Some information about laptop docks

Posted in Blog, Tech on August 13th, 2010 by Matt – Be the first to comment

There are two types of docks available for laptops:

Dock for the Dell Latitude Series

  1. Docks that require your laptop to be open and running to use and use a low performance method of connection. These docks are available for almost any laptop and use a single USB cable to hook up. I really won’t recommend them for a couple of reasons: They’re low performance and they require that the laptop be sitting open and have the laptop screen on when plugged into them. This means if you want to type on your other screen with a real keyboard and mouse, you’ll have to have your laptop sitting out and open on the desk.
  2. Docks that have a dedicated port and sit in a cradle. These are high performance and do not require your computer to be open when in use. In addition these docks usually include significantly more connectivity options. This is the type of dock I use every day here at work. I recommend this style over the USB style.

If you want to go with a cradle style dock then that limits your options. There aren’t many 17” laptops compatible with a cradle style of dock. The Dell Latitude laptop series is the best choice at this time. Their larger size laptop has a 15.6” screen.

If you really want a larger computer and don’t mind having your laptop sitting out while docked or just want to skip the dock all together, then you have more options.

Targus Universal USB Dock

Targus Universal USB Dock

USB docks like the the Targus Universal USB Dock allow almost any size and style computer the ability to have a dock.

Fixing Windows XP CD Playback Stuttering and Skipping

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on July 12th, 2010 by Matt – Be the first to comment

One of our users has a HP desktop that was having issues playing audio from music CDs. The audio was constantly stuttering and skipping. I tried various software playback programs all with the same result.

The solution turned out to be a setting for the CD-Rom drive. The drive was configured to use PIO mode when it should be configured to use DMA mode. Switching to DMA mode resulted in smooth audio CD playback. Here's how to change the setting:

Solving Audio CD Suttering in Windows XP

The steps:

  1. Right Click on My computer, click Manage
  2. Select Device Manager from the list on the left
  3. Expand the IDE ATA secton
  4. Right click on each IDE Channel (you may have multiple Secondaries and Primaries), click Properties
  5. Select the Advanced Settings tab
    Change the Transfer Mode to DMA if Available under each device
  6. Repeat steps 4 & 5 for each Primary and Secondary IDE Channel
  7. Reboot your computer

That should resolve the Audio CD stuttering and skipping under Windows XP.

Thinning Down FireFox 4's Tab Bar

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on July 7th, 2010 by Matt – 64 Comments

This post is now outdated, please see the update here:

If you've read my rant on window layout in a widescreen world you'd know that I dislike wasted vertical space in my window layouts.

FireFox 4 beta has just been released and they haven't solved my pet issue... that silly title bar. Just look at the wasted screen real estate:

FireFox 4's Tab Layout

However, thanks to FireFox's flexibility, the addition of a few lines to one file can solve the problem! Simply adding the following below the @namespace line:

position: fixed !important;

#navigator-toolbox[tabsontop="true"] #TabsToolbar{
padding-left: 80px !important;
padding-right: 102px !important;
padding-top: 2px !important;

padding: 3px 5px 3px 5px !important;
height: 20px !important;

To your userChrome.css file, and you now get this wonderful layout:

FireFox 4 with a better tab layout


The userChrome.css file is located in the following locations:

XP: C:\Documents and Settings\<user>\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\<profile>\chrome\
Vista\7: C:\Users\<user>\AppData\Roaming\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\<profile>\chrome\

A note: This "fix" will look bad if you have FireFox set to not display that tab bar when you only have a single tab open. Just set FF to always show that tab bar to resolve the issue (FireFox Button > Options > Tabs > Always display tab bar).

EDIT: I changed a line in the navigation toolbox from margin-right to padding right. Using padding right gives a better look.

Schedule Automated Backups on Windows using SyncToy

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on June 18th, 2010 by Matt – 1 Comment

"You do have backups... right?" Thats a phrase I've asked often and rarely gotten a "yes" reply. If your computer completely died tomorrow, would you be prepared?

With USB disk drive prices falling lower and lower every day, there's no reason not to have your important documents backed up. For users of Apple's Mac OSX, the process for setting up a full backup of their computer is a simple as plugging in a USB disk and telling the prompt that, yes, you want to use the disk for backing up. Under Microsoft's Windows there's never been a simple method. As far as most users know the only way to backup is to manually copy and paste their files onto a USB drive occasionally. They usually start doing this manual backing up after a loss of some sort, then gradually let their guard down until they're no better off than before. If you're one of those users who doesn't backup, here's a solution to your backup needs.

By the end of this tutorial you will have fully automated backups of your "My Documents" folder to a USB hard drive.

A note: This backup method keeps an exact copy of your My Documents folder and all changes you make to it on an external drive. If you accidentally delete a file from your My Documents, it will be deleted off of the backup USB drive. However it will automatically put a copy of the file in your Recycle Bin should you need to recover it.

We're going to need one piece of hardware and one piece of software for this setup. The hardware will consist of a USB hard disk drive attached to your computer. The software we're going to use is Microsoft's SyncToy utility. Download it here: SyncToy from Microsoft and install it. Installing it is straight foward, hit "I Accept" a few times, check a box and then hit "Next" a few times. After you've installed it, go into your Start menu and open it.

This is the screen you're greeted with when you first run SyncToy. The way SyncToy works is you set up "pairs" of folders. A "left" folder and a "right" folder. You can then set up three different ways for those folders to backup and copy files from one folder to the other. Click "Create New Folder Pair" to set up our first backup.

The left folder is the source you want to backup. Since our goal is to backup our whole My Documents folder, our My Documents folder is what we need to select. Click Browse under the left folder side then highlight "My Documents" if your on Windows XP or your user name if your on Windows Vista or 7 and then hit "OK".

Now we need to select the "Right Folder" for where are backed up files will go to. In this case thats going to be our external hard drive. Hit Browse under the right folder side click the little plus sign or arrow next to "My Computer" then highlight your USB drive. The drive will most likely have  "E:" or "G:" name next to it. Now click the "Make New Folder" button so we have a place for all of our files to go. Give the folder a useful name like "My Documents Backup" and then hit "OK". Now hit next to move on to the next step.

This screen is where we setup how we want the folder pairs to backup and copy files from our "left folder" to our "right folder". We have three options: Synchronize, Echo and Contribute. The only one we care about for this tutorial is Echo. Echo will backup all of our files from our My Documents onto the USB drive. Select it and hit next.

The following is a description of the three backup method options. You can skip on to the next paragraph if you are just interested in getting the tutorial setup. Read on if you want to be able to use the SyncToy utility in a more advanced method.

  • Synchronize: This option will set up your folder pair so that any change you make to a file in either the left or right folder will be mirrored into the other folder. Example using this tutorial: If you add, delete or change a file off of the USB drive, it would add, delete or change it in of your My Documents.
  • Echo: This option is the traditional backup method. All file additions, deletions and changes in your left folder are mirrored over to your right folder. Any additions in your right folder will be ignored. Example: You add a file on My Documents, it gets copied to the USB drive. You change a file on the USB drive, the original from My Documents replaces it. You delete a file from the USB drive, it gets placed back from My Documents.
  • Contribute: This is exactly the same as Echo except it never deletes anything from the right folder (USB drive in our example). This may be the best backup method. If you accidentally delete a file from your My Documents, you can recover it from the USB drive since nothing is ever deleted from it. The only problem is it will eventually fill up your USB drive and you will need to clear out older files.

Name your folder pair. Give it a decent name like "My Documents Backup" and hit Finish.

Huge Success!

All finished! No you can hit the Run button to run your first backup.

To automate the backups we need to schedule them using the Task Scheduler.

Schedule SyncToy Sync Task in Windows Vista and Windows 7

  1. Click on the Start menu, then select All Programs – Accessories – System Tools – Task Scheduler.
  2. Click on Create Basic Task in the “Actions” pane on the right.
  3. In the “Create Basic Task Wizard”, type in a Name and Description. For example: My Documents Backup.
  4. Click on Next button.
  5. Choose the frequency of when do you want the task to start. Daily is a good choice.
  6. Click on Next button.
  7. Set a Start Time leave the start date alone. I would set the start time of 1am.
  8. Click on Next button.
  9. In the “Action” step, select Start a Program as the option for the task to perform.
  10. Click on Next button.
  11. Under “Program/Script”, click on Browse button and locate the SyncToyCmd.exe. It’s located in “C:\Program Files\SyncToy 2.1\SyncToyCmd.exe”
  12. In the “Add Arguments” textbox, type "-R" without the quotation marks.
  13. Click Finish!

Schedule a SyncToy Task in Windows XP

  1. Go to the Start menu, select All Programs – Accessories – System Tools – Scheduled Tasks.
  2. Select Add scheduled task to start the Scheduled Task Wizard. You will see a list of possible programs to run.
  3. Select SyncToy from that list.
  4. The wizard will next prompt you to enter how often you want to run the scheduled SyncToy. Select Daily.
  5. The next page asks when to start the task. Select a start time, I recommend 1am.
  6. The next page asks for the user name and password to run the program under. If you have one, enter your password you use to log onto Windows. Otherwise click Next.
  7. The final page contains an option to open the properties dialog when the wizard ends. Select this checkbox.
  8. In the pop-up box, go to the end of the Run textbox and add " -R" (notice the first space) without the quotation marks, after the last quotation mark already in the Run field.
  9. Click OK!

All finished!

You now have fully automated backups of your My Documents folder onto a USB disk drive. This exact same tutorial can be modified using you My Pictures folder or My Music folder instead of My Documents if all you want to backup is your pictures or music or any other folder on your computer.

Now no more worries about weather your documents, pictures and music are backed up.

How-to Split, Merge, Rotate and Re-Order PDF Files

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on June 16th, 2010 by Matt – Be the first to comment

It sounds like a trivial task, breaking up or splitting a pdf document in to multiple pages, but without Adobe Acrobat Pro, it can be quite hard to find a utility that does this well. Luckily I've just stumbled upon a great solution. The best part is, its free.

PDF Split and Merge

PDF Split and Merge (aka PDFsam) is a great little open source utility that does just what its name implies. As well as splitting and merging it can rotate pdf pages or merge two pdf documents together.

PDF Split and Merge Interface

While PDFsam is free, and 100% functional, they do have an "enhanced" version that includes the ability to encrypt pdf documents. The cost? $1. Totally worth it.

Using PDF Split and Merge is straight forward. Just select the function you'd like to preform from the left hand side, select the file you want to change and set a few options. If you're splitting a file, you can choose to split every page into its own pdf document, split just the even or odd pages out or split it after a certain number of pages.

Also included is a nifty visual page reordering. You can view all the pages in your source PDF document then just drag and drop the just the pages you want into whichever order you'd like.

PDF Split and Merge Document Page Reordering

This is a great utility that provides some of the function of the multi-hundred dollar Adobe Suite. And remember this is an Open Source (aka free) project. Give the developers some money if you appreciate their product.

PDF Split and Merge is available here: PDFsam

iPhone and Exchange 2003 Calander Issues

Posted in Blog, Tech on June 11th, 2010 by Matt – Be the first to comment

Our company was having issues with the calendars not syncing between iPhones and Outlook clients.

The primary issue was appointments created on the iPhone were not being added to the desktop Outlook clients. However, you could see the event if you viewed your calendar in list view or logged into the Outlook Web Access. They just didn't show up in the usual month or week views.

After some searching it appears it was related to beginning times for appointments not being set. You could create reoccurring appointments and they would show up fine.

The solution for us turned out to be a patch for Exchange 2003: KB958781. Some recurring calendar items disappear from the "Day/Week/Month" view in Outlook when a user uses Exchange ActiveSync on a mobile device to modify a recurring meeting in an Exchange 2003 environment.

After application of this patch, appointments added from iPhone now correctly showed up on Outlook clients.

Installing Google Earth as a Non-Administrator

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on June 4th, 2010 by Matt – 8 Comments

Many of the users I support use Google Earth on a day to day basis. With previous versions maintaining the installs was a pain. It required me to install the program as an administrator and make sure it worked. In some previous versions I also had an intermittent issue where Google Earth would place files that all users needed to access in the profile under which the program was installed. Then when there were updates, I had to run those as well.

Here's the solution; Use the non-administrative user install for Google Earth. Too bad it's hard to find.

Within the last two versions Google has added a feature to Google Earth to install under a user's profile folder and not into the Program Files folder. This means users do not need admin privileges to install. Unlike Google Chrome, the non-admin installer is not the default for Google Earth and they've made finding it difficult.

To get the per-user installation of Google Earth you need to click on the "advanced setup" link under the regular download page for Google Earth. From there you need to un-check the "make Google Earth available to all users profiles" option. Then click download and install.

Downloading the Non-Admin Installer for Google Earth

Since our internet access is filtered to block, and the default Google Earth installer attempts to download some files as it installs, I get an 0x80040508 installation error. The solution to this error is to download the full version of Google Earth that does not attempt to download some files at run-time. This is also known as "offline installer". To get this version uncheck the box "Allow Google Earth to automatically install recommended updates" when under the "advanced setup" section as above.

I'm not sure why Google Earth doesn't do as Chrome does and just offer the non-administrative install by default.

Stream Music To Your Home Theater Wirelessly

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on June 1st, 2010 by Matt – 8 Comments

Big home theater systems are now ubiquitous. Everyone seems has at least a 5 to 7 speaker setup with big subwoofers. Yet, why is it that when I go over to someones house, they have their computer speakers cranked up playing either iTunes or Pandora Radio and their big theaters idle? I asked around. Most people never thought about it. In their minds their computers and home theaters were two separate systems. They don't have to be.

Here's a how-to that covers getting music from your computer to any stereo system with a focus on simplicity that anyone can set up.

Before we jump into this, we need to talk about what kind of equipment you already have. For the sake of brevity I'm going to assume you already have a computer, a wireless network and a home theater. If you have all that then lets move on, if not, then get that setup and continue from here.

Here's how its going to work:

We're going to put a program on your computer that will send the music over the wireless network to a device plugged into your home-theater.

AirPort Express To Home-Theater Streaming Diagram

Other than the equipment you already have, we're going to need one piece of hardware and one piece of software.

The hardware consists of an Apple Airport Express and one audio cable. Apple's Airport Express has a number of features. It can extend your current wireless network to cover more area, host a printer, host a USB hard drive, be used as a cat5 to wireless bridge or stream music over your wired or wireless network.

Setting up the Airport Express is easy, plug it in to a socket, hook up the cable for audio to your home theater and run the included software CD on your computer. During the initial setup you'll give the Airport Express a name (a good name is where the unit is located, in case you end up with a bunch of these), tell it to join your existing wireless network and give it the network password if you have one. That's all there is to it.

The Airport Express supports two audio output methods: via 3.5mm headphone jack or 3.5mm optical output. The simplest method is a male to male 3.5mm headphone jack cable if your receiver has 3.5mm jack input. My home theater does not, so I went with a 3.5mm headphone to dual stereo RCA connectors. When in doubt, go with the RCA cables, every home-theater supports them.

3.5mm Headphone Male to Male

3.5mm Headphone Male to Dual Stereo RCA Male

If you want true digital audio to your home-theater, go with the optical audio option. You'll need a funky cable that's specific to Apple audio output. Optical cables work exactly like other cables, but they use light pulses instead of electrical pulses to transmit signal. Just plug one end into the Airport Express's output and the other to your optical input on your home theater receiver.

Apple Mini Optical to Toslink

That covers the hardware setup. Now we need to get a program that will send audio to the Airport Express from our computer. We have a couple of options.

iTunes: Since the Airport express is an Apple product, iTunes has support for it built right into it. Just play music like you normally do in iTunes, then look in the bottom right corner of your iTunes window. There will be a little box (unhelpfully not labeled) that defaults to "Computer". Click in the box and select the name that you chose earlier for the Airport Express.

Speaker Output Selection in iTunes

The downside of iTunes is you can only stream music you have currently in your library. What if you wanted to stream music from Pandora, or Sirius Satellite Radio's web interface? You'll need something different.

Rogue Amobea's AirFoil: This gem of a program is available for Mac or PC and enables you to stream the audio output of any program on your computer to an Airport Express unit or other computer with the AirFoil software running.

Rogue Amobea's Airfoil

It's another one of those programs that I consider a "must buy". Nothing else I've used has come close in terms of quality and reliability. To use: You select the name of the program who's audio you want from a drop down box. Then select click on the speaker icon next to the speakers you want the sound to come out, in this case that would be our Airport Express. Away you go.

Now you too can have great party tricks like taking a laptop out by the pool and change the song, play a different internet radio station or adjust the volume. All without going inside. Or use Apple's iTunes remote software, available in the App Store, to change the volume or song currently streaming from iTunes. All from your iPhone or iPod touch.

For the price of $125 you can have any music you can play on your laptop or desktop computer streamed to your home theater and I bet it wasn't as difficult to set up as you were expecting.