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Category: General

The General category contains helpful reviews, tips and tricks, results of experiments, and other tidbits of information. Posts that aren’t specifically how-to guides or news articles will end up here along with informational posts that aren’t primarily opinion-based.

Updated Posted by Arnon Erba in General on .

Google’s Chromecast hit the market two years ago, and has sold well because of its promising features and its compellingly low pricing. Here’s how it works and what might make it a good purchase for you.

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How it Works

Chromecast is essentially a tiny computer that pipes media content into an HDMI port on your TV. That’s about all it does. You can’t interact with the device’s software aside from attaching it to your WiFi network and changing the background image it displays when it’s idle. All of the device’s settings must be changed through the mobile app or from a small desktop app for your computer. It doesn’t make your TV into a separate computer; instead, it acts much more like an HDMI cable.

The primary purpose of Chromecast is to help you display your mobile device’s video or audio stream on your TV. Chromecast uses Google’s new Cast technology to function, which many apps now support. In an app that supports Google Cast, all you have to do is tap the Chromecast icon and you can cast your screen and audio output to your TV.

The cool part about casting media from your mobile device is that in a Cast-enabled app, the media stream is handed off from your device to the Chromecast entirely. That means that you can start playing a YouTube video on your tablet, tap the Chromecast icon, and then lock or turn off your tablet. In apps like Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube, your Chromecast will stream the requested media straight from the Internet without having to go through your mobile device. This is where Chromecast starts to sound a lot more appealing than an HDMI cable.

Chromecast also offers a feature for desktops that’s still in beta mode: the Google Cast browser extension for the Chrome browser. Using this extension, you can cast Chrome tabs or even your entire Windows or Mac desktop to your Chromecast. However, this is not the most reliable Chromecast feature, at least for now.

The utility of Chromecast also depends on the features your TV provides. Chromecast can’t draw power from the HDMI port alone, so it requires a USB power supply as well. On newer TVs with built-in USB ports, you can simply hook up your Chromecast to one of the TVs USB ports. On older TVs that only have “service” USB ports, you’ll have to use the bundled external power adapter. Also, if your TV is new enough to have HDMI ports that support the Consumer Electronics Control feature, starting a cast will cause your TV to automatically switch inputs to display what you’re playing on the Chromecast.

Why You’d Want It

If you want to enable internet streaming for an old TV, Chromecast is perfect. It’s cheap and easy to set up and works with Android and iOS tablets and phones. If you regularly use mobile devices and want some way of easily streaming music or video to your TV, Chromecast is for you. The ability to cast media while your device is locked or turned off is impressive and useful.

However, if you’re looking for some way of connecting your desktop or laptop to your TV, Chromecast may not be as useful. The Google Cast browser extension for Chrome works well on sites that are optimized for Chromecast, but otherwise casting tabs can be laggy or unreliable. The connection quality, being wireless, is easily bested by a direct HDMI connection.

Also, if you’re looking at Chromecast as a way to play DVDs or other offline media on your TV, you’ll be disappointed to hear that you can’t. Google Cast for desktop only supports casting media that can be played in the Chrome browser. You can open offline music files of certain types in Chrome, but as of now there is no way to play DVDs or CDs.

Bottom line: if you use mobile devices often and need some way to play music or video on your TV while still being able to use your tablet or phone, Chromecast is for you.

Setting it Up

Google has done a good job making Chromecast easy and fun to set up. The pictures below are of the unboxing, and the last two show Google’s simple in-box instructions on how to set up the Chromecast. Essentially, you plug your Chromecast into your TV and into the power adapter, and then download the app on your mobile device or on your computer.

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Updated Posted by Arnon Erba in General on .

I recently set up a fresh installation of Ubuntu 14.04 alongside Windows 7 on my laptop. The last release of Ubuntu that I used regularly was the previous long-term release, 12.04, and I’ve avoided the in-between releases because they didn’t run as smoothly on the older Pentium 4-based hardware I had. Also, I sold my dedicated Core 2 Duo-powered Ubuntu 12.04 laptop a number of months ago, leaving me with only Pentium 4 systems to experiment with Ubuntu on. With the release of 14.04, however, I decided to dual-boot the new flavor of Ubuntu on my previously Windows-only Core i3-based laptop. I recently finished upgrading the laptop to a 240 GB solid state drive (a worthwhile performance upgrade, if I may say) and hadn’t wanted to mess around with the drive until I had let it work in for a while. Given that 14.04 has been out for a while now and has received some updates, I figured that now was the time to install it and to find out from first hand experience what’s improved in Ubuntu since 12.04. I don’t intend for this to be a full review of Ubuntu; instead, I would like to cover some improvements in the latest LTS release and how it operates on newer hardware.

My first move in dual-booting Windows 7 and Ubuntu was to shrink my Windows partition to accommodate a new 20 GB partition for Ubuntu. I chose to create an empty partition beforehand instead of having the Ubuntu installer partition the disk, for whatever reason. This doesn’t really affect the installation process, but it did surprise me when I chose “install Ubuntu alongside Windows 7”. Instead of asking me where I wanted to put my Ubuntu installation, it automatically found and chose the empty partition. Luckily, this was where I wanted Ubuntu, but I was surprised at the lack of options the installer gave me.

I am impressed at the improvement in Ubuntu’s graphics driver support. Granted, my notebook does not have dedicated Nvidia or AMD graphics – good for Ubuntu, not so great for gaming – but Ubuntu detected the on-chip graphics as Sandybridge Mobile without any additional configuration. Unity seems faster overall, and window animations are more polished. There are also a few new UI improvements, such as the added option to show window menus in the window title bar instead of in the top bar. Despite these improvements, I had to make some custom changes to get the system running just how I like it.

This is one of the great things about Linux, though. It may not work perfectly at first, but there’s plenty of ways to get it working just how you want it to. Most of the tweaks I made related to Grub and dual-booting, but I also set up a custom script to prevent the brightness from returning to 100% whenever the system rebooted, fixed an issue with Chrome not opening from the Dash, shrank the menu and title bars to 0.875 scale, and turned off the Amazon search suggestions in the Dash. That may sound like a fairly small amount of adjustments, but that was about all I had to do. Overall, Ubuntu 14.04 worked well straight out of the box and I was able to get on to using it within a day after only a few hundred megabytes of updates. Here’s looking at you, four-year-old Windows installation disc.

In the end, Ubuntu 14.04 is even smoother and more refined than 12.04 and is a perfectly good candidate for everyday use. LibreOffice 4.2, included by default, is better than ever, and if you don’t need legacy Windows software Ubuntu is the way to go.

Updated Posted by Arnon Erba in General on .

You’ve probably noticed that network speeds, hard drive capacity, and memory size all use different measurements. What do these measurements mean, and how can conversions be made between them?

Bytes to Bits

Networking speed is commonly measured in gigabits, megabits or kilobits per second. This is a different measurement than that which is commonly used for hard drive capacity, or gigabytes. The difference lies in the fact that one byte = 8 bits. Kilobits, megabits, and gigabits are all multiples of bits, whereas kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes stem from the byte. This means that networking speed measurements are 1/8th of storage space measurements, which is why downloading a 30 megabyte file over a 30 megabit per second Internet connection takes eight seconds instead of one second.

Now let’s compare hard drive capacity vs. memory capacity. This is a confusing issue that involves mislabeled storage sizes.

A gigabyte is actually 1000 megabytes, despite the common misconception that it is 1024 megabytes. The proper terms for the 1024-based measurements are kibibytes, mebibytes, gibibytes, and so on. Megabytes are decimal values, and mebibytes are binary values. The misconception arises from the JEDEC memory standards that label binary memory sizes (64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, etc.) using the decimal terms kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, and so on. Hard drive manufacturers also use the terms megabytes and gigabytes, but measure hard drive space using decimal values. Because of this, one gigabyte of hard drive space is 1,000,000,000 bytes whereas one gigabyte of RAM is actually 1,073,741,824 bytes.

Of course, the actual storage space on a hard drive will be less than the advertised capacity after it is formatted, further adding to the confusion.

This is why I can never simply answer the question, “How many megabytes are in a gigabyte?”

Updated Posted by Arnon Erba in General on .

This year I had the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I was able to use my Ubuntu laptop full-time as my main computer both in and out of the house. It was an interesting experience, especially as everyone I was working with had either Windows or Mac OS X. Here’s what happened over the month I used Ubuntu full-time, and here’s what I thought of it.

The first question you’ll probably have after reading the introductory paragraph is, “Why did you only make it one month? Doesn’t that mean you decided Ubuntu wouldn’t work full-time?” The simple answer is, no. The main reason I stopped using my Ubuntu laptop full-time because of hardware issues unrelated to Ubuntu. The long answer covers what I thought of Ubuntu over that month and how well it worked out for me.

Let’s start with the computer I was using. If you’ve seen some of my previous posts, you’ll probably know that my current Ubuntu machine is a Sony Vaio VGN-150e with a 2 GHz Core 2 Duo and 2 GB of RAM. (Ed: not anymore.) It’s not new, but it is perfectly adequate for Ubuntu. The problem lies with the fact that the laptop has a dead battery. Not a worn-out battery, a completely dead battery. I have a suspicion that the problem may even lie with the charging circuit and not the battery itself. This means that when the laptop is unplugged, it instantly dies just like a desktop would. If I happened to be working somewhere without a power outlet, I wasn’t going to be working. This complicated matters to the point where I finally gave up on using the laptop full-time.

But what about Ubuntu? During my experience, I decided that Ubuntu is perfectly usable on a day-to-day basis. In fact, I only discovered one issue: compatibility with traditional Windows programs. Everyone I worked with had Microsoft Office, which made the formatting of many shared documents I had to work with look very odd when opened with LibreOffice. I know LibreOffice isn’t part of Ubuntu and it isn’t Ubuntu’s fault that document formats aren’t universal, but I can’t see any way of getting around this issue except for buying Microsoft Office or forcing everyone else to use Ubuntu. When I finally switched from the Sony to my newer Windows 7 Acer laptop, I chose to use Windows because I already had purchased Microsoft Office and felt that I might as well make use of it.

On everything else except for compatibility, however, Ubuntu did well. I didn’t have a single crash, and I enjoyed the security of using Linux. The bottom line is that my main issues turned out to be hardware-related and that if I had a new laptop that was built for Ubuntu and didn’t have to constantly work with Microsoft Office documents, I would still be using Ubuntu full-time right now. As it is, I use Windows during the day and Ubuntu occasionally.

Updated Posted by Arnon Erba in General on .

If you’re a Windows user, you’ll most likely know that the taskbar can be moved to any edge of the screen by right-clicking it, unchecking “Lock the taskbar”, and then dragging the taskbar to the screen edge of your choice. By default, the taskbar appears at the bottom edge of the screen, and this is what most people envision when they think of the traditional Windows desktop.

Though the taskbar is placed at the bottom of the screen by default, that doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Moving the taskbar to the left or right hand sides of the screen could put it in a more useful location for you, and here’s why.

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With the traditional size of today’s computer screens set at a 16:9 aspect ratio as opposed to 4:3, many applications leave a lot of wasted space on the left and right sides of the screen. Most webpages are oriented toward the center of the screen, and in those cases nearly half the screen space on a large monitor goes to waste. Word processing programs generally default to an 8.5×11″ display which once again wastes space on the left and right sides of the screen.

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If you move the taskbar to the left or right side of the screen, you can take advantage of that wasted space while freeing up space on the bottom of your screen. Ubuntu does something similar to this by default by putting the launcher on the left side of the screen. Though Ubuntu has an OSX-like toolbar at the top of the screen, this does not take up extra space because it doubles as the title bar for any open windows.

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Updated Posted by Arnon Erba in General on .

Ever been told to turn off your modem for 10 seconds or to leave your desktop off for 15 seconds before powering it back on? There’s a reason for doing this, and it can mean the difference between successfully troubleshooting a device or not.

Electronic devices have capacitors that retain a charge even after the device is turned off. Ten seconds is generally the minimum time it takes for the capacitors to drain after you turn the device off. Here’s why you’d want to clear the capacitors before turning the device back on: the device’s RAM, or Random Access Memory, does not clear until the device is fully powered down (e.g. the capacitors have discharged). If you want to clear everything in the RAM completely and start fresh next time you boot up the device, you should wait for at least 10 seconds for the capacitors to discharge and the RAM to clear. On a computer, you can also press the power button a few times or hold it down for a few seconds to help drain the capacitors.

This is also a reason why rebooting a computer is different than turning it off and then turning it back on. If you’re having a problem with your computer, modem, etc., try turning it off for at least 10 seconds and then turning it back on. This will give your system fresh RAM to work with on the next boot.