Whoa! Talk about major miniaturization: I stumbled across some reviews of the new SANDisk Cruzer Fit USB drives last week, and was immediately struck by their amazing utility for extending storage on notebooks, laptops, and especially tablet PCs (at least, those equipped with accessible USB ports). They’re the same size and format as the ultra-compact wireless dongles for networking and USB that have been available for a few years now, as the following photo illustrates (SANDisk even includes a cap for the device, which is just about the same size as the device itself):
This USB drive is available only in USB 2.0 form right now, and comes in 8, 16, and 32 GB sizes (the 32 GB model is available from some online resellers for as little as $25-26, not including S&H or applicable taxes). I think it’s a great way to add storage to mobile PCs and tablets because the form factor is small enough that you can leave the drive plugged in all the time, even as you pull your mobile PC or tablet in and out of a traveling case or protective sleeve. The price is right, too!
The only other comparable storage options come on those devices (like the Surface Pro, and even the Barnes & Noble Nook) that support micro SD cards, or on laptops and notebooks with full-size SD card readers. Micro SD cards top out at 64 GB these days, and usually cost $1.00-2.00 per GB depending on speed. Full-size SD cards currently top out at 128 GB, and cost about the same per GB of storage.
Any of these options enables users to extend available storage — sometimes significantly — at a modest cost, without having to worry about accessing device internals to upgrade hard-to-get-at SSDs or hard disks (for tablets and ultrabooks, anyway). I’m already using 32 GB SD cards in my Lenovo T520 and X220 Tablet, and have a 64 GB miniature SD card on order for my son’s Nook HD. Should he succeed in persuading me to buy a Surface Pro (as he desperately desires me to do), I will acquire a 64 GB micro SD card for that device at the same time I order the Surface Pro itself. If I need more storage than that, I can add a SANDisk Cruzer Fit to the mix, too!
I’ve been working my way deeper and deeper into UEFI based Windows 8 installation and operation over the past few weeks. This weekend, I stumbled across a fab and free little utility called ISO to USB that can read any ISO formatted file and “burn” it to a USB-based target device of one’s choosing. For me, that usually tends to be a USB flash device (known as a UFD in Microsoft-speak). To act as a repository for any of the Windows 8 ISOs, it must be at least 4 GB in size or larger. For this blog, I grabbed my older and somewhat beat-up but still speedy and capable Corsair Survivor 8GB USB 2.0 model to do the job. Here’s a screen cap of the utility window, upon successfully building a bootable Windows 8 installer from the 64-bit Windows 8 Pro .ISO file (the trick is to format the UFD as FAT32, because that’s the only format that works for a UEFI install):
Sure, it’s easy to use diskpart to do the necessary set-up and drive formatting to get ready to copy the contents of a mounted ISO file in Windows 7 or Windows 8 to build a UEFI install UFD manually. But this free tool does the whole job in one step, as long as you can point to the ISO file you need and have a spare UFD ready to turn into your UEFI bootable installer. Given that using this tool is dead simple and pretty fast, why not take advantage of its capabilities? The price is right, too!
I’ve got over half a dozen different USB flash drives (UFDs, in Microsoft-speak) sitting on my desk right now, but that’s still not enough for me to keep resident all of the different bootable installers, UEFI shells, and diagnostic tools I also have on hand. I had been using Acronis True Image to keep a library of USB image snapshots, but yesterday afternoon I fired up the program and waited for it to complete backing up a 2 GB UFD … and waited … and waited … and waited some more. Then I jumped into Task Manager and killed the Acronis True Image process tree because the process was either hung, or taking waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long to complete.
That’s when I went poking around for a USB image backup utility, and more or less immediately found Alex (Beug) Page’s website called Alex’s Coding Playground. There, he’s got a free (donationware) download called the USB Image Tool that does a peachy job of finding and capturing USB drive images in their entirety. It will also let you restore images it has captured onto USB drives as well in the form of .img files. Here’s what the tool looks like (download link):
It finished my paltry drive image (of the Steve Gibson SpinRite stuff that I still use occasionally to diagnose and repair my old-fangled spinning hard disks) in under two minutes (and I couldn’t even get status information from True Image in under 10, after which I bailed on the program). I’ve now used the USB Image Tool to capture backups of all my install UFDs (for Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise, Windows 7 Professional, and Windows 7 Ultimate) and my various diagnostic tools (a Lenovo diagnostic that boots into the UEFI shell to run disk, PCI, and memory checks, a Linux boot environment that hosts a raft of forensic and diagnostic tools, and a Windows 8 PE set-up that lets me operate on otherwise inaccessible files and folders on Windows boot and system partitions). It’s a great tool, and one that I’m glad to have added to my toolbox. If you try it out yourself, you may feel the same way. I made a contribution of 5 € (Euro; $6.85 US) for the program this morning to express my appreciation and support; I hope you’ll feel inclined to do likewise after you try out this nice little tool.
In working through the various tutorials and information I’ve found on making UEFI boot work with Windows 8, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m comfortable with setting up and installing a UEFI-based version of the OS. The secret is to build a FAT32 formatted install UFD using the Windows 8 ISO image of your choice, and then to delete everything on the target disk before installing the Windows 8 OS thereupon. This produces diskpart output that looks like this:
After set-up I went into diskpart, and selected disk 0 (where my C: drive, and the EFI and Recovery partitions reside), then used the “list volume” command to show the hidden and system partitions on the drive. I know UEFI is working because I’ve configured it to boot on my Lenovo X220 Tablet in “UEFI-only” mode, and the machine is booting and running fine. FWIW, I do notice a slight speed-up in overall boot time as a result of switching from Legacy BIOS mode to UEFI mode.
But what still eludes me is how I can get the UEFI option to appear in the Advanced Startup options menu for Windows 8 (to get to this facility, you click “Change PC Settings” from the Settings charm, then click General, then scroll all the way down to the bottom of the right-hand side screen menu to where it says “Advanced startup,” then click the button that reads “Restart now.” After that, you click “Troubleshoot,” and then finally the “Advanced options” item appears). A UEFI item is supposed to appear at the middle right for Windows 8 UEFI installations but so far I haven’t been able to figure out how to make that it show itself.
Along the way, I’ve discovered some great resources that address UEFI installation and EFI bootloader repairs:
- How to Create a Bootable USB Flash Drive for UEFI in Windows 7 and Windows 8 (Eightforums.com, dated 12/13/2012; Brink)
- How to Install Windows 8 Using the “Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (Eightforums.com, dated 9/15/2011; Arkhi)
- How can I repair the Windows 8 EFI Bootloader? (Superuser.com, dated 8/12/2012 and later, Alex and others)
I haven’t yet worked all the way through the options that the final item presents, but I’ve done enough of them to believe it’s not going to fix my problem. I’m going to keep researching this, and may even call Lenovo Tech Support to see if they can shed any light on this issue. If I can get to the bottom of this and fix it, I’ll report back. If anybody else already knows how to fix it, I’ll hope they’ll comment here to that effect, or shoot me an email at ed at edtittel dot com, pronto. This should be interesting, no matter how it finally turns out!
A quick peek at the latest desktop operating system market share pie graph from NetMarketShare.com shows that Windows continues to dominate, with a least a 86 percent overall share. In that mix, Windows 7 rules at 44.48%, XP follows next at a still-high 39.51%, and Windows 8 trails far behind at 2.26% (less than Mac OS X 10.8 at 2.44%, and just over one third of the aggregate OS X share of 6.4% for versions 10.8, 10.7, and 10.6 combined).
But there’s another figure on the NetMarketShare page, that tells a changing story that bodes ill for the desktop — and Microsoft — in the long term. It shows the composition of overall share by device type, and distinguishes desktop devices from mobile and tablet devices. Right now, that breakdown looks like 87.8% for desktop and 11.8% for mobile and tablet devices (presumably with the remaining 0.4% allocated elsewhere or lost to rounding error). But on the corresponding mobile share graph, Microsoft barely registers at 1.15% for all versions of Windows Phone, and iOS at 60.56% and Android at 24.51% rule this roost.
The emerging long-term trend, of course, is that the ratio of desktops to mobile devices is going to keep tilting ever more strongly in favor of mobile devices, as billions of new smartphones and tablets get purchased and start tapping into the Internet, particularly outside First World countries where computer ownership is more or less given in most families. In the Second and Third Worlds, however, high costs and lack of infrastructure, training for, and exposure to conventional PCs combine with an inexhaustible appetite for mobile devices to suggest that sometime in the next decade — perhaps sooner — the ratio will change to put mobile devices in the majority, and those devices will achieve absolute ascendancy as the workloads that demand PCs today can also be accommodated on mobile devices in the future.
When that happens (and most experts are convinced this switchover is just a matter of time) what happens to Microsoft? Good question! Obviously, the company itself is concerned, as its remaking of the Windows 8 desktop as a tablet-oriented OS shows, and as the company’s renewed and intensified focus on Windows Phone OSes also attests. Will it be enough to keep the colossus of Redmond relevant to the emerging 21st century mobile computing landscape? Another good question. I can tell that they’re trying hard to stage a big comeback, but also that success so far eludes their grasp. This should be an interesting technology tango to watch, as Apple and Android seek to eat Microsoft’s lunch. I have to see this as a consumer win, but also hope that today’s highly fragmented mobile landscape finds a bit more order amidst the prevailing chaos as we work our way deeper into this decade, and beyond. This blog may need a new title sometime sooner, if it doesn’t become completely irrelevant before then!
With documented exploits for both Mac OS and Windows reported in the field, Adobe released another Flash version last night, moving up from version 11.5.502.146 to 11.5.502.149 in the process (see both numbers in my Flash Player Settings Manager window, after updating IE with the ActiveX version, but before installing the Plug-in Version for Netscape-compatible browsers):
The previous version (11.5.502.146) carries a release date of 1/8/2013 in the Flash Player Archives on the Adobe Website. Dan Goodin of Ars Technica has an excellent story entitled “Adobe issues emergency Flash update for attacks on Windows, Mac users,” that indicates updates are also available for Android and Linux platforms, too. Apparently, the thinking is that the vulnerability is severe enough to warrant hurry-up effort from malefactors to bring it up on those other runtime environments, because the ability to compromise Safari and Firefox on the Mac has also played into foisting booby-trapped Word documents with malicious Flash content on the PC is believed likely to show up in various other forms there as well. These vulnerabilities are classified as CVE-2013-0634 (Mac) and CVE-2013-0633 (Windows).
Here’s the skinny on the latest versions for all platforms, straight from Goodin’s article:
Thursday’s fix brings the latest version of Flash for Windows and OS X to v. 11.5.502.149. The latest Linux version is v. 18.104.22.1682, and the most current Android versions are 22.214.171.124 for Android 4 and above and 126.96.36.199 for Android 3 and earlier. Updates are available here. Flash in Google Chrome and in Microsoft Internet Explorer 10 is automatically updated.
In this context, it’s worth pointing out that Google is invariably speedy in posting updates to Flash for Chrome ( my Plugins page currently shows version 188.8.131.52, and Adobe claims that’s the most recent version thanks to its find-version-flash-player page. OTOH, Microsoft pushes Flash updates for the Windows Store UI version of Windows 8 through Windows Update, and a version was posted to that service at 3:15 yesterday afternoon. The corresponding Adobe Security bulletin addresses the same CVE numbers mentioned earlier in this blog post, so it looks for once as if MS has pushed out an “emergency” Flash update in a timely manner. I’m stunned, but also pleased…
The real-PC version of Microsoft’s Surface tablet, the Surface Pro, becomes publicly available this Friday, February 9. So far, I’ve seen stories on the new tablet from Paul Thurrott (SuperSite for Windows), Ed Bott (The Bott Report, ZDNet), David Pogue (NYT), Jon Phillips (PCWorld), and countless others (run this Google News search to see dozens of serious, reputable reviews and commentary, amidst thousands of blogs, opinion pieces, news reports and more).
So far, here’s the emerging consensus:
1. Battery life is indeed a problem, as it was expected to be, with 4-6 hours of battery life available for varying usage scenarios.
2. Overall functionality and capability (aside from how long the battery holds its juice) are uniformly positive, but that positivity varies from lukewarm to medium, and seldom jumps into rabid enthusiasm.
3. The 1920×1080 true HD display gets uniformly good ratings for sharpness, clarity, and readability, and beats 1366×768 displays hands-down.
3. As a tablet, the Surface Pro gets ho-hum ratings from the experts; as an ultrabook, it does somewhat better, especially with the Type cover. It’s never positioned as a world-beater by anybody, though.
4. These days a 64 GB SDXC memory card — which the Surface Pro will gladly accommodate — costs anywhere from roughly $40 for a slow model, to upwards of $150 for a pretty fast one (over $200 for the fastest models). This provides an easy way to stretch the 89-plus GB of free storage space available on the Surface Pro’s 128 GB SSD. 128 GB SDXC cards should become available later this year, but will also be costly.
In general the experts are pretty broadly split on their decisions regarding the Surface Pro, with about half saying “So-so, not the greatest, not my cup of tea,” and the other half opining that for those looking for maximum portability with real Windows PC oomph it’s the best choice among the other offerings of its kind available from Acer, Samsung, Sony, and others. In revisiting about a dozen of those reviews, I note that the reviewer’s final opinion often rests on how strongly wedded they are to Windows computing in general, versus a more catholic or platform-agnostic view of the overall mobile computing space.
Ed Bott Sez It Best
IMO, Ed Bott summed up the unique position that the Surface Pro occupies in the PC marketplace today in his review for ZDNet entitled “Is the brilliant, quirky, flawed Surface Pro right for you?” Here’s what he has to say at the very tail end of his 3-page story, quoted verbatim:
…this is a great product for anyone who’s already committed to a Microsoft-centric work environment. It isn’t likely to inspire many iPad owners to switch, unless those Apple tablets are in the hands of someone who has been eagerly awaiting an excuse to execute the iTunes ecosystem.
I don’t expect Surface Pro to be a breakout hit for Microsoft. Too many people will have good reasons to say no, at least for now. But it does represent a solid, interesting, adventurous alternative for anyone who wants to spend some quality time today exploring Microsoft’s vision of the future.
To me, this makes the upcoming super-ultra-low voltage Haswell processors due out from Intel later this year even more interesting — and important for the future survival of the Surface Pro models, and perhaps also for the future of PC and notebook computing as we understand it today. If the new chips mean that Microsoft (and other hardware designers) can trim the extra 0.5″ that currently separates the RT from the Pro model (and others of those ilks) and boost battery life to the 8-10 hour range, by golly, we might just have something. If that doesn’t happen, though, the real question will become: Is there enough there to make buying into this hardware vision worth doing for business and more serious personal users. Methinks not. Methinks further that the emergence of the Chromebook phenomenon is likely to play hob with this entire set of market dynamics.
Dell has officially gone private.
The company has been in a transformation phase for some time as cloud computing, tablets, and mobile devices have eaten into its PC and server business. Industry watchers say that going private could help the company compete in new markets.
Here, in its entirety, is CEO Michael Dell’s email to company’s employees on what this move means for the business as a whole:
Today, we announced a definitive agreement for me and global technology investment firm Silver Lake to acquire Dell and take it private.
This transaction is an exciting new chapter for Dell, our team and our customers. We can immediately deliver value to stockholders, while continuing to execute our long-term growth strategy and focus on helping customers achieve their goals.
Together, we have built an incredible business that generates nearly $60 billion in annual revenue. We deliver enormous customer value through end-to-end solutions that are scalable, secure and easy to manage, and Enterprise Solutions and Services now account for 50 percent of our gross margins.
Dell’s transformation is well underway, but we recognize it will still take more time, investment and patience. I believe that we are better served with partners who will provide long-term support to help Dell innovate and accelerate the company’s transformation strategy. We’ll have the flexibility to continue organic and inorganic investment, and grow our business for the long term.
I am particularly pleased to be in partnership with Silver Lake, a world-class investment firm with an outstanding reputation and significant experience in the technology sector. They know all the technology business models, understand the value chain and have an extremely strong global network of contacts. I am also glad that Microsoft is part of the transaction, further building on a nearly 30-year relationship.
I am honored to continue serving as chairman and CEO, and I look forward to working with all of you, including our current senior leadership team, to accelerate our efforts. There is much more we can accomplish together. I am committed to this journey and I am grateful for your dedication and support. Please, stay focused on delivering results for our customers and our company.
There is still considerable work to be done, and undoubtedly both challenges and triumphs lie ahead, but as always, we are making the right decisions to position Dell, our team and our customers for long-term success.
Don’t ask me why — because I can’t answer that question — I chose to use one of my Centron 128 GB USB drives to build a recovery and repair boot-up disk this weekend. I used the Recovery Drive option on one of my Windows 8 machines. Here’s the crux of the matter: the disk partition for the repair medium gets formatted using FAT32, which limits the size of the resulting drive to 32 GB. Here’s a snapshot of the resulting drive from the Disk Management plug-in for the Windows Management Console (diskmgmt.msc):
Of course this isn’t a problem for USB flash drives of 32 GB or smaller, so probably the most important take-away for readers of this blog post is: don’t use UFD’s larger than 32 GB to build a Windows 8 Recovery Disk. If you do, you’ll find yourself in the same situation I found myself in after setting this up — namely, with a whole bunch of unallocated space on the resulting drive that remains inaccessible to that recovery disk itself.
The gotcha comes into play in that, unless you dig deep into the command-line diskpart.exe utility, you can’t clean up the drive that’s been set up using the built-in Windows 8 tool. Thus, for example, you can’t delete the bootable partition from what appears as the I: drive in the preceding screen capture. Even if you change its format from FAT32 to NTFS, diskmgmt still won’t let you extend or delete the resulting partition, either. The first time I cleaned things up, I turned to Paragon’s Hard Disk Manager to do the job, and instructed it to wipe the drive, then to create a single 119 GB partition (that’s the actual size of the drive, as reported in File Explorer and other native Windows utilities, as confirmed in the Disk Management screenshot above). But that took too long for my impatient self (the wipe drive is very thorough, to meet MilSpec data wiping standards, and took several hours to complete). The second time I found myself in this spot was when I created the screenshot that appears earlier in this post, after which I turned to diskpart for the ensuing clean-up. I started with the “list disk” command to ensure that I wanted to work on Disk 5 as shown above, then typed “select disk 5″ to turn the utility’s focus to that drive, then finally “clean” to wipe out all of its existing disk format info. At that point, using diskmgmt. msc I was able to define a new simple volume, and format the drive to NTFS, and name it Centon128.
As an inveterate tinkerer, and somebody who’s always finding reasons to troubleshoot Windows systems, I’m always on the lookout for good tips, tweaks, tricks, and repairs. This morning I found a good one over on TechSpot, by Julio Franco entitled “Windows 8 Boot Issues? Try Fixing the Master Boot Record (MBR) or Boot Configuration Data (BCD).” I actually experienced the very issue he documents in that story — boot problems when adding a second SSD to a system, though mine stemmed from the installer’s practice of leaving a separate boot/recovery partition intact on the original boot drive, so that when I removed the original SSD from that system, the new system drive actually lacked a boot partition — about two weeks ago, and went through the very automatic repair scenario he describes at the first of the various fixes he describes therein.
Here’s a snap of the “Advanced Options” screen that Windows 8 presents when you elect to troubleshoot a Windows 8 installation during the boot-up process:
For more info on how to provoke this menu, and use its options and selections, see Kent Chen’s excellent story at Windows 7 Hacker entitled “Microsoft Layouts Windows 8 Boot Options,” itself based on a Building Windows 8 blog from May, 2012, that digs deeply into Windows 8 boot options and behavior. Good stuff, all the way around!
What I like best about Franco’s TechSpot article is that it marches you through the various options for boot repair quickly, with brief but helpful instructions on how to use each one effectively. He starts with automated repair, then digs into basic command line tools to achieve the same end. After that, he explains how to use BDCedit if necessary, and then points to the executable for the startup repair tool (StartRep.exe) as a last-ditch method when all else fails. And of course, if none of this works, it’s time to reformat (or replace) the boot drive, and then to restore your latest image backup!