The Home Computing Master Plan: Macworld 2008 Edition

Here is the orig­i­nal mas­ter plan. It is notable most­ly for pre­dict­ing yesterday’s Apple TV announce­ment, and for my woe­ful bitch­ing about the com­put­er that I still have now (that was more than two years ago!) I now present to you, the new edi­tion of the Home Com­put­ing Mas­ter Plan, as informed by the recent­ly con­clud­ed Mac­world 2008 Stevenote.

Caveat: Some of these items may not be made by Apple, but that should not dimin­ish their worth in your eyes.

The Home Com­put­ing Mas­ter Plan has sev­er­al com­po­nents that fill basic needs in our dig­i­tal life. Those needs include the pro­tec­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of our pre­cious data, the avail­abil­i­ty of per­son­al pro­cess­ing, and the desire for access any­where.

  1. Pre­cious Data: We have a lot of data that only exists in dig­i­tal form. Pic­tures, movies, music, doc­u­ments, etc. Much of that (the pho­tos espe­cial­ly) is price­less and irre­place­able. This past year, we spent upwards of $2,000 recov­er­ing that data from two failed hard dri­ves, and I don’t care to do that again. Our data should be secure and backed-up.
  2. Per­son­al Pro­cess­ing: The orig­i­nal plan called for “Pow­er­house Pro­cess­ing,” a tow­er-grade com­put­er some­where in the house that could real­ly crunch. At the time, I was com­ing off of a job where I had that kind of pow­er, and I thought it was a required item in the Plan. Well, it isn’t. We just need com­pe­tent com­put­ers. But we each need our own, that much is clear.
  3. Access Any­where: To best enjoy our dig­i­tal life, we need to be able to get to it from where we are: the TV room, the kitchen, the car, the store, school, vaca­tion, wher­ev­er.

The plan: Pre­cious Data

Right now, all of our pre­cious data is stored on an Infrant Rea­dy­NAS device. Our data takes up a lit­tle less than 500 GB. That’s all our stuff. The NAS is in RAID mode, and cur­rent­ly has two 500 GB dri­ves. That means, if one of the dri­ves fails, I can run out and buy anoth­er, slip it in, and all will be well. We’re start­ing to butt up against the lim­its of the two dri­ves, how­ev­er, and it may be time to buy a third dri­ve (there are four slots).

I like the RAID sys­tem, but I wor­ry a bit about the lack of a real back­up. I’d like to have anoth­er copy of the data some­where, not just a redun­dant ver­sion on the NAS. Leopard’s Time Machine is easy to use, and turns out to be pret­ty flex­i­ble. I like the idea of being able to revis­it my files from a few days ago. That’s pret­ty cool. And it can use the Infrant NAS as a Time Machine disk. I just don’t know if it can do it over a net­work.

Also, to use Time Machine, you need a com­put­er run­ning Leop­ard. So that pret­ty much requires a desk­top com­put­er some­where to “man­age” our pre­cious data.

So, the plan is to get a Mac mini with the min­i­mum 120 GB dri­ve, and attach an exter­nal dri­ve, like Newer’s min­iStack series, prob­a­bly in the 1 TB size (just for fun). That’ll live in the kitchen, and hold all our data, run iTunes, etc. It’ll have a wire­less key­board stuck in a draw­er, and a third par­ty LCD in the small­ish size (13 inch­es?) on an arm so I can hide it away.

The NAS will act as a Time Machine disk for the mini, and for the exter­nal dri­ve (and for all our oth­er Macs). This is, of course, assum­ing Time Machine will work over a net­work now, or soon. That way, all our data will exist in two places, and the back­up will be a RAID device. Excel­lent!

The plan: Per­son­al Pro­cess­ing

With the mini in the kitchen han­dling server­ish duties (and kitchen-relat­ed web brows­ing, maybe bill pay­ing) we’ll each need our own machines to keep our per­son­al stuff. These machines will also be backed up to the NAS via Time Machine (the net­work­ing caveat still being exi­gent).

The wife will be stick­ing with her Win­dows lap­tops for a while. More pow­er to her. I’ve got my old 12″ iBook G4, which is des­per­ate­ly in need of a refresh. The new Mac­Book Air is not for me. I have my eyes on a 15″ Mac­Book Pro, a large exter­nal mon­i­tor, and an exter­nal key­board and mouse. I’d love a dock, but am unsure about the one dock avail­able for the Mac, the ones from Book­Endz. I guess you take what there is. I’ll also get a sec­ond bat­tery and a bat­tery charg­ing sta­tion. Noth­ing like hav­ing to teth­er your lap­top.

The boys don’t need com­put­ers yet, thank good­ness.

The plan: Access Any­where

To enjoy all of this, it is impor­tant to be able to get to my stuff wher­ev­er I am. With a lap­top, I can take impor­tant stuff with me, and with Leopard’s screen/computer shar­ing, I can get to the mini when I need to. It may require a (shud­der) .Mac sub­scrip­tion to be trans­par­ent.

We like lis­ten­ing to our music on iTunes, and our cur­rent set­up is just about per­fect in that regard. iTunes runs on our desk­top machine (the mini in the new plan), and pipes the music to an Air­port Express (should that be a ven­er­a­ble Air­port Express?), which sends it out the audio jack to a hob­by built FM trans­mit­ter. We tune the music in on our radios all over the house. Yay! But to change tracks, we need to go to the com­put­er, or use one of sev­er­al imper­fect “remote” itunes con­trollers via my lap­top. So, the plan calls for an iPod touch with Remote Bud­dy installed. Music lis­ten­ing nir­vana. We have a lit­tle iPod (thanks, sis!) for the car, and that’ll do for now. Next car we buy had bet­ter have bet­ter iPod options though.

We’d also like to enjoy our pic­tures and movies more. Right now, the only way to do that is to set the 12″ iBook down on the cof­fee table, snug­gle up three feet from the screen, and wait for stuff to stream from down­stairs. We’ll solve this prob­lem with a few items. First, a new base sta­tion, oper­at­ing at the much faster 802.11n pro­to­col. Then, I think I might spring for an Apple TV, prob­a­bly the small one (we’d only be rent­ing movies via its inter­face, any pur­chas­es would be done on the desk­top machine and streamed to the TV via the new base sta­tion). I’ve offi­cial­ly giv­en up on the TiVo as a home media stream­er. Sup­port on the Mac is woe­ful, and the Apple TV is cheap enough (and I have an HDMI slot open on my receiv­er) to get it, as it promis­es to work with the Apple ecosys­tem I already have. Yay, pic­tures and slideshows and movies (and rentals and ripped DVDs) on our TV. About time, I say.

Final­ly, to real­ly get the most out of our dig­i­tal life, I need to make more pic­ture books. I’ve made a few, but they are a lit­tle expen­sive, so the incen­tive is not there. I could also make some DVDs, but I am peren­ni­al­ly wait­ing for the next ver­sion of iDVD to make the process eas­i­er. I wait still.

Get­ting there

This list is a lit­tle less pie-in-the-sky than the pre­vi­ous iter­a­tion, but much still hinges on one unan­swered ques­tion: will Time Machine back up to a net­worked dri­ve? No answer as of this writ­ing.

So, the cost of all this? Too much, I’m sure, and the small LCD mon­i­tor will be hard to find, espe­cial­ly one that is VESA arm com­pat­i­ble. Let’s price it out, using my wife’s per­son­al pur­chase .edu dis­count for the Apple Store stuff:

  • Mac mini — 2.0 GHz, Super­Drive, 2 GB RAM, 120 GB HD, wire­less keyboard+mouse, .Mac: $1113
  • New­erTech min­iStack v3 — 1 TB, 7200 RPM, 32 MB data cache: $480
  • Sea­gate Bar­racu­da 7200 RPM, 500 GB SATA inter­nal disk for NAS: $160
  • 15″ LCD Mon­i­tor (like one from View­Son­ic or Dell): $160 to $190
  • VESA-com­pli­ant wall mount swing arm for LCD: $60 to $100
  • 15″ Mac­Book Pro — 2.6 GHz, 2GB RAM, 200 GB SATA 7200 RPM, Glossy Dis­play, Apple­Care: $2943
  • 4GB RAM kit for Mac­Book Pro from Cru­cial: $108
  • 24″ LCD Mon­i­tor (Apple if they do an iSight, Dell if not): $700 to $800
  • New key­board (wired): $50
  • Book­Endz dock for 15″ Mac­Book Pro: $300
  • New­erTech 15″ Mac­Book Pro bat­tery charg­er: $150
  • Replace­ment bat­tery for 15″ Mac­Book Pro: $116 from Apple (the only source cur­rent­ly)
  • iPod touch — 16 GB: $400
  • Remote Bud­dy license: $40 or so
  • Air­port Extreme 802.11n Base Sta­tion (assum­ing TimeMa­chine fix): $160
  • Apple TV — 40 GB: $229

So, that comes to a grand total of $7339. Less than I thought, frankly. Secur­ing our Pre­cious Data would cost $2043. Upgrad­ing my per­son­al com­put­er would cost $4467. Ouch. And get­ting all fan­cy with our dig­i­tal assets would cost only $829.

We’re tak­ing dona­tions!

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.