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Technology Today - March 2011
by Robert Sanborn 

I keep looking for simple solutions to difficult problems. Sometimes it works, and sometimes, it is no where near the trouble of digging into it.  My latest is cloud based storage for those of us who are not deep into the pockets of a large corporation and so what I want is something that is easy to use, very moderately priced, and not only backs up some of my most important files, but also lets me at them when I am traveling with a netbook or PDA.

So after some research, I found Dropbox, www.dropbox.com and at the first look, it is incredibly easy to use and unless you plan on storing half the music in your collection, free to use. So it hits all of the first three points buts does miss in one significant way.  It is easy to install, and setup and use. It is also free if you keep your online storage under 2 Gigabytes and the start up video when you go to the site is very simple and to the point.   And for lots of people, it works great.  When you install the software, you determine where on your computer your DropBox folder will be stored and you then simply put what ever you want to have stored in the cloud in the box.  And that is the key to the simplicity but also a problem for me because I have files that I want backed up but don’t want to move them there because of the problems it will cause with other programs using that file. Even more so in a small office environment where people share certain files and folders. So, I need another option.

Microsoft has SkyDrive which is part of their Windows Live online system of applications. Windows Live is Microsoft’s attempt to both break into the cloud and social media technology all at the same time. And that is my complaint with this kind of approach. Social media is great, I use Facebook to keep track of lots of friends all over the world, but when I am serious about my important data files, I don’t want to mix business and pleasure.  It may all still be there but Microsoft has rolled out Windows Live Mesh which brings us a way to connect it all together very easily.  The website:  http://www.microsoft.com/windows/cloud/  has a nice overview and videos to see.  Go to the site, download the Windows Live components you need (and you don’t need to download everything!), launch Windows Mesh and it then asks you what folders you would like synchronized in the cloud. There is a limit of 5 Gigabytes but you should never worry about that unless you have a super fast high speed internet connection.  Windows Live uses a single user id, which is usually your email account, and a password to get into the system.  At this point, if you have had a Windows Live account for a while, and if you had used Messenger or any of the other little programs that came with it, you already have an account. So, it is a good time to beef up the password and make it something that is easy to remember but also difficult to guess.

Once you have Microsoft Mesh installed on your computer, you can easily tell it what folders to include in your SkyDrive account for synchronization and once they are chosen, are backed up in the cloud. I would have liked an icon on the files or folders indicating that they were backed up. But even after you close Windows Live Mesh, it still stays active in your tray to let you know it is connected and if you make changes to the files, they will be backed up.  At this point, if it is just you and the cloud, things will work just great.

Unfortunately, for me, life just got a lot uglier.  The plan was for me to set up several computers that share files and documents with SkyDrive.

To test it, the next step was to add another computer to the system. So, from another computer, I log into the Windows Live account I set up but in order to connect it to the Mesh and SkyDrive, I need to add Windows Live Essentials and here is where the irritation sets in. Mostly of what you see there is Photo Gallery, Messenger, Movie Maker, and then finally Mesh. The good news is that you can selectively install just Windows Live Mesh.   Once installed, run it and you connect to your shared storage folders on SkyDrive. It is that easy unless you want to store the files from the SkyDrive onto a different folder, then you need to carefully go through the process of selecting what gets connected and where.   As always, test it with a small sample to make sure it works the way you expected it to. If you close the Mesh program, it just minimizes to the task bar to keep thinks connected and up to date.

Some things I don’t like. If you are going to pull a folder off of SkyDrive and sync it to a local machine, be sure to pick a folder for the files to go into. I made the rash assumption that it would create the folder on my receiving computer and it doesn’t. If you say store the folder “Stuff” on SkyDrive on your desktop, it takes the contents of “Stuff” and dumps them all on your desktop and there is no way to stop it part way through.  This is where things got really ugly. So I attempted to clean up my desktop and dump those added files to a folder. The next thing I find is that Mesh takes all of my files from my desktop, and dumps them up on SkyDrive and since that was where I was storing photos from my travels, SkyDrive quickly got irritated and told me that I had hit my 5 Gigabyte limit and needed to delete something.

So, from my test system, I told SkyDrive to get rid of all that extra stuff and sure enough, it not only got rid of it, but deleted it all from my main systems desktop!  Even worse, all of the files were taken out of their folders and dumped individually into the trash can.  Thank God for a current backup where I could go and retrieve my desktop items and restore them.  I am very unhappy with SkyDrive.  This could have been a disaster without a good backup plan in place.

So my complaints about SkyDrive at this point include major file handling confusion above, no support yet for mobile devices (unless you call just allowing them to look at pictures a feature), and no easy way to tell what is stored in SkyDrive on the local computer. I would like a way to tell at a glance that something is stored there; change the icon color, stick a little flag on it, etc.  Finally, a better consolidated how to document would be very helpful on using SkyDrive.

CES Mini Reviews

One of the things I constantly look for is something to give me instant power when my cell phone or PDA dies while on the road. I have used many of the charging devices and instant power batteries but with little enthusiasm for either how they work, or the poor workmanship in the devices. Radio Shack had a booth at CES and they had a charging unit that I had to try.  Called the Enercell, it is an 800mAh Mini USB portable power storage box that is very compact. It has a flip out standard USB plug on one side to connect to the computer to charge the box, and on the other is a mini-usb connector for my cell phone or PDA. There is also an on/off switch imbedded in it to keep it from accidentally discharging which is the problem with some of the other units. And it works well except for a small quibble. The built in connectors rotate out using a thumb wheel that needs iron man to rotate it. It is stiff and unfortunately, because the way it is laid out, you need to lay the device beside the phone or pda on a table to charge them. I was hoping to charge the phone while it sits in my pocket but that just won’t work unless you have a very large pocket (suit coat pocket will work).  But, for $15, it is a good deal that works well. http://www.radioshack.com/product/index.jsp?productId=10912264

 LensPen, www.lenspen.com, is my favorite camera lens cleaning tool company. Their LensPen cleaning pens have traveled with me for years and my cameras won’t go anywhere without them, they are that good. For notebook and netbook users, they have come up with the LapTop Pro unit, a complete unit for cleaning not only the screen of the notebook, but also for dusting off the keyboard. There are two brushes in the unit, one stiff for keyboard dust, and one fine for the LCD screen and you simply slide out the brush head that you want to use. Because of the good design, it is easy to tell which brush to slide out. Slide the brush back in, and pop the cover off the other end and you see the same cleaning pad technology that they use in the camera pens but in a one inch square pad for easier cleaning of the screen.  Anyone who has used a LensPen in the past know how easy it works and what a good job this process is.  The compound on the pad is the key to the whole cleaning process. You gently wipe it on the smudges and fingerprints and they truly go away and leave you with an incredibly clean surface. Just by putting the pad back into the container, it replenishes itself for the next time you need it. The pad should last a very long time and is refillable. The LensPen LapTop Pro is $25. Get one and keep it near the notebook. Mine is going in my travel bag with the notebook.

Also from LensPen comes their brand new Sidekick; perfect for touch pads, smart phones,  iPads, PDAs and the like. Just like the LapTop Pro unit above, it comes with a unique cleaning pad that pops out and folds back into its holder in a really clever way, and is perfect for cleaning those devices from the constant fingerprints that find themselves all over them.  Like all of the LensPen units, when you put the cleaning pad back into the cover, it sets the pad up for the next cleaning project. I Like these products, they are solid and well built. As a side note, I was looking at another cleaning solution booth at CES and what was really funny was that a visitor decided to smudge the tablet they were cleaning with her fingers after rubbing them on her face (she must have been an actress <g>). The makeup could not be cleaned off of the tablet.  LensPen’s Sidekick took care of the problem without a trace. Available later this spring.

Robert Sanborn



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