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Volunteers Needed: Home Server Trial

I am currently working on a trial home server computer that I am considering producing and am looking for a volunteer family to allow me to install one in their home for 3-6 months (with option to keep using it after trial). There would be no cost to you (with one minor exception…see “ideal candidate), but I would need you to provide me feedback on how it is working and any possible changes you think should be implemented.

What is a “home server”?
A home server is a computer without a monitor, keyboard or mouse that runs 24/7 and manages all of your documents, music, and videos. In addition, it will backup any Windows PC in your home every night, which provides you with the ability to revert back to older versions of files or completely restore your computer in event of a crash or virus infection. It will also manage backing up all of your files to a cloud based backup service.

Ideal candidate
In order to properly test how this works “in the wild”, there are some requirements I have for a volunteer. The ideal candidate:

  • Is not “super technical”. Looking to see how an average person/family uses this.
  • Does NOT have a massive 500,000 iTunes collection…space is SOMEWHAT limited.
  • Has 2 or more personal Windows computers running Windows 7 or 8 in the house (test is for residence use only, so no business use at this time). 3 or more preferred.
  • Has full time internet (cable or DSL) with a router (wireless or wired)
  • Has a location to place a computer tower that is near the router (no monitor, keyboard or mouse are needed). Computer is size of a typical desktop computer, but it can be in a corner, behind a desk, even in a closet if there is some air circulation.
  • Is willing to move all personal documents, music, etc. to the server’s storage
  • Currently has or is willing to subscribe to an online backup solution (CrashPlan is preferred, but will consider others like Carbonite…not all services work with the server edition of Windows). Typical cost is $6 a month paid to that provider.
  • Is willing to let me securely remotely control the server to check status, install updates, and fix issues.
  • Agrees that server, with exception of data hard drive, will remain the property of Reboot Technology Services.

Benefit to you

  • I will set up the server on your network and transfer all files for NO cost to you. I will also maintain the computer for no cost to you, as well as fix issues with it.
  • All of your documents, files, music, etc. will be available to all computers on your network based on what users you allow.
  • 2TB of network storage…free up space on your personal computers
  • All of your computers will be backed up every night
  • All of your personal files mentioned above will be backed up online every day, protecting your electronic information from crashes or from catastrophic events like theft or fire.
  • You get early access to a prototype home server I hope to later offer for sale.
  • FUTURE PLANS: stream any of your music or videos to your smartphone or tablet anywhere you have a data signal.

Interested?
For those who are interested, please send an email to service@askreboot.com indicating the following:

  1. How many Windows 7/8 computers do you currently use in your house?
  2. Who is your current internet provider and how fast is your service (if you know)?
  3. How do you feel a home server could help your house/family?
  4. Are you willing to subscribe to an online backup solution?
  5. In what general area of town do you live (major cross-streets)?

At this time, I only have one machine, and it is open to Mesa/Phoenix/Gilbert/Chander only.  However, I hope to have a version 2 ready to go out after receiving feedback from my field test. Version 2 will offer the video streaming, which takes much more processing power.  I hope to hear from you!

Laptop Battery Tips

With modern batteries, it is far less important than it used to be to fully charge and fully discharge a battery with each use. However, there ARE some tips that are important to follow.

How to break in a new battery or laptop*:

  1. When you purchase a new laptop battery, it is recommended that you fully charge the battery before first use. With the laptop turned off and unplugged, install the new battery. Then connect the charger and let it charge at least 5-7 hours or until it indicates it is charged, whichever is LONGER.
  2. Once fully charged, unplug it and turn on the laptop. Use the laptop until the battery is fully discharged before recharging. This means use the laptop on battery power until it shuts itself down. A good way to do this is to play music CDs or DVDs. This conditions the battery and “trains” it to accept a full charge to a point, but more importantly it calibrates the battery to your computer so the “Amount Remaining” indicator is more accurate.
  3. Fully charge the battery again. After this, you can use the computer however you wish, plugged or unplugged, half charged or fully charged.

Proper care and use batteries:

  1. Most computers and chargers are built with “smart chargers” now, so you can basically plug and unplug the laptop at will without doing much damage. However, Lithium Ion batteries have a longer life when they are kept at around 80-90% capacity. Smart chargers know this, and will fully charge your battery and then allow it to drop to about 90%, before trickle charging it back up to about 95% and back and forth. So you may unplug it and find it drops to 90% really fast…this is normal, as it is just adjusting to the actual charge of the battery (which, by the way, is true for cell phones too).
  2. If you are going to remove or store your battery, fully charge it, then discharge it to 80% before removing it from the laptop. Then store it in a cool, dry place until needed again. However, this is unnecessary for shorter periods of time, like less than 30 days.
  3. Lithium Ion batteries do not like being fully discharged (except when “conditioning” it above). So not only is it ok to plug it in before it is fully dead, it is recommended and will extend the life of the battery.
  4. Finally, all batteries, Lithium Ion or otherwise, eventually lose their charging capacity. Lithium based batteries usually last about 500 charge and discharge cycles on average before failing to hold an acceptable charge, which translates to about a year or two of use.

 

*If you purchased a laptop and/or related set-up services from Reboot Technology Services, we have already performed this conditioning for you. You can proceed with normal use worry free!

What’s the deal with barcodes?

I was recently asked by a reader to elaborate a bit on barcodes and the bardcode scanner I implemented with the Kitchen PC. So, here’s some info on how we use the kitchen scanner, as well as some other fun information on barcodes

When I first read about the idea of a kitchen scanner I thought it was a bit ridiculous. Overkill. Unnecessary. A little “What would I use that for?” But you know what’s REALLY weird? I mentioned the idea to my wife when I was first designing the computer and her eyes lit up, at which point she all but demanded it be included. Go figure.

Barcodes
First, what is a barcode? A barcode is basically a way to encode information so that a machine can read it quickly and efficiently. An example of this is the UPC, or “Universal Product Code” and is found on just about everything you can buy in North America. A UPC will have numbers at the bottom, and all those black and white bars are the same numbers, but in computer terms. Plus, because of included “error correction”, a UPC barcode can be greatly degraded (“messed up”) and the scanner can still read it.

Here’s an example of a standard UPC and what the different digits mean:

The first digit is the number system, next five digits are the manufacturer code, and the next 5 are the item number. The remaining digit is the checkdigit.

Want more info? Here’s a pretty good article on how UPCs work.

For the geekiest among you, YOU can even figure out how the check digit works to fill in “missing numbers”.

Barcode Scanners
Now I needed a way to read these barcodes. Upon researching barcode scanners I found two things: 1) the good ones are super expensive new, and 2) they read information all different ways. Following are the types I’ve found:

    • Pen readers

      These are the kind you see a lot at the libraries. It’s a thick pen with a sensor on the end and a cord that goes back to the computer. You run the pen along the barcode and a little photodiode reads the reflected light. These tend to be lower priced than other types, so quickly made my list of possibilities. However, wasn’t crazy about having a pen dangling from the PC, and my wife’s #1 requirement was “no computery stuff” laying around.
    • CCD readers

      These are the kind you tend to see in many retail stores. If the associate has to put the tag right up against the device, it’s probably one of these. They reflect ambient light to a bunch of little sensors. Downside is they often need to be almost touching the sensor. Upside, they’re cheaper than the better alternatives.
    • Laser scanners

      These are the creme de la creme…and the price usually reflects it. They shoot a laser line that reads the barcode and frequently include mirrors, such as the big scanners at the grocery store. They can be handheld or stationary and they work from several inches away…after all, it’s a LAAAAASER! Unfortunately, the price break tends to be a little cost prohibitive for your average consumer.

The other thing I had to keep in mind was that I wanted a scanner that simply read the barcode as if I was typing the number in on the keyboard. Many of the scanners I found had two versions: the “keyboard entry” version, and one that read a bunch of other symbols too, which I’m sure makes sense to the software reading it but does me no good. In fact, the CueCat barcode scanner is a pen scanner that can be found on eBay modified to only read the keyboard entry data:

 

 

This is actually a favorite among hobbyists because it can be found in the sub-$10 price range…that, and the fact that the encryption used in it is weak enough to break with instructions on the internet. But I digress.

So I wanted a scanner that could be hidden, read a barcode from a few inches away (margin of error = user friendliness), was reliable and didn’t cost more than the computer itself. The obvious choice was a laser scanner and the remaining requirement was met by the handheld version made by Metrologic. Found a used one on eBay and was on my way.

And mounted:

The downside to any barcode inventory system is the initial setup. If we wanted to track inventory, that means I’d have to scan every item in our kitchen and pantry, and then rely on my wife to scan every item she uses. That just seemed absurd for everyone but the most OCD person. Option two was to track a grocery list…much more manageable, and my wife agreed this could actually decrease her workload. grocery list it was. However, we still had to either create a database of everything we buy or find a pre-existing database online to use.

There are several sites out there for this kind of thing, but the easiest to implement I found was Grocist.com. It’s literally a website with a single field and an enter button. You scan (or type) your item number, submit it, and it adds it to your list.

Your list can then be printed from the website or you can subscribe to your grocery list via a custom RSS feed to review, perhaps, on your web-enabled cell phone at the store.

This has turned out to be the easiest method by far. Plus, if you scan an item that’s not in the DB, you can add it, and then it’s available to everyone else who uses the site…which means the database is maintained by all the users, making it grow very quickly. Downside? There are a few incorrect item numbers…I haven’t come across any yet, but I’ve heard of a few people having trouble getting the developer to correct them. Nothing’s perfect.

Side perk: you can add all those little frequent shopper barcode numbers to your Grocist account and it will include the individual barcodes for each store on your printed grocery list. When you get to the register, just scan your shopping list and you’re done. Nice!

QR Codes
So far we’ve been talking about 1 dimensional barcodes…the kind you see represented as a UPC on everything you buy. However, no barcode conversation would be complete without talking about the latest fad, QR Codes.

While UPC barcodes are one dimensional, QR codes are a type of two dimensional barcode…which means data is stored left to right AND top to bottom. QR codes are a cool implementation of this in that they create a standard for sharing information…URLs, addresses, or just plain text. Following is an example of my business card as a QR code:

QR Code

Huh? Yeah, that’s our business name and website encoded as a 2D barcode. To read it, you need to install [usually free] barcode scanning software on your phone. Point the phone’s camera at the code and BAM! The information is displayed. In fact, it can be used for phone numbers and SMS to automatically call or text instead of having to type in the number. If you scanned the above barcode, you would get the following information:

Reboot Technology Services
http://www.reboottechservices.com

So there’s barcodes in a short(ish) post. Any comments? What are some strange ways you’ve seen barcodes used?