Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Windows 7 dilemma: switch or don't switch

I hated Windows Vista. There, I said it.

Actually, I initially liked it – for the silly reason that it looked nicer than XP and had the sidebar for displaying online gadgets. But then when it started behaving badly, I grew to loathe it.

So my decision to move to Windows 7, which I took almost instantly after test driving the release candidate, was a no-brainer. Windows 7 is a long way from perfect, but I still like it after a few months of use. It appears to be a better mouse trap.

That doesn’t mean that switching is the right decision for everyone. In fact, there is no one easy answer, as I discovered while researching “Should You Upgrade to Windows 7?” a recent story for Small Business Computing.

I’m not sure the article will make it easier or more difficult to decide, but at least it gives you information you can use to weigh the pros and cons yourself.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Industrial strength backup for the little guy

Fact: small companies that suffer major data disasters – eg. office and computers burn down – often fail as a result.

Surely to goodness it goes without saying by now that protecting data with regular backups is an essential business function. But we know many smaller companies put their survival at risk by not implementing adequate backup strategies. Scary.

For reasonably tech-savvy firms that need to pull their socks up in this vital area, storage specialist Iomega, now an EMC company, has a big biz solution – which I reviewed here for Small Business Computing.

The Iomega StorCenter ix4-200d NAS Server is a network attached storage (NAS) device with four drives – up to 8 Terabytes (TB) of storage – configured for RAID 5. It comes with EMC Retrospect Express backup software. It can deliver e-mail alerts if backups fail. And it can be set up for remote access.

The ix4-200d is also surprisingly compact, quiet and easy to set up and use. It’s not perfect – what tech product is? – but this NAS is definitely worth investigating if you need to beef up data security.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Palm Prē: on the come-back trail?

Remember Palm, the original maker of PDAs and PDA phones – Palm Pilot, Palm Trēo, etc.? The company kind of faded away for awhile, put in the shade by Windows, iPhone, Android, etc. Now Palm is back with its radical webOS mobile operating system and two new devices, the Prē and the Pixi.

I reviewed the Prē recently for Wi-Fi Planet. It’s a very cool device, combining an iPhone-like touch interface (better than iPhone’s in some ways) and slide-out QWERTY keyboard for easier text input.

But Palm wants you to change how you store and synch data to your mobile. Instead of synching with your desktop over a USB cable, now you’re going to synch to the cloud – to Google, Yahoo or whatever, or to Exchange if your employer has a Microsoft e-mail server – over the wireless network.

Will BlackBerry and Symbian users buy into this new paradigm? (I can’t see iPhone or Android users changing horses again so soon, but you never know.) Palm software partner Chapura does provide a safety hatch for those who like everything about Prē but the cloud synch strategy. The company’s $30 PocketMirror package lets you synch the old fashioned way.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Best Kept Web Secrets: CBC Concerts on Demand

A new series begins at AfterByte! Woo-hoo! Heck, I might even continue this one past the first installment.

The CBC is Canada’s public radio network, equivalent to NPR in the U.S. and BBC in the UK. Like some other public radio services, the Corp. regularly records and broadcasts live concerts.

Unlike other services, it now posts those recordings online, almost immediately after the broadcast. With the exception of Wolfgang’s Vault, arguably another best kept secret, this must be the largest cache of live concert recordings available online. And the CBC service is superior in some ways to Wolfgang’s. The concerts are all contemporary for one thing. (Wolfgang’s are mostly archival.)

The CBC concerts are also streamed at 128 kilobits per second (Kbps). Now, audiophiles will turn up their noses (ears?) at the notion of 128-Kbps streams. When they rip music from CDs, they use lossless modes that rip at between 400 and 900 Kbps and deliver CD-quality sound. But 128 Kbps is about the limit of what you can reasonably stream over the Internet. And to my ears, these streams sound as good as FM radio, better in some ways - no interference and distortion.

Mind, if you listen on your computer with its crappy sound system and crappier speakers, CBC COD titles won't come across much better than most online audio streams. Which is why you need to invest, if you haven't already, in a wireless digital music player such as one of Logitech's Squeezebox products. They let you play Internet music (and music stored on your PC) through a stereo system.

With my Squeezebox Duet, I can add the link to a COD stream to my list of Favorites and play it in the living room anytime I want. And it sounds great.

Okay, sound quality: pretty good, great if you use a digital music player. Music? There’s the rub for many netizens.

The CBC records mainly Canadian acts. Many, while good, are not well known outside the country. Not that little-known Canadian music stars are necessarily a bad thing, of course. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Oscar Peterson and Celine Dion (sorry) were all little known outside Canada at one point.

And you will find international stars, just not top pop music names. Recent examples: 80s British alt rocker Elvis Costello, bluesman John Hammond, archetypal 60s folkie Arlo Guthrie (pictured courtesy CBC), alt country singer Neko Case, country legend Loudon Wainwright III, classical pianist Emanuel Ax – and that’s just in the last month and a half or so.

There are also lots of gems from the Canadian music scene. If you’re feeling adventurous (or actually like the same kind of weird stuff I do), check out the following:

There ya go - no longer a secret.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is it time to ditch IE for Chrome?

I may be the last tech writer on the planet to test drive Google’s johnny-come-lately browser, Chrome. My response when it launched a year ago was, ‘Do we need another browser?’

But IE8 has been driving me crazy – reasonably quick connections but lo-o-ong delays in displaying all the ad content on pages, which momentarily freezes the browser window – and I happened to stumble on a TechCrunch post on Chrome. So, what the heck.

First impressions? Yes, Chrome is way faster, and that goes a long, long way. But feature-wise, it can’t touch IE8.

Some minor irritants encountered in the first hour using Chrome:

  • In Win7, when you mouse over the IE icon in the task bar, Windows displays good-size thumbnails of all your open tabs strung out above the bar. So you can go directly to the tab you want. With Chrome, you only see the currently open tab. You have to activate Chrome and then select the tab you want from within the app.
  • In IE, you can choose to open new tabs to your home page. Not with Chrome. When you open a new tab, your only choice is a page showing recently closed and most visited pages. Not a bad idea, and of course your home page will almost always be there (and you can tell Chrome to keep it there always), but it means one more click before you get what you want.
  • Speaking of home pages, mine has links that aren't underlined. Chrome kindly added the underlining for me. (Except I didn't want it.)
  • To search using your default search engine (Google by default naturally), you type search terms into the address field rather than a separate search field. This is not entirely intuitive (coming from IE) and it means you get a mish-mash of saved search terms and visited pages in the drop-down. I could probably get used to this one, though.

Could Google fix the others? Probably not on the first one. IE8 is tightly integrated with Win7, virtually part of it. (Remember the anti-trust case against MS?)

The second one: I can’t see why they couldn’t at least make it a user option. Third one: a bug to be fixed possibly?

Still, did I mention that Chrome is really fast?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Managing customers

Though I don’t always think of myself this way, I am a small business owner. Freelance writing is a business. I have customers – if fewer now than a year ago - and I have relationships with them that I have to manage.

Which is why I was intrigued recently when one of my best customers, Small Business Computing, asked me to look into the state of the art of computerized customer relationship management (CRM), especially as it relates to small businesses.

CRM is no longer, as it was when I first heard the term a decade or more ago, a bleeding-edge business application for big corporations only. Today it’s recognized as a core, mission-critical business function, and the technology for automating it is increasingly available to companies of any size. As I show in the article, which is here.

I was particularly interested, though, in comments from a consultant I interviewed, Linda Daichendt, whose company, Strategic Growth Concepts, helps small businesses in the Detroit area.

Linda is a marketing and strategic planning consultant, not a technology wonk. But she understands her clients and she understands very well the value of CRM to them. She was especially clear on its value in helping small businesses not only manage customers in the administrative and sales-process sense, but also in analyzing and understanding their customer bases so they can generate the most revenue with the least effort and cost.

And the strong impression I got from Linda is that too many small businesses are missing the boat on CRM. They’re not implementing readily available and inexpensive – in some cases, free – tools because they’re too harried, too focused on winning new customers, too lacking in vision, or just not sophisticated enough to understand the value. Too bad.

Not that I use SugarCRM or the free version of or even the venerable Act! myself, but my business is so small and so simple I can easily make do with Microsoft Office Outlook. And do.