Devs don’t have the time.
  11. @WordBoxer Haha, ok. We need your help, that’s all. I am sure the folks at @wpdev won’t mind giving you a hand �� Cheers!
  12. More shameless begging.
  13. @TheRomit if you find us an investor down there in CA we might reconsider ;-)
  14. More reality.
  15. @WordBoxer Investor, maybe. Dev/porting help? More than likely ��
  16. My side of the story: practicality.
  17. @TheRomit Help would of course be appreciated, but a way to make a living even more ;-)
  18. Another dose of reality.
  19. @WordBoxer Windows Phone users definitely tend to pay more than Android. Hence, surprised that you ported to Android but not to WP.
  20. Hey, no harm in throwing some well-known facts to counter the harsh reality.
  21. @TheRomit 6 months ago when we started to port to Android the W8 marketshare was even less than the 5% now.
  22. At least they are aware of the 5% share. I see a slight opening :-)
  23. @WordBoxer But Android users, despite the market share, tend to appreciate “free” whereas WP users tend to spend more.
  24. “It is not all about market share”, as the word on the street goes :-)
  25. @lancewmccarthy Hey, I don’t know where these guys are located, but hope you can find help for them? See thread here twitter.com/WordBoxer/stat…
  26. Seeing the opening, I ping a good twitter friend and a prolific developer and now a Nokia Developer Ambassador. They can help and in fact, they encourage developers to port their apps.
  27. @TheRomit I guess the only chance to have make a living from an app like ours lies in high numbers of downloads.
  28. Meanwhile, back to reality.
  29. @WordBoxer of course. I am not trying to say you are missing a large market. You would have built the app already if that were the case.
  30. Countered with more practicality/realism. It’s not a bad idea to go Android after iOS, to get the volume.
  31. @WordBoxer My point is that you will see more stickiness and willingness to pay with an average WP user than an Android user.
  32. ….but, Windows Phone users are more loyal to the platform and the early adopters tend to support developers who bring their stuff over from other platforms.
  33. @WordBoxer Also, it helps that number of devices and resolutions and OS versions are way more limited than Android.
  34. My turn to throw some reality into the mix. It is easier to develop/port to Windows Phone because testing involves a finite number of resolutions and device types. Especially if they focus only on Windows Phone 8.
  35. @WordBoxer (Hence, potentially an incremental effort may give you some valuable customers. Just a thought.)
  36. Yup, continuing the reality trend – if they can re-use much of their code then the incremental effort to bring the app to Windows Phone may not be too much, but the upside is huge.
  37. @TheRomit I see your point, same goes for iOS users compared to Android users I think.
  38. Full agreement here.
  39. @WordBoxer Oh, of course. WP users definitely more like iOS in that sense. Of course iOS user count >>>>>> WP ��
  40. More agreement.
  41. @TheRomit but to create a viral effect, which obviously did not occur yet ;-), we needed the masses to play WordBoxer. Hence Android ;-)
  42. No arguments here.
  43. @WordBoxer Anyway, I have pinged @lancewmccarthy who may have some resources to help you. It would be *great* if it comes to WP
    #hope ��
  44. And now, bringing Lance into the convo.
  45. @WordBoxer Agreed. That is def a proper method, no questions. With WP, you will get so much more coverage too, since we yearn cool iOS apps.
  46. Agreement all around.
  47. @TheRomit @lancewmccarthy thanks for sharing your thoughts! We’ll look into it! Cheers
  48. Looks like these guys are open-minded developers.
  49. @WordBoxer @lancewmccarthy Thanks for listening and being open to my humble thoughts. Cheers, and all the best!
  50. Appreciation for hearing me out.
  51. @WordBoxer I can help knock down the financial barrier, the only thing you’d need to do is build it. When you’re ready, ping me. @TheRomit
  52. Here we go :-)
  53. @lancewmccarthy @theromit Hi Lance, that sounds interesting :-) Could you please drop us a mail at info@wordboxer.com to elaborate? Cheers
  54. Oh hey … could this twitter convo lead to something? Let’s hope so!

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My ideal podcast app/service

Much has been discussed among Windows Phone (and Windows 8/RT) circles about lack of podcast features in the phone and lack of a native app on big Windows.

I am a big podcast listener. Not huge, but I do listen to a few podcasts regularly. In fact, so regularly, that I have formed a nice list of things I would want in an ideal podcast app/service. The reason I put app/service is because we are now no longer in a single device world.

  • Native apps for my devices: I use Windows Phone, Windows 8/RT and Windows 7. I would like native apps for at least phone and “Windows Store”.
  • Catalog: Big enough, and fresh enough catalog so that I don’t have to add podcasts by URL.
  • Easy subscribe settings: Options during subscribe should include auto downloads, number of episodes to keep, episode delete settings, etc.
  • Remember played position: For each podcast, for each episode.
  • Cloud: Sync settings, subscriptions and played positions to the cloud. Configurable setting for syncing on-device episodes to the cloud as well.
  • Refresh/check for new episodes: Check for new episodes when app is opened, automatically. Also, check on a schedule that can be configured and have a default. So if the default is 3am and 3pm every day, I know when I get up and am ready for my commute, there may be some fresh episodes waiting for me. Same, with a 3pm check for the commute home.
  • Playback speed adjustment: Must-have for me, at least 1.5x.

Some bonus territory items:

  • Playback in the cloud: If my subscriptions, settings and on-device episodes are synced to the cloud, I suppose I should be able to play those episodes from the web too. That would take care of machines which don’t have native apps, for example Windows 7 or Macs/iPads/iPhone/iPod.
  • Discovery: Based on what I have subscribed to, and perhaps extending it to my social networks, suggest other podcasts.
  • Live tiles: I don’t care much about getting notified of new episodes, so I put this in the bonus territory. Live tile notifications of new episodes.
  • Usage notifications: Notify (via live tile or otherwise) me about space used being above a certain threshold, or unplayed episodes going above a certain threshold.

Things I don’t care about but I have seen in some apps:

  • Visual niceties: Like the tape player in the iOS app. Don’t care about it since I always lock the phone screen anyway.
  • Social sharing: I don’t share either while listening or otherwise, so I don’t care about that feature.

Too much to ask? Is there any podcast app/service that does this already? I think Downcast on iOS comes very close in terms of functionality but they are only on iOS so far, but have expressed that they may look at WP with no real commitment provided. The iOS Podcasts app does not seem to delete episodes after they are finished which is a bummer (either a bug or a feature, but either way, a bummer for me).

None of the Windows Phone 3rd party apps do auto-download yet. There are some in the process of getting released with promised functionality but none generally available yet.

The native Windows Phone feature does not have a manual check for new episodes, and there is no clear understanding when exactly it checks for new episodes. Besides, there is no corresponding app on Windows 8, and of course, there is no playback speed adjustment.

Let me know if you find any compatible apps :-)

Windows Phone and Google Services: Is Google Lying or Just Innocent?

Some recent moves by Google seem to indicate they may be afraid of Windows/Windows Phone, for some strange reason. Or are they just innocent?

Windows Phone and Google Services: Is Google Lying or Just Innocent?