April 19, 2013 1:28 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
I’m starting a new occasional series of blog posts called “MyFaves,” to highlight some of the hardware items that I find absolutely indispensable in working on — that is installing, managing, repairing, and backing up — Windows systems. I’m going to kick this series off with a hardware accessory I have come to rely for all kinds of interesting uses on my fleet of Windows PCs, and my occasional forays into Mac OS and Linux on x86 machines. This product is sometimes called a hard drive caddy or a hard disk drive (HDD) docking station. These units can usually accommodate one or two SATA external hard disks, and typically handle both 2.5″ and 3.5″ form factors with aplomb. Here’s a picture of the Thermaltake BlackX Duet 5G (retails for $72 at Newegg) and supports a USB 3.0 interface (which of course also works with USB 2.0 ports, albeit more slowly):
The Thermaltake BlackX Duet 5G supports up to 3 TB drives in each of its two SATA slots.
“What are these things good for?” you ask. Although I keep discovering new ways to put them to work, here are some handy applications I’ve found for my two single-port HDD docking stations over the past year or so:
1. Drive imaging for conventional 2.5″ hard disks for migration onto an SSD replacement.
2. Drive diagnostics and repair for problem Windows drives — especially when they’re boot/system drives.
3. Easy external backup for notebook PCs: the dock makes it easy to swap drives, and thus to maintain a separate 3.5″ drive for each individual notebook.
4. Maintenance of separate, discrete (and sometimes encrypted) project drives for security-sensitive customers who (a) don’t want a drive mounted when it’s not in active use, and (b) who don’t want their data on a drive that is used for any other purpose besides working for them.
5. Easy access to a poor man’s simple-minded “near-line storage” for archival purposes (a simple handwritten label keyed to an online index makes it easy to keep track of what’s where, too).
6. Easy switching between different OSes and file systems (the dock uses USB, which works equally well with Windows, Mac OS, and Linux), with different drives for each one.
I could go on and on, but hopefully this gives you a pretty good idea that such a device is extremely handy to have around when you need to work on (or with) lots of different hard drives and SSDs. I’m getting ready to buy a two-slot model (the BlackX Duet 5G depicted above, in fact) because it seems tailor made for moving the contents of one drive to another, and will take up fewer ports and wall sockets in my office than the two single-port models I’m using right now.
April 17, 2013 4:09 PM
Posted by: Diana Hwang
Intel’s quarterly earnings declined in Q1 thanks to sluggish PC sales, but the sky is not falling on the chip maker. The drop is simply a sign of the long-term transition toward mobile devices.
Intel Corp. posted $12.6 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2013, down 7% from the prior quarter reflecting an average seasonal decline. The company reported its PC Client Group revenue of $8 billion, representing a 6.6% decrease compared with the previous fourth quarter and down 6% overall compared with the first quarter of 2012.
Intel’s PC sales were affected by the industry slump but the company painted a more optimistic picture for the second half of 2013. The company is looking forward to new mobile form factors coming to market from its OEMs and shipping by the holiday season. In fact, Intel expects to double its tablet volume in the second quarter of 2013.
Concern over whether slow traction for Windows 8 had been a major cause for the decrease in PC revenue caused Intel’s president and chief executive officer Paul Otellini to address the issue. Intel’s forthcoming core processor Haswell should help Windows 8 gain due to improvements in speed, battery life, new form factors and the integration of touch, he said.
However, as we all know, Microsoft’s tile interface has been a sore point among end users and the enterprise. Otellini acknowledged there was a learning curve for using Windows 8 and that price points for touch devices were still high, but will come down in the “next couple of quarters.”
PC market declines as mobile device market expands
The earnings call this week reiterated Intel’s continued commitment to mobile devices. Products such as Intel’s future version of its Atom processor dubbed Baytrail will enable OEMs to build new form factor devices supporting different screen sizes such as thinner, lighter and more power tablets and smart phones. Baytrail will ship in the second half of this year. (Will we see Windows-based mini-tablets soon?)
For Windows 8 that’s good news, especially if, as Intel noted, touch price points come down in the next few quarters. For example, Intel provides ultrabook specs which will enable OEMs to offer devices for $599 and perhaps as low as $499, Otellini said. He added that touch-enabled notebooks could drop down in price as low as $200.
Is Intel’s earnings decline dire?
I don’t think so.
We have to look at the bigger picture and long-range outlook of our changing technology landscape. We are in a transition mode. New form factor devices enable us to work in new and creative ways and these products already have been introduced or are coming.
The enterprise will buy devices – whether it’s a desktop PC, ultrabook, convertible notebook, tablet, smart phone or some other device that has yet to be invented – based on the user’s needs and what applications they require. Even a consumer will analyze their purchase too. Why buy a gaming desktop PC when what you really need is a tablet or ultrabook?
But these new devices have to work in conjunction with other technologies, like the cloud, and with your enterprise applications, for example.
The rate of technology introduction, growth and adoption occur at different rates. It’s a constantly changing puzzle and we have to figure out how the pieces fit at every stage. Even if we hit a quarterly slump today, in a few years that slump could be forgotten as we transition to new technology and new modes of computing. Remember when the industry sold more desktop PCs than notebooks and now it’s the opposite?
All of us need to remember that major technology transitions take time. We shouldn’t forget the quarterly outlook to keep companies on track, but more importantly, we need to take a step back and keep in mind what the future looks like.
April 17, 2013 2:15 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Thanks to testing of some leaked images for the upcoming “refresh” for Windows 8 — codenamed “Blue” or “Windows Blue” at present — numerous sources have now confirmed that it may be possible to boot the next major Windows 8 release directly to the desktop. Likewise, the Start button and its related menu may return to the user interface as well. Various element of this rethinking are reported in recent stories from longtime MS watchers Mary Jo Foley (ZDNet) and Tom Warren (The Verge).
A mosaic of rumors is forming around UI changes to Windows 8.1, code-named “Blue.”
[Image Credit: Shutterstock 133089986]
Of course, there was a start button in the developer beta of Windows 8, too, which subsequently disappeared with the consumer preview beta. It’s possible this could be a transitory element, but I agree with both Foley’s and Warren’s analyses which basically posit that MS is bowing to consumer pressure and profound pushback in restoring this kind of functionality to the Windows 8 desktop, despite their explicit philosophy of moving users to a different UI paradigm whether they like it or not.
Where Foley and Warren differ in their stories is regarding the return of the Start button and menu: Foley believes it’s on its way back in, while Warren is convinced that the “boot to desktop” option will remain unaccompanied by a Microsoft-supplied Start menu. If the latter proves true, this will be a major boon to companies like Stardock Corporation, whose Start8 $5 start menu replacement has proved enormously popular with Windows 8 users around the globe.
Of course, we need to wait for official betas to emerge from the shadows before we’ll know any of this for sure. I find it fascinating that MS resisted input from all sectors to bring back the Start menu and to provide a boot to desktop option, both of which are sure-fire hits with business users who generally stick to desktop-based applications anyway (especially while working in the office), but is now apparently acceding to demand for such changes. But only time will tell, so we’ll all have to wait and see!
April 13, 2013 8:35 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
In recent days, IDC has reported that PC sales fell in the aggregate by a whopping 14% for the final quarter of 2012, the biggest decline ever recorded since they started keeping tabs on such things about 20 years ago. In the wake of this report, some interesting headlines have begun to appear in the computer trade press online and off. Here’s a sampling, just to give you a flavor of what’s making those headlines (please, hover your mouse above the links to get the full versions of these sometimes-truncated link listings):
1. Is Windows 8 Killing PC Sales? (Forbes)
2. Should Microsoft Kill Windows 8 Immediately? (The Motley Fool)
3. PC makers need to refocus after Windows 8 pushes PC sales off a cliff (The Inquirer)
4. The real reasons to blame Windows 8 for plummeting PC sales (PCWorld; here, like me, author Tony Bradley downplays an overt causal link between Win8 and PC sales)
5. Tepid Reception To Windows 8 Blamed for Drop in PC Sales (NPR News blog)
Of course, headlines are designed to suck readers in, so those who write them aren’t above using a little hyperbole or sensationalism to attract more eyeballs, but the notion that Windows 8′s less-than-stellar market reception is related to the decline in PC sales seems to have struck home with lots of writers, as a quick look at this Google News search will attest with over 300 hits on this presumption.
Do Windows 8′s lagging sales explain why PC sales in general slumped by 14% for Q4’12?
[Image credit: PCWorld]
I’m not sure I buy into this notion, for lots of reasons. First, Windows 8 didn’t become commercially available until one-third of Q4 had already elapsed (its GA date was 10/26). Second, new Windows OS sales seldom take the world by immediate storm, even when they’re timed to (somewhat) accommodate the all-important holiday shopping season. Third, I think it’s unfair to blame Windows 8 for the well-appreciated tablet and smartphone phenomenon that’s occurring worldwide. That is, technology buyers are opting in enormous droves to eschew PCs in favor of smaller, cheaper, touch-oriented computing devices that don’t begin to match PCs in overall functionality, but that do meet needs for access to communication, email, social networking, and a little light-duty Web surfing quite nicely. Why should those buyers spend money they don’t have to obtain more functionality that they don’t need? This is especially true for those in the developing world where the difference between a $50-100 smartphone and even a $300 laptop translates into ”limited computing” versus “no computing” for those who simply can’t afford $300 or more to get into a budget PC or notebook (including Chromebooks, outside the Windows umbrella).
I really don’t think this is a decline that can be laid entirely at Windows 8′s door. Sure, sales are not as robust as OEMs or Microsoft would like. Sure, there are well-documented issues with Windows 8′s mind and market share, and it’s failed to capture the imagination of the buying public. But there’s a lot more at work here than just a stubborn and well-intentioned attempt to remake the user interface for Windows, and to pick up and run with a touch-friendly runtime environment. In fact, the real problem is not Windows 8, as far as I can tell: it’s the fact that even the cheapest PC of any kind costs at least twice as much as an acceptable smartphone, and that a good tablet looks and feels like a better buy to those with a little more money to spend than does a bottom-of-the-barrel notebook or desktop PC. That’s what’s causing PC sales to plummet, IMHO, and it doesn’t look likely to stop any time soon, either.
Call me a Pollyanna if you like, but I don’t even think Windows 8 is a turkey at all. It may pose some interesting challenges to those not ready for a remake of a familiar desktop environment, but those challenges can be overcome with a little time and elbow grease (or the application of a low- or no-cost Start menu replacement program). There are much bigger forces driving PC sales down than a not-so-popular Windows OS, and no amount of software development is likely to reverse those trends either. Get ready for the “post-PC era” — looks like it will soon be upon us!
April 12, 2013 3:41 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Here’s one for the record books — though perhaps not, when you pause to think about it further. This New Yorker headline from The Borowitz Report kind of says it all: “North Korean Missile Test Delayed by Windows 8.” Seems that the North Koreans updated their missile testing environment from Windows 95 (!) to Windows 8 sometime last year (presumably, on or after October 26, when Windows 8 made its commercial debut). I spent a fruitless hour or so combing through the past 3 days’ press releases from the Korean Central News Agency (the official press outlet for the DPRK) without being able to find the original, much to my disappointment. Word has it (via Borowitz) that in addition to his displeasure with the South Korean and US governments, President Kim Jong Un also has considerable pique left over for Microsoft, too.
Even thermonuclear Armageddon must take a back seat to Windows bugs, it seems!
While I see no signs that the DPRK will tone down its hyper-aggressive threats and bombast, it’s nice to know that their plans for world domination can fall prey to the same kinds of mundane problems as everybody else’s. And though most of the world domination that Windows 8 helps to fuel is of the business variety rather than the geopolitical kind, I’m sure there are plenty of cases where bugs and gotchas have delayed or derailed those kinds of plans, too.
At any rate, this gave me a much-needed laugh for this Friday morning, so I thought I would pass it on here. Enjoy!
April 9, 2013 7:24 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
The end is at hand, so why not take a discounted upgrade?
MS must be getting a little desperate to start moving its huge installed XP base to a newer version of Windows. That’s the only good reason I can come up with for the company’s ongoing promotion — good through June 30, 2013 (not 2014, alas) — for buyers of Windows operating systems and Windows Office suites. A 15% discount will be available for up to 249 copies (which puts this on the low end of SMB spectrum, which the SBA defines as a going concern with anywhere up to 500 to as many as 1,500 employees, depending on one’s market niche). Such purchases must go through a Microsoft Partner company, which you can dig up through their Microsoft Pinpoint pages.
This effort comes in tandem with a white paper that MS commissioned from IDC entitled “Mitigating Risk: Why Sticking with Windows XP is a Bad Idea.” The paper’s banner bears a Windows 8 logo, but the descriptive copy includes the phrase “this white paper covers the business and operational benefits associated with a move to Windows 7 and why remaining with Windows XP is no longer a good business decision.” Microsoft’s advice is for SMBs to “get modern” and drop the old stuff in favor of the new, because it’s not just faster and better, it’s also more secure, better able to work with modern software and apps, experiences less downtime, and — of course — is still eligible for MS support services.
Out with the old, and in with the new!
I’d say this was a good deal if the discounts were deeper and the window of opportunity a little bigger. But for those operations already considering migration or upgrade, this could be a nice inducement to go ahead and take advantage of the savings it can deliver. For those inclined toward brinksmanship, the inevitable question is “If they’re offering 15% a year before the end-of-life date, will the discounts get better as that date approaches?” Who knows?
April 6, 2013 8:45 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Just read a fascinating article over at the DealNews website. Entitled “Windows 8 Sales Are Terrible, But That’s Great News for Laptop Deals,” it makes the point that slow Windows 8 uptake in the marketplace continues to exert downward pressure on low-end laptop prices for units that come with Windows 8 pre-installed. And indeed, a quick trip to that site’s Laptop Deals page (set to list laptops by increasing prices, lowest first) reveals more than a dozen interesting items with Windows 8 installed for $450 or under.
Loads of laptop for low cost thanks to slow Windows 8 sales.
Here’s what I found that comes with Windows 8 installed in the first two screens there (hover over the links for the “spec line” from that site, if you’d like to see more info, or follow the link to get the sales page for each unit):
1. Gateway AMD Dual Core 16″ Laptop $300, free shipping
2. Toshiba Satellite Intel Celeron 16″ Laptop $300, free shipping
3. Refurb Asus Dual Core Pentium 14″ Laptop $300, free shipping
4. HP 2000z AMD Dual Core 16″ Laptop $335 + $10 S&H
5. HP Pavilion Core i3 Dual Core 14″ Laptop $348 after rebate + $11 S&H
6. Lenovo G580 i3 Dual Core 16″ Laptop $358 + $11 S&H
7. Lenovo IdeaPad AMD Quad Core 14″ Laptop $380 + free shipping
8. Dell i3 Dual Core 16″ Laptop $380 + free shipping
9. HP 650 Dual Core i3 16″ Laptop $400 + $8 S&H
10. Lenovo IdeaPad S400 Dual Core i3 14″ Laptop $400 + $8 S&H
11. Dell Inspiron 17R Dual Core Pentium 17″ Laptop (1600×900) $400 + free shipping
12. HP Pavilion Dual Core AMD 16″ Laptop $415 + $10 S&H
13. Sony VAIO Dual Core AMD 12″ Laptop $430 + free shipping
14. Dell Inspiron Dual Core i3 17″ Laptop $450 + free shipping
It’s pretty amazing what $300-350 will buy you, as represented by items 1-6 on the preceding list. You can expect only 1366×768 resolution for that price, 2-6 GB of RAM, and a hard disk of 500 GB or less, but it’s still a very good deal. I jumped on a $300 deal for my son’s school machine last year (2012) and what I got for the money seems downright antediluvian by comparison. It’s an Acer 5552-3691 with a 2.2 GHz AMD P340 Dual Core CPU, and came with 4 GB RAM — since upgraded to 6 GB — a 1366×768 display, and a 320 GB 5,400 RPM hard disk — since upgraded to a 128 GB OCZ Agility 3 SSD, and it runs Windows 8 Professional quite nicely. It looks like that same $300 buys a lot more these days, including Windows 8. The standard resolution is on the low end (1366×768), and the processors are by no means killer models, but if my experience on the older Acer model is an indication, they should work just fine for your kids’ school machines, a couch laptop, or for loaner units at work for temp or contract workers who need something for basic workaday computing.
If you’re willing to extend your budget by $50-150, to the $350-450 range, you can find some pretty powerful big-name machines — albeit with a preponderance of AMD CPUs and continuing in the 1366×768 resolution vein — for the money. In particular, Newegg’s prices for refurb units seem to offer great combinations of low price and strong functionality, so you might want to start dropping in on their site to check deals from time to time, because they come and go very quickly all the time. I’ve also found TigerDirect — the purveyor of my son’s Acer 5552 $300 notebook from last year — sometimes offers some pretty incredible refurb and sales prices as well.
April 5, 2013 11:14 PM
Posted by: Diana Hwang
After a month of searching for the right person, I finally found him. I had to look under every rock but he’s really out there. It’s the lone guy on the planet who loves his Surface Pro and he doesn’t work for Microsoft!
Truly, it was a huge accomplishment to find someone who could wax poetic all about the Surface Pro and was willing to go on record without making sure any quotes needed to pass through the lawyers.
His name is Dan Nainan. Dan is a techy geek who travels the world billing himself as a clean comedian. The guy used to be an Intel senior engineer and for years gave technical demos with Andy Grove at major events. Along the way, Dan discovered he could make people laugh and now loves his new life as a comedian.
And, by the way, did I mention he loves his Surface Pro?
I asked Dan why he didn’t choose another vendor’s tablet given that the Surface Pro was a first generation device. He got all serious.
“It has to be able to run Windows,” he told me. “I look at Siri as a gateway for voice dictation. Its speaker independent and anyone can talk to an iPhone and iPad. But true voice dictation takes place when you use Dragon Naturally Speaking and that only runs on Windows or Mac.”
By that he means, the full package, not the Dragon Dictation iOS app for email and text messages. (In fact, Dan has written a book using the voice recognition package and is now working on another one. )
When the Surface Pro came out, Dan bought the 64 GB version.
“When I’m on the road, I can replace both my laptop and my iPad,” he recalled. In fact, Dan lightened his load by rolling his mobile content creation and consumption device into one.
I thought Dan would want the Surface Pro that had the most storage on it. After all he is a techy geek and don’t early adopters want the latest and greatest technology with the most storage?
The 128 GB device was sold out at the time, Dan explained. But he’s not too worried about having only a 64 GB unit because of the Surface Pro’s extra microSDXC expansion slot.
Dan has yet to try is loading up his workhorse Adobe Premiere video editing software on the device. The reason? He needs a bigger screen.
Is there anything Dan doesn’t like about the Surface Pro?
“Windows 8 takes time to get used to,” Dan conceded. I guess Dan suffers from the same issues that countless others have panned Microsoft for: The Windows 8 tile interface is a major change for anyone to get used to. (Thank God Microsoft had enough smarts to provide users with the desktop view).
“I like the touch screen and I use the pen once in a while. There is one USB slot and another one built into the power adapter,” Dan said. “But it doesn’t work.” Of course.
“The only thing I need to plug into is a USB headset,” Dan explained. I guess that’s why he hasn’t complained to Microsoft about the USB slot on his power adapter not working. He doesn’t really need it right now.
While there are probably other Surface Pro lovers somewhere out there, Dan is the one who happened to turn up. Microsoft should be grateful to Dan for evangelizing the Surface Pro, especially when the company is getting a very cool response to Windows 8 and Windows RT from the enterprise. I’m waiting for the Surface Pro to make its way into Dan’s act. Who knows what he’ll say about it then?
April 5, 2013 3:20 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
In early 2012, I wrote a two-part series of blog posts on “Buying a Touchscreen for Windows 8,” (Episode 1, Episode 2) as I worked through finding a suitable touchscreen for a Windows 8 test machine in connection with a book on Windows 8 I was researching at that time. While plenty of affordable touchscreens were available at the time, only a very few — and more costly — touchscreens actually complied with the Windows 8 touch requirements for such devices. I determined that somebody insistent on compliance with those requirements would have to spend over $1,000 to meet them, most likely in the form of a very nice 3M M181866PW Multi-Touch Display, if not something bigger. Today, that monitor still costs over $1,100, while bigger models cost even more (3M’s offerings go all the way up to 32″ for a whopping $4,500 or thereabouts).
Looks nice, but where is the hand vis-a-vis the keyboard right now?
But first, ask yourself this: “Do I REALLY need touch?”
I raise this important question because I’ve now had over one year of day-in, day-out experience working with Windows 8 on desktop, notebook, and tablet PCs. Because I work primarily on the Windows 8 desktop (not running Windows Store/Modern UI apps, in other words, and using a conventional keyboard and mouse) I’ve observed that while touch is nice to have, it’s not absolutely essential unless I’m working on a tablet device or a smartphone, where touch is the ONLY user interface available. Here’s why: when you work mostly on the keyboard and with a mouse, you have to move your hand some distance away from its usual home location to access a touch display. This is disruptive to work flow (my work flow, at least) because it take time to make those moves, and then to get re-set to work the keyboard when returning from the display, or vice-versa. And here’s another thing to consider: you can spend a lot less ($60-80, in most cases) to purchase a touch mouse (both Microsoft and Logitech have nice models) or trackpad instead of a touch display, without disrupting workflow, and still get the benefit of the gestures that touch permits to drive the Win8 interface.
If you still want a touch display or a notebook with a touch screen, you’ll be pleased to learn that…
Prices have fallen dramatically, and the number of purchase options have increased likewise, for touchscreen displays that comply with Windows 8 Touch requirements (now under the umbrella of the Microsoft Hardware Certification program, as the former Windows Logo program has been renamed). With just a little trolling online, I found recent articles from ComputerWorld, PC World, and PC Advisor that provide buying advice and product reviews on offerings from numerous well-known vendors, including Acer, Dell, LG, and Viewsonic, among others, and a carefully-crafted Google Shopping search turns up more company names, including Planar, ELO, TouchSystems, HP, NEC, Samsung, and others.
The good news here — as the afore-cited review articles from PC World and ComputerWorld attest — is that you can find any number of Windows 8 hardware certified touchscreen monitors in a size range from 21 to 23″ for $700 or less. Hooking up these monitors does mean giving up a USB port (for the human interface device, or HID, communication that touch itself requires) in addition to a VGA, DVI, HDMI, or DisplayPort link for the video (and audio where applicable), but that’s a modest additional resource requirement that these devices demand. Conventional wisdom remains that it costs about $100-200 more to add touch to a monitor of a given size (bigger monitors require larger touch surfaces, so the cost differential tends to rise in tandem with display size), so that’s the cost increment for replacing an existing monitor (or for adding a touchscreen as an additional monitor, as many users choose to do instead).
So now that there’s no question that you can find a reasonably priced touchscreen for Windows 8 use (and double ditto for Windows 8 laptops or ultrabooks), the real question still remains: Do you really want to go the touchscreen route, or try a touch-friendly mouse or trackpad instead? My suggestion: start with the mouse or trackpad and see if you can live with it (I do myself, every day). Only if you can’t should you spring for the added expense (and desktop real estate) of a Windows 8 hardware certified touch monitor.
[Note added 4/5/2013: No sooner had I posted this blog, than I found a fantastic article over at Ars Technica on the general subject of touch displays: it's entitled "From touch displays to the Surface: A brief history of touchscreen technology" and it's a great read on the history, present, and future of touch displays and their many and increasing applications.]