Customize Gmail To Look Like Outlook

Gmail LogoIf you are making the switch to Gmail, the first thing that stands out is that although Gmail is very responsive, it is pretty unattractive web application to use. There are plenty of modifications you can make to your browser to make Gmail look better, but I thought I would focus on modifications that strictly work in all browsers. Here are a three modifications that I think improve upon the standard Gmail interface.

Gmail Gear

  • Click the Gear icon and select: Comfortable
  • Click the Gear icon and click Settings: Labs: Preview Pane switch to Enable.
  • Click the Gear icon and click Themes: under Color Themes select High Contrast.

AVG File Server Edition

avg file server editionA couple of months ago, I decided it was time to build my own home file server instead of purchasing cheap servers from Dell and HP. I was never quite happy with what I got. The Dell boxes were too loud and the HP one was too underpowered. A build-your-own server is not exactly cheap either, so if saving money is your top concern, I would probably recommend against it. My new home file server ended up being exactly what I wanted, a fast Intel Xeon based server that is super quiet and easily upgradeable. I’ll usually get bored and decide to change something, for the sake of giving me something to do. Now on to the software side of things, I had decided to put Windows Server on this machine. My previous server was Windows 2003, and as much as it was functional, the operating system was starting to show it’s age. With time, Windows 2003 is harder to install on newer hardware. It does not support SATA drives without specifying a driver and my particular version was not 64-bit. Who uses only 4GB of RAM these days anyway? The time had come for an upgrade. The choice came down between Windows Home Server 2011, Windows Server 2008, and Windows Server 2012 Essentials. I know some of you reading this, are shaking your heads right now and wondering why pay for another expensive Microsoft OS, when there are excellent choices like FreeBSD, Ubuntu, RedHat, and others. I did look into setting up Ubuntu Server, but for some reason Ubuntu no longer fully supports WebMin, which is something that I thought would be something I would like to have. The other choice was to go with Windows 7 or Windows 8, but honestly, I really prefer to have a file server os.

Microsoft is a company in decline these days. Their consumer products are not really cool or exciting anymore. Where Microsoft still shines, I think is in their file server and enterprise products. Though they are expensive, their ease of use and feature set is still hard to match. Windows Server is still a great server, but the Microsoft way of doing things is looking harder to justify in terms of dollars. For home servers, Microsoft threw consumers a bone with Windows Home Server, but they never really invested themselves. I think a $200 operating system is just about right for this market, however, Windows Server 2012 Essentials is not that product. It is around $400 to buy an OEM license and so it is hard for me to recommend to average home users. Nonetheless this is the product I chose, just because Windows 2008 Server was not cheaper and I figure Essentials would end up supporting my hardware better than an older os.

Once I got past the Microsoft restrictions of Windows 2012 Server Essentials (there are quite a few), I came upon my other problem, which is the focus of this posting. You can’t really run Windows without some sort of antivirus product. The problem was that for Essentials, a what is suppose to be a cheap home business server, there was literally no antivirus that supported it! My preferred antivirus for Windows is ESET NOD32, but since Essentials is a server product, ESET wants you to buy a business license. I don’t understand why there are so few choices for antivirus products when it comes to Windows Essentials and Windows Home Server. These products are aimed at home users and small home office users and yet, every vendor points you to a 5 user business bundle. With ESET not being an option price wise, I started to look elsewhere.

Symantec had just released a version of Symantec Endpoint that supported Windows 2012 Server and you can actually buy one license from their website store. Symantec offers two versions of Endpoint: the normal enterprise version that can be managed centrally using their Symantec Endpoint Server product and a cloud version, which can be managed from a website that Symantec hosts. The cloud client did not support Windows 2012 servers, so that was a non starter. You can install the regular client and if you never install the Endpoint Server software, it still works fine. My experience with Endpoint was the same as what I have in the workplace, this product really is too complicated and slows down your machine. After working with it for a month, I ended up no longer using it. There was an issue with Endpoint that caused my Microsoft backups to fail.

Avira is another product that I tried to use. From my research, it seems Avira is the new ESET. It has a growing customer fan base and the price is affordable for regular Windows users. For business users, you still have to buy 5 licenses and although I found Avira as low as $22 per license, I still did not need 5 licenses. Most of my other machines at home are Macs and the only vendor I found that had a good Mac and Windows solution combined was ESET with their 5-user Family pack, but this does not cover file servers! I found Avira’s interface to be simple to use, but still preferred ESET NOD32. Overall, I think Avira would be my third choice, behind ESET and AVG.

This finally brings me to AVG. My initial research was that AVG has its critics, but overall, it is a good antivirus product. They offer several choices of products and one specific product for Windows file servers: AVG File Server Edition. The 2013 product line share the new Metro inspired tile interface. It is a little dark for my taste, I don’t think the color scheme is at all attractive for a desktop application. The main screen is pretty simple. On the right you have a Computer tile that you can click on to give you more options and information in regards to the computer. Underneath this there is a Remote Admin tile; AVG has remote admin options similar to all business class antivirus products, but you never need to bother with these if you just are running one server. On the top left, you have links to Reports, Support, and Options. In the screenshot below, I have 10 reports that I have not viewed. These are mostly your typical, “Your last scan occurred on…” and “Your definitions were updated on…”.

avg main screen

In general the interface is very simple and effective. Antivirus is suppose to get out of the way of your work and when you do want to look at it, it should be informative and easy to read. AVG does this quite well, except the dark color scheme, I really can’t find too much fault with the interface.

When you click on the Computer tile, you get the Computer protection screen. Here you can see that the Antivirus is enabled, access more Settings and view Stats.

avg options screen

Performance wise, AVG did not slow down my file server like Symantec Endpoint. It scans files faster than Avira. It is still an antivirus, so there is a difference between running Windows without it and with it. When using file explorer my folders would open instantly, with AVG, you do notice a slight hesitation, so you are sacrificing some small percentage of performance for security.

Price wise, AVG File Server Edition is $40 for a single license, which you can buy directly from AVG. There is no annoying 5 business user license requirement. You can also find it cheaper by buying it through another reseller. I was able to find a great deal through the Dell Software store.

Other antivirus that I wanted to try were Bitdefender, Avast!, and Vipre. The most common reasons for not choosing these vendors and others, was the lack of information on Windows 2012 Server support, the 5 user business license requirement, standalone price, and the general lack of trailware versions available for business editions.

I really can’t see myself using any other antivirus other AVG File Server Edition. No other vendor provides a reasonable solution for home server customers at this time.

The US Bandwidth Problem

Over the last few years, I have become somewhat of a politician, when it comes to speaking about the Internet and the undeniable bandwidth problem we have in the US. The difficulty I ran into multiple times was that it is hard to convince people that not having enough bandwidth is a problem at all. Bandwidth is something that most people just don’t think about. It is like breathing, you never realize you need air, until you are deprived of it. It has only been within the last couple of years that people are starting to wake up to the limitations of low performing internet connections. This has been brought on by consumer usage of more internet connected devices, from the smart phone to the iPad. As these devices tap into more and more of the wireless capacity of home routers and cell phone towers, they begin to push the limitations of the land line technology that usually provides the internet connection. This includes T-1 lines, DSL modems, ethernet, and fiber technologies.

The problem then becomes two-fold. We have a capacity issue for individual consumers wanting to communicate and for our institutions and businesses that want to provide better services. With low performing internet, we end up with schools that can’t use technology to teach our children, businesses that can’t provide the type of services that we want to buy, and innovative healthcare solutions that we can’t adopt. My concern is not being able to watch YouTube without the buffering message, it is instead the elderly person who could receive in-home diagnostic care without having to go to the hospital if only broadband was available.

Last year I spoke to a large audience of educators and mentioned the bandwidth issue. They were able to understand the issue personally because many of them use Netflix at home and have had to deal with streaming problems. Between video streaming and gaming, I think everyone is waking up to the problem. However solutions still seem to be unattainable at this point. Regardless of who do you think is to blame for the lack of affordable broadband solutions, the truth is that we as citizens need to deem this issue important enough to do something about it.

It is disappointing to me that technology wise no one has stepped up and come up with an affordable solution to this issue. Looking back in the past, many companies used proxy servers to provide internet to their offices. The open source Squid Proxy is a good solution for caching internet connections. There seems to be a lack of initiative to create a cheap router with a built-in caching squid proxy. Performance wise, you do need memory and disk space to run squid smoothly, but by far I think the biggest deterrent is the complicated problems that proxies create. With a proxy you do have to deal with some sites not working correctly, and UPnP network devices tend to break.

We are kind of left in this limbo state of having limited internet connections and no real viable solutions. The longer we ignore the problem the longer we stall innovation and deny ourselves improvements in education, business, healthcare, and entertainment.