Monday, May 25, 2009

My Experience (Nightmare?) with DELL

I'm not a person who does a whole lot of product bashing here on my blog but right now, I'm pretty miffed with DELL and it will be a cold day in hell before I give them yet another chance.

My first Intel/AMD PC was an IBM XT and I was pretty happy with it at the time. A few years later when IBM went down the Microchannel route, their brand name got so dirty that I thought I'd never see myself going back to it. I was therefore quite surprised when their hardware turnaround (they abandoned microchannel and came back to the fold) produced such great devices. I stuck with IBM until they stopped making PCs - and never regretted a minute of them. Those were classy machines.

When IBM sold out to Lenovo, I had to find another brand name. It's fine to buy some brandless junk for home but when you've got a business to support, a brand name is everything - and they usually come with a SLA. Unfortunately, there weren't many brands left in the PC market.

I decided to get myself a DELL for home. The first and last computer I'll be buying for myself over the internet. At the time, I didn't have a lot of spare cash, so I figured I'd skip the 3D graphics card and go with the onboard one until I had enough cash to pick one up later. Imagine my surprise when I opened the box to find that there was no graphics card slot. They'd also taken all my expansion slots and left me with one. This disappointment in DELL caused me to look elsewhere for my brand name PCs at work.

I tried HP/Compaq but we had a few machines die after a couple of years, so I wasn't impressed. I found that the Sony Vaio was unbeatable as a laptop but a couple of years ago, they moved to Windows Vista and wouldn't sell us one that ran XP for our corporate environment. At the time, DELL were the only one who would, so they got the sale. Of the five DELL Laptops we bought about a year ago, two have already had their motherboards replaced and the rest are still going, but are often the subject of complaints from staff. In fact, the Sony Vaio fleet which is about 18 months older than them are still running rings around the DELL in terms of speed and comfort.

Despite some misgivings, I stuck with DELL and bought seven desktop PCs. One was dead on arrival but DELL refused to replace it and instead decided to play swap-shop with refurbished parts. A second had a hard drive failure within the first week of use. After a few quibbles, the DELL technician swapped out the hard drive. The other five are still going luckily. One really irritating thing though is that the two dead PCs now refuse to take our SOE image. This is the same Ghost image that we successfully stamped across the other five. After arguing with DELL people for quite a while, I got someone here to inventory the devices. It was interesting to note that the serial number and model number of one of the devices did not match what was written on the box. The internal architecture is different - an SOE killer.

Admittedly I haven't chased the whole DELL thing as hard as I probably should have because I've been busy with other things but this morning, with several people away and a new starter in our company, those spare PCs were looking tempting. (the two DELLs which have been sitting in a back room, dead more or less since their arrival in August last year. Both DELLs once again failed imaging, so I've provided our new starter with one of the "retired" five year old IBMs. It's doing a pretty good job considering.

Meanwhile, I grabbed the DELL CDs and loaded Windows XP SP3 onto the machine. There was no restore CD to speak of, just a Windows XP install. After installation, there were no drivers, so I put the driver CD in - and got nothing. Apparently only Vista drivers are supplied. I eventually got a network driver for Vista of the CD and made it work. It was a shame I couldn't do that with any other drivers. the video drivers were Vista specific, I had to find XP Drivers somewhere. I went to the DELL site and tried to download it but the site uses FTP, which our firewall dislikes. I didn't find a http download option. Eventually, I got a driver that worked from the NVIDIA site. Unfortunately, this trick didn't work with SoundMax - Time for a new strategy.

I unblocked FTP on the firewall and went back to DELL. I knew the drivers were probably SoundMAX because the DELLs in the image had them. Of course, this being a wrongly labelled PC, it could mean anything. I ran the DELL driver detect software on their website and it identified the correct driver and offered to download it. I accepted and for some reason it took about twenty minutes to download a 13MB file. I knew it wasn't our connection, or the PC itself because after a while I got bored and downloaded the Google Chrome browser. It was downloaded and installed before DELL's driver reached the halfway point.

Finally, it all downloaded and I looked forward to having a functional PC. Alas... The driver quit installing complaining that it wasn't really the right one after all.

Today, I'm writing a memo to management stating in less detail than this post, "No DELL hardware - never, ever again."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to Add a "Contact Me" Form to your Blog (or Website) without exposing your Email Address

A long time ago, it was common practice to simply put your email address on the web using a mailto url link. Unfortunately, this practice results in a ton of spam coming your way courtesy of spambots.

A Potted History of Methods
Over the years, a lot of different methods for getting around this problem have become available. These include the low tech methods, such as having text which reads "send email to myaccount at hotmail dot com" and needs to be reinterpreted by the reader.

The use of escape codes (try http://www.mways.co.uk/prog/hidemail.php for an example), and several other ways of encoding the address in javascript.

No method has been more successful than simply giving people a blank form to write their email in. Now, in Lotus Notes/Domino, this is simplicity itself but when it comes to html, you need to write a bit of code - and even then, you need to be careful not to expose anything on the web.

Getting External Help
It makes no sense to reinvent the wheel when there's a free service available.

Kontactr (http://kontactr.com/index.php) is a service which allows you to pop up a form on your site for email. You receive the email within minutes and the only caveat that I've found so far is that they include a small advert at the end of the email being sent to you. The users of your site don't get presented with Ads.

Procedure (for Blogger)
  1. Go to the Kontactr site and register.

  2. Open your blog and click Layout, then Page Elements then Click Add a Gadget.

  3. Google will pop up a dialog box for you to select the appropriate gadget. Choose the HTML/Javascript Gadget. (note: If you haven't had a browse through these gadgets, you really should - there's some fantastic stuff there).



  4. You will now be prompted to put some code into the box. Switch back to the tab that you have Kontactr open on and choose either the embed widget or the buttons code. You may need to experiment to see which code works best for your site.

    As a general rule, the Embed widgets are best used in the middle of the page while the buttons are best in a navigation menu.

  5. Copy the code from Kontactr and paste it into your google gadget.


  6. From here on, it's just a matter of clicking Save a few times..


  7. You might want to preview your blog before saving it though - and you might want to consider dragging your new gadget around to a more suitable place on the page.
That's it.
These gadgets never cease to amaze me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lotus Foundations in Australia

After a seemingly interminable wait from IBM, it looks like Foundations is finally released (and moving) within Australia. This article from Australian IT looks at the benefits and low cost of implementing the solution.

Flexible EPSI takes the Lotus Position
http://www.australianit.news.com.au/story/0,,25462866-24169,00.html

If I were starting out with a small business, there's no question as to what I'd be recommending because unlike the competing products, IBM Lotus Foundations will give tech-savvy businesses room to grow.

Their comments on the use of a hosting solution (which would be one of my other choices) are particularly interesting;

"We went to the shared environment, but we grew reasonably quickly and it just became more expensive as every licence was a lot more money and the bandwidth we were consuming was costing us money," EPSI co-founder Nigel Wilson says.

"We wanted more flexibility to do more things, and this hosting organisation was just not set up for that. "


BTW: Well done Graham.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Trusting the New Document Formats

Today, I read a brilliant article;

Update on ODF Spreadsheet Interoperability
http://www.robweir.com/blog/2009/05/update-on-odf-spreadsheet.html

Rob Weir has repeated a series of tests he did a couple of months ago. This time on updated software. Specifically, he's testing to see how well spreadsheets transport (with their formulae intact) between the various Open Document Format (ODF) compatible applications.

The results of his earlier tests were quite encouraging and it was exciting to see that Microsoft were coming to the party with Service Pack 2 for Office 2007 offering support.

But what kind of support exactly?

Well, it turns out that they're VERY incompatible and very dangerous too. They happily import values into Excel but they lose all the formulae. Nasty. Imagine importing a critical financial spreadsheet without knowing that the formulae are gone.

There's a couple of Notes on the site for IBM Lotus Symphony to correct but since they concern the beta release, I think IBM are excused.