This is the fourth entry in my recent “MyFaves” series: a collection of short and pointed appreciations for various hardware components of particular interest or value for Windows desktops, notebooks, and tablets. In this particular offering, I would like to recommend purchase and use of Secure Digital (SD) High Capacity (SDHC) or Extreme Capacity (SDXC) memory cards at sizes of 32, 64, or 128 GB for use in Windows notebooks, laptops, or tablets with suitable receptacles to accommodate those cards. These memory cards provide a terrific means to extend the storage of such units anywhere from modestly to significantly, especially on tablet or ultrabook systems that may have only 128 or 256 GB of SSD storage installed.
SDHC and SDXC cards come in many forms and in many sizes, but 32 GB or larger works best for extending portable notebook or tablet storage
[Image source: Tom's Hardware]
Until recently, I’ve routinely used 32 GB SDHC cards — which generally retail for around $20 these days — to extend and expand storage on my Lenovo, HP, and Dell notebooks, all of which I’ve converted from 300-500 GB conventional hard disks to SSDs in the 128 to 256 GB range (a mix of Intel and OCZ drives mostly, with a mixture of offerings from other vendors including Corsair and Samsung as well). Given tighter space on those machines as a result, a bit of added drop-in storage often proves very handy, especially on those systems where adding a second mSATA SSD is not an option.
But with the recent introduction of extreme capacity (SDXC) memory cards, available today in capacities up to 128 GB, 64 and 128 GB add-ons to compact portable systems are now achievable. Price ranges for these cards look something like this (abstracted from a total of 161 products available at Newegg.com):
- 32 GB: $28-30
- 64 GB: $37-150
- 128 GB: $85-180
The reason for the wide range of pricing for the higher-capacity models comes from different speed ratings for those respective memory cards. The most expensive offerings are generally labeled UHS Speed Class 1, followed in order by Class 10, and 400X speed ratings. According to the afore-cited Tom’s Hardware story (see link beneath image), maximum data transfer rates for these technologies are roughly as follows: 104 MB/sec for UHS Speed Class 1, 80 MB/sec for Class 10 (which actually guarantees a minimum 10 MB/sec rate), and 60 MB/sec for 400x devices. Ultimately, data rates as measured in their benchmarking tests show up at significantly lower values (here’s a sample table of combined streaming reads and writes, for example) with early UHS Speed Class 1 devices clocking in at between 13 and 20 MB/sec, and Class 10 at between 7 and 18 MB/sec).
To try this newer technology, I purchased a brand-new SanDisk Extreme Pro 64 GB SDXC card, having observed that the SanDisk Extreme memory card models generally come in at or near the top of all the comparative performance ratings. Here’s what CrystalDiskMark reported for that card in my Lenovo T520 notebook PC (Windows 7 Professional x64, i7-2640M, OCZ Vertex4 128GB SSD, 12 GB RAM):
Blazing fast results for the SanDisk 64 GB Extreme Pro memory card! As fast as my SSD, or faster…
Of course, I did have to pay through the nose for this memory card: it cost me $126.40 through a Newegg affiliate partner. The SanDisk Extreme Pro models are among the most expensive SDXC cards currently available, but they appear to offer a storage extension that is close to par with an SSD than most other memory cards do. As a true “storage extension” this is very desirable to me (this capability is primarily intended to serve on fast cameras where video recording or burst mode still photography puts pretty high demands on memory write bandwidth). Whether or not it’s sufficiently desirable to you to make the cost justifiable is between you and your checkbook!
Thanks to a great post from Ed Bott on ZDNet I just learned that Soluto’s announcement of its new Soluto for Business subscription/service was also accompanied by a very interesting report on April 24 as well. Entitled “Soluto’s PC Purchasing Guide for Small Businesses” (and its subtitle: “Monthly Report, April 2013″ and URL suggest we’ll be seeing more of this kind of data possibly on a monthly or quarterly basis), this report crunches data from what the company calls “long term, ongoing analysis of a huge number of PCs, taking into account events such as application crashes, application hangs, blue-screens-of-death, long boot times and excessive number of background processes.”
Soluto finally starts to share some results from its massive PC stability and performance monitoring of its large current user community.
In reporting on the top 10 PCs, Soluto incorporated a large data set, including the following information:
Data points considered included counts of crashes, hangs, BSODs, boots, and overall boot time.
In addition, in publishing the guide, Soluto filtered its results to include only Windows laptops that are currently for sale through various commercial outlets, including online, from the manufacturer, in big-box stores, and so forth. Interestingly the highest-scoring machine wasn’t a PC at all: The Ivy Bridge MacBook Pro (vintage mid-2012) took the pole position, closely followed by a $429 budget notebook from Acer, the Aspire E1-571. Dell notched up 5 out of the top 10 slots, with Acer and Apple each picking up another spot themselves, and Lenovo barely squeaking into tenth place with its Thinkpad X1 Carbon. Even more interestingly, units that cost at or under $700 dominated the list, racking up six spots overall.
Soluto’s Top 10 puts a MacBook Pro in top position, with Dell sweeping “overall best by total count.”
In their reporting on the Top 10 units, Soluto observes that PCs from vendors who traditionally load their machines up with third-party software, often called “crapware,” do not appear in this list. Such machines often experience lower stability and longer boot times as a result of this practice — which OEMs defend as a way to reduce PC pricing, since the companies that provide the added software help to subsidize the cost of PCs that include their warez — so it’s no big surprise that this would cost them position on Soluto’s list, given the metrics they use and the way those metrics get weighted. One of the reasons Soluto attributes to a MacBook landing in the top spot “is the fact that every Windows installation on it is clean.”
To me, what makes this report interesting is the data that drives it, and what that data tells us about how things work out there in homes and workplaces as measured empirically. This paints a very different picture from the reviews we see at the major online PC publications (PC Magazine, PC World, CNET, and so forth) and even at more focused laptop oriented sites (NotebookReview.com, NotebookCheck.com, LaptopMag.com, and so on). There, reviews concentrate most heavily on features and functions, and a “how fast can it go” kind of review philosophy that doesn’t always incorporate stability or reliability considerations (let alone the kind of database that Soluto can bring to bear).
This is extremely interesting stuff, not just because of what this single dataset and analysis has to say — which is pretty valuable and informative all by itself — but because of the ways the Soluto can (and promises to) be sliced and diced in future reports as well. Soluto already plans to report on stability differences between OEM installs and clean reinstalls on the same hardware; given their observations on the impact of crapware on overall stability and reliability this, too, promises to make for some fascinating reading and learning. It also already argues pretty forcefully that re-imaging new machines with clean installs may repay the time and effort required to replace an OEM image with a clean image of one’s own may repay itself quickly, and offer users a better overall computing experience as well.
Riverbed Technology is a networking technology company that’s been around for over a decade, based in San Francisco. It’s probably best-known for its WAN optimization and performance management products, but it has a presence in other market spaces as well including storage and application delivery, network planning and simulation, and a growing list of cloud-based services and appliances. Riverbed also owns CACE, the organization behind the WinPCap promiscuous mode Ethernet and wireless drivers, and the always-excellent Wireshark software-based protocol analyzer.
Riverbed offers cert credentials for its WAN optimization, network performance management, and application delivery products and platforms.
What many people don’t know (including me, until fairly recently) is that Riverbed also operates a certification program, one that offers associate and/or professional level credentials on the following Riverbed platforms (the associate credentials are abbreviated RCSA for Riverbed Certified Solutions Associate, and RCSP swaps the (A)ssociate for (P)rofessional instead):
- Riverbed Steelhead Appliance Deployment & Management:
- Riverbed Cascade Network Performance and Management products:
- Riverbed Stingray product family and ADC200 Application Delivery Controller:
All of these items may also be accessed through Riverbed’s Certification page, which provides news and information about recent program chances and announcements as well as links to currently available credentials and their requirements. The company’s cert information is generally available in PDF form on a per-credential basis (see the links included in the preceding list for an example) and is clear, concise, well-organized and informative (every question I thought to raise about these credentials was addressed therein, included their exam center partner — VUE — cost of exams –$150 — exam coverage and related references — links provided, where appropriate — plus lots more). If you work with Riverbed Technologies products covered by any of these credentials, further investigation — and possible participation in the program — is probably warranted. Good stuff!
As I look back over this blog, I see that I’ve written numerous entries that are either focused on, or make mention of, Tel Aviv-based Soluto’s offerings for optimizing PCs, remote management, and troubleshooting (run this Google search to see just how frequently I’ve delved into their stuff). Since Soluto made its debut in September 2010, in fact, I can see that I’ve mentioned it at least two dozen times in separate blog postings here. The company’s Soluto software starts at boot time, runs continuously in the background, and keeps tabs on many aspects of Windows operations and behavior, with an eye toward minimizing start-up and shut-down time, keeping up with OS patches and software updates for applications installed, and measuring “Windows frustrations” — namely, applications and components that occasionally crash by themselves, or that actually succeed in bringing Windows itself down. Good stuff, despite occasional issues with the tool itself (most notable of which is its tendency on some PCs to prevent the Windows Reliability Monitor from collecting and reporting on reliability data).
Two days ago — on April 24 — Soluto announced its Soluto for Business service, a subscription based Windows upkeep and maintenance offering aimed at small businesses that makes the following capabilities available to such organizations at very reasonable prices:
- Uses remote access to PCs under its purview to enable admins to access those machines remotely, from mobile devices, PCs, and Macs to undertake updates and repairs as needed.
- Automatically notifies designated recipients with alerts via email whenever problems occur on machines under management. Management alerts are proactive, because Soluto notifies IT professionals as soon as it detects potential or actual problems on individual PCs.
- Cloud-based service means that IT pros can act on PCs even when they’re shut down: pending actions will be queued in the cloud, and applied to the PC as soon as it powers back up and regains access to the Internet
- Fosters communication between the people who work and depend on their PCs to do their jobs (“the users”), and the people responsible for procuring, deploying and managing those PCs (“IT” or “the admins”) by keeping them informed about what’s new, what’s changing, what’s been detected, and when problems are found, who has fixed them and how they’ve done it.
- Keeps tabs on the total Soluto community in a nice application of crowd-sourced intelligence gathering, and uses that information to provide data about PCs for individual organizations in detail, but also to put that information into an overall global (and anonymous) context.
This is all well and good, but it’s the pricing model that makes Soluto for Business of great potential interest and possible value to smaller businesses and operations, especially those that may not have any or only part-time IT expertise on staff (I can also predict it offers a great opportunity for small-business-savvy management services companies to reach out to the very smallest of businesses as fully empowered caretakers of their PCs, too). Here’s the deal currently on offer for Soluto for Business:
1. Soluto Lite (up to 3 PCs): free for evaluation or home use.
2. Soluto Pro (up to 10 PCs): $8.33 per month paid yearly/$9.99 per month paid monthly (totals: $99.96 vs. $119.88 per year at $10-12 per PC per year for 10 actual PCs).
3. Soluto Business Pro (up to 50 PCs): $49.79 per month paid yearly/$59.99 per month paid monthly (totals: $597.48 vs. $719.88 per year at $12-14.4 per PC per year for 50 actual PCs).
An Enterprise flavor of Soluto for Business is also available, including customized reporting and phone support (contact Soluto to request a quote). About the only thing I can really compare to Soluto for Business is the Microsoft Intune offering, which only maintains the OS and doesn’t include upkeep for third-party software offerings, but does also bundle security software and optionally Software Assurance in the coverage it extends to PCs. Prices for Intune range from $72 per user (no Software Assurance) to $132 per user (with Software Assurance) per year. To my way of thinking, this makes Soluto for Business eminently suitable for smaller businesses and organizations, as long as they’re also willing and able to underwrite the costs of Microsoft software licenses or subscriptions as a separate line item on their budgets.
I’ve only got one desktop PC with a built-in Bluetooth interface: it comes with the Asus P8Z68-V PRO Gen3 motherboard that serves as the basis for my Windows 8 desktop test machine (which also features an i7 2600K CPU, 32 GB RAM, Nvidia GTX-560 graphics, and a 240 GB OCZ Vertex4 SSD). I use Bluetooth all the time for various peripherals in my office, especially on my laptop PCs, but also on my desktops as well.
Sure, you can buy incredibly small mouse and keyboard dongles for those most common of input peripherals (like Logitech’s excellent Unifying Receiver, which tends to be included with most of their non-Bluetooth devices nowadays). But the same form factor also applies to Bluetooth dongles nowadays, where the latest Bluetooth 4.0 specification is engineering to sip only minimal energy when the interface is not in use, making that type ideal for plugging into a notebook or tablet PC that may not include a built-in Bluetooth interface. If you run this Google Shopping search, you’ll see that you have an incredible range of choices for such devices, starting at prices under $4, with bigger-name devices (such as those from Asus, IOGear, Star Tech, and so forth) going for prices from $12 to $20. I picked up a couple of $10 no-name models from Newegg and have found them quite workable for the three or four notebooks I have that lack Bluetooth, and likewise for the four desktop PCs I use that don’t include it, either.
The whole thing is 17mm long, with ~5mm protruding from the USB port.
Here’s a short list of what I’ve used these devices for on various desktop and notebook PCs:
- Attach to wireless mice and keyboards
- Bluetooth link to various printers (many of which feature USB ports these days)
- Attach to wireless headphones and speakers for audio output (I also see you can plug a mini-jack like those found in earbuds, headphones, speaker rigs, and so forth into a special Bluetooth dongle but I’ve never tried one of these myself, but this strikes me as another great audio application for Bluetooth)
- Personal Area Network (PAN) links between computers
- Link to iPhone or iPad for file transfer or music playback
- Drive my son’s Lego NZXT “robot” from a laptop PC
That’s a LOT of functionality from a tiny ten-dollar device! Comes in handy all the time, easy to transport, install, and use. Great stuff.
I’m always researching and writing. And for me, that means looking up stuff on one screen and writing about what I’m researching on the other. The following photo doesn’t really do justice to my actual set-up’s usability because the lighting is different from my normal working set-up to enable a usable snap. But it does show me writing this very blog post, with WordPress open on the right-hand screen, and a Dell product page open on the left-hand screen (to their snazzy new UltraSharp U2713H 27″ monitors, currently available online for about $850 a pop).
I use two Dell UltraSharp 2707WFP monitors side-by-side on my desktop.
This set-up works pretty well for me, but it does require a reasonably capable graphics card to deal with two HD monitors (my older 2707 models feature 1980×1200 resolution, the newer models typically offer 2560×1440 at this screen size) side-by-side. My GTX 460 dates back to June 2010, and both of my monitors date back to 2008. At their time of purchase, each monitor cost me about $750; the graphics card cost just under $300. That’s more than the rest of my production desktop cost, despite its i7 930 CPU, an Intel 520 Series 180 GB SSD, a nice case, and 24 GB (4×6) of PC3-10600 RAM.
Even so, this is probably the best money that I’ve ever spent on PC hardware, simply because it lets me get so much stuff done both quickly and efficiently. I simply can’t overstate the value of copious screen real estate while you’re working on a PC. In fact, I’ve gotten in the habit of remoting into most of my other PCs to work on them (both notebooks and desktops) just because I’d much rather interact with them on a single 27″ screen, especially one of my notebooks, none of which has a screen larger than 21″ (the old HP Dragon) and most of which are 14″ or smaller (my Lenovo T520, X220 Tablet, Acer 5552, and my Dell XPS 13).
Though you may have to twist some arms at work to get funding for a second (or multiple) displays, it’s still worth the effort — and the expense. Here’s a Google search on “impact of multiple displays on PC productivity” that should provide you with plenty of ammunition to help you convince reluctant bosses that increasing your screen real estate likewise increases productivity and work output. Simply put, it’s money well spent and will generally earn itself back within a year (or at most, two) of purchase.
Microsoft is a company in transition.
The company posted a 19% increase in profits for the third quarter and stressed the future for Windows lies in the shift to new form factor devices and touch-enabled products.
“We are working on suite of small devices powered by Windows,” said Peter Klein, chief financial officer, who also announced he would resign from Microsoft to spend more time with family. Klein noted that Windows 8 touch devices by OEM partners are improving and that more devices at a variety of price points are expected in the coming months.
Microsoft has laid the groundwork to support new form factor of devices instead of just the traditional PC market. During the call, Klein discussed his expectations for the fourth quarter, noting that Windows will continue to reflect sales from Surface and that he expected OEM licensing to decline for traditional PCs but will grow for the tablet market.
The distribution for Surface has now reached 22 countries and 70 retailers, according to Klein. Reading between the lines, we can all expect Microsoft and its partners to unveil new mini Windows tablets as Klein stressed over and over how Microsoft was investing in Windows 8 devices for different price points.
Products based on Intel’s forthcoming Haswell chip will be realized by September while new form factors using Intel’s Baytrail Atom processor will be in time for the holiday selling season.
Klein also touted Windows and said, “We will release the next version of Windows with Windows Blue.” Windows Blue is expected to be released at Microsoft’s Build developer conference in late June. The company, however, did not discuss the number of Windows 8 licenses sold at this time.
The software giant posted $20.5 billion in revenue, while the Windows Division posted $5.7 billion in revenue, which also included revenue related to its Windows Upgrade Offer. The Microsoft Business Division posted $6.3 billion in revenue, also including its Office Upgrade Offer and product pre-sales. Servers and Tools division posted $5 billion in revenue, Online Services $832 million, Entertainment and Devices division $2.5 billion and the rest was $65 million.
It will be interesting to see if the software giant can become the innovative company it hopes to become. It’s a long-term transition that not only affects the software giant but the entire technology landscape as new mobile devices come to market.
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.
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.
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!