The Home Computing Master Plan

[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:

  1. 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.

  2. Pow­er­house Pro­cess­ing
    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.

  3. 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.

  4. Dis­trib­uted Access
    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.

Net­worked stor­age

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.

Lap­tops

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.