“Insanity” for $500 please Alex

Jeapordy-InsanityI often demonstrate the textbook definition of insanity. The Dell is working OK for me. It’s nagging me to no end that I can’t use the NEC. It used to work, that’s the main reason for the modded firmware! This morning I contemplated the way I have my content generation fragmented: on the Dell, on the NEC and journals and notes on my Blackberry. I thought again of the convenience of the NEC. Instant on. Hot-swap batteries. Solid state. Drop it when your cat darts in front of you (another story) and it’s less than a c-note to replace. Besides, I have all those batteries and accessories. Worth some of my time to figure it out, no?

As a burned out geek I accept things like this. I come from the olden times when working around the quirks and bugs and poor documentation was proof that you were a king, a Master of Tech in ways mere mortals could not conceive. Like when I quoted the PocketPC application that would look up a single record in a database of 7.5mm records, then cross lookup in another of 2.6mm records all in less than 500ms before anyone had bothered to document usages of SQL for PocketPC (or was it CE?). I made it work. Now no one gives a dang about technical triumphs like that. Pay a pittance for the App, then complain when you get your money’s worth. But I digress.

Secure in the knowledge that the firmware used to allow USB sticks and drives to work, I tried cleaning the TypeA female connection. Nada. Then I tried a different memory stick. Zilch. Got out the spare NEC to see if it was unit unique. Nothing. But I did manage to tear off the rubber protectors for both prime and spare units.

I’m gonna’ get that it to work even though the time I spend on this nonsense would be way better spent by creating content. After all, it’s easier than to really create something.

Update 1: Been using the Dell Lattitude D420 as a daily driver, and I’m pretty happy with the thing except for the long boot up times. So I set it up to suspend when I close the lid, and that gives me a reasonable trade-off between start up speed and battery life. Just to confirm this problem, this morning I did a cold boot from a full battery charge. Just a few seconds short of 10 minutes for the HDD to quit spinning and used 11% of available battery again. The problem with the suspend is that if I have a word processing rich text file open when I suspend, I can’t save under that file name again. I know I should save it locally and then copy it out, but I want the convenience of it just being there when I go to put the content up. Resolved myself to so 2 things: a) get a low overhead Rich Text Editor so I don’t have to put up with the funky things that Word 2003 does to the documents b) order a CF card reader. The latter is really hard for me to do, but I still want to use the Nec 900c outside without having to worry that I just nuked a full featured laptop. The card reader is like less than ten bucks delivered from eBay.

Update 2: I got the PCMCIA card to work, so the NEC is good to go. Using Jarte Plus from a fellow North Carolinian as my text editor. And no, I didn’t log the time I’ve spent on this to see what the true cost really was. But I can tell you that I purchased a long life battery that comes out the front of the Dell Lattitude as a palm rest. Really neat, but invested another $50 so I could use it most of the day with the battery swap-outs. But then..

Final Update: I still DellD420vsDellXPS12have the NEC for when I want to go for a bike ride or hike and want to get things done. Mostly using it for journaling. It turns out that I couldn’t live with the reconnection problems when the Inspiron D420 came out of sleep or hibernation. If I had a document open I’d not be able to connect. And I’d have to remember to pulse the network drive with Explorer before I hit the shortcut for the files I use a lists and for site content. If I didn’t, Jartre (and any other software with a shortcut referencing a network drive) would remove the file from the “recently used” list so I’d have to navigate to it anyway to open it. And the battery life wasn’t what I was hoping for when I’d put it to sleep, suspend or hibernate. Rebooting wasn’t an option though as I’d either have to have a power supply handy or sacrafice a big chunk of my battery power just to boot in. So, I bit the bulliet, and purchased a Dell XPS 12, i7 Haswell with a 256gb HDD and 8gb memory. The battery life is impressive even though I’m hesitant about the built in, non-swappable battey. Bottom line is that I can use the XPS 12 for just about anything short of video processing and it will give me over 8 hours of usage before needing a charge. Cost me around $1k from a guy off ebay and although it was officially listed as a refurb, it’s clear that Dell just overbuilt them and when they were returned from a retailer or big customer they let them go at a huge loss. The same one lists for around $2k on the Dell’s website.


Unitech MS912 – BIG BOSS Review

Unitech has just updated the MS910 with a new housing, IP42 rating, real time clock and 2mb of data storage. With the same scan engine as the MS910, the MS912 can scan 20,000 12-digit (or bigger) barcodes into memory. It has an IP42 rating, can withstand 5 foot drops to concrete and comes with a 1-year warranty. Street price for the Unitech MS012 barcode scanner will be in the $150-$190 range.

What will sell the MS912 is the fact that you can pair and run it as a bluetooth keyboard in iOS and Android and presumably any other operating system that recognizes a bluetooth keyboard. It seems the main additional feature of the MS912 is the ability to collect data into memory and with a time stamp when you don’t have a bluetooth connection. Surprisingly, that design aspect of the MS912 over the MS910 presumably assumes the value of collecting data without a host connection so the user isn’t encumbered with carrying a host device during the data collection process. Unfortunately, the paradigm is that the user always has a host available to them in the form of at least a smartphone.

The Unitech MS910 gives you 2 connection options: HID and SPP. To HID pair requires scanning in a PIN for authentication. If you have any experience with this, you’ll know it’s challenging. I have a hard time getting the 6-digit pairing code from my bluetooth keyboard to my blackberry right and I don’t have to a) scan a start code, b) identify and scan each digit of the host pin in the time limit and c) scan the stop code – all within the time limit the host is using for pairing timeout. With a HID connection, you need to double-click the scan button or scan a barcode to toggle the host’s soft keyboard – but this feature only works for iOS devices. We found the double press process confusing and a bit unreliable.  There doesn’t appear to be a way to do ‘mixed mode’ entry, scanning and using the soft keyboard at the same time.

Connecting via SPP (serial port protocol aka serial port emulation) mode allows you to connect via COM port over bluetooth. To use SPP you either need an App that has SPP communications built in (no word on an SDK) or with the recommended “BluetoothConnect” app that is very like old time keyboard wedge software that we used to run on green-screen terminals back in the day. Unfortunately, it seems BluetoothConnecf is available for Android 3.0 and higher only. The documentation hints at making an SPP connection to a PC, but offers no hints of what desktop software to use. Note that there is no provision to use the USB cable as a SPP connection conduit so you’re left with a lot of variables trying to get the MS912 to work with a PC or Mac in SPP..

What sells a dedicated barcode scanner over a camera based barcode scanner in the mobility space is the former’s ability to scan quickly, efficiently and accurately. Designed to scan 1-dimensional barcodes only, the MS912 uses the same CCD based linear imager scan engine as the MS910. The specifications indicate the MS912 will scan a 5mil Code 39 barcode at a focal length of  0.6″ and 2.3″ off the barcode. The next spec given is for Code 39 of 13mil resolution (1.2″ – 5.5″ focal length). Using Code 39 as the grading criterion for a barcode scanner is quite odd. Using the MS912 indicates why the specs are written as they are. It has a shorter than expected focal length compared to anything that passes as a barcode scanner on today’s market. While there ARE applications where this scanner can be appropriate, if your usage requires scanning different symbology barcodes or different density barcodes of the same symbology, the scan distances vary widely. Normal scan distance is between 6-10 inches on conventional barcode scanners typically on a 7mil UPC code. As you move to lower resolution barcodes, (less characters per inch) the focal length improves to a point. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough power / light generated by the scanner so you can get read distances over 12 inches. I found that the process of scanning multiple symbologies or even the same symbology at multiple densities very uncomfortable and frustrating. With its low price point, we’re left to wonder if Unitech cut costs here instead of somewhere else.

The Unitech MS912 is a welcome addition to meeting the needs of the burgeoning mobility market. In fairness, we saw some shortcomings of the product in our testing and evaluation. This is what Unitech could have improved:

  • In addition to not having enough power / light coming out the scan aperture, the scanner itself is under powered. Given the manufacturer’s habit of quoting the “best possible” specifications, it appears that you’ll only scan 5000 barcodes to memory before you run out of battery power. Imagine spec’ing a design where the memory exceeds the ability to fill it by a factor of four!
  • The charging connector is on the side of the device, so if you deploy these in numbers, you’re not going to be able to cradle them. The best you’ll be able to do is to have octopus cables coming out of USB hubs
  • The documentation is confusing and sometimes contradictory. We were early adopters of the MS910 and got used to the problems, but it will be difficult for the general user to decode what the instructions really mean. For example, the QuickStart guide clearly indicates that there is a “non-memory” version available (nope!) and that it has 2kb RAM for data storage (?). Contradictions like that are what cause customers to kick a product to the curb as they iterate for solutions.
  • Controlling the MS912 is done by control barcodes. If you need to disconnect the bluetooth connection, you have to scan a barcode. Then you need to scan a barcode to reconnect. You scan a barcode to turn off memory if you’re going to use the scanner full time with a host. Or scan a barcode to enable memory if you’re scanning in batch mode. Don’t forget which memory option you selected or you run the risk of scanning without a connection and the data being lost or scanning with a connection and inadvertently running out of memory and dealing with that error. If you want to batch stored data…. another barcode. Yet another to clear memory. Make a mistake when scanning? You can scan a barcode to delete the last record, but you’ll not know what it was. I think you’re getting the idea.
  • Unitech advertises that the device has 2mb RAM, but it’s a little dishonest. If reading 12 digit UPC codes, you should be able to store 166,700 barcodes, but they’re advertising 20,000. 2 mega-bytes divided by 20,000 barcodes would give you a record length of 100 characters – a nice, round number. Some of the space will be taken up with a time stamp (max of 20 characters), so if you’re logical, it appears Unitech has planned for you to be scanning 90 character barcodes. But wait! The manual indicates that you get not only the barcode data and date/time, but also an item number and field separator. Assume the item number is 6 digits and you have you have 3 field separators we’re now up to around 30 characters per record to administrative data. That means that Unitech is anticipating the longest barcode we’ll scan is 70 characters? Unfortunately, the physical limitations of the CCD imager mentioned above will keep you from ever doing that. So it appears we’re paying for memory we’re not allowed to use.

In summary, the Unitech MS912 is the memory version of the MS910 with the a little more bulk and durability., but the same scan engine problems as the MS910. While not for every applicaiton, the MS912’s price point and size / durability / functionality matrix make it a barcode scanner you may want to design your process around.

I’ll take “Insanity” for $200 please Alex

Technology: the dream that becomes a friend who proves a fiendish curse. Recently, I’ve been working hard to generate web content. Unfortunately, the NEC900claptop I use for development is too big to be comfortable. Hot, heavy and larger than the surfaces of any lap desk I have. Simply priceless for its ability to do the heavy lifting with video, graphic and web site work, I’ve found its size is frequently an excuse for not taking advantage of free moments to document stuff that stikes me a pertinent to a blog or web page I have in work.

So I dug out my old XP Dell Inspiron PP09S; a demonstration technology existed for thin and lights WAY before they mainstreamed. Booting took what seemed like an hour & 11% of available battery. Not good. I need a better solution. So into the storage room to find the NEC900c I’ve used reliably before for journals and such. With a full size keyboard on a Windows CE .NET OS, the keyboard allows typing at speed and even though it has excellent battery life you can hot swap batteries if you’re working a long time away from a charger. Not being on the Internet is an bonus for an ADHD guy like me. I always us the CF card for storage because it’s persistant if I forget to keep the NEC charged.

So I worked for about 4 hours after the office closed. Before, the firmware allowed me the use of a USB thumb drive to transfer work from the CF card to a PC. I plugged in the USB stick this morning. Nothing. The PCMCIA CF card adapter was in the travel bag with it, so out with the CF from the NEC, into the PCMCIA card to the little Dell. Nothing deux. CF back to the NEC and connect via cable & ActiveSync to the little Dell. Getting an idea of where we are in the technology curve here?  Since the docs I want are on the CF card, I try to exploring to it but can’t. Hmm. Disconnect with the intention of copying the files from the CF to “my documents” so they’ll come over when I reconnect. I open explorer on the NEC and navigate to the CF card and…. THE FOLDERS ON THE CF CARD ARE EMPTY!!! Nothing, nada, blank, zip. All my current work, a lot of journal work over the last few years and all the backups are gone!

Near total derailment because this is mature, almost solid state tech with no moving parts At the apex of my despair my wife appeared at the office door and I got to share why there were clumps of hair in my hands and all over the floor. We prayed.  I did a soft reset on the NEC and all the files came back. Immediate and full backup to another CF.

One of the things I’ve been working on is giving God the glory where others can see. Thank-you Lord for saving my bacon, or was that the whole idea of the failure??

Blackberry Not Dead and Won’t be for a Long Time

Blackberry has eleven percent favorable

Folks around here (and some of our better clients) are sick of hearing me talk about the new BlackBerry OS 10 and how much I love my Z10.

I started using a Bold 9700 before iPhone days when I needed to manage multiple email accounts and carry a hefty contact list. The Bold did it all well and I got to the point where I was at 30wpm and could respond to emails quickly using their “smart text” stuff.  In 2010, I tried a Droid X and liked it although I was puzzled why Blackberry wasn’t keeping up on tech trends and handling video and content consumption stuff like Android and iPhone. I wasn’t comfortable with the security of the Droid, and was suspicious of how contacts were dealt. Knowing Google like you’d know an abusive Uncle, I knew there were probably no firewalls between the company and my data and saw others have all their stuff unintentionally in Google Contacts, or Calendar or the ad engine. The Blackberry Torch was the only upgrade path with any innovation but I was soon frustrated by the lack of innovation. The slider was fun but the ability to update a blog, view video, watch Netflix and other consumption stuff weren’t there and it was obvious that there wasn’t any innovation going on there. Like the old paradigm, I had too much invested to change and was forced to live in a slum while the iPhone/iPad/Android guys were able to have fun.

Along comes the Z10. And horrific marketing. And staggeringly poor sales numbers. And further loss of market share. But what the hell… let me try one for a few days and I’ll send it back if I don’t like it. After all, my contract was up with AT&T and the durn thing was free. Here’s why I love it:

  • Super fast browser, not crippled like Safari or Chrome
  • HDMI direct to my TV
  • Bluetooth keyboard with integrated mouse means I can run anything on the web I want and get away with it. Like VNC to the office PC, Netflix, games, etc
  • You can run Android apps. I actually have some licensed apps I used on the droid over on the Z10 running with no problems.
  • SECURE! Has a partition between biz and personal data.
  • Rock Solid. No need for a battery pull 

So I’ve found my convergence device, or so I think. The end of the year BBerry took a lot of financial hits and loss of market share from what was purely poor marketing management. I know the phone carriers are incestuous  but it’s obvious that BBeryy didn’t advertize the benefits of the new OS to general users OR BUSINESSES! For a while it looked like they’d sell off some of the intellectual property they had or break up the company because their financial performance was so bad. But they got funding from Fairfax, John Chen as an interim leader and started manufacturing new devices using FoxCon. But everyone KNOWS Blackberry is going out of business, so they won’t buy their handsets.

Unfortunately, what the press has given the public is just plain wrong and here’s why:

  1. On a single phone model basis, Blackberry is out performing everyone but Apple and Android
  2. More IT managers prefer Blackberry to Windows Phone (yeah, I know but that means that Blackberry is #3 not at the bottom of the barrel
  3. The financial problems they had were all write downs, not cash losses
  4. Blackberry still has $2.6 billion in the bank with the new funding they secure the beginning of the year
  5. With the current revenue they have and the popularity of the existing products, software and services they offer, it will be extremely difficult for them to go out of business.
  6. Chen knows what he’s doing, has defined the business Blackberry is in and is moving decisively to reposition them. He’s not afraid to stand up for his customers as seen in the dust-up where T-Mobile marketed to Blackberry users (they have a contract with Blackberry) to get rid of old technology and upgrade to an iPhone 5. If you read what happened, you’ll see Chen is a no bullshit guy.

Anyway, that’s my take. I’m not a Z10 fanatic by the way. I’m not wild about the lack of keyboard, I struggle with the “fat finger” using the soft keyboard and word suggestions. I hate the battery life. But for security, managing biz stuff and still being able to effectively get work done, it works for me.