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).

 

One month with the Surface Pro 3

When I started my current job and tweeted about my new “laptop” (a Microsoft Surface Pro 3), I was a little surprised at the reaction from some people, including one of my friends whose words were along the line of “give it a month and then then tell me if you still like it…”

Well, it’s been a month, so here we go…

<tl; dr> I really, really, like it.

That’s not really much of a review though… so here’s some of the things that are good, and some that are less so…

Starting out with the positives:

  • It’s a fully-featured PC. Every time I see someone comparing the Surface with an iPad I cringe. I tried using an iPad as my primary device and it didn’t work for me. I can see why it would for some people but I need to work with multiple applications and task switch, copy and paste text all of the time. The Surface Pro runs Windows 8.1 and does everything I expect of a Windows PC, plus the benefits of having a touch screen display and a tablet form factor.
  • The display is fantastic. Crisp, clear, 2160×1440 (as Ed Bott highlights, that would be called a retina display on an Apple device).
  • The type cover keyboard is really good. Backlit keys, easy to type on, a good size. Combined with the kickstand on the tablet itself, it becomes a fully-featured 12″ laptop and it’s far more stable than many tablet/cover/keyboard combinations.
  • I live in OneNote. I can draw with the Surface Pen now – and that is incredibly useful.
  • It’s light. I haven’t checked how light, but light enough to carry with ease.
  • The power supply is not too big – and it has a USB charging socket too. Having said that, I can usually manage on the battery to catch the train in/out of London and get through a customer meeting.

On the downside though:

  • There aren’t enough USB ports and the use of a Mini DisplayPort means I need to carry adaptors. To be fair, I carry quite a few for my other devices too.
  • The price of accessories is way over the top: type cover is a penny under £110; Surface Pen is £45; Docking station is £165. Really? Add that to the cost of the device itself and you could buy a pretty good laptop. (The Surface Pro 3 range starts at £639 but the Intel i5 model with 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage that I use is £849 and the top of the range Intel i7 with 8GB RAM and 512GB storage will set you back £1549).
  • The type cover trackpad is awful. I use a mouse. That’s how bad it is.
  • The pen takes some getting used to (this post from Microsoft helps) – and I ran through the first set of batteries in no time (this support page came in useful too).
  • I’ve had some worrying issues with resuming from standby, sometimes not resuming at all, sometimes having to go through a full reboot. I suspect that’s the Windows build it’s running though – I can’t blame the Surface for that…

I’m more than happy with the Surface Pro 3 (at least, I am until the Surface Pro 4 comes out!). I was given the choice between this and a Dell ultrabook and I’m pretty sure I made the right choice. Maybe if I was a developer and I needed a laptop which was effectively a portable server then that would be a different story – but for my work as a Consultant/Architect – it’s exactly what I need.

If you need a Windows PC, your work is mobile (and not too taxing in terms of hardware requirements), and your employer has the facilities for effective remote working, the Surface Pro 3 is worth a look. I’d even go as far as to say I would spend my own money on this device. That’s more than I can say about any company-supplied PC I’ve had to date.

The tools of a mobile worker… including a plethora of cables and adapters

One of the great things about working for my current employer is that they provide me with the devices I need for mobile working and we use all of the software that we are helping our customers to adopt. My tools are a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet and a Nokia Lumia 830 smartphone, together with the latest released versions of Windows and Office and I consume services from the Microsoft Cloud including all of the Office 365 workloads as well as some on-premises apps like Skype for Business. Using the full Microsoft stack does mean I’ve had to go back to using Internet Exploder though… and I am at last getting used to Bing and weening myself of the habit of using the big G for search – at least on my work PC!

I’m not saying that the use of a Surface Pro 3 was the reason I took the job – but it may have been a factor and not lugging around a heavy laptop has some major advantages (even the small form factor laptop I used for my last job was pretty weighty).

Unfortunately, with such a svelte device comes a down-side… namely that I now carry a plethora of cables and adapters, as illustrated by my former colleague Dom Allen (who now works for a rival Microsoft Partner):

So, what’s in my bag these days alongside the Surface Pro and its charger?

Maybe not quite the portable computing panacea I might have hoped for… but at least they all fit inside a pencil case!

(Unrelated to work, I also carry a 10cm Apple Certified Lightning to USB cable and an Anker Astro E1 5200mAh external battery power bank to keep my iPhone alive all day…)

Windows Media Player keeps re-opening? Stuck key on keyboard?

Being at home this week means that I have had a stack of “jobs” to get through (and I haven’t completed most of them… although at least the decorating is done) but it also means I’m “on call” for family IT issues.

This morning, my wife exclaimed that Windows Media Player was “throbbing” in the taskbar on her Windows 7 computer. Sure enough, there it was, pulsing away to suggest an alert but there was no dialog asking for input. I closed Media Player and it came back; I killed the process via Task Manager and it came back; I did what every self-respecting PC support guy would do and asked when she last rebooted the computer and Mrs W replied that she had already tried that (as every self-respecting user will respond to such advice!)…

Fearing a virus I decided to search the net for advice and found a Tom’s Hardware forum post which suggested it might be a stuck media key. Sure enough, examining the external keyboard shown that was the problem! A quick nudge on the key and Windows Media Player started to behave itself again…

Replacement PSU for an LCD monitor? If only these things were standardised…

Sod’s law says that, a few hours after I handed in all of Fujitsu’s kit in preparation for leaving the company, my own monitor would stop working…

I had spares, but only old 15″ 4×3 flat panels with VGA connections – this was the only monitor I have that will take an HDMI/DVI signal from my Mac Mini, or my Raspberry Pi so VGA was no good to me here.

As it happened, further investigation showed it wasn’t the monitor itself (although it is 9 years old now) but the power “brick”. I’m sure there are websites that specialise in selling universal power supplies for laptops but I haven’t found one yet for LCD monitors (I needed a 60W/12V/5A supply with a 2.5mm centre-positive tip).

Thankfully, my local Maplin store had something that would do the trick – a little expensive at £37.99 but far cheaper than a new monitor…

It does beg the question though – all mobile phones (except Apple iPhones) come with a standard USB charging cable. Why don’t all TVs/monitors/laptops have similarly standardised power supplies?

Replacing an all-in-one OfficeJet with a colour laser printer and some free software

One downside of moving jobs is that I’ve had to give back all of the kit I was using that belongs to Fujitsu*. The car went back last month at the end of its lease but yesterday I returned a pile of technology to the office including mobile phone, laptop, monitor, printer.

Hang on. Printer. I’m not the only user of that particular device…

I never liked it anyway – I’ve had a succession of OfficeJet all-in-one devices since I swapped out my trusty old LaserJet for a company-supplied printer and I’ve found inkjet devices to be expensive in consumables (non-OEM cartridges gunking up; OEM cartridges running out even when they say they have ink in them) and the HP OfficeJet 4620 that I’ve used for the last couple of years was particularly unreliable from a software perspective too. So I decided to pick up a small-office laser printer instead and the Samsung SL-C410W was just £130 for a colour laser printer.

Of course some will say, if I think ink cartridges are expensive, wait until I have to buy toner and the other items that the new printer will need but we’re talking in thousands of pages here… for someone who gets through about a box of paper (2500 sheets) every 2 years or so (and half of that has been taken by the kids for drawing)!

Anyway, back to the point. The SL-C410W was available at a great price direct from Samsung (£20 cheaper than John Lewis or PC World – and Staples were way off the mark), with free next-day delivery. Setup was simple, following the supplied instructions to get connected to my Wi-Fi network (although I did install the software on a PC and use the supplied USB cable to make things easy).  There were a couple of points that it might have been useful to know though:

  • Setting a static IP address needed a connection to the printer’s SyncThru web service – either using the supplied software to find the device on the network or using the DHCP logs to work out which IP address it was using and going to http://ipaddress/sws/index.html.
  • Once in SyncThru, login is required to make changes – default username is admin and password is sec00000.

With the password and IP address changed and discovery services configured, our family PC (running Windows 8.1) automatically found and connected to the printer, whilst the Windows 7 PCs only needed me to walk through a wizard (printer and driver location was automatic).

That just left the issue of copying – a feature on the OfficeJet that we do use sometimes. Here, some open source software called iCopy came to the rescue.  It does exactly what it says on the tin – provides a “free photocopier” by linking a scanner and a printer – nothing that can’t be done manually but a single button was helpful for family members who use this feature.

The only slight problem was locating Windows Image Aquisition (WIA) drivers for my elderly CanoScan N650U/N656U with Canon not offering anything for Windows 7 and the Internet seemingly littered with dead links.  Luckily, Tom Heath has posted a link to the drivers and these worked a treat.

Only time will tell whether the SL-C410W was a wise buy or not – but at least my family have a means to print homework, my wife has a printer (and copier) again for her work, and I have something that should be reasonably reliable and hassle-free…

 

* There are lots of upsides too – including that my new “laptop” will be a Surface Pro 3, and that I’ll be using modern software to help me in my work.

Plantronics Voyager Legend not connecting with PC (but fine with phones) – re-pairing required

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a couple of Lync accessories I use every day – including my Plantronics Voyager Legend (BT300M). Since then, I’ve successfully paired the headset with both Windows and iOS phones (so presumably Android will work too) using their native stacks, although I use the supplied Bluetooth dongle on my company-supplied Windows 7 laptop.  I’m still impressed with the headset and the battery life is great too as it automatically goes into standby when I forget to turn it off (although it’s often sitting on its charging stand).

Unfortunately, I did find one day that my headset had “fallen out with” my laptop and whilst it would happily connect to the phones I couldn’t use it for Lync (VoIP) or CUCILync (VoIP breakout to our Cisco phone system and beyond to the PSTN). After some frustration of taking out and re-inserting the dongle in various USB ports, etc. I found an article on the Plantronics Sounding Board that gave the answer:

“Try pairing the headset to the dongle. Typically you would turn your phone(s) off to make sure they don’t  interfere in the process. Then press the call button on the headset until you go into pairing mode and insert the dongle in the PC, it should pair.”

Interestingly, the article also referred to a tool I’ve not come across before called DriveCleanup which can remove orphaned registry items related to non-present USB devices (forcing the dongle to set up the stack again on insertion). I didn’t need this but it could be a useful tool (there are several others on the page too).

Incidentally, at a Lync event at Microsoft last week, I tried out the Plantronics Backbeat PRO wireless noise cancelling headphones with microphone and they will be great for listening to music in a shared office but still being contactable for calls. Having upgraded my phone this week, I need to do some saving before I can buy more gadgets, but these could be on the list…

Déjà vu: buying and upgrading another Mac Mini

Eight years ago, I was writing blog posts about buying a Mac Mini and upgrading its inner workings. Then, last weekend, I bought a new one.  Well, actually I bought the outgoing model at a knock-down price, thanks to a tip-off from Dom Allen (@ca95014).  A 2.3GHz Core i7 late-2012 model should happily replace my aging MacBook and, unlike the late-2014 model that Apple recently announced, it has upgradable RAM (up to 16GB) rather than memory integrated on the main logic board (I believe the term is planned obsolescence and I find it deeply cynical…).

As usual, I bought my memory from Crucial but, whilst I was waiting for it to arrive, I introduced my eldest son to the Apple unboxing experience…

The memory turned up a day or so later and now I’m in the process of transferring all of my images and photo-editing software to the new Mac… I’m sure there will be more posts to follow on that experience.

With some more hard disk space and a faster Mac, maybe I’ll start taking more pictures (lost my “photo mojo” of late, although I did grab a few shots when I went to watch the Revolution Series track cycling a couple of weeks ago).