Wednesday, August 12, 2015

If it ain't broke, don't fix (or upgrade) Windows.

Windows 10 – the Grand Revolution. All the features you want (that Apple already had). Cortana (the name and voice of the AI in the videogame Halo, developed by ex-Mac programmers), multiple desktops, integrated apps and features, huzzah. All new. Well my PC told me that Windows 10 was ready to install. The previous week I had made a clone of the SSD drive to a backup SATA drive using Macrium Reflect 5. Worked like a charm. I was ready. I could install Windows 10 without worry and revert if I need to. So I did.

The install had downloaded the files already and it was just setting up. So I watched it go for a bit, then I returned to work. There was a big percentage readout on the screen telling me how much was left. Then it said it was “cleaning up a few things.” Then this curious message. “This is taking a little longer than expected, but we’re almost done.” Then the desktop appeared with a big black box around it, like it was no using the full resolution of the screen. Ha, I said, I can fix that.

Then I tried to go to the Start menu. Nothing. Clicked in the Taskbar. Nothing. Search box? Nope. Icons on the desktop seemed to respond to clicks so I launched Chrome. Opened up. But I still couldn’t access anything at the bottom... Maybe I wasn’t waiting long enough. But the hype said Windows 10 would be faster. Didn’t seem so here. Maybe I need to restart. So I did. And lo, it was better. A little. The display was up to full resolution, and the Search box yielded a popup. Once. Then was silent. The speed hadn’t changed much.

Did a search (on my iMac), and found others with a similar problem. Microsoft said there might be a software conflict and to try a clean boot by disabling the startup files. Except I couldn’t get to msconfig because the Search wouldn’t respond. I found I could right click on the Start menu icon and get a contextual menu, and there were some options I was able to use to get to Start Up tab and disable some stuff, but it wasn’t msconfig so I didn’t think it would prove useful. I was right.

Then... then I had a thought. I opened the Disk Management app and looked at the hard drives. Um, what? Windows 10 had gone ahead and upgraded my backup on the SATA drive, not the SSD drive. Huh? What was I gonna do now? I powered down and disconnected the SATA drive. Booted back up and voila! back in Windows 7. Grrr. Well, that was a waste of time. I will have to reclone the SSD drive and then disconnect the SATA drive in order to try again. If I want to. Maybe I don’t. I was having no issues with Windows 7, and now that I did the upgrade once, I can do it again should I choose. It would be interesting to see how it runs on the SSD. And even if I compared the Win 10 install on the SATA to Win 7 on the SATA, I might be inclined to say it may have been faster. But I will have to choose wisely...

So, to sum up, if it ain’t broke, don’t go installing Windows 10 – especially without a backup, a disconnected backup. Perhaps wait until the first Service Pack... Hope Apple’s upcoming El Capitan OS X upgrade fairs better.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gimme Some Ooma

In a continuing effort to reduce our cable bill, I recently decided to switch our home phone service to VoIP service. A long time ago, I tried Vonage, and was not happy at all with the service – voice quality was bad and it didn't work with my security system, not to mention it wasn't much of a cost savings. It left a bad taste in my mouth, so I didn't even consider trying them out again. But once again, Pete, my daughter's boyfriend, stepped up and recommended an alternate service called Ooma.

Now you may recall, Pete also was the one who recommended the Republic Wireless cellular service, which I am still happy with. And I don't want you to think that I consider each syllable that leaves his tongue to be golden. However, past experience did suggest he may be offering another worthy nugget.

My phone service was provided by Verizon Digital Phone and came with all the standard features like caller ID, call waiting and voice mail. It was offered at the price of $30.00/month, but as part of the TriplePlay bundle, it was essentially free. But I wanted to get rid of my TV subscription as well, leaving only the internet. Well, that was the plan, anyway.

The Ooma service works with a network enabled box called Teleo. It's $129.00, but you can find discount coupons and signup offers or even refurbished models that will bring the price down by up to $40. And that's about all you pay for, other than taxes and fees, which for me was under $4.00/month. That's it. Plug it into your network, plug your phone system into it, and you're done.

Although you can't take advantage of the existing house phone wiring, most phone systems are wireless anyway and you can add several additional phones if you want. I think our systems supports 6 phones, right now we have 2, one for upstairs, one for my office. What I was really surprised with was how easily the phone adapted to Ooma. All of Ooma's functions worked perfectly through the phone. Voice message notifications, menu items, caller ID, call waiting, it all worked with zero modifications.

Of course, you need to place the phone system in proximity to the Teleo and a network connection, so unless you have a hardline in your kitchen or a powerline connector, you need to have the Teleo and the phone base unit near your router. This was fine for me, everything was in my office already.

Voice quality was very good. There seems to be a very slight delay at times, and you quickly adjust to it. I have had one or two call drops, but can't ascertain whether it was the other party's fault or Ooma's. They seem to be rare in any case. So far, I am fairly pleased. Be aware of the 911 emergency call guidelines for this type of service, there are some occasions where it may not function appropriately, and they recommend a cell phone for emergency/backup use.

Back to the money saving part. After I got Ooma up and running, I transferred my existing number over to it (cost $40). This took about 2 weeks. When it was completed, Verizon sent me an email saying that I should call them to review my current package in the light of the removal. So I did, and come to find out, my bundle was still intact, even though I removed a service, which was cool, I thought I was going to have to pay a $230 bundle cancellation fee. However, when I spoke to them regarding the removal of the cable TV, they said that if I dropped that, my internet service would be $89/month – more than I was paying now! If I kept local TV and internet, it would drop to $69/month about what I was paying, and a further $12/month could be gained by returning my cable box.

Net result, when I return the box, I will be saving $12/month. Seems like a lot of effort for little return, but I guess it all adds up.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Brush Off

Braun Oral-B Professional Care 1000 vs. Phillips Sonicare Essence 5600

Did you ever have those dreams where your teeth for one reason or another would fall out of your mouth? I did. And while I haven't been perfect about my dental hygiene, I do try to brush twice a day. Flossing is a bit harder for some reason, but I do it when I can. Several checkups ago, my dentist recommended an electric toothbrush. So I performed my usual due diligence and did some comparisons mostly by way of Amazon and Consumer Reports. Maybe not solely because of using the brush, but certainly to some degree, my dentist has recently told me that I have the best teeth of any patient in the office.

My first choice was Braun. They are fairly well known in the personal care industry. I chose the Professional Care 1000, following my never-buy-top-of-the-line philosophy. I paid $35.00 for it at Amazon in 2011. The handle was comfortable in my hand and the brushes easy to replace. A great feature is the 2 minute timer with 30 second intervals, so you can spend an equal amount of time on each quadrant of your mouth. The brush tips are circular and it was pretty easy getting it around all areas of my mouth.


But I have to tell you, it was a mess. For some reason, perhaps the brush head width or some other factor, contributed to the inability of my mouth to seal around the brush, causing water and toothpaste residue to coat the outside of the base unit. With it's rubber coating, it was no mere matter of rinsing it off to clean it – not to mention the recharging base, which also got quite messy.

Apart from that, and the fact that the batteries were not replaceable (unless you're willing to try this), the toothbrush worked fine. My dentist was happy with the results, which of course made me happy. I should mention that the brush heads were a tad expensive ($14.00 or more each), until I found third party replacements, but I did like the OEM ones better.

But there finally came a time when the toothbrush was no longer holding a charge and I thought it might be time to try another brand. I had noticed that Phillips products were prevalent in the doctor's office, so I looked at those. And I must say, either in the intervening years or maybe something I missed in my research, that brand seems to be highly favored by users.

So I decided on the Sonicare Essence 5610, purchased for $46.00 from Amazon. It's claim to fame is that it vibrates in such a manner as to drive fluid between the teeth and along the gum line. It also has a two-minute timer, but sadly this model doesn't have the 30 second notification. I would have had to move up to the next model for that. Errr. My hands are fairly big, I take a large to extra-large glove, but I still have trouble holding the brush in my hand without it cramping – I wouldn't recommend this to people with small hands.


On the up side, I have been using this for about 3 weeks now and it looks like it just came out of the package. All I do is rinse the brush head, the rest of the unit, including the base, is pretty much pristine. Why? Maybe because the brush head is about half the width of the Oral-B? The brush head is a more conventional, elongated head but the bristles vary in height from the front to the back. In the end, the results are as good, perhaps better than the Braun. I've got that run-your-tongue-over-your-smooth-teeth feeling you get when you go for a cleaning at the dentist. I like it.

Lastly, even though my wife says it sounds like a spaceship landing, I think overall it's quieter than the Oral-B. Maybe because it's sonic or maybe because I can keep my mouth shut, either way, it works for me. Take that, Dr. Who!

The results? If you can live with a little hand discomfort, the Sonicare Esssence not only gives you great results, but it makes cleanup a breeze. What are your experiences with electric toothbrushes?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Do Me a Solid (State Drive)

Acronyms, we are bombarded by them, especially in the tech world. Sometimes to the degree that they don't even register anymore. But there has been one that I have been keeping on my tech radar for a while and that is SSD. It stands for Solid State Drive. And essentially, what is means is memory used as storage. Remember the days where people were having a problem differentiating RAM from ROM? Are you still, LOL? Well RAM (random access memory) was once defined as active system memory and ROM read only memory) as file storage. Think of a person sitting down at a desk. RAM would be the person's brain and ROM would be the files in the filing cabinet under the desk. In earlier versions of the Apple OS, you used to have a ROM disk that allowed you to allocate ROM for use as RAM so that files could be cached there for quicker access. When RAM became less expensive, that went away because RAM (as memory cards in your computer) is always better than mechanically based hard drives.

Enter SSDs. These are storage units comprised of RAM. And if there is one term to describe them, it would be... fast. In Boston parlance, wicked fast. Unfortunately, they are pretty expensive. But I have been biding my time, waiting for them to come down in price or go on sale. And, well, I finally made the move over the Christmas holiday when there was a sale at OWC I couldn't pass up. So I bought two Crucial M500 960MB drives, one for my PC and one for my iMac. Here is how the installation went down for both.

PC Install

I had built a system from parts I purchase from NewEgg and couldn't be happier. Last year, I have upgraded several of the components, but had the same case. There was plenty of room to install another drive, though poking around the case to find the power cable and SATA connector was a bit tricky, it was getting a little tight for space. But I managed and installed the drive.

Formatting the drive using the built-in Administrator utility. I formatted it using GPT (GUID) instead of MBR, not strictly necessary for Windows 7, but what I have read mostly supports using the newer format.

I had to then find an app I could use to clone the drive. Went to my goto source for apps, download.com and found several. But I wanted something free I could just use once, figuring I probably won't need to do this very often. After a couple of misfires, I settled on Macrium Reflect Free v5, because like the name says, it was free and very popular on the site (almost 4 million downloads). Took about an hour to clone the drive.

Next was something fairly simple, changing the SATA settings in BIOS. For good and sometimes ill, PC motherboards allow users to adjust low level system settings that affect how your motherboard behaves under certain conditions. Some hardware additions require certain settings. In this case, the SSD requires SATA to be set on AHCI which is more recent protocol that the more common IDE setting. Once that was done, I had to make sure that the SSD was plugged into the primary 6GB port so it would be the first boot device and on the fastest port.

Again, the 2.5 to 3.5 drive adapter wasn't necessary, but I like to it be tidy inside the computer, so I used the drive adapter to secure it into position.

Once it had the PC up and running, I noticed at first that the original drive wasn't being recognized properly and was concerned that it either wasn't going to work right or work optimally. I soon discovered that there was a bug that didn't play well with SSD and HD on the same bus, but Microsoft had released a patch that took care of that and once installed, it showed up normally.

If you have a PC, even a fast one, after you have used it for some time, it begins to take a while to boot up. Not just to see the desktop but to really have it useable. It's a go upstairs and make yourself a pot of coffee and then have a cup with your favorite muffin slow. Yeah, it's really about 5-10 minutes, but it seems like forever. After the install, it takes about 30 seconds, barely enough time to warm up my chair.

The Results

Never it let it be said that I don't appreciate the benefits of open architecture, both in hardware and software. Having a large case in which to add the drive and adapter, plus changing the settings and installing the patch, all fairly easy, though if you don't do the research you might get stuck with an underperforming HD or a non functional SSD. Also, TRIM was automatically available under Windows.

Apple Install

Even my iMac was becoming a little slow booting up. With all the startup apps, definition updates and the like. It wasn't as bad as the PC, but it definitely took a good 1.5-2 minutes to boot up all the way. I was looking forward to seeing major improvements.

The iMac was going to be a different experience. There is no roomy case to install another drive and taking it apart was going to be a chore, but I was ready for it. I already had a Universal Drive Adapter ($25) in my possession already and I have used it many times to facilitate my hard drive issues with my and my clients' machines. So I hooked the SSD up via USB to my iMac.

Next, I considered my cloning options. I really couldn't use Time Machine or even CrashPlan to restore a backup, since Time Machine isn't bootable and CrashPlan would take days over the internet to restore. So I opened my copy of Carbon Copy Cloner and off it went making a complete, bootable copy of the drive onto the newly formatted SSD. Took about two hours to complete.

Again, the 2.5 to 3.5 drive adapter wasn't necessary, but I like to it be tidy inside the computer, so I used the drive adapter to secure it into position.

I installed the SSD into the adapter, it was time to crack open the iMac and install it internally. Check out the lovely installation manual I found on ifixit.com. The most trouble I had here was making sure that the glass facing the LCD panel was free of dust, fingerprints and hair before finally closing it up.

Booting it up, I noticed two things immediately. The speed of the boot and the jet engine roar of the fans. Whoops. I hadn't realized that when I disconnected the hard drive, I also removed a temperature sensor that monitors the drive temp and adjusts the drive speed. There was no place on the SSD to install that, so I had to resort to a third party software solution or I would go deaf. I ended up going with HDD Fan Control. It did the trick but I hadn't realized at the time that there was a free alternative.

Getting Fit and TRIM

Lastly, there was the issue of TRIM. The way a SSD handles file deletions differs from that of traditional hard drives where files are marked for deletion and then overwritten when necessary. SSDs use both Garbage Collection (GC) and TRIM to effectively delete unwanted data while preserving the speed of the drive. GC alone can perform this function to some degree but to the eventual detriment of the drive due to excessive rewrites. GC is built in to most newer drives, but TRIM is a function provided by the operating system that handles the GC overhead and reduces the wear and tear. Apple supports TRIM but only on Apple devices. For shame, Apple. To remedy that, you have to use the TRIM Enabler. This allows TRIM to function on 3rd party devices, but you sacrifice some security on your computer due to the way Apple wrote its certificate signing protocols. Understand that if you are not a hacker and are not installing questionable software, chances are that this won't ever be an issue. Heck, I did it. But you do need to be aware of it.

The Results

I knew I was going to have to spend a little time getting this installed properly, but what I wasn't expecting was the additional cost. Mind you, I didn't really need a drive adapter ($15.00), but I wasn't going to let my new drive just hang by the SATA connectors inside my iMac. Also, there was (I found after starting this post) a free, though beta, alternative to the HDD Fan Control called Mac Fan Control, but I had already plunked my $30 bucks down (a ridiculous price for a one-trick pony). And then with Apple not supporting TRIM on 3rd party drives, having to pay an additional $10 for the TRIM Enabler was kind of criminal, but the cheapest of the three additional items I had to shell out for. Seriously glad I got a good deal on the drives.

But don't be fooled. Anything that requires disk access will be amazingly fast – boot time, game level loading, database access, opening large image files, running a SQL-based web application, etc. – but your computer's processing speed will be the same. So complex calculations for math, image manipulation, video editing, etc. are only sped up by the amount of disk access those processes use. Overall, though, it's a huge timesaver for those having to wait for their computers to perform disk-based tasks. If you can find a good deal, it's an avenue worth exploring.

Note

While the cloning process using Carbon Copy worked well, there was an issue getting the cloned drive to recognize my existing Time Machine backups. I found a very well written and annotated explanation of how to get TM running again with your existing backups here. I tried it and it worked for me.