Starting to simplify – cutting the cable TV cord.

Enough is enough already! I’ve watched my monthly cable bill keep increasing over the last several years (as I’m sure most of you have). Oh yeah, I’ve played the switching game to take advantage of the promotions: Comcast to Dish Network…back to Comcast…to Dish…to Comcast…and most recently to Uverse. I was simply tired of paying close to $80 a month for TV service. My most recent experience with AT&T Uverse finally did me in. Don’t get me wrong, I think they have a good product – their multi-room DVR pretty much sets the bar when it comes to the TV service offerings in my area. However, I couldn’t continue to justify the cost for the handful of TV shows that my family watches on a regular basis. This decision undoubtedly affects my kids more than my wife and I, as the kids programming is the biggest thing lacking (I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing though).

At any rate, we decided to stop paying that huge monthly bill by utilizing a combination of low-cost and free programming. I can’t say that it’s perfect, but it’s been working for our family for about the last 4 months.

So, what did I do? Well, the first thing I did was purchase an antenna to pick up over-the-air (OTA) digital channels in my area. I’m using a fairly inexpensive RCA indoor powered antenna (~$30), and am able to pull in about 20 digital channels – all of the major networks CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and PBS…with superb picture quality compared to pay-for services.

I was really missing the DVR capabilities to watch recorded/on-demand content, so that was the next thing to tackle. I found a product called PlayOn. This great little piece of software runs on a Windows PC and allows you to stream content such as Hulu, CBS, ESPN, CNN, YouTube, Netflix, etc to the three major gaming consoles: XBox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii (still beta). I tried the free demo for a couple weeks and decided it was well worth the $30. I have tried PlayOn on each of the three gaming consoles and in my experience, the PS3 is the best for both picture quality and ease of use. Using it on the XBox was a fairly close second…but the Wii was essentially unwatchable. So, now if I miss an episode of “The Office” or “House”, I’ll just fire up my gaming console and connect to Hulu through PlayOn to watch it on demand.

In addition to OTA and PlayOn, I decided to sign up for the basic Netflix account – no this isn’t free (it’s 8.99/month for the cheapest plan), but this gives you 1 DVD rental out at a time and unlimited access to their streaming media. Netflix doesn’t have a huge selection when it comes to movies (especially when it comes to new releases), but they also have a pretty big library of the previous seasons of several TV shows. I just recently opted to upgrade my Netflix account to add Blu-ray for an extra $2 a month, well worth it as far as I’m concerned.

As far as Netflix goes, there are several different options to play their streaming content (PS3, XBox, Roku, PC, Mac, to name a few) – the PlayOn streaming software even allows you to connect to your Netflix account to stream video. I prefer to use my PS3 for Netflix, the picture quality is much better than streaming through PlayOn….and the XBox 360 requires you to have a Live Gold account to use Netflix (c’mon MicroSoft, gimme a break!)….of course, this was one of the reasons I bought PlayOn – to use Netflix on the XBox without needing a Live Gold account.

I guess I do need to mention that I have a high-speed internet connection, which is really a requirement to do any kind of video streaming. I did keep AT&T Uverse for 6Mbps @ $35 a month….but hey, it’s necessary for my line of work anyway – and if you’re reading this, chances are, you have high-speed internet already too.

All in all, our family has been pretty happy with the switch. The “hardest” thing is a bit more inconvenience when it comes to switching between watching over-the-air channels and Netflix or PlayOn. Since most of our TV watching is over-the-air anyway, it’s not that big of a deal. Besides saving money, one of the other benefits we’ve found is that we don’t waste nearly as much time channel surfing anymore…and ultimately end up watching some crappy show because nothing else was on.

The Filling Station in Comstock Park

Some friends and I decided to try a new place for lunch, and decided to head over to The Filling Station in Comstock Park. We entered the restaurant and headed to the ordering line . It’s cafeteria style ordering, one person takes your order as you slide a tray down towards the other end to pay – the food is definitely not ready by the time you get to the end, I’ll get to that later.

The menu seemed quite large – both literally and the number of items. I didn’t have a chance to take it all in because I quickly saw what I wanted – a Philly cheesesteak sandwich – what caught my eye was the optional cheese whiz. I’d heard from a native Philadelphian that a “real” philly steak sandwich has cheese whiz on it…this just happened be the first time I’d seen it in the Grand Rapids area. So, I decided on the philly with a half side of onion rings. I can’t remember what the rest of my friends ordered other than a mix of burgers, fries, and onion rings.

The prices seemed pretty reasonable for the amount of food you get. After ordering, we grabbed a booth and waited (key word) for our food. I immediately noticed the decor, the dining area is adorned with old gas station type signs throughout. The dining area seemed clean and surprisingly quiet; it wasn’t empty, but not overly busy either.

It took a good 20 minutes for the first order to be called out…another 5 or so minutes later two more orders came out….and finally another 5 minutes later the last order arrived. And from what I can remember, the last order came out incorrect. This was by far the biggest complaint – TTGF (time to get food).

Anyway, when my order finally arrived, there was a heaping pile of battered onion-rings, deep-fried to golden perfection. Maybe not the best I’ve ever had, but pretty darn good nevertheless. Underneath these golden beauties was a delicious looking Philly sandwich. There were actually two “halves” about 6 inches each. The melted cheese whiz was oozing out over the very thinly sliced grilled steak and onions. I took my first bite….ohhhh yeah – the bun was toasted perfectly, everything in perfect harmony. It was like a party in my mouth. This was definitely the best philly cheesesteak I’ve ever had!

I can’t say that the rest of my friends had the same experience as me; one said the burger was “OK”…it looked to me like it was pretty overdone. I don’t remember anyone saying they wouldn’t come back; however, I think we were all in agreement that the speed and service had a negative impact on the whole experience. Overall, I’d have to give it a thumbs up for the great good food I had. Maybe next time I’ll try The Filling Station for breakfast or dinner and see if the service is any better.

How to Convert a Physical Windows XP Machine to a VM (P2V) for Use in VirtualBox

For those asking the question: “Is it possible to convert an existing physical Windows XP workstation using VirtualBox?” Well, the short answer is “No, you can’t convert it DIRECTLY with VirtualBox”. However, it IS possible to convert it to a virtual machine using a free product (VMware Converter) and then use VirtualBox as the host-based virtualization platform. VirtualBox is capable of using vmdk files, the format that VMware converter creates in it’s P2V process.

VirtualBox is an open-source, freely available virtualization product that can run on a variety of different host operating systems: Windows XP, 2003, 2008, Vista, Mac OS X (Intel only), several Linux distros, and Solaris 10 x86 to name a few. Go to http://www.sun.com/virtualbox for more information and downloads. Of course, there are other host-based virtualization products that are available: VMware Server and Fusion, Xen, and Parallels to name a few. However, none of these support as many platforms as VirtualBox – and it’s FREE!

The host computer in this example is an Apple Macbook 2Ghz Core 2 Duo, with 2GB RAM, running Mac OS X 10.5.7 and VirtualBox 3.0.0. The physical machine being P2V’d is an older PC with an AMD 3100+ CPU and 768MB RAM running Windows XP (non-OEM) w/SP3 (please be aware that you still need to adhere to Microsoft’s licensing policies). The physical machine has two PCI cards: an ATI 9600XT graphics adapter and an SMC 10/100 NIC. I also used a portable USB hard drive formatted with a FAT32 filesystem as a destination for the VM conversion.

This is essentially a 2-step process:
1. Convert the physical machine to a VM using VMware Converter
2. Create a new VM in VirtualBox using the VM that was “converted”.

So, let’s get started.

Converting the Physical PC
First, you’ll need to download and install the VMware Converter tool onto the physical machine you want to virtualize (in this case it’s the Windows XP machine). The version used in this example is VMware Converter 3.0.3

Installation of the VMware converter is pretty straightforward, just follow the dialog boxes to complete the install, I used the “Typical” installation option.

Launch VMware Converter:
1. Click the “Continue in Starter Mode” to get to the main converter window
2. Click the “Convert Machine” button located in the bottom half of the window.
– You will now be walked through the converter wizard –
3. Select “Physical Computer” as the Source Type, click next
4. Select “This local machine” as the Source Login, click next
5. The Source Data window allows you to specify which drives to include in the conversion. My machine only has a C: drive. It will list the drive size, as well as the used space. You can modify the drive size in the conversion – you can’t resize the “virtual” drive below the used space. Leave the “Ignore page file and hibernation file” checked (default), click next.

– Now it’s time to choose a destination for the virtual machine –
6. Choose “Other Virtual Machine” as the destination type, click next.
7. Give your virtual machine a name (mine was named xpvm in this example), and a location to store the VM that is going to be created. This is where I directed the location to the external USB hard drive. Select “Workstation 6.x, VMware Fustion 1.x, Player 2.x, ACE 2.x” as the type of virtual machine to create, click next.
8. Select a disk allocation option (I used “Allow virtual disk files to expand”), click next.
9. Select how many the NICs and the type of network you have and if you want them to connect at power on. I used the default which was one NIC, NAT and “Connect at power on” was checked, click next.
10. Customization window – all boxes were left unchecked, click next to begin the conversion process.

At this point, go grab a beverage of choice and a snack, it could take a while depending on the speed of your system and size of your drive(s) to be converted.

After the conversion finished, you need to move this newly created VM over to your host machine. I used an external hard drive as my destination, so I just removed it from the Windows XP box and attached it to the Mac. I then copied the VM to a location on the Mac’s internal hard drive. At this point the external hard drive is no longer needed. This probably all could have been done over an SMB share as well.

Now Let’s Bring the VM into VirtualBox (this assumes that you have already installed VirtualBox on your host machine)
1. Launch Virtual Box, then click the “New” button to create a new virtual machine, click next.
2. Give your virtual machine a name, select the operating system and version, for this example “xpvm” was the VM name, OS is “Microsoft Windows”, and Version is “Windows XP”, click next.
3. Select the amount of RAM you would like to allocate to the VM. In most cases, the amount does not have to equal the amount of RAM that was on the physical machine. This may depend on the amount of RAM available in your host machine. For this scenario, 192MB was used, click next.
4. You will now be asked to set up your hard disk – this is the key step; you are now going to choose “Use an existing hard disk” then click the folder with the green arrow on it. This brings up the “Virtual Media Manager” window.
5. In the “Virtual Media Manager” window, click the “Add” button, this should launch another window – use this to locate the newly created VM, you are looking for a file that ends with a .vmdk extension. Once you locate this, select it and you will return to the “Virtual Hard Disk” window (your vmdk file should be listed in the box, click next.
6. Click the “Finish” button, at this point the VM is created and available inside of VirtualBox; however, you may need to make the following modification for it to boot.
7. In the main VirtualBox window, highlight the VM and click the “Settings” button. Click the System button and check the “Enable IO APIC” option. Click OK to save the settings.
8. In the main VirtualBox window again, click the “Start” button to fire up the VM.

Be aware that you may receive a couple of warning messages regarding devices that may not be on the host machine (floppy drive, serial port, etc), this should not prevent the VM from starting up.

One final note using VirtualBox, install the “Guest Additions” tool within the virtual machine. This is a package that will significantly enhance keyboard, video, and mouse performance inside of the VM.

As with many howto’s, your mileage may vary depending on the host and guest OS you want to virtualize. Good luck and happy virtualizing!

VMware Cookbook (O’Reilly Media)

I’ve spent the last week or so doing a technical review on a book to be released later this year from O’Reilly Media. The book, titled “VMware Cookbook“, is authored by Ryan Troy and Matthew Helmke. Both are heavily involved in the Ubuntu Linux community and have written several articles that have been published in various Linux magazines.

This book is all about VMware’s enterprise products: ESX, ESXi, a bit of Virtual Center (vCenter), as well as content on the newly released vSphere. So those looking for information on VMware’s Workstation, Fusion, or free Server product need not apply.

That being said, this book is a must have for anyone responsible for implementing and/or maintaining an ESX environment. It is chock full of tips, tricks, and how-to’s gleaned from real world experience, most of which provide detailed step-by-step instructions. There are cookbook style “recipes” included for just about major topic within ESX: installation, networking, resource management, security, storage, and a huge section of miscellaneous tips.

What I really enjoy about this book is the mix of recipes using the command line as well as the vCenter client. We’re not talking just a “man page” for a command – these are practical example uses of ESX commands – all in an easy to follow format.

I don’t know about you, but I find it cumbersome to weed through four or five 300-page manuals trying to find information on how to perform a specific task (and worse, having bits and pieces of information scattered throughout all of them). This book pulls some of those pieces together to address real-world scenarios that we as systems administrators and engineers are faced with on a regular and sometimes not-so-regular basis.

Upgraded G1 to Android v1.5

Well, I decided to take the plunge and perform a manual upgrade of my T-Mobile G1 phone to the recently released Android version 1.5 (cupcake). I was excited about some of the new features and didn’t want to wait until T-Mobile eventually pushes it out.

The manual install was pretty straight forward, using these simple steps

The hardest part was actually getting the update zip file to the microSD card on the G1! I was unable to get my Windows XP machine to properly see the SD card as a mounted drive via USB connection. So….I opted to go a different route. I ended up installing an FTP client application from the Android Market called “AndFTP”. The FTP app had no problems directing downloads to the SD card, so I connected the G1 to my WiFi network and pulled the nearly 50MB down file from the Windows box running an FTP server.

Once I had the file downloaded, it took about 5 minutes or so to do the upgrade, which went without a hitch.

The first thing I decided to check out was the camera. It was touted as being much faster taking pictures – and from my handful of tests, it was quite a bit faster. Unfortunately, the quality of the pictures still seem about the same – pretty poor. I was hoping for some options for manual adjustments, but no such luck. On the plus side, they did manage to include a “soft” shutter button on the touch screen, this can used to snap a picture instead of pressing down the button on the side of the phone – for me, this button was generally hard to press and hold down without causing camera shake resulting in blurry pictures. There are a couple of samples below.

The G1 also has the ability to capture video now. My initial video capture proved to be a bit choppy, but hey, it’s better than nothing.

Now on to my favorite two features: the soft keyboard and automatic screen orientation. The automatic screen orientation feature is not turned on by default. You have to go into Settings->Sound and Display-> Orientation and turn it on. I didn’t think it worked at first, however I quickly figured out that it doesn’t work on the home screen (or the dialer and contacts apps either). It seems to work just fine with all of the other apps I’ve tried.

So, what good is automatically switching to a landscape mode without sliding out the keyboard? That’s where the soft keyboard comes into play. Basically, if you tap your finger or press the trackball in a text box, a soft keyboard appears on the bottom of the screen. This makes it much easier for one-handed texting episodes.

Other than that, I haven’t had the chance to spend a whole lot of time checking out new features. I did notice that the GPS seems to update my location quicker than before and scrolling through all of my apps seems to be much more responsive and smooth.

So far so good, I’m impressed with the new features of the Android 1.5 update and hope Google keeps them coming.

Android 1.5 update for the T-Mobile G1

I’ve had my T-Mobile G1 “Google” phone since it’s initial release back in October 2008.  Since then, I have received a couple of updates but nothing of real importance from my point of view.  Overall I’ve been fairly happy with the phone so far, however, there are a few things that have been on my wish list (besides T-mobile 3g coverage in my area, which still isn’t available).

After living with this phone for over 6 months now, one of my biggest complaints is the camera – granted, I don’t buy a phone for the built-in camera.  However, if a company is willing to include one, it should at least be able to perform somewhat reasonable.  The G1’s picture taking ability is average at best.  It boasts a 3.2mp camera with autofocus, but no manual adjustment settings.  The slightest bit of movement with the camera or within the scene will pretty much render the picture a useless blur.  After having an iPhone, I would say from a realistic use perspective, the iPhone takes much better pictures.

Well, I’m hoping that’s all about to change.  Google has released a new version of Android – 1.5.  There is a pretty big list of new features and improvements.  A couple of the new features that I’ve been anticipating:

  • An on-screen “soft” keyboard.  There are many times when I don’t want to slide out the keyboard for a quick sms, so this will be a huge benefit.
  • Video recording.  It will be very interesting to see how well this works, considering it’s using the  built-in camera that has proved to be lacking thus far.
  • Batch actions on Gmail messages.  There have been many times where I’ve wanted to delete or label multiple messages, but have to go through the process one message at a time.

As for performance improvements, the following were listed having been improved:

  • Faster Camera start-up and image capture
  • Much faster acquisition of GPS location
  • Smoother page scrolling in Browser
  • Speedier GMail conversation list scrolling

Now I’m just debating whether to manually update my phone this weekend or wait for T-mobile to push it down sometime in the next couple weeks.  It would be nice if T-mobile allowed you to pull down the update rather than pushing it down to customers…maybe when version 2.0 rolls around.

Switch to fivebean web hosting

I recently switched my web hosting provider from godaddy to a company called fivebean – an inexpensive, full featured web hosting provider.   I was getting rather tired of godaddy’s very busy, clunky interface – and the performance was atrocious.

I signed up with fivebean’s “mini” plan which gives me 5GB of storage and 50GB of bandwidth with up to 5 domains. They’re running a sweet promotion right now – 50% off of their hosting packages. The mini package is only $17.50 a year right now – that comes out to less than $1.50 a month! That’s just insane!

The process of switching over from godaddy to fivebean was a piece of cake. The sign-up was quick and painless and I was up and running in no time. The hardest part was pulling down my content from godaddy.

Once I uploaded my content to fivebean’s server, it was just a matter of getting a couple of MySQL databases established for my apps and then switching over my DNS servers.

One of the coolest things these guys offer is VPS (virtual private server) hosting packages. I really don’t have a need for this right now, but maybe in the near future. You basically get an entire virtual machine to yourself to run one of a variety of Linux distros. This gives you the ultimate in flexibility. Right now they offer 3 VPS packages, pricing is essentially based on the amount of RAM, storage, and bandwidth.

I can’t begin to express how happy I am to have switched to this new hosting provider. The management interface is clean and quick, my pages are popping up lightning fast, and best of all….the price is nearly 70% LESS than my previous hosting provider.

For those of you looking for a new web hosting company, you should seriously consider giving fivebean a shot – and take advantage of the killer promo packages.  And did I mention this promo isn’t just an introductory price for a few months or a year or two?  It’s for life!

Spring Break at Boyne Mountain

Well, the family and I headed up to Boyne Mountain for spring break this year.  It wasn’t our first choice in vacation destinations, but we had just returned from a trip to Arizona a few weeks ago.  So this was basically a “use it or lose it” vacation…plus we also wanted to get away with the kids during spring break.  We had purchased a “sampler” package from Bluegreen resorts last year and it was going to expire in a couple months (this is worth a whole other blog post in itself).

Anyway, Bluegreen’s resort at Boyne Mountain was one of the only resorts within driving distance that had open availability.  We’ve been talking about going to the Avalanche Bay indoor water park for quite some time now, so this seemed like a good opportunity, especially since the resort is only about a half mile away from Avalance Bay.

After checking in at the resort on Saturday afternoon, we headed directly to our room.  We were presently surprised at the accommodations.  We had a 2-bedroom unit with a fireplace, full kitchen, and a large jetted tub in the master bath – much better than a cramped hotel room.  We hadn’t really planned any activities for this vacation besides the water park, so having some extra room to sprawl out and relax ending up being a huge plus.

My wife and I have never been skiing before, and being as the temperature was still in the 30’s and 40’s, that’s really what people come here for.  The slopes were still snow covered and there were quite a few people out there.  It looked like a lot of fun, I’d like to try it at least once.  Maybe next time – assuming we are a little more prepared and bring some appropriate attire (it is supposed to be spring, right?).

The Walker Roadhouse

wpbar1After getting some bad news at work this week, some friends and I decided we should get together this Friday for a drink or two.  My buddy suggested we head out to the Walker Roadhouse on the corner of Leonard and Remembrance Rd in Walker.  I’d never been there before, and I’m always open to try new places.

We met up after work at the restaurant as planned.  Luckily, we beat the Friday evening rush and were seated right away (the place was packed by the time we left).  I ordered up a Guinness as we began to chat and look over the menu.  This night was about kicking back after a tough week, spending time with my friends and enjoying the conversation more so than it was about the place we decided to go or the food to eat.

So, you’re probably wondering, why I am blogging about the Walker Roadhouse then?  Well, it just so happened that the food was fantastic – I only wish I would have tried the sweet potato fries!   We were pretty deep in conversation, so I quickly scanned the large menu selection, and decided on the turkey pretzel sandwich.  You’ve probably seen these before at other restaurants – some sliced turkey on a pretzel roll.  Nothing too crazy.  I must say though, the sandwich was excellent.  A nice soft pretzel roll with a load of  turkey, topped off with lettuce, onion, and a slice of tomato – it just hit the spot.

The Walker Roadhouse has a nice atmosphere, the prices are reasonable, they have a huge menu selection, and the food is great.  What more could you ask for?  I only wish my wife could have been there to enjoy it with me.  Hopefully next time.

To my friends who joined me this evening – I had a great time and hope that we have more of these opportunities to get together in the future.  Only next time without a “reason”!

Work in Progress

I decided a couple weeks ago that I would punish my body and try the Fifth Third Riverbank run coming up in May.   Since it would be my first “race”, I thought I should stick to the short, 5k run.  But I’m a glutton for punishment and am up for a challenge, so I decided I should give the 10k a shot.

Being that the temperature has been, on average, below 20 degrees for the last couple weeks, I’ve been limited to only running on the treadmill so far.  All I can say is that I hope it’s a lot easier running on solid ground as opposed to a thin piece of rubber moving at a high rate of speed.  The longest I’ve run since I’ve started this adventure is only a little over 2 miles…I’ve got a long way to go.

Last night I made the mistake of trying to see how fast I could run 1 mile…I really need to have my head checked.  I hit the start button and hit the psuedo-pavement at 8mph…20 seconds later…9mph…a few seconds more…up to 10mph.  I proceeded to put my life in danger for about a whole minute and thirty seconds, before promptly going back down to 8mph….then to 7…then to 6, which is where I ultimately finished.

My Arch Enemy

    My Arch Enemy

So, how did I fare you ask?  Well, I didn’t even make it a whole mile; I stopped at about 3/4 of a mile.  I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.   So tonight, it’s back to normal…hopefully I can settle down and find a nice pace and try to make it 3 miles tonight.