June 6, 2013 9:42 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
These days ultrabooks and tablets make DVDs passé for Windows installs. UFDs (USB Flash Drives, that is) are the way to go. I’d discovered the free Microsoft Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool at the Microsoft store about the same time that Windows 7 went commercial, but had also run into occasional issues with the tool (on some machines, the image wouldn’t install correctly and although all the files would download and unpack OK, I would still wind up with a non-bootable UFD). Just recently, I came across a reference to a free tool named Rufus that creates bootable UFDs in a variety of formats. It’s small, fast, and seems pretty much trouble-free: I got it to build a bootable Windows 8 Pro x64 UFD in just under 8 minutes (on my production PC, the MS tool takes about 15 minutes to do the same job).
The tool completely rebuilds the UFD from the ground up, so you don’t need to worry about MBR or formatting issues getting in the way.
Rufus is also very good about reporting on what it’s doing while it’s building you a bootable UFD. It started out by telling me it was rebuilding the MBR for a UEFI set-up, then reformatting, and then took the rest of the time to tell me what it was doing as it was building the Windows 8 Pro x64 boot environment on my behalf. This beats the pants off the Microsoft tool, which basically just goes away and tells you little or nothing about what it’s doing at any given moment. I like it enough to have put it in the Dropbox folder I use to make sure that key utilities are always at my immediate disposal whenever I’m graced with an Internet connection. Good stuff!
June 6, 2013 9:12 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
OK, come on: you may balk at the “Geeks-only” term in my blog headline, but who else could possibly care about the Cisco Press Facebook Sweepstakes now underway? Here’s the deal: register to win, and you might qualify for a free Cisco Marketplace Store shopping spree or $1,000 in Cisco equipment (no 10GB switches fall under that heading, so sorry). Here’s the headline from the Cisco Press Lounge:
No kidding: register on Facebook and you could achieve a modest payoff in the form of Cisco Press books, videos, practice tests, and even some choice bits of Cisco gear.
Tell me this doesn’t make your heart beat just a little bit faster. Sure it does! Head on over to Facebook, and login to that Webpage to get yourself signed up. Who knows? You might actually get lucky (one person qualifies for a $1,000 gift card from a Cisco reseller, two more get $350 to spend at the Cisco Marketplace store, and seven others can claim three Cisco Press print or e-books of their choosing).
June 5, 2013 11:26 AM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Yesterday, a flurry of stories announced a couple of new Sony VAIO touch-equipped ultrabook models equipped with Haswell processors that give us some pretty good intimations of what lies ahead. The new Sony Duo 13, for example, includes near field communication (NFC) as well as Bluetooth, along with a narrow-bezel touch display that essentially squeezes a 13″ monitor into the same frame as older 11″ models.
The new Sony Haswell models are thinner, lighter, and feature longer battery life.
The primary characteristics of these latest generation ultrabooks include thinner designs, improved graphics (thanks to Haswell’s added graphics oomph), better power management, and consequently, longer battery life. According to British tech site, The Inquirer, Sony is touting some of these latest models –namely, the VAIO Pro 13 and 11 — as “the world’s lightest touchscreen ultrabooks, weighing just 1.06 kg (2.33 lbs) and 0.87 kg (1.91 lbs) respectively.
Interestingly, this release doesn’t appear to be a complete redesign of earlier VAIO models in the same series. According to the Inquirer, the 13″ model features the same HD screen, webcam, storage options, and HDMI support as the preceding Ivy Bridge model. Battery life estimates for the 13″ Haswell model are in the 8-9 hour range, while 11 hours is mentioned for the 11″ model. All of these are very good numbers, and in line with what’s needed for a full day’s work on most notebook (or ultrabook) PCs. I’ll be curious to see if Sony (and others) follow up soon with tablets based on the ultra-low voltage Haswell models, and what kind of battery life they can deliver. Units may be ordered with i5 or i7 processors, 4 or 8 GB of RAM, 128, 256 or 512 GB SSD, along with fancy audio and other features as well (Sony will offer sheet batteries to more than double battery life for long flights or other extended untethered uses).
These Sony models are supposed to hit stores in mid-June to early July, at which time pricing information (not yet fully disclosed) must presumably also be available. The video indicates the Duo will start at around $1,000, and the 11″ Pro at around $1,150. For those interested in more info about these upcoming Sony models, here’s a YouTube video (04:28) that introduces them, and shows them off.
June 3, 2013 10:24 AM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
OK, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that MS has to do something to boost Surface Pro battery life, not only to establish parity with other emerging Windows 8 tablets, but also to help level the playing field with ARM-based Apple and Android tablets, too. That’s what makes this morning’s iTechPost story “Microsoft Surface Pro 2: Top features Intel’s new Haswell processor brings to the table” particularly interesting.
A peek inside the Surface Pro from the 2/13/2013 LifeOnMyMobile story “Take a Look at the Microsoft Surface Pro from the Inside” (photos from the iFixIt teardown).
Here are some of the items from that story, prompted no doubt by some opening Haswell shots in what should become a fusillade at Computex in Taipei this week:
- The Verge gets attribution for the claim that “…the Haswell processor is expected to boost battery life by an extra three hours.” That takes the normal range from 4-5 hours and extends it to 7-8 hours, nearly enough for a day’s worth of untethered computing. That’s certainly getting closer to what most professional users want — including me.
- Haswell chips are smaller than their predecessors which iTechPost says “…could mean we’ll be seeing an array of even thinner tablets,” while also observing that thinner probably also means smaller batteries, invoking a by-now classic engineering trade-off.
- Increased processing power should bring more oomph to Haswell graphics, and faster boot times for Haswell-based tablets.
What I’m really curious about is if MS will take the plunge into a removable battery, so users can elect to purchase extras and carry them around to extend battery life beyond whatever limits the combination of form factor, battery size, and power consumption the new Haswell-based units will afford. I’d also love to get some reliable information on when the next generation of Surface Pro units is likely to ship, so I can start saving my pennies and planning to buy one. Some publications, such as TechThirsty, speculate that the next-gen Surface Pro release may be tied to the upcoming Windows 8.1 release. If so, that means it may be available around the end of October 2013. On the other hand, TechRadar speculates that the Surface 2 could be released as early as June at Microsoft’s Build Developer Conference. TechRadar’s story also presents some interesting snippets form a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session that includes disclosures that the next Surface Pro will support an interface to accommodate an external battery link up (via the current “accessory spine” jack used to accommodate a snap-on keyboard at present), and some suggestion that the next edition will be better at accommodating external screens at various (and different) display resolutions.
Very interesting. I’m not at all sure that my “wish list” from November, 2012, will be satisfied in one go from MS with the Surface Pro 2. Nevertheless, it sounds like the next version should tick off a few checkmarks in some categories, and make significant progress in others. I’m hopeful that as we learn more about what’s coming, we’ll also like what emerges even more than what’s shaping up from the current crop of rumors, speculations, and educated guesses.
May 27, 2013 11:23 AM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Well, well, well. It’s been forever since the worm turned and AMD got a leg up on Intel–almost seven years, in fact, since the introduction of Intel’s Core family of processors whipped the daylights out of AMD and gave them the undisputed processor crown they’ve worn exclusively ever since then. But according to recent reports (see for example this PCWorld story from Michael Brown “AMD reveals next-gen mobile CPUs, claims unprecedented graphics performance“) that balance might soon tip the other way — at least, where mobile processors are concerned. That being the only remaining growth vector in the non-server PC market, especially for tablets and ultrabooks, that’s no small thing.
This caption from the AMD product announcement PPT deck states an interesting value proposition.
The new processors coming later this year are currently code-named “Temash,” “Kabini,” and “Richland,” and the claim is that these new architectures combine x86 compatible CPUs with the latest generation of AMD Radeon processors to offer serious graphics oomph along with extended battery life – a combination that represents an important sweet spot for touchscreen devices, particularly tablets. The Temash models for example, are numbered A4-1200 (2 cores, 3.9W TDP), A4-1250 (2 cores, 8W TDP), and A6-1450 (4 cores, 8W TDP) and correspond respectively to AMD Radeon HD 8180, HD 8210, and HD8250 GPUs. Kabini CPUs comes in both A and B series, with two 4-core A-series models (A6-5200 @ 25W TDP and HD8400 GPU, AB-5000 @15W TDP and HD8330 GPs), and three 2-core B-series models (E2-3000 @15W TDP and HD8280 GPU, E1-2500 @15W TDP and HD8240 GPU, E1-2100 @ 9W TDP with HD 8210 GPU). Richland CPUs come in 7 models, 3 A-Series at 35W TDPs, and 4-Aseries with low voltage (25 and 19W) and ultra-low voltage (17W) TDPs. Corresponding GPU models run from HD8650G at the top end (384 cores, 720 MHz) all the way down to HD8310G (128 cores, 554 MHz) at the bottom of the ULV end.
According to the PCWorld story, even though AMD itself hasn’t announced any design wins based on these new CPUs just yet, MSI has already indicated a refresh of its gaming notebooks will include AMD’s AMD10-5750M mobile Richland CPUs. The conclusion of the story also makes an important point that Intel is sure to chew on incessantly, as it plans its upcoming Haswell roll-outs “If AMD can usher in an era of very inexpensive, but highly capable tablets and notebooks, the company will have a success on its hands.” Could it be that the killer Windows 8 tablet deal will come from an unexpected quarter, and not only help to restore AMD’s flagging fortunes, but Microsoft’s as well? Only time (and lots of competitive benchmarks) will tell. In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed: increased competition in this market can only be good for the consumers of such technology!
May 24, 2013 11:07 AM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Over at PC World, Mark Hachman reports on a terrific bit of Windows 8.1 (Microsoft’s now-official name for the next upcoming Windows desktop release, preview due out on later this month) code analysis work. It’s by Justin Angel and is entitled “Pre-beta Windows 8.1 WinRT Developer APIs,” an innocuous sounding name that hides a treasure trove of useful information and suggestive hints about what lies ahead in Windows-land.
Wow! The new, more frequent point release approach to Windows makes for a lot more change and update to keep track of…
Angel explains his forensic approach as follows: Because Windows 8.1 image files include WinMD files that describe embedded Windows 8.1 APIs, tools can extract those WinMD files and compare them to their plain vanilla Windows 8 counterparts. Angel used a tool called Reflection to tease out the differences between the two versions. Here’s how he describes his methodology verbatim:
- Download the latest Windows 8.1 “leaked” image. This article was based on an image named “9385.0.FBL_PARTNER_OUT17.130415-2049_X86FRE_CLIENT_EN-US-PL-PL-RU-RU.ISO”.
- Create a bootable USB drive from the ISO file and Install it on a nearby machine.
- Win8.1’s WinMD files can be found under the following directory: C:\Windows\System32\WinMetadata
- Using Microsoft’s Framework Design Studio it’s then possible to compare the WinMD files from a WIndows 8.1 “leaked” image and Windows 8 RTM.
Following this approach, Angel was able to extract all kinds of information: it’s summarized in a 28-item “Table of Contents” in his article, and includes a whole raft of interesting revelations. To begin with he discovers support for the two major Bluetooth protocols in 8.1 — namely RfComm and GATT (the latter is key to supporting the latest generation of ultra-low energy BT devices). Some of the API calls indicate this could incorporate such devices as heart rate monitors, thermometers, glucose detectors, pedometers, proximity sensors, and more. Next up: barcode scanners and magnetic card readers, indicating a drive toward cash register apps for point of sale use. Likewise, there’s increased support for smart cards and pin code authorization techniques. Other highly interesting elements also include VPN support for Modern UI/Metro apps, supplementation of printer support already in Windows 8 with equivalent scanner support, ability to recognize and access arbitrary USB devices, PDF rendering services for apps, multiple screen handling for apps (PC screen only, duplicate, extend, and second screen only, just like on full-blown Windows 8), interesting new resolution scaling support for displays and support for resolutions up to 4K ultraHD displays, text-to-speech services for apps, and a whole bunch more.
If you’re curious, the original article is definitely worth reading. Sounds like there’ll be interesting additions to RT for Windows 8.1, and it’s inevitable that some or all of these new capabilities will also appear in the full-blown 8.1 version as well. Veeeeeeeeeeeery interesting!
May 23, 2013 9:58 AM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Call them “Windows Store apps,” “Modern UI apps,” or even “Metro apps,” the latest monthly report from Soluto reveals that these apps don’t figure much into how actual users employ their Windows 8 PCs day-in and day-out. The company’s sample drew from 10,848 Windows 8 machines, and included over 313 thousand Metro app launches among a population of 9,634 different Metro apps. The results are a bit surprising, and may in fact be somewhat daunting for Microsoft for all kinds of reasons. Here’s an overview of what this report lays out:
The presence of touch and the use of tablets profoundly affect frequency of Metro app usage, but all usage levels are pretty low.
- The average Windows 8 user launched just 1.52 Metro apps on a daily basis. As you’d expect that number varies from a high of 2.71 daily launches for tablet users to a low of 1.41 daily launches for desktop users. Laptop users average 1.51, and touch laptop users 2.22.
A significant sector of the user population launches Metro apps less than once a day; again, tablet and touch figure in to some degree.
- Among desktop and laptop users who lack touch screens, 60% of them launch a Metro app less than once a day. Even tablet users don’t use Metro apps daily — in fact, 44% of them also launch a Metro app less than once a day.
- There’s also a very interesting list of the Top 20 Metro apps by frequency of use in the Soluto report, which shows that images, PDFs, and entertainment figure heavily into the apps that Windows 8 users actually access (the ”Windows Communications Apps” or WCA is a portmanteau that includes Mail, People, Messaging, and Calendar, and it comes in on top). The most interesting observation here is that even in the top 20, only the top 3 (WCA, Windows Photos, and Microsoft Reader) are accessed once a week or more; the remaining 17 items are all accessed 0.71 times per week or less.
- Soluto also provides a measure of what they call “the most engaging apps” — by which they mean how often individuals who use a certain Metro app return back to it each week. By this measure, Yahoo! Mail comes out on top (with 26.91 average uses per week), followed by Social Jogger (Cyberlink: 25.98) and Social Networks (Cyberlink: 21.19). For number 4, Lync MX, the frequency drops to 4.4, WCA is number 3 at 3.21, and the remaining 10 items all fall at 2.13 times per week or less (item 15, iStunt2 registers at 1.43 times per week). Interestingly, items 2 and 3 are Acer apps for social networking, including Facebook and Twitter access.
To me, the overwhelming impact of this study is that Windows 8 isn’t being used very much at all in the way that Microsoft would like us to use it — namely, running Tile-based applications through the Modern UI interface. No wonder Windows 8 RT has tanked so badly: that’s pretty much the only interaction paradigm that this particular Windows 8 version supports. This also helps me to understand why Microsoft is back-pedaling in the upcoming “Blue” release with the return of the Start button and the ability to boot straight to the desktop. Microsoft collects Windows 8 telemetry, too, and their results can’t be all that different from Soluto’s. What is different, and useful, is that Soluto is sharing this information with the world. What will be more interesting to watch is to see if Modern UI app usage trends up over time…
May 20, 2013 1:05 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been setting up and breaking in a new touch-screen convertible tablet/ultrabook Dell PC recently. Last Thursday and Friday, in fact, I found myself in a seemingly insoluble dilemma that began to assume Kafka-esque proportions as I noodled through far too many attempts to fix my problem before I finally came up with a workable solution. The cause of the problem was laughable, and surely a result of my less-than-perfect eyesight, because when I set up my initial login, I tied it to my Microsoft Live account — which starts with the string “etittel”– but because the 1980×1020 resolution on the XPS12 turns out truly tiny letters in the input box (and subsequent displays) I didn’t figure out until much, much too late that I’d misspelled that string by adding an extra “t” in the middle, making it “etitttel” instead of “etittel!” It wasn’t until I turned on remote access and started working with the UI on a 27″ screen (with 1980×1200 resolution) that I could actually see that I was the author of my own misery.
The initial symptom was that Microsoft kept asking me to verify the account through its associated email address, and I kept seeing no email to verify (because my email address, of course has only two “t”s in the middle, not three). When at last I figured out my error, I then found myself flailing about to try to get rid of the erroneous login account, and to replace it with the proper one. It took repeated trials before I realized that I had to follow a routine that’s familiar to any programmer who wants to replace one programming variable with another without losing the variable’s contents:
1. First, I had to create a second account with the properly-spelled Microsoft Live email address.
2. I then had to verify that account with Microsoft (completely dead simple, once there was an email inbox to receive the confirmation message)
3. I had to set the privileges for the new account to Administrator equivalent, and completely log out of the bogus three-t account
4. Only then could I successfully delete the account with its hilariously misspelled name
I bought this little widget to speed big downloads, but it helped me switch from a misspelled Windows Live login to its properly-spelled counterpart.
And along the way, I learned something very interesting about Windows 8′s startup behavior. Apparently, it only loads wireless network drivers after a successful login. And because the initial login for the correct account name needed to be verified for the first login to complete, I couldn’t make it work until I attached my StarTech USB3-to-GbE network interface to the new machine. It verified just fine through a wired Ethernet connection, after stubbornly refusing to do so wireless through half a dozen tries (even if I had a working wireless connection going through a parallel and simultaneous login through the other account). It really is always something, when it comes to Windows!
May 17, 2013 11:52 AM
Posted by: 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.
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 18.104.22.1684 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 (22.214.171.1246 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 0×81000033 and 0×81000017. 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!