Oct 21

My hard drive died recently so I bought and installed a new 128 GB Crucial solid state drive (SSD) in my PC and I found it wasn’t too difficult to do. I had fitted the old SATA hard drive about 5 years ago and that wasn’t too hard, so don’t be put off by this job, have a go!

I decided on a 128 GB SSD so I could put the Windows 7 OS on it as well as the programs that I use most (MS Word, Google Chrome, Evernote, Adobe Reader). They’re the programs where I’ll see the biggest improvement in disk access. I’ll be fitting a new 1TB hard drive later to take the rest of my programs and all my data and where fast access isn’t so important. Doubtless, in time SSD’s will become cheap enough to handle all my programs and data.

When you buy a SSD, because of its small form factor, it’s important to get a bracket to mount it in your PC. They know this on Amazon so when you are looking at SSDs, you will see something like ‘When buying this, people also bought…’ and offer a 2.5″ to 3.5″ SSD Mounting Adapter Bracket.

IMG_0173

So this is what you get: the Crucial SSD, the mounting bracket, 4 small screws to fix the SSD to the bracket and four slightly larger screws to mount the bracket in your PC. You may also need a SATA data cable and possibly an IDE to SATA power adapter cable.

IMG_0175

and here’s the SSD fitted to the mounting bracket.

To mount your new SSD in the PC, you’re probably going to have to first take off both side panels of the PC to get access to the mounting screws on each side of the bracket holding the old hard drive. Take the cables off the old hard drive, and remove the screws holding the hard drive in place. Insert the bracket with the new SSD into a spare slot. Attach the SATA data and power cables to the new SSD and the other end of the SATA data cable to a SATA port on the motherboard. If your PC has old IDE power cables, you will need IDE to SATA power adapter cables as discussed in my earlier post on fitting a SATA HDD.

Mounting new SSD

Then just slide the SSD into place and secure it with the four mounting screws. Put the sides back on the PC and that’s it. Reconnect all your cables and keyboard and boot up the PC. As you’ve removed your old hard drive and the SSD is new, the first screen should ask you to insert your bootup media and press any key. So load your Windows installation disk into your CD or DVD and go ahead and reinstall Windows on the SSD.

I haven’t fitted the new 1TB hard drive yet. I’ll tell you how that goes in a later post. As I’ll have the Windows OS on the SSD and some programs on the HDD, I’ll have to tell Windows where to find those programs. More on that later.


Sep 10

As they say, there are two certainties in life… death and taxes. Well I can add another – hard drive failure. The hard drive in my desktop PC died last week. It was a 1TB Seagate drive which I had bought in November 2009 so it was almost 5 years old. I blogged about installing it back then.

What were the signs it was about to die?

Well, very little really. The day before, I noticed that programs were taking an age to launch and it blue screened once. I hadn’t experienced either of those before with this setup. I shut down the PC thinking perhaps I had installed or changed some setting and that was the fault. Next day, it booted up fine. I loaded Windows Resource Monitor to see if it was running low on memory but that wasn’t the problem. Anyway I had installed 4 GB of RAM a couple of weeks ago, up from 2 GB so that shouldn’t have been the problem. I uninstalled a couple of recently installed programs. Everything was still fine, I went for lunch, came back and there was another blue screen. This time, when I rebooted, I could hear an ominous faint clicking sound from the PC and I knew the game was up.

What next?

There’s nothing like a hard drive failure to concentrate the mind. Luckily I had data backups from a couple of days earlier so thankfully, I hadn’t lost much. I tried booting up from a couple of rescue disks and Linux live disks. It booted up no problem but nothing would see the dying hard drive. I have a Lenovo laptop which I bought to dual boot Windows and Linux Mint so I moved over to that and gave my old PC to a repair tech friend who managed to get back pretty much all the data.

Any lessons learned?

You can never back up often enough. Make sure you back up you data every night. If you need your PC for work, make sure you have a backup plan like a laptop so you can move over to it seemlessly. I had but not everything I needed to keep on working was installed. It is now. If your hard drive is about 5 years old, it’s not a bad policy to have a replacement sitting in reserve (or an SSD) ready to fit. Or don’t wait for failure after 5 years are up – just replace it for peace of mind. I was planning to fit an SSD/hard drive combo anyway but this failure has brought that plan forward. I plan to get a 128GB SSD and install Windows 7 64 bit on it and some programs that I need to launch quickly. The 1 TB hard drive will be for other programs and data.

Have you suffered a hard drive failure? Any tips on getting up and running again?


Jun 10

Lenovo ThinkPad keyboard

I bought a used Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E530c laptop on eBay recently. The idea was to have a backup machine should my desktop Windows PC pack in and also to install Linux Mint on a partition to see if I could move away Windows altogether eventually. I discussed my reasons for buying a used Windows laptop in the previous post.

The eBay seller had a 100% reputation, and his seller’s comment on the laptop was:

This item is as new but has no box. The laptop is unused. I’ve booted it up but never completed the registration. This laptop is in perfect condition.

Yes, I know, it seems pretty unlikely that anyone would buy a laptop and then sell it unused. The machine arrived as the seller said with Windows 7 Professional 64 bit installed. When I booted it up, it was at the point where you enter a user name and computer name so I carried on with that. It didn’t come with disks or a Windows 7 Product Key but I used Magical Jelly Bean KeyFinder on my USB drive with utility programs to track that down. I also installed the system information tool Speccy, which provided all the hardware details, the serial number and the Product Key. I wanted to find out just what I could about its previous life. I already knew that Event Viewer would have a log of previous events but I suspected that the hard drive would have been wiped and Windows 7 Professional installed so Event Viewer wouldn’t necessarily tell me much. So as usual I enlisted the help of Reddit and I asked the Techsupport subreddit about checking out a so-called unused laptop. The thread makes interesting reading and offered a number of great suggestions. I’ll go through how I applied those suggestions to check out this used laptop.

Laptop Condition

Sure enough, the laptop was immaculate so that was a good sign. As suggested out by one redditor, I checked the trackpad and the red nub for wear and there was none as you can see from the header image. So that’s a good start.

Event Viewer

When I ran Event Viewer, I found there were no events before 31-5-14. That was when I booted and completed registration (computer name, network name, windows password, updates, etc). But Recently Viewed Nodes were created on 1-10-12. Recently Viewed Nodes provides information about where events have recently taken place on the system. No idea what that means, possibly the clock hadn’t been set correctly when those events were logged.

Hard Drive Wear

I installed CrystalDiskInfo to check the hard drive. A few redditors said check the Power on Hours.

CrystalDiskInfo

As you can see, Power-On Hours is really pretty low. Hard drive health status was indicated as good. So far so good.

Deleted files

One redditor suggested running Recuva to check for deleted files. This was great advice as I noted a bunch of deleted Windows OS files. Here’s just part of the list of deleted files

Recuva

So it looks like the previous Windows OS was deleted, probably Windows 8.

Date of manufacture

With a Lenovo laptop, it’s possible to determine the date of manufacture from the external sticker or the serial number. I had no external sticker but I had found the serial number with Speccy earlier. I used the serial number to get the date of manufacture. So that gave me these details: Base Warranty Status: Start Date: 20 September 2013; End date: 18 November 2014. So the date of manufacture was 20 September 2013 and the laptop was still under warranty when I bought it.

Hardware scan

Lenovo have software to let you run a hardware scan. Check if your laptop manufacturer has included software to run hardware diagnostics.

Lenovo Hardware scan

The Lenovo Solution Center allows to check a whole bunch of hardware: Memory, Motherboard, PCI Express card, storage devices, WiFi card.

Lenovo Hardware scan results

All the hardware checked out fine.

Putting it all together

It looks like my Lenovo laptop was sold in September 2013 with Windows 8 installed. From its condition, power-on hours and hardware diagnostics, the first owner obviously didn’t use it much, then wiped the hard drive with Windows 8 and downgraded to Windows 7 Professional, and sold it leaving me to complete the registration. I’m still unclear if it was originally registered with Windows 8, but I don’t want to take that any further. I have found the Product Key and from a hardware point of view, the machine is fine.

After a few days of use, a few things started to niggle me. The boot-up time was way too long and there seemed to be quite a few Lenovo Utilities running that seemed unnecessary. I had no programs or data on it to speak of so I decided just to reinstall Windows 7 Professional 64 bit. I downloaded the iso file, burned it to a DVD and reinstalled Windows 7. Everything went fine until it went to search for an internet connection. After a bit of searching online (on my desktop PC!), I discovered that I would have to download a network driver and several ancillary Lenovo utilities from the Lenovo support site. This turned out to be quite a mission, as anyone who has come across the Lenovo support site will know – it’s a real challenge to identify just what you need to download. Anyway, I got there in the end with a great feeling of satisfaction at a job well done.

The laptop now boots quickly into Windows 7 Professional 64 bit and I have a pretty much ‘as-new’ machine. Once I have installed the software I need, and Windows is set up just as I want it, I’ll make an image backup in case I ever need to reinstall Windows. However, this is unlikely because, at the end of the day, the main purpose of this machine is so I can get familiar with Linux Mint, so eventually, I’ll wipe Windows 7. My next step is to partition the hard drive and dual boot Windows 7 with Linux Mint. I’ll let you know how I get on.

How do you check out a used laptop? Anything else I could have tried?


Dec 22

Chumby

My parents are in their late 80s, thankfully still in good health, but as you might expect, a little forgetful. They live on their own and are still quite independent but I thought I should look into some sort of reminder device which would be easy for them to use. I’ve already tried a whiteboard without much success. I had already heard about the Chumby on the TWiT podcast a couple of years ago but I came across a great post Dad vs the Chumby which convinced me it was worth getting one for my parents to try. So I picked up a new Chumby One on eBay and set it up with the apps I thought they would find useful – news, clock, weather, Flickr photos, etc. I’ve had it for about a week now and am still learning about it. The Chumby is a great little wi-fi device – it’s like a small TV screen but with a personalized, simple, always-on, multimedia internet. All the apps or widgets you’ve set up on it cycle through continuously so it’s great for the elderly. No interaction necessary. Even the alarm seems fairly straightforward to set up so they should manage that too.

But I couldn’t find a good reminder app for the Chumby – something which would, for example, pop up a colour screen with a big clear reminder message and an audible alarm at the event time. So I looked around the Chumby forum and hunted through all the apps available and this is what seems to be available as reminder apps at the moment.

Send2Chumby

Just add this app to the channel you want then visit the Send2Chumby URL shown at the bottom of the widget. This URL lets me send messages and reminders from my PC to the Chumby as shown in the image at the top of this post. Doesn’t seem to be any way to delete old messages though. It saves the last 10 messages you’ve sent then starts overwriting the oldest messages. You can tap the screen to cycle through the messages. In the link I gave above, the poster did much the same thing by using Twitter to send tweet reminders from an account set up specifically for the Chumby to monitor.

Toodledo to Chumby RSS Reader

This was a tip I read on the Chumby forum. First add the Chumby RSS Reader app to the channel you want on the Chumby. Then on your PC, sign up for a free account with Toodledo if you don’t already have one and add the tasks, events, appointments and reminders there. I found it better to enable the Start Date field rather than the Due Date field so you can suppress future events/tasks. You do that under Settings, Tasks, Fields/Functions Used. Then get an RSS feed of your tasks in Toodledo by going to Tools, More, scroll down to Other Tools and Services and under RSS you can enable the RSS feed and get the feed URL. I also checked Only Publish the Hotlist.  Now tasks with a future Start-Date will be hidden from the hotlist regardless of their priority, due-date, status or star so no reminders for future start dates will appear on Chumby. Then add the URL of your RSS feed to the Chumby RSS Reader. Now all tasks, events, appointments and reminders on your hotlist in Toodledo will appear on the Chumby.

Chumby Alarm

This is the best alternative if you want an audible alarm and short message at a particular time rather than a general text reminder which the first two methods gave. The Custom alarms are easy to set up and pretty customisable but the only downside is that the reminder text doesn’t really stand out too well on the screen. You can partly get round this by using different audible alarms for different events.

Well that’s a quick look at the benefits Chumby can have for the elderly particularly as a reminder aid. If you have any thoughts or know of a better reminder setup for the Chumby, please drop a comment below. Or what do you use to help elderly parents remember things?


Oct 4

Canon MP280

I wrote about the gradual demise of the office printer  a while ago. I rarely print anything on paper these days but I do occasionally need a copier/printer facility, so a year ago, after a history of six or seven Epson printers starting with a dot matrix machine back in 1988 and ending with blocked inkjet nozzles on my final Epson D88, I decided to finally change brands and try Canon. Both my kids have Canon printers (MP190 and MP272) and they’ve never given any trouble. Cartridges are expensive but hey, what’s new! About a year ago, I went for a cheap Canon MP280 multifunction inkjet and I couldn’t be happier. It does copying, occasional printing, scanning, and scanning directly to Evernote without any problems. No printer jams since I got it and importantly, the cartridges don’t seem to be as prone to clogging with just occasional use – unlike the last Epson I had.

Lifehacker blogged recently on better inkjet printing  which you may also want to have a look at. They recommended getting a laser printer instead of an inkjet, or if you stick with your inkjet, print test pages regularly to avoid clogged nozzles, use the manufacturer’s ink cartridges not third party ones, and use good quality paper.

Coming back to Canon, I’ve also had a Canon PowerShot A570 IS digital camera for about 4 years now – again no problems. I like Canon. And I’m not sponsored by them, or anyone, to write reviews.

Which brands do you like or do you have no particular preferences? Have you have good experiences or bad ones with any particular brands or do you feel brand isn’t important in terms of quality and reliability? Drop a comment below.


Aug 16

Dual monitors

I’m probably a little late to the dual monitor scene. I have a pretty old ATI Radeon x1550 video card in my PC. It does have outputs for VGA and DVI but I’d always connected up with the VGA output even though I bought a Philips 220AW 22” flat panel almost 3 years ago. When I researched running dual monitors with this video card recently, I got mixed messages and wasn’t convinced that I could get dual monitors working under Windows 7.

I did have a spare old HP Pavilion f1703 17” flat panel monitor so I decided to give it a shot. First signs were discouraging though. I downloaded the latest ATI Catalyst driver (9.7) which was supposed to be compatible with this card under Windows 7 but it didn’t seem to install correctly into the ATI Technologies directory under Program Files. But there was no harm in trying to boot up with two monitors connected to the card anyway.

I powered off, connected my main Philips monitor to the video card with a DVI-I cable and the HP Pavilion monitor with the VGA cable, powered up and to my delight, both monitors instantly came to life and I could move my mouse over to the second screen straightaway! The screen resolution on my main Philips monitor had been changed in the process so I right-clicked the desktop and reset the display to the resolution I wanted and noted that ‘Extend these displays’ was already selected in the Multiple displays menu below it.

And that was all there was to it. Without problems, Windows 7 had recognized both monitors and I’m happily working with two screens now, dragging windows from one screen to the other and seeing the obvious benefits. But those of you who have tried dual monitors will know that there isn’t a taskbar on the second screen. Everything is controlled from the taskbar on the main screen. However, in my RSS reader, I had read of an open source program, Dual Monitor Taskbar which, when installed on your PC, inserts a taskbar on the second display and I thought that would be useful. I downloaded and installed it without a hitch and it works perfectly.

If you haven’t tried dual monitors, I can really recommend it as a worthwhile upgrade to your setup. In fact, it’s a bit like broadband versus dial-up – once you’ve experienced it, you won’t go back!

Image credit: XiXiDu


Jul 28
The USB plug: A design fail
icon1 techandlife | icon2 Hardware | icon4 July 28, 2011| icon32 Comments »

USB plug

USB connections are ubiquitous nowadays and have almost completely replaced the old parallel and serial connectors we used to use to connect peripherals to our computers. Most of us are using USB 2.0 just now but USB 3.0 is almost upon us. Of course the new standard will have a similar connector as the old one for backwards compatibility. But what a pity a little more thought wasn’t put into design at the beginning.

The old serial and parallel connectors were shaped in such a way that you could only plug them in one way. Not so the USB Type A connector which we commonly use nowadays. You can try and shove it in the wrong way, as I’ve done many a time – it’s a 50:50 chance. Often when this fails, I turn it over, try to plug it in that way, realise this is wrong too, turn it back and it fits – not patient enough the first time I guess. There is a USB symbol on one side which should show the correct way to plug it, but often these symbols are a dull black on black (not very useful when you’re struggling at the back of a PC in a dimly lit room) or sometimes there’s no symbol present at all. And if the USB socket for the plug is mounted vertically, there’s no indication which way round it should go. I’ve resorted to marking the correct way in blue permanent marker or coloured sticky disks but I shouldn’t have to do this. An asymmetrical shape would have helped to plug them correctly and indeed the asymmetrically shaped USB Type B connectors which connect to printers for example are fine. Why couldn’t we have had a similar bevelled edge design for the USB Type A connectors?

Yes, it’s a little late to complain about them now that they’re so well established. But there is a design concept afoot for a Double USB connector which will plug in no matter which way you try so perhaps there’s hope for a solution yet.

How do you get round USB connector problems? I’m sure I’m not alone.


Jul 22

You don’t have to scan documents to your PC then save them into Evernote organizer in two stages, you can set up your printer/scanner to scan directly into Evernote. I’ve already posted about scanning directly to Evernote with an Epson Perfection 4180 scanner.

I recently got a Canon MP series multifunction printer with built in scanner (MP280) and had no trouble setting it up to scan directly to Evernote. Here’s what you do.

When you installed your Canon printer drivers and utilities on the CD which came with the printer, you would have installed MP Navigator, the application which, among other things, allows you to scan directly to an application, in our case Evernote. Switch on your printer and place a test sheet on the scanner tray. On your PC desktop click Start, All Programs and navigate to Canon Utilities and click on that and open the MP Navigator folder.

scan to evernote10

For me it was actually called MP Navigator EX 4.0 but you may have a different version. Then double click the executable file in that folder (again for me it was MP Navigator EX 4.0 as shown above) and that should open Canon MP Navigator. If you intend to scan stuff frequently to Evernote, you could copy a program shortcut to your desktop. To do this, drag that executable to your desktop while pressing the Ctrl key (this makes a copy rather than moving it).  Once MP Navigator is open, click on One-click at the top right and you should see the options below.

scan to evernote11

Click on Custom and that should open a box like below. If it starts to scan now, just click Cancel.

scan to evernote12

This is the part where we select Evernote as the program we want to open the scan with. So under the section Application Settings, click Set as shown above, then navigate to your Evernote folder (for me it was C:\Program Files\Evernote\Evernote but it may be different for you. You’re looking for the Evernote executable file as shown below:

scan to evernote13

Select that file and click Open. Evernote will now appear as the application in the Open with: box on the previous screenshot. Click Apply in the bottom left corner to save Evernote in that box, then click the green Scan button in the bottom right corner and if all goes well the test page should be scanned and Evernote will open to show it.

By the way, now this is set up, in future when you click Custom, everything will happen automatically so make sure you have your page loaded ready for scanning.


May 30

Boxee1

I’ve struggled along with free satellite channels on my old tube TV for a few years now and it’s time for a change. There’s less and less that interests me on TV these days and the thought of streaming internet TV on my PC in my home office doesn’t thrill me… after spending the day working there already.

So it’s time to part with some hard earned cash and bring the web and streaming media to my couch and telly. I hope to have it all in place by the end of the summer. I’ve read a number of posts and bookmarked lots of pages and I’m looking to buy the following:

Flat screen TV

I can’t stream to my old CRT TV – it has an S-video connector and doesn’t have digital inputs like HDMI so I need a 32” (that’s big enough for me) flat screen that takes HDMI input.

Set-top box

I was originally thinking along the lines of a PS3 but more recently a positive assessment of Boxee software on a podcast by Knightwise got me interested in Boxee.  So perhaps I should go for a  Boxee Box to get internet and my media to the TV, but a recent reader recommendations post on Lifehacker on set-top boxes saw the Boxee Box way down in popularity behind a home theater PC, Roku, Apple TV, etc.

Router

I should get a wireless N router to replace my G-router while I’m at it.

NAS

I’ll need a 1 TB NAS to store my downloaded movies and other media (and backup my data from my PC) and I’ll stream from this to my TV or set-top box.

Are you streaming media to your TV? I’d love to hear your recommendations on TVs, set-top boxes, routers and NAS. What’s your set-up? Would you do anything different if you started again? Has any piece of hardware been a nightmare to work with? What are your tips and things to watch out for? As I build the set-up I’ll post about it… but it’s your turn to have your say first.


Mar 29

Standby PC

A recent poll on MakeUseOf suggests that most of now have at least one computer in the house, and many of us have three or more! Admittedly, MakeUseOf readers are perhaps a little more tech savvy than others but I’m pretty sure the poll isn’t too wide of the mark for most of us now.

So you’ve bought a shiny new desktop PC, laptop or tablet and your old PC or laptop has been forgotten and consigned to a dusty old corner. Well it might just be worth pulling it out and putting it to use, particularly if it’s still reasonably fast and has a network card installed. David Pierce suggests using one machine for work and one for leisure and that’s pretty good advice. If you’re a freelancer and work from home, you rely on your primary machine to earn money! So it’s a great idea just to keep one machine solely for work, i.e. avoid too much surfing and downloading which may lead to a malware attack. Leave all this to your older secondary ‘leisure’ machine.

But if your old PC is just too old for everyday leisure use, at least make sure it’s ready to go in the event of a major issue on your main machine. So before you consign it to a corner, run some maintenance tools (eg CCleaner and Malwarebytes) and make sure all program updates have been downloaded and installed. There’s great peace of mind for a freelancer knowing that you have a standby machine ready to help out when your main PC or laptop has a problem (failed hard drive, failed power supply, malware attack, etc). You can work away on your standby machine as you run malware scans on your main machine, or indeed if the repair is too much for you, your standby machine should see you through while your primary machine is at the repair shop.


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