Friday, October 26, 2007

Using GMAIL offline and sorting mail by size

You read it right! You can now be sitting on a flight with no internet connectivity, yet use almost all features of Gmail. You can read new mails, reply to them, sort through old mail, delete unneeded mails, compose new ones, or just sort by size to delete those huge mails with attachments. All this will happen offline on your PC/laptop, and will sync to Gmail server as soon as you next connect to the internet.



No, you do not need to install a third party JavaScript API like Google Gears, but just leverage the latest feature provided for free by Gmail - IMAP.

IMAP, short for Internet Message Access Protocol allows any compliant desktop software to access your Gmail mails for you. This means that you can now use powerful Windows software such Microsoft Outlook, iPhone, Thunderbird or your Blackberry to access your Gmail account in it's full glory. IMAP by definition quickly fetches all the email headers, such as the mail subject, from, date, size etc. from the mail server. This means that once synced, you can go off line and manage your mail at your own leisure. You can mark the full mail body to be downloaded, mark others for deletion, compose new mails, using powerful spell checkers etc. and reply to other mails. All this even on a flight with now Internet. As soon as your laptop gets internet access, you IMAP client like MS Outlook will connect to Gmail server and automatically sync all your changes.

A powerful benefit of using this method is that the actual mails always reside on the Gmail servers. So, you can still access your Gmail account from the browser from anywhere, as you were doing earlier. Now, all that is changed is that if you wish, you can use more powerful and offline applications to manage your web based gmail messages.

One of my all time favorite gripe with Gmail was it's lack of mail size display. This prevent me from sorting my mail for the ones with huge attachments unnecessarily filling up real estate space. I know we are already at 4 GB of space...but still! Lesser messages on server mean lesser clutter and more productivity. This is now taken care of using IMAP. I found tonnes of old forwards with huge attachment which I could delete right away!

You can read on how to configure Gmail in Microsoft Outlook2007 on their corresponding Help Center page.

Outlook will show your gmail labels as folder auto-magically, but for that I had to do the following:
  • Right click on the newly created mail group for your Gmail account in Outlook and click on 'IMAP Folders'
  • Under the 'All' tab, click 'Query'
  • Click OK.
Doing so does a one time required sync of all your custom labels, and some Gmail specific special folders. Here is a screen shot of the same:



Additionally, all your star marked mails, show up as flagged mails in Outlook. Any new mail you flag in Outlook, will automatically show as starred back in Gmail. Neat, isn't it? :)

The 'Getting Started' page by Google will help you, well, get started :)

Do comment how IMAP is changing your Gmail life.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Problem playing music in a Picasa slideshow?

I am a big fan of Google Picasa for the simplicity and features offered. I am quite confident using Adobe Photoshop, but still I find doing minor adjustments such as basic levels corrections and Color correction much more easier, and in a non-destructive way.

Having used Picasa for sometime now, I have started using some of the extra bells and whistles it offers, such as the "Play music during slideshow" feature. I discovered that you can make Picasa play your favorite mp3 music by going to File > Options > Slideshow. Once here, just enable the checkbox for "Play MP3 tracks during slideshow", and give the folder path on your hard disk. Next time when you start a slideshow, Picasa should play music in the background, with nice fades and all....or so I thought.

For me, somehow Picasa never actually played music, even though I checked and double checked my settings, and ensured that I have the latest versions of Picasa and Windows Media Player on my Vista machine.

It was then I discovered what the problem was. For some reason, Picasa does not play music, if the folder you specify has subfolders! What a bad bug! I hope this is soon fixed, but in the meanwhile, point your Picasa music folder, to a folder, which does not have any sub-folders.

Additionally, neither can Picasa any playlists in the folder, nor can it randomize the songs. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Do comment if this helped you, and if you feel the actual problem lies somewhere else, you can write back in the comments to this post.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Apple iPhone: Cause for mass hysteria?

I must admit that I have always drooled over Apple design and simplicity, but have always been stuck to the IBM PC. I never used to keep track of what exactly is the Apple G5 or the minibook, but then came the effort called Apple Boot camp, which would allow the latest Intel based Mac to run Microsoft Windows too. This made me stop and turn. Should my next laptop be a Mac? That is about when Apple announced it's iPhone too.

I was planning to purchase a new mobile anyway, but this has made me delay my purchase. I am almost completely determined to see how the iPhone would evolve in competitive markets other than the United States, like India.

Ofcource, the iPhone being a branded Apple product, cannot be dismissed for another run of the mill mobile. We can easily see that the Apple engineers have been at work, watching sci-fi movies, and going through future models :)

The iPhone has some interesting features, to die for:
  • If you are a sci-fi movie buff, then you must watched Minority Report where Tom Cruise is able to slide live video and photographs by hand on a virtual display. He zooms by almost pinching out etc. To quote a cliche, The future is now. IPhone is loaded with intelligent sensors such as the touch sensor, proximity sensor and accelerometer will really make you love your iPhone.
  • The iPhone is a GSM phone, a full fledged ipod, can connect to wifi hotspots, show full featured websites(except flash and Java content), act as an excellent calender, do full blown email stuff, show movie and pictures and more! Well, at 135 grams, i'd say that this is not bad :)
  • If you are listening to music and a call come, you just need to pinch the cord, and the music fades in and you can attend the call.
  • While seeing a photo gallery, just slide your finger left or right to move in the gallery.
  • While seeing a photograph, with two fingers slide out/pinch out to zoom the snap, and then freely use your finger to pan across.
  • The display is large, but still while viewing a website, the text might be small, but with just a tap, the area under consideration zooms up. Neat!
Unfortunately at around $499 I do not own an iPhone yet to post any photographs, but then the internet is already choke full of them

Hmm, this reminds me of Microsoft "Surface" :)

Anyway, check out an excellent video review by our friend David Pogue at the New York Times.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Rule your "cheapo" webcam

Many a times I have faced a webcam. My parents have it, and a lot of my friends have it, but almost always, I do not get half as good a picture from it, as I might have expected. Usually, I appear either too dark, or in various rainbow colors. I see that nowadays webcams provide a plethora of settings to tweak, but usually I do not get the results I expect.

Today I came across a nice blog at Strobist which made me sit up. It takes you step by step on how to vastly improve the video quality of your "cheapo" webcam. Great! just what I needed!

See the before and after effect below!



Head over to Strobist to give it a read. Do share your experiences, or other tips in the comments.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Music track not showing up in Google Talk status?



For those who were busy fighting the aliens while Google Talk added the cool feature to display your currently playing music track in the Google status, please be aware that you can simply do so just by changing the status to “Show current music track”.

Now, it so happened that I eagerly tried the feature when it was launched, but Gtalk did not show the status with Windows Media Player 10, 11 or Winamp on my laptop. I thought maybe Google was sending the update slowly globally, so waited for a week or two, but nothing.

On further research I discovered that Google Talk installs a plug-in in Windows Media Player which sends the current music track to Gtalk. Now if, for any reason, WMP detects some problem with a plug-in, it disables it. This was the problem in my case. So here is what I did to enable my Google Talk plug-in:

  1. Ensure that you have the latest Google Talk installed

  2. In Windows Media Player, press Alt+T to access the tools menu

  3. Press ‘Options’

  4. Click on the ‘Plug-ins’ tab

  5. On the left hand ‘Category’ pane, click on the ‘Background’ item

  6. On the right hand ‘Background’ pane, click on the Google Talk plugin to check and enable it

  7. Save changes and change the status in Google Talk to “Show current music track”

This worked for me, hope it helps you too!

Oh and by the way, Google’s fascination with collecting information in order to show us meaningful results found its way in GTalk too. Google has a service called Google Trends. If you wish, then Google can log what you listen too, and hence show meaningful trends such as the current most popular song etc. I have opted in :)

Happy chitter chatting!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Intelligent Television Viewing - My PVR setup


I am paying monthly for my TataSky Satellite TV connection (brought in India by a joint venture between Tata and Sky) and am also paying for my monthly dose of broadband. I miss a lot of broadcasted satellite programming, unfortunately or fortunately because I have a day job, and need to go to office daily to keep these bills rolling. I miss movies, premiers, comedy serials and a lot of extra stuff. Can I do something to make my investment more value for money? You bet!

I decided to build my own home Personal Video Recorder(PVR) setup using my laptop, which would be intelligent enough to do some work behind my back.

This is what now my setup does, or can do with a little more tweaking:
  • Pause live TV (so that I can answer the phone without missing the movie climax or the sport event)
  • Do OTR (one touch recording), so that if suddenly my friends come to call me for an outing, I can record the rest of the program for later viewing
  • Do scheduled programming. This will automatically turn on my satellite box, change channel and record a program, then make the computer go back to sleep.
  • Automatically record the next telecast of a movie I recently missed on HBO etc. It can search by itself for the next telecast and schedule it for recording!
  • Automatically record a series, such as a weekly comedy show
  • Not to mention that all recording is in superb quality!

What all I needed


  • My Laptop
  • TataSky satellite TV connection for the best quality I can get at the moment in India
  • A hardware based TV Tuner . I used Hauppauge WinTV PVR USB2 PVR. Remember that it now comes with a free IR blaster! I bought the MCE edition so got a bundled remote too for my laptop.
  • A IR(infrared) transceiver. This is required because you need a way to change channels on your satellite box behind your back, so that the correct channel can be recorded by the computer. The IR blaster works like an actual remote control, only that it’s controlled by a computer. I am using the great and time proven USB UIRT.
  • A PVR software. I am using the free, but feature packed GBPVR.
  • Lots of storage! I am using external Western Digital 250 GB firewire drive, but you may use your laptop if you have enough storage there. Remember that a 1 hour recording can take 4 GB space, straight out of a hardware encoder and uncompressed. For archival I use xvid compression which compresses a 1 hour recording to about 800 MB.
  • Some way to fetch weekly TV guide/listing details into the PVR software. I use TVxB to get listing of my favorite channels such as Star Movies, Star World, HBO, Sony, SAB TV, Star Plus, Star One, Sony Pix, Zee movies etc.
  • A hardware splitter, if you want an easy way to switch TV input between your television and the TV Tuner.
  • Time and DIY attitude to set it all up!
  • Microsoft Vista – No, this is not mandatory at all, but Vista does simply superb power management. If you are away from home, and your PC/laptop is ON the whole day, then you would want to make it save power and hence extend its life when not in use. Visa allows your PC/laptop to go into a special S3 power saving mode when not in use, and can wake the PC back into action within a few seconds. Windows XP can’t do that easily and out of the box. As an example, I can leave my laptop on suspend mode, the whole day – without AC and on battery, and still find my battery at more than 90% at the end of day!!

How to go about it


Setup is simple. Configuration takes some time.
  1. Connect the satellite TV output to the TV Tuner input. Use the best available interconnection option. For TataSky use the coaxial audio/video instead of the RF cable option.
  2. Connect the TV tuner to your computer
  3. Connect the IR blaster(transceiver) to your laptop and point it to the satellite box. USB UIRT, at least, is quite powerful and you don’t need to pin point it to the satellite box. It works even its roughly pointed towards the box. Even +/- 45 degrees or a bit of vertical miss-alignment works perfectly.
  4. Install TVxB and configure it to fetch your favourite TV channel’s guide. The result is stored in an international standard XML format called XMLTV. Schedule it via Windows scheduler to run weekly
  5. Install the PVR software, which in my case if GBPVR.
  6. Point GBPVR to take the TV guide input from TVxB output file, and update automatically weekly
  7. Set your IR blaster type in GBPVR, so that it can send the correct IR signal to the satellite box before starting a new recording. I had a including that because TataSky is a joint venture with Sky+ of UK, they might be using their technology and hardware, so I chose the Sky+ type for the remote. It worked!
By the way, for later archival encoding the video in XVID formating by an almost fully automated and free tool like AutoGK works great for me!

Total cost of project, if we take into account the fact that I already owned my computer and satellite TV connection, was about $290 or about Rs. 12,700

If you have more suggestions, specially pertaining to a setup in India, then do share it the comments below.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Don't throw that laptop battery yet!


It has been almost 2 years now with my Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop. I had opted for the 9 cell battery which would give me about 2.5 to 3 hours of backup, and it sure gave me more time than my friends and colleague’s laptops. Now it gives me 10 minutes of backup.

Over the time, these Lithiom-Ion batteries start to shorten in backup time provided. Dell themselves state that after some time the backup time provided by the battery will go down, but by that I expected the battery to gracefully start shortening in backup time. It took me by surprise when recently I discovered that my battery was giving only about 10 minutes of backup!! It would start at 100%, then within a few minutes go down to 97%, and all of a sudden go down to 7%!
I am using Vista, and tried to convince myself that it might be a Windows fault(whatever!), and so entered the system BIOS. There, the battery health section was ready to welcome me with the message which said something like "Your battery is at the end of its usable life period, and you might want to consider buying a new one". I concluded that I will need to shell out Rs. 5000 or so for a new one now.

I did my bit of research on the trusted Internet. To begin with, I read the ‘Battery FAQ’ at Dell site here and the ‘Short Battery Life Journal’ at the Dell support site here, but in vein.

Another very good source of information on laptop battery maintenance is at the Notebook Review Forum. Somebody on their forum suggested to try a software called Notebook Hardware Control available here. This is supposed to show the current wear level of your battery and is recommended by a number of people, but unfortunately for some reason this is the first application which gave me a blue screen of death on Vista! I had to uninstall it to boot back into Vista. Conflict with some other software on my laptop maybe.
I also read the article on Lifehacker on how to extend battery life, but it was too late for it now.

A search on the popular CNET site, lead me to a scary article hinting that Vista might really be behind my shortened battery life! Read it on their site here.

Finally, I called Dell support and they asked me to try calibrating the battery once before throwing it out. The laptop batteries have internal mechanism to keep track of when the battery is fully charged. This shows us the battery level and saves the battery from getting over-charged. With use, this battery level may faulter, and may set to a lower level than the full capacity. So it may happen that the battery is just 50% charged, but the battery shows 100% charged. Naturally then it will get discharged much sooner.

Now in the past I had already calibrated my battery, but I now realized that it was not the correct method. To calibrate a Dell Inspiron 6000 battery, I need to let the laptop fully discharge, and then charge it back to 100%. This triggers the built in calibration mechanisms which should reset the full indicator to the correct level. Now I was putting the laptop on battery from within Vista, and so as soon as the battery would come to about 7% remaining, Vista would hibernate the laptop to save Windows from crashing. And so actually my laptop was never getting fully discharged! So this time, I booted straight into the laptop BIOS screen, and switched to the battery level screen. I waited for the laptop to turn off due to discharge, and then charged it back up to 100%.

I tested, and now my laptop gave me about 45 minutes of backup! Not much for a 9 cell battery, but considering the fact that it has already reached almost its end of usable time, and was giving my just 10 minutes of backup, atleast I can use it till a bit of more time atleast in home or for real emergency work. At worst, I can keep it as an extra emergency battery for that last minute of juice.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Backup files using your existing compression software

Usually, with time, the cost of data becomes much more then that of the hardware itself!
Almost every computer user, at one time or the other, requires a backup plan for his precious data.

Now, with WinRAR(http://www.rarlab.com), one can no longer make an excuse of the high costs and unavailability of professional backup solutions. Agreed that WinRAR is a compression program which is replacing ZIP and the like, due to the enhanced features it provides, but with the great flexibility offered by WinRAR common line syntax, one can easily mould WinRAR in a complete backup solution!
You may already have WinRAR on your hard disk, so why not start using it for your backups?

Note1: You do not need to rename the backup files to remember when it was made. A WinRAR switch, which I utilized, automatically prepends the current date to the archive name. So you can make backups daily, without the need of manually renaming files!

Note2: You may need to change the location of your data files to be backup, for which usually you will need to open up the shortcut, batch file etc. This will have the risk of accidentally deleting/modifying some switch in the long list of switched used. To combat this, a simple text file is used, which contains the base path to be backup.
Just open the text file and alter the file to your needs!
What's more, you can add more backup source paths, one line at a time! (but remember to remove the ‘-ep1’ switch before adding more than one paths)

p.s.: Did you know that using WinRAR your backup file size can be as big as a whooping 8,589 billion gigabytes in size!?!

We would see now how to perform three types of backup operations:
  • Full Backup
  • Incremental Backup
  • Differential Backup

Full Backup

Intro: This is a backup of ALL the existing files in source folder.
Comment: This backup may be done once a while to get a complete snapshot of all the file at that moment.
Restoration: To restore a file, files can be directly retrieved from this archive (if no newer backup exists)

Command line:

winrar.exe a -se -rr3p -ac -ag+YYYYMMDD_full_ -k -m5 -ms -os -r -ep1 e:\mydoc.rar @mydocpath.txt

Command/switches used with purpose:



command/switch Purpose Used
a add files to archive
-se solid archive based on file extensions - not recommended due to data loss risk on low quality media
-ac clear archive attribute after archival
-ag+YYYYMMDD_ add current date in archive name
-k protect archive from tamper or accidental modification
-m5 use best compression (also slowest)
-ms Do not waste time in re-compressing compressed files such as ace, arj, bz2, cab, gz, jpeg, jpg, lha, lzh, mp3, rar, zip, taz, tgz, z
-os keep NTFS streams (recommended if your files are stored on NTFS)
-r recurs subfolders
-ep1 strip base folder name
-rr3p recovery record is 3% (alter as per the reliability of your media). 'p' stands for percent

Incremental Backup

Intro: Takes backup of the files modified since the last backup.
Comment: Takes very less time as only a small number of files are usually changed daily. These are the files backup up by this method.
Restoration: To restore a file, you need to first retrieve the last FULL backup, then ALL the incremental backups up to the date required in chronologically dated order, starting from the oldest to the latest.

Command Line:
winrar.exe a -se -rr3p -ac -ag+YYYYMMDD_incr_ -k -m4 -ms -os -r -ep1 -ac -ao e:\mydoc.rar @mydocpath.txt

Command/switches used with purpose:

command/switch Purpose Used
All from the FULL backup As tabulate above
-ao add only the files with archive bit on
-m4 Replaced -m5 with -m4 for faster daily backups
REMOVE -m5 Replaced -m5 with -m4 for faster daily backups


Differential Backup

Intro: Takes backup of all files since the last FULL backup.
Comment: Takes more time to backup with time. This is because this backup backups up all files modified since the last FULL backup.
Restoration: To restore a file, retrieve the last FULL backup, and then the latest differential backup file.

Command Line:
winrar.exe a -se -rr3p -ag+YYYYMMDD_diff_ -k -m4 -ms -os -r -ep1 -ao e:\mydoc.rar @mydocpath.txt

Command/switches used with purpose:

command/switch Purpose Used
All from the FULL backup As tabulate above
-ao add only the files with archive bit on
REMOVE -ac to prevent the archive bit from changing due to backup
-m4 Replaced -m5 with -m4 for faster daily backups
REMOVE -m5 Replaced -m5 with -m4 for faster daily backups


Hopefully this will keep your data living 'Happily Ever After' :)
Comments/suggestions/improvements are welcome.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

From Windows XP, over to Vista. A good idea?



I have been using Windows since Windows 3.1 and have tasted the various flavors, both good and bad, which Microsoft had to offer. Vista was long due, and now that it is released it's main competition is with its own family member, namely Windows XP. I had been using Windows XP SP2 since long now, and found that it is quite stable now, being able to do all that I need, with very good software and hardware support and good performance. Windows XP was my comfort zone, and I was not sure if Vista was all that it promised. I was content with XP, but being a technology enthusiast, I just had to try Vista, even though I had heard lots of mixed reports about Vista. Having installed and used both versions of Windows, I thought I could do a comparison of the features which matter to the end-user(like me), and hence this post.

I own a Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop, and one week after I had bought it, I had removed all its partitions and had reinstalled Windows XP to clean it of all the numerous stuff which Dell installs, which I do not need, and strongly believe that degrades overall performance. The installation sure was smooth, but even though the laptop was able to do all basic functions, I could not connect to internet till I downloaded the wifi drivers from Internet. So, I had to install all the basic drivers from the Dell website. I also needed drivers for my external hard disk.

Installing Vista was a different experience than previous Windows versions. My laptop has a Pentium M 1.73 GHz processor, with 1.25 GB RAM, ATi x300 dedicated video ram, with a 7200 RPM 60 GB HDD. This, I would say is not the best and the fastest hardware, or something to write home about, but it does what I need it to do. I am not into gaming, so anyway this config works great for me. I installed the Vista Ultimate edition, and discovered that it was almost a one click solution. If I wanted to, I could start the installer and leave the house to do some chores or go to sleep. It was fully automated and did not require me to be baby sit it. But then, Vista took not more than about 45 minutes. It was only after the full install that it asked me the basic questions it wanted me to answer.

The Pros
After using it for about 2 months now, I found that Vista offers a mixed bag of experience. For starters, I did not have to install a single piece of independent driver! This was real neat. I really faced a problem when my reinstall of Windows XP could not even connect to the internet without a hardware driver. Vista detected and installed drivers for my network devices, sound card, video card and even external hard disk all by itself. The first impression impressed me. Here are some other cool feature of Vista, which made me sit up and look at Vista with a new found interest:


  • The start button has been revamped completely. I am a power user and try out various applications, with the end effect that my Windows XP start menu had become pages and pages which used to fill my screen. The new Vista start menu now scrolls, and automatically appears sorted.
  • The quick search. I admit that I used utilities like Launchy, to index my start menu in XP, so that I could launch any application quickly. That is now inbuilt in Vista. Superb! Just start typing the name of any application, and press enter. No need to wade though the hundreds of applications or to find them.
  • The Start search is actually much more powerful, because it is rooted from Windows Indexing feature, which also indexes your documents! So, you can also type in a word inside one of your recent documents, and Windows will popup that up too almost instantly, and you can thus open it quickly.
  • As I mentioned earlier, hardware driver support is very good. It could detect my wifi, sound card, video card, external hard disk all by itself.
  • I used to install a third party software to show the time of different time zones, but now Vista can do that natively too. I can add multiple clocks, from different time zones easily. This is really useful for me to see time both of India and New York.
  • Vista manages power much better. With Vista, now I can press my laptop's power button to send it to a special sleep mode. So that at the end of the day when I return from office, I can press the button again and Vista is ready for use within almost a second! Yes, this actually works for me this way. Windows XP resume from hibernate or even Standby was never so responsive. What's more, I had left my laptop on battery on sleep(not hibernate), and even then at the end of day my battery had 90% charge left. Added to this is the fact that my applications still can wake up my laptop for scheduled tasks, such as defragmentation of recording my favorite TV show. This is achieved by Vista supporting the S3 power saving mode of your hardware.
  • The new NTFS file system is backward compatibles with Windows XP etc., but adds some neat new features such as transactions. This means that apart from other error control benefits, Vista can save versions of all the files on the hard disk. You accidentally deleted some important text in a text file and then saved and closed the file? No problem, you can easily open a "previous version" of that file!
  • Windows firewall is now better, by being active for both incoming and outgoing directions.
  • Networking is much simpler, with Vista supporting WPA2 out of the box for wifi. Unlike in XP, I did not have to select the type of authentication and encryptions of my wifi router. Vista selected all that by itself. I just had to type in the password.
  • Windows explorer navigation has been revamped. Navigation is now intuitive and much simpler. It has started to grow on me now.
  • Vista also supports media sharing. So your family members connected to the same network, can easily see your shared media like songs and videos and directly stream it off your computer. This is simple and works.
  • Audio mixer now works at a much more precise level, so that unlike Windows XP you have a much more fine control on the volume. Also, now every application has its own volume control. So that you can maybe reduce Windows sounds, while keeping the windows media player volume to the maximum. This would not startle everybody with a DING, in between a movie playback.

Cons

But then, there are places where Vista needs to improve too.

  • Though almost all my software works fine on Vista, ZoneAlarm still is not ready for Vista. Also, I had to spend a week to setup my PVR on Vista, which consisted of numerous open source initiatives. This would have almost worked out of the box in XP.
  • I must confess that UAC was an irritant for me. I had to turn it off, for a better experience of the OS.
  • Some things have been simplified too much. The inbuilt defrag now has almost no interface! You cannot simply do an analysis, or even select which hard disk drive to partition. It does all that by itself.
  • Similarly, while importing pictures from your camera, you cannot individually select the pictures to import. It's a one click solutions, which unfortunately does not work for me. I have to still open the SD Card as a drive and manually select it fro the directory structure. This was much better in XP.