When is a New Gadget Ready to Buy?

Most of our gadgets are combination devices, and most of them started out as something dreamed up by someone inspired by too many MacGyver re-runs. Put together a bunch of stuff, add duct tape, and hope it will work. The next version will kinda work. And eventually, it’s a real product. Our computer devices go through three stages. We should be waiting for the third one. Here is what to look for.

IBM PC Portable

First: Two Things in One Case

The early portable computers were called ‘luggables.’ I repaired an IBM Portable PC (above), which would have been new in 1984. The left side was an amber monitor (still a tube), and the right side contained a full-size computer main board. It was around 30 pounds and $2795. There were two diskette drives, no hard drive, and it could run MS-DOS. Everything in that box was full size. It was impractical, but it led to our current laptop and notebook computers.

Second: Integrated Devices

In this phase of developments, some attempt was made to make the devices work together. My first Canon fax machine, from 1993, used thermal paper, and could be used as a scanner if you had the special software from a totally-unrelated company in Canada, plus a special cable to connect it to a computer’s serial port. It was a commercial-grade fax machine that never gave me any trouble. But as a scanner, it was slow, expensive, and worthless.

At the moment, most of the “Internet of Things” category is at this phase. Door locks that you open from your phone, and so on. Somewhat usable, but mostly full of security holes. They’re not ready.

Third: Mature Technology

Motorola cellular portable telephone 1983

You live with mature devices now. The first iPhone in 2007 was a successor to the 1983 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X cell phone ($4,000, above), that might have had some inspiration from the Maxwell Smart Shoephone of the 1960’s. The iPhone is no better as a phone than the 2007 version, but the latest and greatest iPhone X (tenth anniversary) is clearly a terrific mobile computer and video studio. The launch event of a few months back never did actually show any improvements to it, as a telephone.

Combination Devices, Again

So how do you know if the device you want to buy is ‘two things in one box’ and should be avoided, or maybe it is worthwhile?

Well, the age of the combination is a good clue. I estimate that it takes 20 years to move from ‘two things in a box’ to something you want. My Cannon fax was followed by multi-function laser printers with built-in fax machines, scanners, and photocopiers, so there’s about 25 years of history in that category now. Until around 5 years ago, I had never seen one of these devices that actually scanned reliably on a network. Now, Epson and Brother can scan over wireless reliably. Other brands haven’t figured it out yet.

‘All-in-One’ computers aren’t mature yet; the combination of a computer and a flat-screen monitor is still at the ‘streamlined devices’ phase. I repair these, and they typically use a 3.5″ hard drive of the spinning variety, running too hot because it’s attached to the back of the monitor. They’re not reliable yet. They will be worth buying when they’re built entirely using notebook computer components, with no moving parts. A far better alternative available right now is to use a standard monitor with an ‘Intel NUC’ or ‘Lenovo TINY’ computer–these are small computers, around 8″ square by 1 to 3 inches tall, and they work very well for small desks.

The first television I saw with a monitor connection was around 1997. It was nearly unreadable, because the old analog TV resolution was less than half of computer screen resolution. Twenty years later, every television is a usable monitor, and many of them are excellent choices as displays if they support high-definition.

At one point, the industry was calling all of this ‘convergence’. The telephone is a video studio and a television is a computer. We no longer expect to buy a cell phone that doesn’t include a camera. We want it all to work. And there will be more combinations that we don’t expect yet. Just don’t buy the first device to ever combine two things and expect it to do either function properly; first editions have duct tape hidden inside.


Why Double Backups?

by Jerry Stern
CTO, Science Translations

Standard photographer’s backups consist of 3 copies, 2 local devices, with 1 copy of all data off-site. That should also be the standard for your business documents. That’s a doubled backup process. So why combine cloud backup with local image backup software and a network-attached (NAS) drive? Simple: Those three copies of the data should have different risks, so that they don’t fail at the same time.

One automated backup puts your data in two places, but if those places are both local, both have the same risks of power, theft, fire, flood, and staff. An off-site backup has risks as well, but they’re different risks, and different failures. With good planning, those risks won’t align during a large storm or a regional power outage. For example, to avoid delays retrieving your cloud backups after a major event, say, a hurricane, your cloud backup should be at least a few hundred miles away.

lightning attacks PC backups

How Do Backups Fail?

  • Crypto-malware: Ransomware will encrypt all the data it can find, and most backups will happily back up the encrypted files. Any good cloud backup program keeps a file history, and can restore by date range, ignoring bad files from after the date of an infection. A local image backup will save Windows, but not recent data.
  • Drive failure: The cost of resurrecting data from a failed drive runs from $600 to $1500, takes 2 weeks, and might not recover all the files. Basic corruption of a drive can be fixed locally for much less, but will still take 2-4 days. Restoring a local image backup is quick, but image backups are generally too big to run nightly, so they won’t contain all your newest files. Cloud backup can restore the newest versions of mission-critical files through the internet, or ship a drive by next-day air holding the entire data set.
  • Manually taking the drive home: I have NEVER seen a client who actually took that third backup out of the building consistently, but it would have saved data recovery and manual data re-entry on multiple occasions. Cloud backup automates getting your data out of the building.
  • When the burglar visits, and takes your computer, the devices plugged into it usually go as well. That’s two copies of your data, gone.
  • Sprinkler Freezes and Failures: When a fire sprinkler freezes, it makes an awful mess, basically hundreds of gallons of black, wet, and moldy rust-water on everything. All computers and backup drives are at risk, but surge suppressors left on the floor fail first, possibly taking more computers and backup drives out of commission.
  • Lightning strikes: Here’s an equal-opportunity zap. Local backups are slightly-less reliable than the power they’re plugged into, and when the lightning hits, every circuit gets a jolt, and frequently, there’s an additional jolt coming into the building through the cable modem, running through the network looking for a ground connection. When two copies of your data are attached to the same electrical circuit, both will go away when the lightning strike hits the nearest pole. Or worse, when lightning hits the cable where it enters the building.

Inside your office, your image backups, also known as full-drive backups, should be on a NAS (network-attached storage) drive, as far away from your server as you can place it. Locked into a hidden area is even better. Keep it off the floor.

Cloud backups are the only practical way to automate getting your data out of the building every day.