Weeknote 4: music; teenagers; creating a chatbot; tech, more tech and tech TV; 7 day photo challenge; and cycling (Week 46, 2017)

Another week, another weeknote…

There’s not much to say about work this week – I’ve mostly been writing documentation. I did spend a good chunk of Monday booking hotels and travel, only to find 12 days of consulting drop out of my diary again on Friday (cue hotel cancellations, etc.) but I guess that’s just life!

Family life: grime, rap and teens!

Outside work, it’s been good to be close to home and get involved in family life again.

I had the amusement of my 11 year-old and his friends rapping to their grime music on my car on the way to/from football training this week (we’re at the age where it’s “Dad, can we have my music on please?”) but there’s only so much Big Shaq I can take so I played some Eminem on the way back. It was quite endearing to hear my son say “I didn’t know you knew about Eminem!” after I dropped his mates off. I should make the most of these moments as the adulation is dropping off now he approaches his teens!

Talking of teens, my eldest turned 13 this week, which was a big day in the Wilson household:

 

I’m not sure how this little fella grew into this strong chap (or where the time in between has gone) but we introduced him to the Harry Enfield “Kevin the teenager” videos a few months ago. I thought they were funny when I was younger but couldn’t believe how accurate they are now I’m a parent. Our boys clearly understood the message too and looked a bit sheepish!

Tech

I did play with some tech this week – and I managed to create my very own chatbot without writing any code:

Virtual Mark (MarkBot1) uses the Microsoft QnA Maker and runs in Microsoft Azure. The process is described in James Marshall’s blog post and it’s very straightforward. I’m using Azure Functions and so far this serverless solution has cost me absolutely nothing to run!

It’s also interesting reading some of the queries that the bot has been asked, which have led to me extending its knowledge base a few times now. A question and answer chatbot is probably more suited to a set of tightly bounded questions on a topic (the things people can ask about me is pretty broad) but it’s a nice demo…

I also upgraded my work PC to the latest Windows 10 and Office builds (1709 and 1710 respectively), which gave me the ability to use a digital pen as a presentation clicker, which is nice, in a geek-novelty kind of way:

Tech TV

I have an Amazon Prime membership, which includes access to Amazon Prime Instant Video – including several TV shows that would otherwise only be available in the US. One I enjoy is Mr Robot – which although completely weird at times is also strangely addictive – and this week’s episode was particularly good (scoring 9.9 on IMDB). Whilst I was waiting for the next episode to come around, I found that I’d missed a whole season of Halt and Catch Fire too (I binge-watched the first three after they were recommended to me by Howard van Rooijen/@HowardvRooijen). Series 4 is the final one and that’s what presently keeping me from my sleep… but it’s really good!

I don’t have Netflix, but Silicon Cowboys has been recommended to me by Derek Goodridge (@workerthread). Just like the first series of Halt and Catch Fire, it’s the story of the original IBM PC clone manufacturers – Compaq – but in documentary format, rather than as a drama series.

iPhone images

Regular readers may recall that a few weeks ago I found myself needing to buy a new iPhone after I fell into the sea with my iPhone in my pocket, twisting my ankle in the process…

People have been telling me for ages that “the latest iPhone has a great camera” and, in daylight, I’m really impressed by the clarity and also the bokeh effect. It’s still a mobile phone camera with a tiny sensor though and that means it’s still really poor at night. If a full-frame DSLR struggles at times, an iPhone will be challenged I guess – but I’m still finding that I’m inspired to use the camera more.

7 Days 7 Photos

Last week, I mentioned the 7 days, 7 photos challenge. I’ve completed mine now and they are supposed to be without explanation but, now I have a set of 7 photos, I thought I would explain what and why I used these ones. I get the feeling that some people are just posting 7 pictures, one a day, but these really do relate to what I was doing each day – and I tried to nominate people for the challenge each day based on their relevance to the subject…

Day 1

7 Days 7 Photos Day 1

I spotted this pub as I walked to Farringdon station. I wondered if “the clerk and well” was the origin of the name for “Clerkenwell” and it turns out that it is. Anyway, I liked the view of the traditional London pub (I was on my way home from another one!) and challenged my brother, who’s a publican…

Day 2

7 Days 7 Photos Day 2

I liked the form in this photograph of my son’s CX bike on the roof of my car. It didn’t look so clean when we got back from cyclocross training though! I challenged my friend Andy, whose 40th birthday was the reason for my ride from London to Paris a few years ago…

Day 3

7 Days 7 Photos Day 3

Not technically a single photo – lets’ call it a triptych, I used the Diptic app (as recommended by Ben Seymour/@bseymour) to create this collage. I felt it was a little too personal to nominate my friend Kieran, whose medals are in the lower left image, so I nominated my friend James, who was leading the Scouts in our local remembrance day parade.

Day 4

7 Days 7 Photos Day 4

I found some failed backups on my Synology NAS this week. For some reason, Hyper Backup complained it didn’t have enough storage (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Azure that ran out of space!) so I ran several backups, each one adding another folder until I had all of my new photos in the backup set. I felt the need to challenge a friend who works in IT – so I challenged my friend Stuart.

Day 5

7 Days 7 Photos Day 5

My son was cake-baking, for Children in Need, I think – or maybe it was my other son, baking his birthday cake. I can’t really remember. I challenged a friend who runs a local cafe and regularly bakes muffins…

Day 6

7 Days 7 Photos Day 6

Self-explanatory. My son’s own creation for his birthday. I challenged my wife for this one.

Day 7

7 Days 7 Photos Day 7

The last image is following an evening helping out at Scouts. Images of attempts to purify water through distillation were not that great, so I took a picture of the Scout Badge, and nominated my friend Phil, who’s another one of the local Scout leaders.

(All seven of these pictures were taken on an iPhone 8 Plus using the native camera app, then edited in Snapseed and uploaded to Flickr)

Other stuff

I like this:

And I remember shelves of tapes like these (though mine were all very neatly written, or computer-generated, even back in the 1980s):

On the topic of music, look up Master Boot Record on Spotify:

And this “Soundtrack for Coding” is pretty good for writing documentation too…

I added second-factor authentication to my WordPress blog this week. I couldn’t find anything that uses the Microsoft Authenticator, but this 2FA WordPress plugin from miniOrange uses Google Authenticator and was very easy to set up.

Some UK libraries have started loaning BBC Microbits but unfortunately not yet in my manor:

Being at home all week meant I went to see my GP about my twisted ankle (from the falling-into-the-sea incident). One referral later and I was able to see a physio… who’s already working wonders on helping to repair my damaged ligaments. And he says I can ride my bike too… so I’ll be back on Zwift even if cyclocross racing is out for the rest of the season.

Cycling

On the subject of Zwift, they announced a price rise this week. I understand that these things happen but it’s gone up 50% in the US (and slightly more than that here in the UK). All that really does is drive me to use Zwift in the winter and to cancel my membership in the summer. A more reasonable monthly fee might make me more inclined to sign up for 12 months at a time and create a recurring revenue for Zwift. Very strange business model, IMHO.

I particularly liked the last line of this article:

“Five minutes after the race
That was sooo fun! When can I do it again?!”

I may not have been riding cyclocross this weekend, but my son was, and Sunday was the popular Central Cyclocross League race at RAF Halton. With mud, sand, gravel and steep banks, long woodland sections and more, it looked epic. Maybe I’ll get to ride next year!

I did get to play with one of the RAF’s cranes (attached to a flatbed truck) though – amazing how much control there is – and had a go on the road safety rig too.

And of course, what else to eat at a cyclocross event but Belgian fries, mayo and waffles!

Finally, my friends at Kids Racing (@kidsracing) have some new kit in. Check out the video they filmed at the MK Bowl a couple of weeks back – and if you have kids in need of new cycling kit, maybe head over to HUP CC.

Wrap-up

That’s it for this week. Next week I have a bit more variation in my work (including another Microsoft event – Azure Ready in the UK) and I’m hoping to actually get some blog posts written… see you on the other side!

A newsletter? Weeknote? Blogletter? Issue No 1 (Week 43, 2017)

Inspired by David Hughes (@DavidHughes) and Christian Payne (@Documentally), a few weeks ago, I ran a Twitter poll to see if anyone would be interested in a newsletter of some of the stuff I’ve been up to. The responses were mixed, but some went along the lines of “the email format doesn’t resonate with me” and “I like reading what you’ve been up to on your blog”. My blog has been falling by the wayside in recent months and I do want to write more, so I’ve decided to write a weekly (ish) newsletter here instead. In between, I’ll stick write the usual tech-inspired stuff but this will be more eclectic. Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) does something similar with his weeknotes – but he must be incredibly disciplined to get them out every Friday. I spend Fridays trying to end my week.

So, here goes for issue 1. I’m still not sure what this thing should be called?

A week off

I’ve just had a week off work. I needed it. My previous blog post describes some of the challenges I’ve had lately and I really needed to decompress. After the initial weekend madness (just like every weekend), the first half of the week was spent at home, mostly sorting stuff out (more on that later), then a few days away with my family…

The weekend before…

My eldest son has started competing in the Central Cyclocross League and I’ve been joining in the novice races whilst he races in the Under 14s (both races take place on the same course at the same time).

I seriously considered not racing last week after a very hard practice lap but then my son instructed me to “put your numbers on and race your bike”. Oh, OK then!

I’m reasonably fit for long distance stuff (I recently completed the rather hilly inaugural Velo Birmingham 100 mile sportive) and my Caveman Conditioning (circuits) a couple of times a week help with general fitness but cyclocross is something else. Particularly when you’re using a mountain bike because your son is riding his CX bike (how inconsiderate!). I think it may be time for an n+1. Certainly if we do this again next season!

Unfortunately, being ignored in the LBS doesn’t leave a very good feeling. Being ignored on social media after sending the tweet even less so…

Shopping

I don’t often wear a suit for work these days – but there are occasions where it’s still expected (first meetings, particular customers, etc.). I’ve been putting off buying a new suit for a while because a) there are two in the wardrobe that I really should slim down into b) I’d rather spend the money elsewhere. This week I gave in and bought something new.

I took one of my sons with me and he happily browsed the John Lewis technology department whilst I was suit shopping. He thinks I spent a lot of money though and suggested I get a blazer with some M&S trousers like his school uniform for a fraction of the price! Welcome to the world of work, son!

Whilst he was browsing the technology, I spotted this:

The Windows Premium collection appears to be Windows 10, running on a selection of higher-end PCs (Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre, etc.). First time I’d heard of it though…

Administration

I spent a good chunk of my week off working through an administration backlog at home. Ultimately that results in a lot of scanning (on my Canon ImageFormula P-215 desktop scanner), some shredding and a little bit of filing (for those few documents that I do retain in paper form).

After hunting around for PDF editing tools (ideally command line) to remove some pages I didn’t need inside some existing PDF files, I found this comment on the MacRumors forums:

“Preview does all of this quite well, fyi.”

Sure enough: open the PDF in MacOS Preview; delete the extra pages; save. Job done.

Karting, photography and train travel

My youngest son wanted to go to a friend’s go-karting party this week whilst my wife and eldest were heading down to Dorset for a few days. No problem, he could stay at home with me whilst I did some of my admin and then we’d follow on by train.

The karting inspired me to get my Nikon D700 out again. It may be big and heavy but I love the control of the DLSR experience and the results. I’ve tried some pro apps on my iPhone (like 645 Pro) but it’s just not the same!

_DSC7044

Afterwards, the train journey to Dorset gave my son and I a mini-adventure (bus, train, tube, another train) to join the rest of the family – and with a Family and Friends railcard it was less than £30!

Walking

Last Friday was a gorgeous day – almost no wind and bright sunshine didn’t seem like late-October! My family took the chance to go for a walk along the South West Coastal Path from Swanage to Studland (for a pub lunch).

Afterwards, I walked back with one of my sons – and what a treat that was! Glorious views and late-afternoon sunlight meant lots of photo stops but it was certainly my favourite part of the walk!

2017-10-27 16.43.07

2017-10-27 16.58.00

2017-10-27 17.08.54

On the beach

Saturday’s weather was less impressive but, after lunch at our favourite Swanage coffee shop (Java), coincidentally located next to my favourite Swanage restaurant (Chilled Red, where my wife and I had eaten the night before), we took the boys to the beach. They were happy with their wetsuits to keep the cold at bay whilst they played but I decided to stay dry. At least that was the plan.

I was walking out on one of the groynes to take a picture of the boys, when I found that walking boot soles have almost no grip once they meet wet wood and, faced with the choice of falling face-first (or probably chest-first) onto  a large wooden beam or throwing myself towards the sea, I chose the latter… managing to twist my ankle on the way, and then realising that my wallet and my iPhone were in my pockets.

I’m hoping that the phone will be covered on the household building and contents insurance – we have accidental damage cover and I’ll be making that call tomorrow… otherwise I could be getting an iPhone 8+ sooner than planned!

In the meantime, I’ve found out a lot about the water resistance of various Apple products:

Zwift and Android

My son fancied having a go on my Tacx Vortex trainer today, so we tried to get it working with Zwift for him.

Normally, I use the iOS app on my iPhone but, as that’s still drying out, it wasn’t an option. Zwift is currently available for Windows, MacOS and iOS but not (yet) Android so we went back to my original Windows PC-based setup with Zwift Mobile Link as a Bluetooth bridge. After spending a lot of time trying to get it working this afternoon with my son’s Android phone, it seems that I may need to update the firmware on my trainer for it to be recognised as a controllable trainer via the Android version of Zwift Mobile Link and Bluetooth LE (currently they only see it as a power meter and cadence sensor).

Wrap-up

That’s about it for this week… let me know what you think of the whatever-this-is (newsletter? blog post? something else?) and I’ll think about writing another one next week.

A new lease of life for some of my old Macs

Apple iMac G3For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a selection of PCs (Windows, Mac or Linux) in the house running a variety of operating systems. The Windows machines come and go – they are mostly laptops provided for work (either mine or my wife’s) – although we also have a Lenovo Flex 15 as “the family PC” (in reality, it’s difficult to get near it most of the time as the kids are using it!). Linux is normally for me to do something geeky on – whether that’s one of the Raspberry Pis or an old netbook running Ubuntu to easily update an Arduino, etc. The Mac purchases require a bit more consideration – their premium price means that it’s not something to go into without a great deal of thought and, although I still regret selling my Bondi Blue G3 iMac (one of the originals), I have 2006 and 2012 Mac Minis, and a late-2007 MacBook.

2006 Mac Mini running Windows 10!

Earlier this year, I brought the 2006 Mac Mini back to life with a SSD upgrade and, although it’s not “supported”, I managed to install Windows 10 on it (actually, I installed Windows 7 via BootCamp, then updated). It’s working a treat and, although it only has 2GB of RAM, it’s fine for a bit of web browsing, social media, scanning documents, etc. The only thing I haven’t been able to get Windows to recognise is my external iSight camera – which is a great device but has long since been discontinued.  I had some challenges along the way (and I can’t find all of the details for the process I used now) but some of the links I found useful include:

I also found that my aluminium Apple keyboard (wired) wouldn’t work for startup options; however, if I plugged in an older Apple White Pro keyboard, I was able to use startup options! I later found a forum post (when I was writing this blog post, but not when I originally had the issue) which suggests that a firmware update will fix the issue with the aluminium keyboard.

Once Windows 7 was installed on the Mac, it was just a case of following the Windows 10 upgrade process (back when Windows 10 was still a free upgrade).

Late 2007 MacBook destined for the scrap heap

The MacBook has been less successful. Not only has the keyboard rest broken yet again (for a third time) and the replacement battery that’s only had around 90 charges is completely dead after a couple of years of not being used, but it seems the latest supported Mac OS X version is 10.7.5 (Lion). I had hoped to bring it out of hibernation for use in the garage with Zwift but that needs at least OS X 10.8, leaving me waiting for an iOS app for Zwift (it’s on the way), or borrowing the family PC from the kids when I jump on the turbo trainer. Regardless, with no battery and an ancient OS, it looks like this MacBook is about to go to PC heaven…

2012 Mac Mini going strong but watch the updates…

The 2012 Mac Mini running OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) is still supported and I’m considering installing macOS 10.12 (Sierra) on it.  I say considering, because that looks likely to force me to spend money on a Lightroom 6 upgrade (with Lightroom 7 just around the corner, based on the fact that we’re up to 6.7 now). I also skipped OS X 10.11 (El Capitan) which I now regret, because that means it’s not in my purchase history so I can’t download it if I ever need an older MacOS version.

Possible fix for a touch screen that stops recognising input on a Lenovo Flex 15

Last weekend, I had an issue with the touch screen on the family laptop. This not-quite-three-year-old device (running Windows 10) is on its second screen (the first one gave up after 13 months) and the laptop was working fine, just that the touch screen acted like, well, a screen (i.e. no touch).

Helpfully, both Adi Kingsley-Hughes (@the_pc_doc) and Jack Schofield (@jackschofield) chipped in with suggestions but it remained a mystery.

The issue persisted through a reboot (which does cast some doubt on the eventual “fix”) and Lenovo’s published drivers were woefully out-of-date but I found a Dell forum post with something that might have helped in some way:

“Think about it, if you are not using the touchscreen and keeping it active, in this energy efficient world and age, a system would turn off unnecessary devices!!

THE SOLUTION: Device Manager – Universal Serial Bus Controllers – Generic USB Hub Properties -( Under POWER tab: the one that has “HID-compliant Device 100mA” attached) Power Management – UNCHECK-“Allow computer to turn off this device to save power”

If you have problems or not sure if it the correct HID-compliant Device, just look under the Driver Details and hit the drop down box to scroll through all those different labels until it clearly says “Touchscreen” under “Bus Reported Device Description”

Fixed my problem pretty easily.” [Nate97]

I say “might”, because the results were not immediate – and if this worked, then why didn’t a reboot?

I also tried following advice from a Lenovo post and in Lenovo support article HT104469:

“1. Press Windows + X. Select Device Manager.

2. Find the Touch screen driver under Mice and Other Pointing Devices > USB Touchscreen Controller(A111).  You’re going to uninstall this and check the box that says “Delete the driver software for this device”. Restart your computer.

3. If the feature is still not back, open Device Manager -> Human Interface Devices. Right-click HID compliant touch screen, then uninstall. When you restart the PC, it will reinstall.

4. Or if you cannot locate any USB Touchscreen Controller(A111), please try to look for an option called “USB Root Hub (xHCI)” under USB Controllers or Universal Serial Bus. If it was labeled as disabled (a little faded or lighter shade of gray that means it is disabled). Righ-click on it then select enable. That may bring the touchscreen back.”

Again, it didn’t seem to make much difference and I went to bed with a non-functional touch screen; however, the next day the touch screen was working again, when I was ready to write this off as a hardware issue.  I’m not sure which (if either) of these “fixes” worked… but I’m posting this in case it helps someone else…

Monday morning IT blues: unresponsive Surface Type Cover keyboard/trackpad

Monday Morning 6.15AM: My alarm goes off – time to get up, drive to the station, buy a ticket and catch a train to London. It’s Monday morning; another week, here we go.

Clearly my Surface Pro 3 was having a similarly bleary-eyed morning. When I got to site, the Type Cover keyboard didn’t want to work. Nothing had changed since Friday when I shut the machine down, so why wouldn’t the keyboard work? Detach, attach, restart, restart again. RTFM. Restart again. Oh, time for a support call.

The great thing about working for the company I do is that even the Directors respond to support requests and I had an answer in minutes about resetting the USB root hub. Trouble is that I don’t have the necessary admin permissions. No worry. I would try and power down the machine. Not a normal power down, but a proper, hard reset.  According to The Tech Chat, that’s called a two-button shutdown.

So, after a power down, holding power and volume up for 15 seconds and then exiting the setup menu that was displayed, my Surface started up, recognised the attached Type Cover and I was back in business.

Monday morning 9.45AM: IT 0: Mark 1. Right. Now what’s in store for the rest of the week!

Banish passwords and unlock your PC with Windows Hello

Passwords are so old-fashioned. And insecure. Often, after a high profile website hack we’re asked to change our passwords because most people use the same password for multiple services. So, what’s the answer? Well, not using the same password for multiple sites might be one solution but that leads to problems with remembering passwords (which is why I use a password manager). Others think the solution lies in biometrics (and I’d certainly consider that as a second factor).

Windows 10 has an interesting new feature called Windows Hello. Rather than relying on a password, or a PIN (which is ultimately the same thing, once it’s been hashed…), Hello uses facial recognition to determine whether you can have access to a PC or not – and I’ve been testing it for a few weeks now.

Actually, we have two PCs in our house that can use Windows Hello: my wife’s Lenovo E550 (using the fingerprint reader or optional 3D camera); and the Lenovo B50 All-in-one PC I have on loan also includes the 3D camera that is required for facial recognition (iris readers will soon be available too). And in case you’re reading this and getting worried about a copy of your face being shared around the Internet, Hello’s facial recognition uses infra-red technology with the camera to capture data points (a kind of graph of your face) rather than a picture itself and the data never leaves the PC (where it is stored in encrypted form – you can read more in Microsoft’s Windows Hello privacy FAQ).  In essence, you have possession of a device; you unlock it with your face (or other biometrics); and then Windows Hello authenticates on your behalf but your biometric information is never transferred.

I was a bit confused at first to find that Hello was not available on the B50, until I discovered that the OOTB drivers were not up to the task – once I’d installed the Intel RealSense Depth Camera Manager (DCM) drivers, Windows was happy to learn how my face looks and Windows Hello jumped into life.

“So, what’s it actually like to use?”, you might ask.

Setup is just a case of following a wizard to let Windows recognise your face and after that it’s really, really straightforward.

Windows Hello setup - welcome! Windows Hello setup - make sure it's you Windows Hello setup - say cheese! Windows Hello setup - all set! Windows 10 sign-in options, including Windows Hello

Just make sure you look directly at the PC (no slurping a cuppa whilst waiting for it to recognise you).

Sometimes the camera takes a while to wake up when the PC resumes from standby (a driver issue, I expect – they seem to be under constant iteration) but in general it seems pretty reliable. It seems to cope well with varying lighting conditions too – whether I have a full ceiling light on, daylight from the window, or a little desk lamp; and I’ve moved offices since I originally set it up – that doesn’t seem to make a difference either. And there’s no problem with variations in the amount of facial hair I’m wearing on any given day. Apparently, even identical twins don’t fool it

Logging on to my PC with little more than a wiggle of a mouse (to wake it up) and a stare is great… it’s a shame I’ll have to give the PC back soon.

Further reading

Using the Lenovo B50 all-in-one PC as an external monitor

A few weeks back, Microsoft asked if I’d be interested in writing some Windows 10 blog posts if they could arrange a demo machine for me for a few months.  I thought it seemed like a good idea, signed the paperwork when it came through, and promptly forgot about it whilst I immersed myself in work!

Then, earlier this week, I got a text from my wife that said:

“[…] We have a mystery parcel from Lenovo here… [my son] is speculating… what time will you be home this evening? […]”

At first I had to think “what have I bought from Lenovo?” (funnily enough, that’s what Mrs W was thinking too…) but then I remembered the PC that Microsoft were sending…

I got home to find my two geeks apprentices, aged nearly-9 and nearly-11, desperate to see what was in the box and help me set it up.  Within minutes, the Lenovo B50 all-in-one PC was taking up a sizable chunk of my desk and, over the next few months I’m hoping to write at least one Windows 10 post each week.

Having an all-in one PC has another use though: I’ve been considering buying a new monitor for a while, to use with my company-supplied Surface Pro 3 when I’m working at home and I wondered if the B50 would do the job for the next few months. As it happens, yes it will – the tech-specs include both HDMI output (to a second monitor) and input – but I couldn’t work out how to get it working (and both ports are labelled as output). I knew it was possible though as Brian Fagioli’s Betanews review mentions using the all-in-one as a display.

Eventually I found Lon Siedman’s video review which showed how to do it – pressing a tiny button on the lower-right side of the screen, just above the power button, to accept input on the HDMI port closest to the left-side of the screen.  It’s still amazing though that the Surface Pro 3’s 12″ display runs at a higher resolution than this 23.8″ beast!

SSD PC upgrade

Some time ago, I noticed that our family PC was running really slowly. It only has 4GB of RAM and sometimes the boys leave their flash-based websites open when they switch users (which can be a resource hog), but it was more than that (4GB should have been enough really).  I dug a little deeper and found that the disk was running at a constant 100% – clearly that was the bottleneck!

I adjusted the virtual disk settings (away from the Windows defaults, which were pitifully small, to something I found recommended on the ‘net) and, whilst it helped with the system responsiveness, the disk queue was still sitting a little higher than I expected (in Resource Monitor) and Task Manager still said the disk was running at 100%.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’d been busy, the machine had been upgraded to Windows 10 and it seemed to be behaving itself. That was until, one Saturday morning, when I was just rushing out of the door to take the kids to football, I spotted the PC sitting on the kitchen counter with a boot error, followed by a failed attempt to boot from the network. “That’s great!”, I thought (actually it was some rather more grumpy words than that), “another job to fit into an already-packed weekend…”.

As it happened, I’d already been considering a solid state disk (SSD) upgrade after a customer had told me about the unit he had bought, the performance difference it had made, and how low the prices were. Our hard disk drive (HDD) failure just forced the point and I bought a 120GB Samsung EVO 850 SSD for only marginally more than the cost of a replacement 500GB Seagate Momentum Thin HDD (we don’t really need that much space anyway).

Why the EVO 850? Well, my customer had already done his homework, but the 256GB version was recently rated as a best budget SSD buy on Tom’s Hardware – and that was enough for me to buy its baby cousin.

I didn’t have time to fit the drive this week, but I set to work this afternoon, following the advice in the video below to take our laptop apart and swap the drive:

I’ll come back to the activation issue in a future post, but the SSD is awesome. Incredibly fast! And disk queues are a thing of the past (as is OEM-supplied crapware as I now have a clean PC build).

As for the old HDD, it still works… sort of. At least, I may be able to get some data off it if the spinning rust stays spinning for long enough. I bought an Anker USB 3.0 2.5″ HDD/SSD external enclosure and am very impressed. It’s so easy to use that my son fitted the old disk in seconds (no screws, just the SATA connection and slide the cover on) – perfect if you are going to clone from one disk to another (I didn’t, because I didn’t have a bootable system).

Further reading

How to upgrade your laptop hard disk to an SSD.

Samsung 850 EVO SSD review.

Unable to boot from USB flash drive on a Lenovo PC (to install Windows 10)

Yesterday, I wrote about not having to wait for Windows 10 to be advertised to my PCs and downloading the software directly instead. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out to be quite that simple.

Overnight, both the Windows 8.1 PCs in our house decided that Windows 10 was ready (I clearly need to be more patient) but my 10 year-old son wanted to perform the upgrade (he’s a trainee geek) so, I waited for him to come home tonight before we tried it out. Because I’d already downloaded the media I thought I could skip bringing almost 3GB down over my ADSL line and boot from USB but we had a little trouble along the way…

I’d prepared a USB flash drive from the Windows 10 .ISO file using Rufus but our family PC (a Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 15) didn’t want to boot from it.

First of all, I had to work out the boot menu key combination (F12) but, even then, the boot menu only wanted to boot from the network, or from the local hard drive. I checked the BIOS (F1 at boot) and USB boot was enabled. Following Lenovo support article HT076906 (How to enter Setup Utility (F1) or Boot Menu (F12) on a Microsoft Windows 8/8.1 preloaded PC), I tried various combinations to reboot the machine (including Shift+Shutdown for a full shutdown and Shift+Restart for Windows boot options) but nothing was helping to boot from USB.

I tried recreating my media using different partition schemes for UEFI but that didn’t work either. So I followed Lenovo support article HT078684 (Cannot Boot From a USB Key – Idea Notebooks/Desktops) to:

  1. Run cmd.exe with Administrator privileges.
  2. Insert the target USB boot media device into an available USB port.
  3. Type:
    diskpart
    list disk (and make note of the disk number of the target USB drive)
    select disk n (where n is the target USB drive noted earlier)
    clean
    create partition primary
    format fs=fat32 quick
    active
    assign
    list volume
    exit
  4. Copy the entire contents of the Windows ISO onto the newly created UEFI boot media.

After this, I successfully restarted the PC, using F12 to access the boot menu and could boot from USB (i.e. the flash drive was available in the menu).

Unfortunately, after all that effort, Windows 10 wanted a product key to install (which I didn’t think I had on a PC that came with Windows pre-installed), so I went back to an in-place upgrade using Windows Update.

Installing Windows 10 via Windows Update

It’s been a few years since I regularly built PCs and it seems my desktop skills are a little rusty… since then, I’ve discovered a number of utilities for reading the product key of my Windows installation (which is also stored in the BIOS) – the tool I used is Windows Product Key Finder, available for download from CodePlex.

Short takes: missing keys, closing apps and taking screen grabs

Another post with a few things I’ve collected in my browser tabs over the last few weeks…

Locating the hash (#) key on a Mac keyboard

I love the Apple wireless keyboard that I use with my Mac Mini but tweeting without a hash key can be challenging at times…

So much for the Mac’s simplicity when I have to Google to find the hash key (it’s at Alt+3, BTW)!

Closing Windows 8 apps with the Surface/Surface Pro touch/type covers

And, talking of missing keys… the Surface/Surface Pro touch/type covers have function keys that double up as media keys so, if you want to Alt-F4 to close an app, remember that’s Alt+Fn+F4.

Snipping from “Metro” apps in Windows 8.1

If you want to snip a portion of the screen in Windows 8.x and you’re running a full-screen (“Metro”) app, then you’re out of luck – the Snipping Tool only works in desktop mode. The workaround is to take a screenshot with PrtSc and then edit the resulting clipboard contents. Hopefully this gets better in Windows 10?

So where is the PrtSc key for the Surface/Surface Pro touch/type covers?

There isn’t a PrtSc key, but Fn+space will grab the whole screen (as PrtSc does on a normal PC keyboard) and Alt+Fn+space will grab the current window and copy it to the clipboard (as Alt+PrtSc does normally).