Running Android on a PC

March 13, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Posted in Backup, Computers, Economoney, Games, Hardware, Software, Technology | Leave a comment
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Say you want to mess around with Android and apps, but you’re a little nervous about experimenting on that rather expensive phone or tablet. One solution is to load Android into a virtual environment where you can play around all you like and nothing is ever broken. All you do is back up your virtual machine (VM) software folder first, then if anything goes sideways you can restore it in about a minute. Developers use this approach all the time.

Oracle’s VirtualBox (VB) is free virtualization software you can install just about any Operating System (os) into (assuming you have a legal license). I’ve been running Windows XP, Ubuntu Linux and Android this way for several years. XP, mainly to support some old software that won’t run in current OS’s, the others to explore and experiment with. No messing with my main computer or setting up a boot loader. The other systems run in a window, so no rebooting required. File sharing is much like sharing over a network.

Fred Langa has written an article with step by step instructions for installing VirtualBox and Android on a PC. Most of the steps are pretty obvious but there are a few options that are not and a couple of gotchas. Note his comments about the captured mouse (for touch-screen behaviour), for example.

For Android, you need VT-x (AMD-V on an AMD processor) enabled in the PC’s BIOS. Most modern processors have it but it may be off by default. I checked a couple of utilities to confirm I had it but it was off anyway. Just reboot into your computers BIOS and turn it on. (instructions vary by maker) If you skip that step, the instructions will tell you Android is not supported, so do take care of that first.

I also noticed that some people who also use Microsoft Virtual Machines (like XP Mode) may find VT-x not working because Hyper-V is hogging it. In that case, it’s on in the BIOS but still unavailable in VB. In Windows 7+, the Hyper-V setting is hidden. Comment 5 on this thread offers the command line for turning it off and on. If you want to get fancier, I noticed this article on Hyper-V Manager. It still requires a reboot though.

Other Choices
If you just want to play an Android game on your PC, you might like Bluestacks. It’s designed for loading apps on a PC. It says it’s free only while in beta though.

Genymotion is an Android virtualization tool to create various OS version and screen size variations to test an app in. That’s for more advanced testing.

More OS’s
The advantage of using a tool like VirtualBox is you can also play around with other OS’s. You can get other images (VMs) here, for example. A popular Linux distro, Ubuntu is here. Install the current VB Extension Pack to support it.

The 13.04 version of Ubuntu is an OVA file. OVA files are preconfigured – just double-click to load into VirtualBox. Far fewer steps than in Fred’s article above. It also comes with LibreOffice and other software pre-installed. Note the password on the download page for your first Ubuntu login. You can go into System Settings (gear top right) and add a new User of your choice once logged in.

Rather than downloading a virtual machine, you can also install an OS directly yourself. Create the container in VB (New button), then install into that. This article reviews installing a distro from Ubuntu directly.

You can install a wide range of other OS’s, including Windows and Mac, in a virtual machine – it’s a great way to test and experiment without messing anything up. Or to run old software that won’t install in a modern OS.

Given the end of Windows XP’s support in April, it will soon no longer be safe for web surfing and other Internet uses but it may still have a role for old software in a virtual machine. Fred reviews installing XP into a virtual machine and the VM backup process here. (article free for subscribers) If you have an old XP install you’re retiring and want to move it to a virtual machine, you can use the free Disk2vhd. This is especially useful if your old computer didn’t come with system install disks. VHD is a Microsoft virtualization format but VirtualBox can use it.

And if you have some concern this is experimental technology or something, it’s been around for years. If you surf the web, you’ll have used a virtual machine. Many large web sites are run in virtual machines so they can, in moments, shift from one physical server to another when under load.

Promotion via Fakery

March 6, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Posted in Events, Hardware, Humor, Internet, Media, Science, Strange, Technology, Transportation | Leave a comment

A weird episode in Internet “marketing” this week. A real company, HUVr Tech, seeking funding  sought buzz. First, they faked up a Promo video for Hoverboards, complete with the famous and Back to the Future references. Note the 0 noise and that the video is named “belief” (on their web site). They apparently used the Back to the Future wire harness.

Second, an “apology” by Christopher Lloyd. He was tricked??   Then, one from Tony Hawk, the famed skateboarder. Wired comments.

Fake promotions and fake apologies? Lame. Pranks are funny only if you include the punchline. Has their home page been updated to reflect this? Nope. This is what they think of their possible customers?

Real Wii

February 20, 2014 at 12:43 am | Posted in Computers, Hardware, Software, Technology | Leave a comment

Recently, I explored the idea of getting a game console. I liked the Nintendo boxes as they had fun sports games and were modestly priced. However, the newer Nintendo consoles are oddly designed or overpriced. The WiiU has a large tablet-style controller. The Wii Mini has substantially reduced features over the original Wii. In fact, one site recommended you find a used Wii instead – they have more bang for the buck. Plus the earlier model Wii’s have the connections to play Gamecube games (with controllers and memory cards) too if you can find one. You may even find a new Wii around as they were just discontinued last fall.

Accessory’s are still very available as well as tons of games. The Wii games run on the new WiiU so will continue to be around. If you upgrade the TV cable to component, you get much higher quality video for modern screens – not the HD of the newer PS and Xbox consoles, but at 1/4 of the price. Plus the Wii motion controllers are a lot of fun. (waving a tablet?)

If you buy used and have no warranty to worry about, you also have the option to “homebrew” the Wii and add further abilities, like making it into a Media Centre that will not only play DVD’s but will play formats not supported by the big consoles. And you’ve got a “magic remote” already. You can play classic games you own, fully backup your Wii, and much more.

The process is a bit geeky and you have to follow the steps carefully but it’s not difficult. They suggest you review the FAQ’s and follow the instructions. All of the original Wii functionality remains.

See you at the baseball stadium. Or the bowling alley.

Elon Musk

May 9, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Design, Economoney, Hardware, Media, Science, Space, Technology, Transportation | 1 Comment

Ever heard of Elon Musk? TED branded him a serial entrepreneur, but that’s an understatement. He is a practical visionary:

1 – the co-founder of Paypal

2 – the CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors. Their new all-electric model S has just been named by Consumer Reports as the highest rated car ever! It’s still a luxury car but it’s phase 2. Phase 3 is a mass production model. And the company has posted it’s first profit. That will keep it going.

The CBC talks about it here.
I wrote about the Phase 1 car here

3 – he’s involved with solar power company SolarCity

4 – and he’s the chief designer at SpaceX, a reusable rocket company. They’re already doing work for NASA and the space shuttle.

His TED talk from February this year:

The XP Problem

April 17, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Hardware, Internet, Security, Software | 2 Comments

Times change. When XP launched many years ago, it wasn’t much of an issue if people stayed with Windows 98 or DOS for a while. But now, in the Internet age, your computer needs regular updates to keep it secure while surfing. XP is web-connected, from right inside the operating system. (as the old IE debate illustrated)

Microsoft extended support for XP but that’s ending in a year (April 2014). However, between 30 and 40% of computers are still running the increasingly insecure XP. Many of those computers may not support the latest operating systems. Thus the only solution is a new computer.

Those who put this off are now typically facing a jump to Windows 8 and a totally different interface. It could be argued it’s as big a change as from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. And it rather sucks on a non-touch interface, though you can install third-party programs that restore the Start menu. The issue is particularly large for businesses still on XP. Evidently 64% have not completed a migration to Win7. The expense, training and loss of productivity are large obstacles. Not to mention software upgrade costs, old custom software, and the economy. But staying with XP is unsafe and will potentially create even larger problems. XP on the net will be like wearing a kick-me sign.

The issue for many is that XP does what they need. Email, Word, and web. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. My friends scenario should illustrate the problem though. He has a PowerPC G4 Mac. Until recently, it did everything he needed. But gradually, it all  stopped being supported. No system updates. Then browsers, Flash and Acrobat stopped updating. Sites like webmail are gradually changing with features that don’t work on the old browsers. He has trouble even logging in to email now.

The big difference though is it’s a Mac. There are far fewer Mac viruses. XP is on a PC and there are thousands of viruses seeking it out. When it stops being updated, it becomes a sitting duck.

Another example comes to mind. I used to have an old NT server I used for monitoring the other servers and making sure everything was up and fine. Without being aware of it, it’s AV stopped updating as it was no longer supported. (they didn’t bother notifying us) The server got infected. I quickly cleaned out the infection but it was infected again in 10 minutes. It had to be updated to a new, supported operating system or taken off-line.

This is what XP users face. Personally, I’d find a supplier who can still build Windows 7 machines and pro-actively make the migration, like a friend did last week. For old software that is not cost-effective to upgrade, seek out free versions. Or you can use that old XP licence: install XP in free Oracle Virtualbox, then install those apps in XP. The app will run in XP in a window in your current OS. Of course, we’re talking local apps. Web-connected software will remain an issue in XP.

Safe surfing!

Smart Glasses

January 29, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Posted in Computers, Design, Hardware, Media, Technology | 1 Comment

Computer in your glasses? I remember an old telephone company ad where they talked about a “friendly future”, showing a person walking around with heads-up display glasses and making a phone call. It was a fantasy then.

Over 10 years ago, a company demoed their heads-up display glasses to my company. They were in town looking for funding. The impressive part was being able to see large construction blueprints, unlimited by screen size.

A few years ago, I talked about the MIT “Sixth Sense” presentations. This was more a pendant than glasses.

Last year, Google demoed their new Glass project with skydivers, bikers and wall scalers during a conference using remote live video from the various wearers.

Google has recently added patents for bone conductance audio (no one can overhear your caller), a laser projector to project an interface (keyboard, number pad, etc) on a nearby surface or your hand, eyescan, a speech interface, real-time augmented imagery, and a compact see-through display. Some of this is much like MIT was experimenting with.

Google is now launching a program with developers to app out the hardware.

This illustrates a few of these potential ideas:

The demos have generated lots of parodies.

Windows 8 – Oh My!

November 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Posted in Computers, Hardware, Software | 2 Comments

Windows 8 is a big change from prior versions of Windows. There are several key things to know before making any decision about it.

1 – It’s based on a touch interface, like a smart-phone. You probably will NOT be pleased with it on a mouse-and-keyboard computer. That’s called doing it the hard way.

2 – If you buy a new computer with Windows 8, get one with a touch screen. If you get a cheap laptop without one, you’ll probably just find it annoying.

3 – The new Windows tablets out are running Windows RT. RT does NOT run prior Windows applications. RT apps are only available in a new RT store. Wait until the new year to get a Windows 8 tablet if you want to run traditional Windows applications.

4 – If you do any more typing that a little texting, you’ll want a tablet with a keyboard. A keyboard you can type comfortably on.

Chris Pirillo of Locker Gnome discusses further:

Driver Updates

November 7, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Backup, Computers, Hardware, Online services, Security, Software | 1 Comment

Keeping your computer up-to-date helps keep it reliable, more secure, and bug-free. Windows Update will keep Windows and some related tools like IE current. Even if you don’t use IE, you should keep it current due to its close ties with Windows. Tools like Secunia PSI help review your other software, including links to the makers updates. You especially need web tools like Java, Flash and Acrobat to be current.

But what about drivers? Drivers are pieces of software that communicate between computer devices and software. They translate what the software needs into hardware commands and vice versa. A printer driver, for example, allows a Word document to be converted into a paper document. (printed) Every component inside your computer and every item you attach to it needs drivers to work. A typical computer has many, many drivers.

There is some debate about updating drivers. Some feel that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If your computer is working fine, don’t mess it up. Others note that driver updates can include bug fixes, security patches, and added features. An ideal tool would allow us to  easily update drivers but roll them back if there’s a problem.

Worse, updating drivers can be a fiddly job.

First you have to exactly identify the device you need drivers for. This means the make and model of the original component. Free tools like SIW can help a great deal. I can remember having to open up the PC and look around with a flashlight for the part’s model number.

Next, you have to go digging in the manufacturer’s web site to look for updates. (Support, Downloads section typically) By manufacturer, I mean the original maker of the component, not the assembler of the PC, like Dell or Sony. While the assembler often has component updates, they don’t usually keep them updated for more than a few years.

And you have to do this for each device, not knowing if it needs updating or not. Complicating the issue is web sites and software that purportedly offer to help but are actually scams to feed you ads or infect your computer. You can see why many don’t bother.

Recently, a friend’s computer was randomly blue-screening with little consistency. After checking the hard drive (chkdsk), system files (sfc) and memory (diagnostic), I looked at driver update utilities.

Several forums recommended the free SlimDrivers. It not only found out-of-date drivers but it offered links to manufacturers updates. (not its own or second-hand sites) Click the link and it will ask you to set a restore point (recommended) and will back up the old driver. Then it downloads and starts the install which you take over to completion.

I noticed a few people complained it wanted you to reboot the computer after. This is normal. For Windows to enable a new driver, you have to restart the computer. It’s also a good idea to reboot as you go along rather than in one big go after a lot of updates. Then, if there’s any issue, it’s easy to roll back the problem. While update problems are not common, they’re much easier to fix this way.

A few notes on installing Slimdriver:
- When installing, it preselects installing AVG toolbar. Just deselect that. (all too common)
- When you finish installing, deselect Run Now. It won’t work well without Admin privileges. Run it after from the Start menu so you can approve them.
- It sets itself to start with the computer. You really don’t need driver updates except occasionally. After starting the program, select Options (the toolbar gear) and deselect ‘Run at Windows Startup’. Then click Save.

As this Major Geeks intro indicates, start at the top and work down. Some drivers will update in groups. And note that the Uninstall menu is for uninstalling driver updates, not the program.

I would recommend getting Windows updates from Windows rather than using other tools.
Happy computing!

UPDATE: ran into a little gotcha on one system that it’s good to be aware of. System started bluescreening some weeks after driver updates. Analysis pointed to a driver issue and the IRQ pointed to the video chip. Video driver was current. However, an ATI driver for an ATI chip may not actually be the right one. If it’s an onboard multimedia chip, most common in laptops, the scenario might be specific to the maker where a generic chip-manufacturers driver is unsuitable. Make sure your video driver is coming from the system maker rather than the chip maker in that case. When I installed the seemingly older Sony video driver for that system, the problem was resolved.

Tools for Going Digital

November 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Posted in Backup, Computers, Hardware, Media, Movies, Music, Software | 1 Comment

Gradually over the last few years, I’ve been digitizing my stuff. It takes less space, it’s easier to find, it can travel with me, and I can work and play with it immediately. I can also re-purpose it, like turning photos into a screen-saver, music into a play-list, and school notes into a reference library. Files are all one style, not stored by media (records, tapes, etc.) or misfiled or needing yet another device to play or piece of furniture to store. The computer becomes a repository of my life.

After getting a digital camera, photos were the first to migrate. Mostly I used an HP scanner with a photo feeder. If you have the option, a quick programmed action in Photoshop to colour balance, despeckle (dust), and sharpen left a polished  job reasonably quickly. All is now sorted in folders by year, month and event.

I found a film projector at a garage sale for the old super8 films and videotaped that. A little klutzy but the films were in rough shape and many edits had broken. Home videos I then turned into DVDs using a DVR. The Panasonic model had a built in hard drive so they could be digitized then sorted onto DVD’s. That model DVR died prematurely but fortunately after conversions were done.

Another project was all the various music media, including old albums and cassettes. The free Exact Audio Copy is best for CD’s (add Lame for MP3 output). Audacity has the pop & noise removal and editing tools for older media. If you have music you own that you don’t have the device to play to digitize it, use the power of Google to find replacement files. Google allows you to search for file-types using specific search commands. Tools like Gooload and GoogleMusicSearch make this easier. Read what the second has to say about the technique and spam sites. You’re looking for plain directories of stored files, not graphical promotion and spam sites. And you’ll also want to check the conversion quality (bit-rate) of the source. (R-click file, Properties, Details, Audio Bit-rate)

I also tackled the family photo albums, some hand-tinted going back 100 years. As the photos and memorabilia were glued to the pages, this required a large format scanner.

There are now 2 types of scanner lights. Traditional bulb scanners like Epson’s are great for art and professional uses where there is some depth of field (focus range) and colour precise imaging is required. Newer LED scanners don’t have the depth of field but are fine for the flat stuff and much less costly. You’ll see reviews are stratified for LED scanners as some are caught unawares by this difference.

I got a Scanexpress A3 1200 for this project. Now, many family members have copies of the old family albums and we don’t have to worry about where to eventually store the big pile of crumbling, fading albums.

Slides, I thinned out. The slide attachment for my HP scanner illustrated how the dust on slides is massively magnified and way to much labour to fix. The old travel slides were mostly scenery and had bleached out. Some of the best had been printed anyway. I picked out the very best of the rest and had a photo lab handle the conversion. The cost can add up but a pro shop has the gear to clear dust and do it well.

The last big project was all the paper. Binders of school & course notes, workshops, family records, business cards, writing, recipes, references, correspondence, and on and on. Very little of it needed to be kept in paper form, filing boxes and file cabinets. And some of it would be much more useful if it was searchable.

Enter yet another scanner. This one, the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i. While the above could do the scanning, it would take far too long. My old company uses Fujitsu scanners to scan thousands of pages of documents every day. They’re a real workhorse but not inexpensive. I was pleased to see this one at a reasonable cost but remarkably full-featured and smaller than a loaf of bread. Just flip open the lid and it turns on. Stick in the paper – from business card size to 8.5″ x 14″ – and push start.

In one pass it will:
- scan both sides of the page if they have content
- straighten the image if its sideways or a bit crocked
- determine if it’s B&W, gray-scale or colour content
- determine the page size
- combine each batch into a PDF
- and more.
The unit will also scan to email or on-line storage which can be synced to smartphones. The list goes on and on.  (see the above link for more)

That PDF can then be made searchable with the built-in Abbyy Finereader OCR (Optical Character (text) Recognition) tool. You can set it to do this automatically but I’d recommend this be a second step after scanning. You can start OCR and scan more at the same time. Also you can skip messy handwritten documents, images and other files unsuitable for OCR.

In addition to being searchable (quick find), an OCRed scan can be used to cut and paste quotes, though the quality of OCR text will depend on the quality of the original. Expect a few typos.

Documents that have been bound or hole-punched together may be prone to stick together. In this case, load a page, then the next, and the next a little ahead of the feeder. This ensures they don’t bind and the scan is complete. I’ve done hundreds of pages in a single file this way.

PDF editing tools may be useful after if you need to combine or separate  PDFs or insert pages. You can find free recommendations through here. Note to OCR first. Some tools will change the Meta source info of the PDF. ScanSnap Abbyy will not OCR files identified as from other sources. (that’s a more expensive product)

Now that I’m caught up, it’s easy to convert new documents. Just flip open the top, stick in the pages and press start. By default, the file-name is the scan date & time so I rename and file it after. No boxes of archives and a mostly empty filing cabinet. I can also use it to scan photos so it’s become my day-to-day digitizer.

And of course, order your statements and such digitally rather than in paper. Then you have less wasted paper to scan. I get little postal mail now.

You do want to learn to organize files on a computer. A heap of dated scans really doesn’t serve you well long term, though you can use Search to find content. Give the folders and important documents names with dates for faster finding. File them in a sensible folder structure. See more in Digital Filing Cabinet.

Of course, if you go digital, make sure you have an automated backup system. For myself, I copy off the assembled scans to DVD for archive and have an automatic daily backup to an external hard drive. If it’s important to you, store those DVD archives in another building.

For Windows 7, the imaging tool included works well. For an extra data backup tool, I use the free Cobain Backup. Both to an external hard drive and both scheduled.

Hope the suggestions are useful.

The Web is Changing Now

November 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Hardware, Internet, Media, Online services, Software, Technology, Web Apps | 1 Comment

Here’s a great talk  by Roger McNamee outlining how the technology and web landscape is rapidly changing and where it might go. Even the delay between his talk last spring and it’s posting now illustrates this. One example he mentioned has now happened, as I touch on in Flash and Silverlight being put to Sleep. The tech world as we know it is morphing. Windows and Google are massively loosing share.

Here is Disruption and Engagement, 6 ways to prepare for the change.


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