Windows Enterprise Desktop

May 17 2013   11:52AM GMT

Breaking In a New Tablet/Ultrabook: Dell XPS12

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I’m working with some staff at Dell, and with a loaner XPS12 convertible tablet/ultrabook running Windows 8, to explore ways to boost the usability and productivity gains (both personal and professional) that access to such nice gear can deliver.

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The XPS12 is compact, and the screen flips inside the outer bezel to switch between ultrabook and tablet mode.

Just recently, having taken possession of the machine about two weeks ago, I’ve been slowly but surely getting the machine’s drivers and OS updated, adding my usual software toolkit, and exploring more and better ways to work with this system. In today’s blog, I’d like to report on some of my experiences so far, including:

(a)    Driver-related issues and discoveries
(b)   A laundry list of software elements I’ve found it necessary or useful to add to the system
(c)    What’s been involved in getting backup working, and creating recovery media

Driver Issues and Discoveries
While I have been able to access drivers pretty handily through the Dell support pages, what I really want from them is a driver scanner to examine what’s on my system and then to tell me what I need to download and install (even better would be an automated facility that would march through the download list and install all of them for me). In theory, that’s what the Dell Support Driver & Downloads page is supposed to deliver. But although I could get it to tell me what I might need by way of driver files both quickly and easily, the Dell Driver Analyze Utility didn’t tell me what was up-to-date and what wasn’t on my machine.

So, I turned next to my old stalwart maintenance tool, eSupport’s DriverAgent driver scanning tool. It initially reported that 15 drivers were out of date, at least half of which were related to the Intel Chipset drivers. As somewhat of an old hand at this game, I downloaded the 9.4.0.1014 chipset utility, and extracted its contents to a folder on my 64 GB Mushkin USB3 flash drive (UFD), which proved itself amazingly speedy at handling read/write activities (it’s faster than a conventional external hard disk, in a reversal of the performance ranking when attaching via USB2 instead). I went into Device Manager and manually updated the various Intel devices that DriverAgent labeled as out of date, which knocked off 8 of the offending entries in the list. I had to use the Intel Driver Update utility to find and grab the latest Centrino wireless and PROSet drivers, and upon continuing difficulty in finding the latest AHCI SATA driver for the unit’s SSD, turned to the most recent Intel RST driver (12.5.0.1066 with a 3/18/13 release date) to finally clear that up. I also had to update the audio drivers, the driver for my USB3 Ethernet adapter (which saved my butt on one very interesting issue I’ll elaborate on later), and the Intel Dynamic Platform and Thermal Framework.

Total time invested in picking up where Microsoft Update left off to get things as up-to-date as I could make them (I wound up with two drivers still out of date: one for something I’ll never use, and another for a motherboard resource related to the Intel Thermal Framework) was between three and four hours, which is pretty representative of my usual post-install (or post-unboxing) experience on a Windows 8 laptop (I’ve been through this exercise on perhaps a dozen different such installs at this point).

The New Software Laundry List
In bringing the XPS12 up to what I consider production-ready status, here’s what I’ve installed on that machine so far, above and beyond what it included upon its arrival:

  • Piriform’s CCleaner (free version), which I use to clean up dross on the system’s drives and for light-duty registry sweeping
  • Google Chrome, which I often prefer to IE, especially when digging into HTML or CSS markup on Web pages, as I must often do
  • Windows DriverStore Explorer [RAPR], a free (codeplex) utility that lets you examine and prune older entries from the Windows Driver Store — never a bad idea after updating lots of sometimes-large drivers on a Windows PC
  • Image Resizer Powertoy, a (free) codeplex shell extension to Windows Explorer that lets you resize images in PNG, JPG, or GIF format from a right-click inside Explorer.
  • RecImg Manager, which puts a Modern UI face on the terrific built-in recimg command line utility used to create a custom Windows image (.wim) file for the Refresh your PC utility that’s new to Windows 8 [Note: you can’t target a UFD for a recovery image using this utility because Windows won’t let you; if you try, you’ll get a mysterious and not terribly informative error message that only indicates that the backup failed but doesn’t tell you this is why.]
  • SIW Pro (a free version is also available), Gabe Topala’s superb system profiling tool for Windows PCs
  • Start8, which is the best of the various “Start button replacement programs” available for Windows 8 (and at $5, cheap enough to buy for all your machines)
  • WinDirStat, a (free) sourceforge project that provides a comprehensive view of what’s on your disk drives (very handy for keeping track of scarce and valuable SSD storage space)
  • 7-Zip, my favorite — and free — compression/decompression tool, which is also peachy at unpacking drivers from many .exe or .msi driver installer files that don’t update my drivers properly, but which do contain drivers installable through Device Manager (if only you can get at them, which this tool does nicely more often than not)

As I look at my other production machines, I see a few more items in my near-term “to-add list” for software on this machine, including MS Office 2013 (which helps me make my living), FileZilla (still my favorite FTP utility), Secunia PSI (a terrific security status checker for the OS and applications), Notepad++ (an outstanding programmer’s file editor), Revo Uninstaller (even the freeware version beats the built-in Programs and Features utility in Control Panel hands down), and Unlocker (a handy-dandy file unlocking tool when you want to delete a file and Windows won’t let you do it).

Making Backup and Recovery Work Like They Should
I found myself entangled in some issues on the XPS12 related to backup and recovery that puzzled me a bit. I like to use the Windows 7 File Recovery utility in Control Panel, which still runs much like the old ntbackup.exe that goes all the way back to Windows NT 3.5 or thereabouts, because it makes an eminently usable image backup that’s peachy for restoring entire drives (often my preferred method of recovery anyway). Unfortunately, the tool kept failing about 35% of the way into the system drive with error codes 0x81000033 and 0x81000017. A little research showed me that one of three things could be at fault, and by process of elimination, I determined that Dell’s default installation of McAfee Security was the culprit. Upon uninstalling that program, I’ve had no difficulties backing up or restoring since using the built-in Windows utility.

I also like to use RecImg Manager (from Slimware Utilities) to create image backups in the form of .WIM files for my systems, because this then lets me use Windows 8’s “Refresh Your PC” repair tool to restore an image that has all the up-to-date drivers, patches, and apps I want on my machine, instead of rolling all the way back to a factory-fresh image and having to rebuild from there. I’ve done that on this machine not only because it’s a good idea to do so, but also because I took a “before” snapshot to which I’ll want to roll back if I ever want to try a different approach to bringing my system back up to snuff.

More to Come…
This is just the beginning of my continuing adventures with this machine, and with figuring out how to make more and better use of a lightweight convertible tablet PC running Windows 8. I have at least one more interesting adventure to related based on recent experience — which I’ll cover in another blog — and will also be reporting on some upcoming developments at Dell to improve their support and value-add offerings for these PCs. Stay tuned!

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