[This post has been regurgitated from a static page I wrote in 2005. Thought it should live in the timeline, instead of out of it.]
I love computers, specifically Apple’s computers, and I plan to live with them involved in my life as much as possible. I have a plan, an ideal setup, that I intend to reach at some point, and these are its components:
Precious Data Storage
We have precious data, our pictures, our movies, our music… maybe even our documents and email. Losing this data would make me cry. In the plan, there would be lots of room for this data, it would be stored out of the way (so it doesn’t get tripped over), and it would be backed up on a regular, automatic basis.
I expect to have a need for a fast computer with lots of RAM, with a large, good quality screen, so that I can run intensive applications (Photoshop, Final Cut Express, Aperture, Unreal Tournament, etc.) quickly and efficiently. This would live in a study, or an office, and it would be a multiuser computer, it would be there for the family as a resource. It would need access to the Precious Data.
Portable Personal Units
I’m sold on the convenience of portable computing. These units would have to gain access to the Precious Data, but would also need to work on their own, away from home. They would sync up when at home, but when away, they would have a subset of the Precious Data, whatever was needed for the trip. Each family member (of a certain age) would have at least one.
Access to the Precious Data should be available from anywhere/everywhere. The key here is the ability to view, show, and listen to the Precious Data. This component of the Master Plan is pretty broad, but covers access from other computers (not owned by us), from our television, from our handheld devices, etc. Interaction with the Precious Data would be a bonus.
So, what would it take to reach this plan? Well, some of the technology already exists, but some does not. And keep in mind, I am self-limiting (for the most part) to Apple’s computing offerings. I don’t care if you can already do this on Red Hat, or if it’s a cinch on Windows. That does not interest me.
For a while there, I was thinking that an Xserve in a closet would fulfill both 1. and 2., but I am no longer thinking that way. Instead, I want some big hard drives with redundant RAID arrays, with some sort of power management and networking out to all the home units. Wired networks are traditionally much faster than wireless, but wireless is really catching up (802.11n should be available by 2007!) so maybe just a physical connection to the powerhouse processing unit would be required. They could even live in the same location/room. I don’t want the storage directly connected to the computer, and thus dependent on that computer being on for networking to be working. They should, instead, be independently networked.
Current status: I have a 240 GB drive and a 160GB drive connected via Firewire to my desktop computer, which has an internal 80GB drive. The 80 and the 160 are backed up daily to the 240. These are networked to the laptops in the house via the desktop machine (so it has to be on) via wireless (so the desktop machine has to be awake).
Ideal setup: Well, Ars Tecnica recently reviewed two NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices recently, that do what I would want. The ReadyNAS looks like an interesting product, although I might need to know more Unix than I do now. It has additional cool features like USB ports to network printers, etc. They have a useful-looking forum, too. I can see a closet with one of these, the printer, and an Airport Extreme base station in it. (As soon as Apple releases an 802.11n base station (Airport Ultimate?) I’ll be upgrading.) Cost? $1,200 gets you started with 800GB of storage, and room for another 800GB later, from Amazon. Apple offers their own servers, but nothing specifically outlined as a NAS. Though, admittedly, the ReadyNAS does seem to be blurring the lines a bit (it does more than just store and serve files).
Big, powerful computer
Again, for a while I was thinking I’d just use an Xserve to fill both storage and power issues, but I am returning to Earth now. Instead, I see a big, powerful computer with not a huge amount of storage, and that storage used mostly for applications, not data (the exception being data that would benefit from being housed locally, like game data files, etc.), The NAS solutions I would consider (above) can all serve web pages, files via FTP or other network protocols, etc., so this computer would not need to do any of that. This just needs to be a number cruncher, though I reiterate that it would probably need to have applications stored locally. Big screen, too, to get the most out of it. Maybe two screens, but one 23″ LCD would probably do.
Current status: Woeful. I have an old swing-arm iMac, slower even than my laptop, that is even now just barely getting along with several apps open at once. It also acts as the storage device gateway, but it is connected to the network (and the Internet) wirelessly, because of cable jack issues in our house. The only thing that makes it better than using my laptop is the bigger screen, the trackball, and the full size keyboard.
Ideal setup: Well, the best there is right? A full on Quad 2.5GHz G5 Power Mac would be great. Couple that with a big LCD, maybe a 20″ monitor from Dell (they use the same physical Philips-sourced part as the Apple monitors), or a larger one from Apple. I actually think the 30″ monitor from Apple is really nice, but too much for this application. I’d want to add several expensive applications and games to this setup, too.
As portable computing goes, laptops have the market cornered. Palmtops, or handhelds, are nice, but you can’t do any real computing tasks (try editing a video on your Dell Axim, folks). I envision these would be each person’s individual access point to our Precious Data, as well as a location for more personal data (optionally, and strongly encouraged, backed up to the NAS). I’m interested in the whole tablet thing, but moreso in the whole “portable screen” idea, which I’ll go into in more detail in the next section. The laptops allow us to take a computer with us, not just our Precious Data. This really is the least complicated part of the whole setup.
Current Status: I have a 12″ iBook, and Tiffany has her Thinkpad. Both are connected to the home network wirelessly. Mine can check all my e-mail accounts (through IMAP and .Mac syncing, not via networking wizardry). Mine can access the music and photos stored in our Precious Data, so long as the desktop computer in the basement is on and awake. Tiffany’s is not connected to our network, mostly because she wouldn’t be able to see our photos anyway. She could use iTunes, I suppose. And she can print to the shared printer.
Ideal Setup: I’m really in love with the smallness of my current laptop, so I think I’d only ever get a small one again, despite the small screen/keyboard. Tiffany loves her IBM, even manufactured by Lenovo, so we’re likely to stick with the Windows flavor where she is concerned. But I’d love to have a 12″ Powerbook, though some of the features of the new 15″ one are appealing. I’d need an mouse, maybe a wireless one, though a trackball would be better. Anyone know of a good, portable trackball? Aidan does not need a computer yet.
Input and Output
This is sort of a catch all category, but mostly includes devices and methods for getting at our Precious Data without a computer. Handheld devices for reading blogs offline, or for watching recorder video, or for listening to music. Televisions that are hooked into the Precious Data so we can watch it in 42″ of plasma glory. Printers able to print in full-color from wherever you are in the world. The ability to fax yourself a hard copy of what you’re seeing online. emailing photos from your digital camera back home, where they get filed in the Precious Data and put online. Web sites that update when new pictures are downloaded. Input from the world, output to the world.
Current status: We have a networked printer, a black and white laser, that is available any time. With a little fiddling, I think I could set it up to accept printing instructions from anywhere. I have a couple of web sites, but they aren’t tied directly to any of our Precious Data. We have a second generation iPod that we don’t use (except occasionally as 10GB Firewire disk). We have an iPod shuffle. Tiffany has a USB key. We have a TiVo Series 2, which ostensibly would let us see our photos and listen to our music, and might someday let us get TV shows and watch our videos, but does not do any of that today. And that is about it. No connected cell phone. We can’t even listen to the iPod in the car.
Ideal Setup: I’d like a new iPod with video capabilities. And a car connector for it. I’d like TiVo to get off its ass and give me a working version of the TiVo desktop, with TiVo To Go to boot. I’d like a TiVo Series 3 box (when they come out) with two tuners, built-in Ethernet, and HD ability. I’d like a computer that could handle Aperture, and a camera that could do it justice (and a copy of Aperture, for that matter). I could start a nice little cottage industry there. A good photo gallery plug in for WordPress. A color laser for fun. A color inkjet that could print to CDs and DVDs. I’d like a cell phone that synced with my address book and my calendar (for that matter, I’d like a verson of iCal that didn’t suck much… Apple, you listening?).
And then we dream…
What else do I want? If I could wave the magic Moore’s-Law-extending, standards-committee-hurrying, lottery-winning, Apple-do-my-bidding wand?
A decent PVR with real home computing power (Apple again, bring Front Row to the Mac mini). A nice big screen to watch it on (can you imagine browing and buying stuff from an iTunes Media Store on your 42″ plasma TV?).
I’d like an 802.11n wireless network (540 Mbit/s baby! For comparison, HDTV transfers data at 55 Mbit/s). The spec has been finalized (see here) and devices are expected by 2007.
I’d like to be able to bring our laptops home and slot them into a cradle where they would power up.
As soon as they were in range of our wireless network, I’d like our laptops to sync their data with our Precious Data.
I’d like a cheap, 8x10 digital picture frame, or heck, why not a poster-sized one, that connects wirelessly to our Precious Data for it’s contents. I’d like it powered by induction, so I don’t have to plug it in.
I’d like a 20″ tablet computer, more of a wireless screen than a wireless computer, for working on the workhorse computer while I’m on the deck. Better, I’d like all our laptops, and the portable screen, too, to become screen slaves to the workhorse computer once they are in network range, and the workhorse would let multiple users be logged in at once (I’ve heard this called a “terminal server” or somesuch), all using the workhorse’s many CPUs and, much memory. Once out of range, they’d revert to their own selves, with data and maybe even apps and OS synced while they were in touch. I’d pay for a Family Pack OS X license if it could do that.