Category Archives: PCs/Laptops

PCs, laptops and hardware

It’s Screen Time!

Too much screen time?
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M7 | Date: 28-07-2021 06:25 | Resolution: 4939 x 2469 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: -1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 2.8 | Focal Length: 9.0mm (~24.0mm)

Is this what they mean by “too much screen time”?

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"This is Bloody Dangerous!"

That's blown it!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 21-07-2021 16:50 | Resolution: 5116 x 2878 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

More MacBook battery woes – this time it’s serious.

The title is a quote from arguably the greatest of Hollywood Musicals, Paint Your Wagon. The words are uttered by Mad Jack Duncan, a gold miner engaged in digging a shallow tunnel under the arena where a bear and bull fight is being staged. He’s right – that activity is “bloody dangerous”.

Using a 2015 MacBook shouldn’t be. But it bloody well is.

Mine has now suffered the third near-catastrophic battery failure in three years. As before there was no warning, no on-screen indication of any problem. At least on the previous occasions I was regularly travelling with it and noticed when the distortion of the body was great enough that it would no longer sit flat on a surface when I was typing. This time my wife was using it in a fixed position with an external keyboard, so we had no such indication. Yes, the fans were running a lot but they always do on that model and the weather’s hot. Yes it was getting a bit sluggish, but computers do from time to time.

Finally on Sunday it gave up the ghost and suffered a “blue screen of death” failure. I managed to nurse it back to operation but it failed again and there was clearly a major hardware problem. As soon as I lifted it off the desk the problem was apparent – the back was so distorted that it had parted from the chassis in a couple of places, and everything was red hot. If the batteries had gone one step further and leaked there would have been a fire, on a desk surrounded by papers. I shudder to think what the implications might have been.

The 2015 MacBook is one of the worst excesses of the Jonny Ives era, and “unmaintainable by design”. However I’m getting good at this, having had lots of practice, and once again followed the Andrew Johnston patent method for MacBook battery replacement. This time, the back was so distorted that two of the screws were completely jammed and had to be drilled out. After the second failure of an Apple OEM battery I’d purchased a Duracell-banded replacement hoping that would last better, but if anything the damage was worse this time, so it’s obviously a fundamental design flaw.

The new battery works OK, but the laptop still won’t boot. What appears to have happened is that the distortion due to the battery expansion was so bad it’s damaged one of the circuit boards. I’ll try taking the back off and making sure all the connectors are properly located, but as almost all the components are soldered I’m not hopeful.

This may be ending its life with me on eBay for “spares or repair”, which will also make it the worst value computer purchase of my career. Good riddance.

As portability is no longer a priority for this PC, and Frances fancies a larger screen, the replacement will be an Alienware R17. That has enough cooling it almost qualifies as an air-conditioner, so fingers crossed!

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Death of an Alien

An Upgrade Too Far, OR: Don’t Count Your Aliens Before They Explode Out Of Your Thorax!


Prior to 2009, I regularly upgraded our desktop PC / server, changing the entire hardware and/or rebuilding from scratch every year or two. There were several different reasons: this was a time of rapid change in the PC arena; I always rapidly outgrew the available computing power; and on at least two occasions the system had suffered complete failure of motherboard or processor and just refused to be revived.

By 2009 things were settling down, with seven being a sort of “magic number”: Windows 7 was clearly a better, stable version of Windows, and Intel’s Core i7 looked like the powerful but usable processor we’d all been waiting for. I’d been doing some research and everyone raved about Alienware machines, so I bit the bullet, invested about £1,100 and purchased an Alienware Aurora. This, despite being the “smaller” of the two Alienware desktop/tower models, turned out to be over 40cm long, 16cm high and weighed about 15kg. (See The Alien Has Landed, and It’s &*&^(* Huge). So much for PCs getting smaller.

OK, it took up some desk space. But it worked. It sat there, for the most part quietly, and just got on with everything I threw at it. It acted as desktop, server, virtualisation and development platform, PVR and the rest without complaint. It was almost seven years before I found a task which occupied the CPU fully for more than a few seconds at a time. Converting recorded HD TV from MPEG2 to MP4 would keep the processor busy for a few hours, but the machine remained stable and fully usable even under full load.

Fairly early on one of the original hard disks failed, but gracefully and I just moved the content to a new one before there was any serious issue. At about the 7 year mark the graphics card failed a bit more dramatically (its main cooling fan died noisily), but a quick trip to PC World sourced a replacement and we were back up and running in a few hours. Excluding reboots, power cuts and a rebuild in 2013 when I upgraded the system disk to an SSD, I would be surprised if total downtime in 10 years totalled one day. That’s better than 99.97% availability.

The machine was originally billed as highly upgradeable and lived up to that billing. The original 2 slow hard disks became 9TB of fast SSDs. It gained four times the original RAM. The original was based on USB2, but USB3 support was easily added. It started off with one standard definition TV tuner and ended up with 4x HD tuners – my record was recording 8 concurrent programmes. With the looming end of support for Windows 7 a few weeks ago I installed Windows 10 build 1903, which went almost like clockwork, booting straight up with drivers for everything except the E-Sata port, and almost all software installed and ran as expected. I was almost ready to write an article praising the machine’s ability to take everything I threw at it.

I say “almost”. There was one caveat. Windows 10 build 1903 is more of a major upgrade than Microsoft have acknowledged, and it introduces some restrictions on virtualisation software. In particular VMWare Workstation has to be V15.1 or higher. I was previously running V12, but I accept spending about £100 every few years on an upgrade to the latest version, so cheerfully did so again. However as I installed the new version, I got a warning that the new version was not compatible with my CPU. Apparently a 10 year old processor, even a then top-spec Core i7, didn’t support a key feature required by newer versions of VMWare. A quick email to VMWare support confirmed the quandary – no version of VMWare supports both the latest version of Windows 10 and my CPU.

Now I could have left it there. I’m not using virtualisation that much at the moment, and it’s still fine on my laptops. I could have. I should have. But those who know me know that wasn’t going to happen. This was now "a problem" which I had to solve. Some quick research suggested that my processor, the i7-920, was succeeded by a directly compatible faster version, the i7-990X, and that switching to the 990X should be straightforward. Then almost like a good omen, out of the blue I got a phone call from VMWare following up to make sure I was happy with their handling of my email query. Have you ever heard of such a thing? The very helpful chap looked it up – yes, the 990X should work well.

eBay provided a 990X, and on Friday I powered down expecting another painless upgrade. The chip slotted neatly into its zero insertion force socket, I re-mounted the cooler unit, and switched on. The fans all ran, but there was no sign of the machine booting up. I removed the new processor and put the original one back in. Switched on, same result. Fans and power supply OK, but no sign of booting up.

Over the next couple of hours I worked through all the usual options: re-seating the PCI cards, checking cables, re-setting the BIOS. Still nothing. The Alien was dead. My attempted upgrade had killed it.

I awoke on Saturday morning, with several plans going around in my head. However a quick search of eBay suggested a solution which might not be possible in many locations: not one but several vendors within about an hour’s drive offering newer versions of the Alienware Aurora with collection in person an option. I latched onto a vendor who responded quickly to my query, and by early afternoon I was mounting my disks into a two year old Aurora R5. There was a moment of panic at first boot when it said it couldn’t find an operating system, but changing the boot mode from the newer UEFI to the older BIOS standard solved that, and up came Windows. I had to reboot several times and tweak a few drivers, but basically I just carried on where I left off before the "upgrade".

The new machine is much more compact than the old one, but installing the disks was a lot more fiddly, so there are pros and cons. It’s also not as fundamentally upgradeable as its predecessor, having for example connections for only 4 disks not 6. It will be interesting to see if it lasts as well.

The root cause of the older machine’s failure is not clear. Did I do something wrong, maybe screwing down the heatsink too firmly or causing some other physical damage? Did the new processor somehow overload something? I checked the power consumption and thermal rating of the two processors before I did the upgrade and they were almost identical, but maybe some second-order effect came into play.

Most likely, maybe there was a latent fault which just required the slightest provocation to trigger. This is a known challenge maintaining old or very complex systems, which may tick over quite happily, but even as much as a reboot may destabilise them. I remember my father’s story that one of the counter-intuitive findings of very early Operations Research during WWII was that it was actually better to maintain bombers less often, as the destablising effect of frequent maintenance could cause more operational errors than it saved.

What seems undebateable is that if I had left well alone then the system would probably have continued working stably for some time, but whether for 5 years or 5 days I have no way of telling.

While it’s sad that I managed to kill the old machine literally a few days short of its 10th birthday, on this occasion it’s a nuisance not a disaster. Ironically I had actively considered buying a completely new system before the Windows update, but rejected it for cashflow reasons, and because the old system was "working so well". I was aware that attempting to change a core component on such an old machine might have unintended consequences, and while maybe my Plan B should have been more precisely articulated, the version I came up with worked well. The two year old chassis has got me almost the whole way for about half the cost, and fits well with my general approach to hardware.

At the risk of changing my movie metaphor from Alien to Terminator, I do wonder if the upgrade had somehow become inevitable, like the rise of the machines at the start of each new film after being comprehensively prevented at the end of the previous one… If so the inevitability was probably in my subconscious, as my conscious objective was to defer the larger upgrade by attempting the smaller one, albeit with an acknowledged risk.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That is, unless you really want a new one. In that case, fix away!

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Why I Like My MacBook, But I’m Beginning To Really Hate Apple

Battery Replacement on a 2015 MacBook

I realised a couple of weeks ago, much to my horror and chagrin, that I had been walking around with a potential incendiary bomb. Not that I had done anything wrong – this is a more common practice than we’d like to admit, and it’s quite possible that some readers are doing the same, equally unaware.

The culprit was the battery in my 2015 MacBook. Now unlike the batteries on older laptops, this is sealed inside the alloy case, and not immediately visible to inspection. My laptop was still working fine, with battery life still around 2 hours even under quite hard use, which is not bad for a hard-used 3 year old machine. It was running a bit warm, especially in Namibia, but not so much that it indicated any real problem.

The only thing which was a bit suspicious was that it no longer sat flat on a table. The middle of the base-plate seemed slightly raised relative to the edges. At first I blamed myself, thinking that when I had taken the base off to check to see if you can upgrade the hard disk (you can’t, but that’s another story), I hadn’t screwed it down straight. However over time the problem seemed to be getting a bit worse, and I also started to note that the lid didn’t always close completely flush.

I would probably have let this go on a bit longer, but I happened to mention it to two others on the Namibia trip, who immediately suspected the possibility of a dying and swollen battery. Now this can be a serious issue, so as soon as I was back I went on eBay to order a new battery (fairly readily available at about £70), and opened the laptop up for inspection. If I wasn’t already convinced of the problem, I reached that point when I had undone about three screws and the base literally “pinged” open. With all the screws removed I could see that not only one, but all six sections of the battery were badly swollen. Yikes!

So the battery definitely needed replacement, and a new one was on the way. I carefully discharged the old one by playing a movie until the battery was below 2%, and switched my work to my spare machine. I then started researching the process of replacement.

Now pretty much every laptop I have owned or used in the last 20 years has the following simple process for battery replacement:

  1. Unclip old battery
  2. Clip in replacement

In some Toshiba and Dell/AlienWare machines you can even do a “hot swap” without powering the machine down. The 2011 MacBook gets a bit more complicated, as the battery is inside the case, but it’s still pretty straightforward:

  1. Unscrew the base
  2. Unplug the battery from the motherboard
  3. Unclip the battery
  4. Clip in the new one, and plug it in
  5. Screw the base back on

So surely, it wasn’t going to be that difficult to do the 2015 MacBook battery? Surely not?

I should coco. Like the 2011 Macbook has standard memory boards, and the 2015 device has soldered chips, or the 2015’s SSD has a unique connector, Apple have made battery replacement deliberately difficult. This is the one component which is highly likely to fail through age before the rest of the machine, but it is glued to the baseplate, with key components then mounted over it. The iFixIt Guide has no fewer than 72 steps (I’m not making this up), at which point you have stripped almost the entire laptop, used some quite powerful solvents to melt the glue, and have your new battery in place with the instruction “To reassemble your device, follow these instructions in reverse order”. The last time I followed 72 instructions and then “reassembled my device following the instructions in reverse order” it took me two days, and I ended up with a Renault 5 with working engine and clutch, but 5 large bolts left over. Not keen.

Should I get professional help? For a machine up to about 5 years old, Apple will do a battery replacement, for about £300. Apparently they strip out all the components from your MacBook and mount them into a new chassis complete with new battery, keyboard and trackpad. Presumably the old chassis and related components go to the skip. However apart from the time this might take, I could see my MacBook coming back with all my keyboard customisations undone, and my hard disk which boots into Windows carefully wiped and OSX installed. Not keen.

[Aside: this is still a better position than if you go to Apple with a 5+ year old machine seeking service. Their official position is apparently “We are happy to recycle this for no cost. Here’s the price list for a brand new one”!]

I could look for a specialist, but again I was concerned about timing, and whether I’d get the machine back as I left it. So I decided on a self-fix, but trying to find a solution that didn’t mean stripping out the motherboard and all the peripherals. Now I could see that it might be possible to get a lever under the outer battery cells (the six cells are largely independent) without major disassembly, so I decided to try that route, hoping fervently that the iFixit guidance was overkill (as it appeared to be).

Obviously it’s a bit risky levering up already damaged lithium ion batteries, as you don’t want a fire, but hopefully the risk would be small since they were almost fully discharged. I took the precaution of having a heavy saucepan and lid sitting on a metal skillet at the end of the desk as a fire bucket, and used plastic tools as far as possible.

I also sourced a Torx T5 screwdriver for the internal screws. While the case screws and the inner screw heads look similar, the former have 5 points, and the latter 6. Just to make it a bit more difficult. Actually I’m not surprised Apple have a five-pointed design – the pentagram fits well with their generally Diabolical attitude to service, maintainability and the risk of immolation from faulty batteries…

So here’s my rather shorter process for replacing a 15″ Retina MacBook battery:

  1. Make sure the battery is fully discharged. I left it playing videos which is a good way to exhaust the battery without having to battle battery-saving timeouts etc.
  2. Unscrew the base. Make a note of which screws went where – they are not identical!
  3. Unplug the battery.
  4. Following the instructions on the iFixit guide, carefully remove the trackpad ribbon cable, which runs over the battery and is actually stuck to it.
  5. Unscrew the batteries’ circuit board (to which the plug is attached).
  6. Unscrew the two screws in each speaker which adjacent to the batteries. You can’t remove the speakers (they are held firmly in place by the motherboard and other components mounted on top), but removing the lower screws allows them a bit of movement.
  7. Using a flat plastic lever (I used a plastic fish slice) and (if essential) a wide-bladed screwdriver, slowly lever up the rightmost battery cell.
  8. When it’s free, use side-cutters to snip the connection to the other cells, then place it in the fire bucket.
  9. Repeat the process with the next cell in.
  10. Repeat with the two left-hand cells.
  11. Lever up the two centre cells from the sides until you can get your fingertips under them. Do not lever from front or back as you risk damaging the trackpad or keyboard connections.
  12. Once you can get your fingers under the central cells, they should continue to prise up and will eventually pop out.
  13. Carefully remove any remaining adhesive tape from the chassis.
  14. Site the new batteries, making sure the screw holes for the circuit board line up with the motherboard. This is the bit I didn’t get exactly right, but managed to “fiddle” afterwards.
  15. Remove the protective film, and press the batteries down. Once this has been done they are glued in place and will not move, so this needs to be done carefully. However leaving the speakers in place means that you have good visual guides for positioning as well as the circuit board mounts.
  16. Re-assemble the trackpad cable. This isn’t explained in the iFixit guide, but basically you need to carefully slide the ZIF connector into its socket, then press down the black tab. You can then plug in the other end and screw down its cover.
  17. Screw down the battery circuit board. Replace the speaker screws.
  18. Plug in the battery. Boot up the laptop to make sure all major systems (especially the keyboard and trackpad) are working.
  19. Turn the laptop over and screw up the base. Remember that the two central rear screws are slightly shorter than the others and need to go back in those holes.
  20. Check everything and fully charge the battery.

It worked, I didn’t set fire to anything, and my laptop now sits absolutely flat on the table. We’ll know shortly how life of the new batteries compares with the old.

However, it really doesn’t have to be this way. If Apple cared remotely about their customers and the environment instead of screwing everyone for the maximum revenue then the battery replacement would be a simple clip or screw process similar to the 2011 version, optimised for repairability rather than designed to actively minimise and inhibit it. I’m not impressed.

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Form vs Function – a Tail :) of Three Mice

Just in case you think some of my recent posts have been a bit anti-Microsoft, here’s one in which (spoiler alert!) they win!

Call me old-fashioned, but I very much prefer using a mouse to a trackpad or its relatives, and since my earliest experiences with Windows 3.0, I’ve tended to go for Microsoft mice by preference. Over the years they gained additional buttons and a wheel, lasers replaced the ball, and wireless connections replaced wires, but the core ergonomics and functionality have been maintained and gradually improved. About 2005 this resulted in the Microsoft wireless mouse, of which we have had several, colour matched to different PCs.

However when I started using a MacBook as my primary PC, I had a couple of challenges with this strategy. Firstly, while it may be pure vanity I like to have a mouse which visually matches my laptop, and the somewhat “chunky” Microsoft options didn’t really float my boat. More importantly with the limited set of ports on a MacBook I couldn’t afford to tie up a USB port with the mouse or (worse) risk damaging one if I forgot to unplug the wireless dongle, something I have experienced on other PCs. As the MacBook runs with BlueTooth and internal wireless permanently powered on, a BlueTooth solution seemed sensible.

A visit to PC World didn’t reveal many options. Apart from the Apple mouse (the ergonomics of which I don’t particularly like) most mice seemed to be either wired, WiFi based and/or very chunky. Then I discovered the HP Z5000, an elegant thin white slab, with BlueTooth, two buttons and a wheel. Great!

Or so I thought… Time revealed two problems. One is ergonomic: the wheel is the same smooth white plastic as the body, and if your fingers are at all wet or slippery it is completely impossible to scroll accurately. The  other is electronic, with the PC and mouse periodically becoming “disconnected” and requiring some random mouse movement or, occasionally, cycling the mouse’s power to re-establish connectivity. For reasons not immediately apparent, this appears to become worse when working in bright ambient outside light, just the conditions under which you can’t afford intermittent loss of the mouse’s position.

After working with these limitations for a year, we finally gave up after our last holiday, and decided enough was enough. Research suggested a new option, in the form of the HP Z8000.

This is a piece of gorgeous industrial design: a thin black slab edged in brushed aluminium which is a very good match to the MacBook’s own finish. The top surface is a capacitative touch panel – tap to click the mouse, swipe forward and back to simulate the wheel scrolling normally, or left and right to simulate a horizontal scroll. It also allegedly has much improved power management and connectivity. Wonderful! Well worth the £40+ asking price.

Or so I thought… To start with there’s no evidence whatsoever that HP have addressed the connectivity problems. If anything, they are worse. More of an issue is that the touch panel just doesn’t work very well. If you are very careful and precise with all your movements it’s just about usable in a program like Microsoft Word. However if the software supports any form of horizontal scrolling (e.g. XnView, or Windows Explorer in “tile” mode), then you end up with a working context which jumps about constantly and randomly. With some programs, such as CaptureOne, it becomes almost unusable.

Back to Amazon, and I discover this gem:

Yes, it’s a Microsoft “Designer” BlueTooth mouse. Price about £16, although it does vary. Just a lump of black plastic, although at least it’s now thin enough to work alongside the MacBook. Textured scroll wheel and two obvious buttons, each with a definite “action”. Picks up the control points in CaptureOne without issue. And so far not a single random connectivity problem.

Function trumps form, substance beats style, in mice if not always in men!

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The Colour Nazis

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a movement obsessed with removing colour, especially those whose skin colour or religious preference was different to their own. This went to great extremes, caused the greatest of all wars, and we are all aware of the terrible atrocities done as a result. It is one of the horrors of our current time that those beliefs, which we thought had been consigned to history, seem to be getting some renewed attention and following.

If faced with political extremism, the predominantly liberal groups who control and shape our technology would typically be horrified and opposed. However at the same time they are forcing on us fashions and design paradigms which in their own way are just as odious, impacting the richness of our experience, and limiting rather than improving our ability to interact with technology.

I refer, of course, to the Colour Nazis. The members of this movement probably don’t think of themselves that way, and if forced to adopt a label would choose something much more neutral, but it is becoming apparent that some of their thinking is not that different.

This is not the first time I’ve complained about this. In 2012 I wrote “Tyranny of the Colour Blind, or Have Microsoft Lost Their Mojo?”. The trouble is that things are getting worse, not better. Grappling with Office 2016 I’m coming to grips with some really dramatically stupid decisions which can only be explained by a Nazi zeal to remove the colour from our technological interactions.

Here’s a quick test. Find Open, Save and the Thesaurus in Office 2003:


Now let’s try Office 2010:


Not too bad. The white background actually helps by increasing contrast, and the familiar splashes of colour still draw your eye quickly to the right icons, although the Thesaurus is a bit anonymous. Now let’s try Office 2016:


The faded grey on a grey background colour scheme has wiped out most of the contrast, and you’d be struggling to make these out if you have ageing sight in a poor working environment. The pale pastel yellow of “Open” is still just recognisable, but the “Save ” button has turned to a weird pale purple, and the Thesaurus is completely anonymous. I’d have to go hunting by hovering over each and reading the tooltip. (Before anyone shouts, I know I’ve used an add-in menu here to get a like-for-like comparison, but all this is equally true for the full-sized ribbon controls.)

Now let’s look at a really stupid example. One of Word’s great strengths is the ability to assemble and review tracked changes from multiple reviewers. In Word 2010 each will be assigned a distinctive colour, and I can very quickly see who’s who:


OK that works well. Let’s see what they’ve done in Office 2016:


WTF! One place where colour has a specific role as an information dimension, and they’ve actually taken it away. In the document the markup does use some colour, but in the form of a few pale pastel lines. Instead the screen is cluttered up with the name of the author against every single change, which makes it unreadable if multiple authors have made changes to a single page.

I am always among the first to remind designers not to rely on colour, as it doesn’t work well for about 8% of the population, or in some viewing conditions. But that’s no reason to remove it. Instead you should supplement it (e.g. make icons both distinctive colours and shapes), or allow the users a choice. Word 2016 should allow me to choose whether to use colour or explicit names in markup balloons, and I wouldn’t be having this rant.

There is apparently a name for this fad, “Complexion Reduction” (see Complexion Reduction: A New Trend In Mobile Design by Michael Horton). The problem is that its advocates seem to have lost sight of some key principles of human-computer interaction. One of these is that for normally-sighted people there’s a clear hierarchy in how we spot or identify things:

  1. Colour. If we can look for a splash of colour, that’s easiest. That’s why fire extinguishers are red, or the little red coat was so poignant in Schindler’s List.
  2. Shape / position. We manage a lot of interactions by recognising shapes. That’s why icons work in the first place. We even do this when the affordance supplies text as well. If you’re a native English speaker and reader you will inevitably have tried to move a door the wrong way, because “PUSH” and “PULL” have such similar shapes, and your brain tries shapes first, text second.
  3. Text. When all else fails, read the instructions. That’s not a joke, it’s a real fact about how people’s brains work. If I have to go hunting in a menu or reading tooltips, then the designer has failed miserably.

Sadly I don’t know if there’s any way to influence this. These decisions are probably being made by ultra-hip youngsters with ironic beards and 20 year old eyes who don’t really get HCI. I’d just like one of them to read this blog.

Addendum — May 2019

So the hierarchy for interactions is first colour, then shape, then text.

So please could someone explain to me why the latest versions of Android have also decided to force almost all application icons into a uniform shape (circular on my Sony phone, a rounded rectangle on my Samsung tablet) with exactly the same background colour?

On my phone, all the main Google apps now have icons which are white circles with tiny splashes of the same four colours. The Sony apps (including the main phone functions) are white circles with small icons, using the same pale blue, within them. To add an extra spice, the launcher I use occasionally moves the icons around, if I add a new front-page app or the labels change.

My poor brain has no chance whatsoever. I open my phone, and then have to READ labels to make sure I’m opening the right app. Hopeless!

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Microsoft : Busy Fixing What Ain’t Broke

There’s an interesting, but intensely annoying, behaviour by the big software companies, which as far as I’m aware has no parallel in other areas of production for consumer consumption. We’ve all been used, since the mid-20th century, to the concept of "planned obsolescence" to make us buy new things. While you might argue that this is not great in terms of use of resources, it’s accepted by consumers because the new thing is usually better than the old one. There might be the odd annoyance (as captured by Weinberg’s New Law, on which I’ve written before), but by and large if I buy a new camera, or car, or TV there are enough definite improvements to justify the purchase and any transition pain. In addition I only usually have to make a change either because the old thing has reached the end of its economic life, or the new thing has a new feature I really want.

It’s not that way with core software, and especially Microsoft products (although they are not the only offenders). The big software providers continue to foist endless upgrades on us, but I can’t see any evidence of improvement. Instead I can actually see a lot of what is known in other trades as "de-contenting", taking away useful capabilities which were there before and not replacing them.

Windows 10 continues to reveal the loss of features which worked well under Windows 7, with unsatisfactory or no replacements. I mourn the loss of the beautiful "aero" features of Windows 7 (with its semi-transparent borders and title bars)  and a number of other stylistic elements, but there are some serious functional omissions as well. I couldn’t work out why my new laptop kept on trying to latch onto my neighbour’s Wifi, rather than use my high powered but secure internal service, and discovered that there’s now no manual mechanism to sort WiFi networks or set preferences. There is, allegedly, a brilliant new automated algorithm which just makes it automatic and no bother to the user. Yeah, right. Dear Microsoft, IT DOESN’T ***** WORK. Fortunately in the way of these things I’m not the only one to complain, and literally in the last couple of weeks a helpful Belgian developer has released a tiny utility which replaces the ability to list and manipulate the WiFi networks known to a Windows 10 machine ( That’s great, and the young man will be receiving a few Euros from me, but it shouldn’t have to be this way. By all means add an automatic sequencer to the new system, but leave the manual mechanism as well.

However, my real object of hate at the moment is Microsoft Office. Since I set up the new MacBook with Windows 10 it’s never been entirely happy with the combination of versions I want to use: Office 2010, plus Skype for Business 2016. (Well actually I’d really prefer to use Office 2003, but I’m over that by now :)) I’ve had the odd problem before, having to install Visio 2016 because Visio 2010 and Skype/Lync 2016 keep breaking each other. I’m not sure how that’s even possible given the "side by side" library architecture which Microsoft introduced with Windows XP, but somehow they managed it, and they clearly don’t care enough about the old versions to fix the issue.

I could live with that, but a couple of weeks ago more serious problems set it. There was an odd "blip", and then OneNote just showed blank notebooks with the ominous statement "There are no sections open in this notebook or section group". That looked like a major disaster, as I rely on OneNote both to organise my work and to-do lists on a daily basis, and as a repository of notes going back well over 10 years. However a quick check online, and on other devices revealed that my data was fine. I lost a good chunk of a working day to trying to fix the problem, including a partial installation of Office 2016 to upgrade to OneNote 2016. That’s a lot more difficult that it should be, and something Microsoft really doesn’t want you to do. Nothing worked. By the end of the day I was so messed up I did a system restore to the previous day, hoping that would restore my system state and fix the original problem. At first glance this appeared to fix Office, although OneNote was still showing blank notebooks. However I then had a moment of inspiration and went online to, and clicked the "edit in OneNote" option. This magically re-synced things, and got my notebooks re-opened on the laptop. Success?

Unfortunately not. Things seemed OK for a few days, but then I started getting odd error messages, and things associated with Outlook and the email system started breaking. Apparently even a complete "System Restore" hadn’t completely restored the registry, and my system couldn’t work out which version of Outlook was installed. An office repair did no good, and eventually I decided to bite the bullet and upgrade to Office 2016. Even that wasn’t trivial, and took a couple of goes but eventually I got there, and my system is now, fingers crossed, stable again.

And that would be fine if Office 2016 was actually a straightforward upgrade from its predecessors, maintaining operational compatibility under a stable user interface, but that’s where I came in. The look and feel, drained of colour and visual separation, is in my opinion poorer than before but I’ll probably get used to it. I’ve got an add-in (the excellent Ubit Menu) which gives me a version of the ribbon which mimics the Office 2003 menus, and which I also used with Office 2010, so I can quickly find things. But what that can’t do is fix features which Microsoft have just removed.

Take Outlook for example. I really liked the "autopreview" view on my inbox folders. Show me a few lines of unread emails, so I can both quickly identify them and, importantly, scan the content to decide whether they need to be processed urgently and if any can just be deleted, but hide the preview once I’ve read them. Brilliant. Gone. I have multiple accounts under the same Outlook profile, which is how Microsoft tell you it’s meant to work, and in previous versions I could adjust the visual properties of the folder pane at the left so I could see all the key folders at once. Great. Gone. Now I’m stuck with a stupid large font and line separation which would be great if I was working on a tablet with my fingers and a single mail account, but I’m not. Dear Microsoft, some people still use a ****** PC and a mouse…

Or take Word. Previous "upgrade" Office installations carefully preserved the styles in the "Normal" template, so that opening a document in the new version preserved its layout. Not this time. I’ve had to go through several documents with detail page layouts and check each one.

None of this is a disaster, but it is costing me time and money and it wouldn’t be necessary if either Microsoft didn’t keep forcing us to upgrade, or if they made sure to keep backwards compatibility of key features. It’s also not just a Microsoft problem: Adobe and Apple are equally guilty (witness features lost from recent versions of OSX, or the weird user interface of Acrobat XI). The problem seems to be that the big software companies don’t seem to have a business model for just keeping our core software "ticking over", and they confuse change with improvement, which is proving to not be the case now that these systems are functionally mature and already do what people need them to do.

I’m not sure what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. We can’t take these products away from the companies, and we don’t want them to become moribund and abandoned, gradually decaying as changes elsewhere render them unusable. Maybe they need to listen harder to their existing customers, and a bit less to potential "captures", but I’m not convinced that’s going to happen. Let the struggle continue…

Posted in Agile & Architecture, PCs/Laptops, Thoughts on the World | 1 Comment

Backing Up

On the caldera path, Firostephani, Santorini
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 04-10-2015 18:45 | Resolution: 4963 x 3722 | ISO: 500 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 15.0mm | Location: Santorini | State/Province: South Aegean | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Coming up with a reliable backup policy is a challenge as data volumes grow. My approach is as follows. On a weekly basis I do a full backup of the system disk of the more "volatile" PCs in our collection, plus a differential backup of the other disks. The best tool for full backups appears to be Acronis, but it has a brain-dead approach to partial backups, which cannot always be restored if you don’t have every file in the chain, and it’s just not reliable enough. I therefore also continue to use the venerable Windows ntbackup, even under Windows 10, as I still haven’t found a better option which supports a true "differential" model.

Every three or four months I then do a full backup of every disk in every PC, and re-set the baseline for the differential backups. That’s due for this weekend, and as a result I’m trying to finish processing images from some previous trips, so they will be fully backed up in their complete form. I have about 100 images from Santorini to process today, and then I get to a very neat breakpoint. I’m not sure whether such a deadline really helps, but at least it drives me to keep my photography backlog under control.

The picture above is mainly just to provide a bit of colourful cheer on a damp and windy February morning. Enjoy it!

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Weinberg’s New Law, and the Upgrade Cascade

When I started the experiment of running Windows on a MacBook (continued here and here), I really expected it to just be a "travel" laptop, continuing with something like my Alienware R17X as primary machine. That changed rapidly when I got addicted to the MacBook’s better weight, format, screen and, it must be admitted, style. However originally I had purchased a relatively low spec second-hand MacBook, in particular without a Retina screen, and I promised myself an upgrade at some point. On the Bhutan trip I got to play with the newer, lighter, MacBooks some of the others were using, and with the end of my financial year approaching, over Christmas I decided to go for it.

The purchase process was "non-trivial" (polite version). To get the performance improvement I wanted, I was attracted to the top-spec model of the latest MacBook Pro. A bit of research also established that I didn’t have much choice: the new MacBooks use a new SSD technology which is not yet fully supported by the parts market, and only the higher spec machines have a 1TB disk to match my older machine. Purchasing a brand new MacBook is not for the faint hearted: full price from Apple they are bloody expensive. Even allowing for inflation the MacBook is about 35% more than my Alienware laptop (itself a custom-built machine of then-equivalent spec) was in late 2011. And this is supposed to be a market with downwards price pressure!

I decided to look for alternative options. At first I thought I’d cracked it with someone selling a refurbished item via Amazon, but when it turned up it was completely the wrong spec, including a Spanish keyboard. Amazon and the vendor were both very helpful and a refund was arranged promptly, but neither could help regarding providing the item I actually wanted, so that was a dead end. On eBay there are few options, but making enquiries they are mainly "grey market" imports which are just dodging the VAT, which doesn’t help me. However persistence paid off and I finally found an affordable deal for a brand new MacBook which came with a proper VAT receipt, bringing the effective price nearer what I’ve normally paid. I would happily recommend the very helpful suppliers, TRDuk Ltd.

Then the "fun" started!  The famous American consulting guru, Gerald Weinberg, wrote his advice in terms of a number of "laws". The shortest and simplest is The New Law, which simply states "Nothing new works". Unfortunately, as many of us know, he’s right. There’s an inevitable bedding-in period with most new technology, during which we get to know and understand it, and get it set up correctly. So it was with the laptop.

I lost a couple of days trying to find a short-cut to the set-up/rebuild process. Although the new machine has no DVD drive, I managed to find an old USB one, plus there are some fairly well-established routines for building bootable memory sticks. However Apple have changed the architecture of the 2014+ MacBooks so much they won’t boot natively from a Windows installer or Acronis backup disk, and in El Capitan they have removed the ability to build native Windows boot installer media under BootCamp. That eventually put paid to any attempt to restore a copy of my installation on the older MacBook, or to install Windows onto a blank disk. It also become apparent that Apple no longer provide driver support for Windows 7, so I was going to have to bite the bullet and install Windows 10, and under a BootCamp installation. When I tried that on the older MacBook it left the disk in a very inflexible state, but somewhere between Apple and Microsoft the former problems had gone away, and Windows 10 and appropriate hardware drivers installed very nicely. The only side-effect is that there’s a 40GB OSX partition (which for some reason is now unbootable) stealing a bit of disk space, but I can live with that for now.

This is the point to introduce Johnston’s Even Shorter Corollary to Weinberg’s New Law: "Upgrades Cascade". We’ve all see this, a new X means upgrading Y, which means upgrading Z. In addition, Microsoft’s core products are definitely now on the Slippery Slope of Unnecessary Enhancement of the Software Utility Curve. Windows 10 has a number of definite capability reductions compared with Windows 7, and so far I’m really struggling to find any real "Wow, that’s a definite improvement" to compensate.

The rot set in quite early in the process. All versions of Windows since 2000 have included a version of the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard (it’s had a few different names). By Windows 7 this was quite powerful, and, for example, successfully transferred all my Office add-ins to the first MacBook without problems. However, when I say "all versions", I mean "all versions except Windows 10". For reasons which are not explained, Microsoft have dropped this essential utility, replacing it with a free subscription to a Laplink service which just isn’t as good. Not only does it ignore anything which looks like it might be program-related (unless you are prepared to pay them extra money), it also missed a few files and settings which I’m sure transferred without problems in earlier moves. To add annoyance it only works over the network, which is both slow (especially as I was only able to use WiFi at this stage), and wouldn’t work in all environments.

Although Windows 10 is massively better than the almost-unusable Windows 8.x, it still has some user interface oddities which are a definite downgrade from earlier versions. The most annoying of these relate to the settings functionality, which is doubly troublesome as this is something you need to work cleanly and reliably early in the cycle of setting up an operating system. The preferred settings architecture consists of a series of allegedly touch-friendly "overlays" on a sort of "web page" paradigm. However, it doesn’t work very well. Key settings are buried in illogical places, and there’s no clear way to confirm/cancel/reset changes, which I would have thought is fundamental. The worst aspect is the "brain dead" implementation of Windows Update, which loses its context if you switch away to inspect another setting while it’s running, and has to start again. There’s also no way to download updates but install them at a convenient time, or any of the other management features of the Windows 7 system. Worse, in an effort to provide a "cool" interface this page has no scroll bars on the update list, so unless you deliberately try and navigate with the mouse you have no way to see whether there are just 5 updates waiting, or you are just looking at the top 5 of 100!

What I discovered fairly quickly, however, is that Control Panel, and most if not all of the applets, are still present and work well. They are well hidden, but if you type the appropriate name into Cortana you can get a shortcut and put it on the desktop (or into XStart, which still, thankfully, works well under Windows 10, unifying launch across all my PCs). That doesn’t help where Microsoft have fundamentally redesigned the settings architecture, such as with language and keyboard management, and there’s no "Windows Update" fix, but otherwise it’s much better. It’s also a nuisance that Microsoft have removed the straightforward one-click on the desktop way to change screen resolution, but a shortcut to the "Display" control panel is a reasonable fix and much better than trying to use the appalling standard settings page.

Remote desktop, of which I make extensive use, doesn’t work as well with a Windows 10 target as with older versions, with much more limited functionality around display and power management. There are some usable work-arounds on the web, but like the loss of the one click to change display resolution, this is a case of breaking something which previously worked fine.

In fairness to Microsoft, beyond the settings the software annoyances have been relatively few. I use the excellent Windows Live Writer for blogging, and was disappointed to find initially that I could no longer download it, having to settle for a currently inferior open source version. However today I’ve resolved that and got Live Writer running again. I had to upgrade a couple of small applications, and install others in compatibility mode, but no major problems. The one application which seems less tractable is Apache, which was a pig to install even under 64 bit Windows 7. My solution there is to run it in a Windows XP VM, but taking the content files from the disk of the main machine, which is what I’ve done with some other legacy apps. There are a couple of wrinkles to iron out, but essentially it works.

There were a few annoyances in terms of the hardware and drivers, but nothing insuperable. The native resolution of the MacBook Retina screen, 2880×1800, is unusable under Windows, and I expected that I’d probably run most of the time at exactly half that, 1440×900, which would be the same as native on the older machine. It was a good plan, let down by the completely inexplicable absence of built-in support for 1440×900 in the AMD drivers! Fortunately they support "custom resolutions" (although it’s by no means obvious how), and after a little bit of googling and registry editing 1440×900 was duly added to the list and works exactly as expected. Now we just need to shoot the 16 year old with hawk eyes who doesn’t get the requirement… The lack of built in ethernet support is also a pain, especially as due to a separate minor procurement problem my thunderbolt to ethernet adapter didn’t turn up on time and I had to do all the main set up using WiFi. Now I appreciate that the MacBook is so thin that it cannot support a full-sized RJ45 port, but at the price you pay why can’t Apple include a thunderbolt adapter in the box?

Minor annoyances aside, the good news is that I really like the Mac hardware. It’s very fast, with Windows boot to login taking no more than 10s and login processing not much more again. Battery life is excellent at 5-6 hours of office work. The keyboard is identical to its predecessor, and accepted the same bodges to make it work well with Windows without problems. The real gain however is the Retina display, which is brilliant in terms of colour consistency, and viewing angle tolerance. Why have only Apple cracked this? It’s arguably not quite as sharp or bright as the non-Retina display of the older machine at its native 1440×900, but the difference is negligible and the improved colour accuracy more than makes up for it.

So where does this leave us? The MacBook is still a great, and improved "PC", but so it should be at the price, and that’s despite Apple trying hard to make it more difficult to run Windows than it used to be. Windows 10 is OK, but that’s damning with faint praise, with no real improvement that I’ve yet spotted, and some things definitely downgraded. A former senior designer at Apple and usability guru, Bruce Tognazzini, recently wrote a piece blasting  current Apple design for prioritising "beauty" over utility (How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name), and there’s obviously more than an element of the same in Microsoft’s copy-cat actions. Can we have a bit more focus on "easy to use professionally (by users of all ages and physical abilities)" and a bit less "make it look pretty to appeal to teenagers" from both companies, please?

Oh, and the best news? The big Alien is going on eBay, and early indications suggest that it’s worth more than half what I paid for it. Not bad for a machine more than 4 years old, and a challenge for the new MacBook to live up to…

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Standardising the Mac Keyboard

My MacBook Pro is, ironically, the best portable PC I’ve owned. The Big Old Alien is slightly faster and more powerful, but you’d never use the word "portable" about it without gritted teeth, and since the PC world went to silly wide (=short) screens as standard, nothing else with a 15" screen can match the Apple’s bright, colour-accurate and relatively tall display. The form factor and elegant, strong body suit me very well.

The initial teething problems with accessing external displays resolved themselves when I bought some slightly higher quality display adapters. Ironically the best one for VGA has "Dell" written on it. The multi-touch trackpad works well with Windows as soon as you set the bottom right corner to provide a right mouse click, and the spacing and action of the keypad allows me to type quickly and fairly accurately in a way which isn’t possible on many of the other laptops I’ve owned.

The keyboard layout, however, is a different matter. I’m sure that Apple’s position is that you should just use Apple keyboards all day every day and get used to it, and that the more common layout is a Microsoft/IBM standard anyway. The latter point might be true, but that doesn’t help those of us who operate in a more heterogeneous world. I have to work on PCs as well. About half the time, I use my Mac via Remote Desktop, from a PC with a standard Microsoft Keyboard. Even when I’m working on it directly, and even though I’m not a true touch typist, my muscle memory is sufficiently good that I default to the UK PC positioning of the ", @, \ and # symbols, all of which I use quite frequently. And occasionally Frances gets to use it, and she is a touch typist who uses PCs all the rest of the time.

I therefore decided that something had to change, and that was the Mac! Unfortunately turning it into a "standard" PC layout is non-trivial, but I’m getting there.

The first step was to implement a proper "Delete" key, without which the Mac is unusable in many Windows programs. The solution to that one’s fairly well documented: you use SharpKeys to adjust the registry, and remap a suitable key to send the Del scancode, which is an easily reversible but permanent fix. I chose F12, which is easy to map and in pretty much the same relative position to Backspace as most Windows laptops. I believe it may be possible to use the CD Eject button instead, which would be even better, but I haven’t got that working yet.

The next layer is the Windows keyboard definition. Microsoft provide a free utility called the Microsoft Keyboard Layout Utility, which allows you to define the mapping for the main text keys. The advantage of this is that you can define multiple layouts and switch between them on the fly, if, for example, you work in several languages. I initially tried having the Apple layout, plus one based on a standard UK keyboard. This works tolerably well, but you can get tripped up if you haven’t switched the layout correctly, as you have to switch the keyboard separately for each application used in a login session. It also doesn’t resolve the problem of muscle memory on the Mac. Something more enduring was required…

I decided it was time to try and sort out the MacBook keyboard more directly. It’s relatively easy to pop the keycaps off and swap the standard text ones around. First change is to swap the \| key with the ~ key, which puts them into their correct positions for PC users, and remap their output in a copy of the Apple keyboard layout. While I was at it I remapped the non-shifted character on the ~ key from a grave accent to a # – consistent with PC keyboards and about 1 million times more useful in this hash-tagging world!

Apple’s approach to the quote keys appears to be wilfully obstructive. All European keyboards since the age of typewriters, including British ones, put the double quote above the 2. So do older American keyboards. However the US IBM Selectric typewriters put the @ above the 2 and the double quote above the single quote, and that became the standard for US PC keyboards. For reasons which I can only assume are due to an arrogant American company trying to impose American standardisation on others the UK MacBook keyboard follows US rather than standard UK practice. Fortunately they don’t impose the same change on the rest of Europe, so a partial solution presents itself by purchasing a replacement 2/" key for a German machine (from the excellent, and swapping the outputs of the two shifted keys in the keyboard mapping file.

At this stage I have a single keyboard map which works with both the native keyboard or a PC one, and outputs all the symbols I regularly use on PC rules. The majority of keys on the MacBook keyboard also follow their labels. There are two exceptions: the @ key is generated by shift+quote as expected, but not shown on the key, and the same goes for the #, as the base symbol on the ~ key. Unfortunately as far as I can see there are no variants of the MacBook keyboard for any country which have these key combinations, so getting replacement keycaps is not an option. However I can probably live with this limitation.

The one remaining annoyance is the fact that the Fn and Ctrl keys are the opposite way round on the Apple keyboards to most PCs. That’s a bit of a problem with muscle memory for Ctrl+key shortcuts. However I’m gradually training myself to hit the standard PC Ctrl key on its right edge, which is almost the right position for the Mac Ctrl key as well. The real fix is to develop a new keyboard driver which swaps those keys altogether, and then swap the key caps. That’s not for the faint hearted, and I’m not going there unless I have to (and have lots of spare time).

There’s one more layer! Smile Some of my software (particularly XnView, which I use for image management) uses the numeric keypad, which doesn’t exist on the MacBook (one of the big advantages of the Alienware M17X being so enormous!). However that has a relatively quick fix, using AutoHotkey to temporarily map the equivalent keystrokes from the standard number keys. This has the advantage that I only need to have those changes in place on demand, and can tweak the mapping on the fly if needed.

It’s a complicated process, and definitely not standard end-user territory, but I’m nearly there!

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The Experiment Continues

The MacBook Pro has arrived, and for a nearly four year old PC it’s in very good nick. There’s one unfortunate scratch on the top lid, but otherwise it’s very clean and works well. The 8GB RAM I switched out when I upgraded the Alienware M17X fitted into the Mac with no problems, so it’s now up to its maximum RAM. Installing the 1TB SSD (Moore’s Law now applies to solid state storage!) was also trouble-free.

Installation of Windows was a bit of trial and error:

  1. I did a quick test installation of Windows under Apple’s "BootCamp" environment using the original disk, just to make sure everything worked. That was fine, but not really what I wanted to achieve, so…
  2. What I really wanted to do was clone one of my existing Dell/Alienware images, so I wouldn’t have to install everything from scratch. Restoring an Acronis disk backup and getting Windows to start the boot process was fairly trivial, but even after several hours fiddling Windows wouldn’t boot cleanly. There’s obviously some fundamental difference between the Mac hardware and all my native PCs at the driver level. So a full install it would be…
  3. I then went down another rabbit-hole, by trying to install OSX first, and run Windows under BootCamp.This might work well for someone who is going to use the machine 90% for OSX and 10% or less with a tiny Windows installation, but it’s fairly useless for the other way around. The main problem is that once you’ve run BootCamp the disk partitioning is completely locked down which leaves you with two large, inflexible partitions, one for each OS. So out with the Windows install disk again, and install Windows first…
  4. A clean install of Windows as the primary OS worked fine. You just need to make sure you have the Apple/BootCamp drivers on a USB stick (or pre-prepared on one of your hard disk backups). Windows’ File and Settings Transfer Wizard made a reasonable job of restoring most, but not all, of my settings, and the bulk of my data was on secondary disk partitions which could be restored from backups of my other laptops in their entirety, but it still took about a day’s work to install all the software. Your mileage may vary, as the Yanks say.

To start with the good news, this is a great stand-alone laptop, with a superb screen and very handy form-factor. The screen is bright, clean and viewing-angle tolerant, and I really do like the 16:10 form factor much better. The 1440×900 resolution is high enough, but not excessive (with the concomitant problems of small font sizes etc.). Why none of the mainstream PC manufacturers is just putting this display or something very like it into a slimline high performance model (such as the Dell XPS) is a complete mystery, but they’ve all gone down the 16:9 aspect ratio route, and I have yet to see a PC display which shares the other characteristics either. My big red Alien (maybe I should just start calling it/him "Optimus Prime") is nice and bright and the same vertical size (albeit in a 17" model), but quite intolerant of viewing angle.

Performance is pretty good. OK it’s no match for Optimus Prime, but few things are. However if the experiment works I may end up buying a newer and top spec MacPro which should redress the balance a bit.

The Mac keyboard is great for bulk typing (much better than the Dell Latitude), but the layout is a bit of a mystery and suffers from the usual Apple arrogance which I characterise as "if it was good enough for Steve Jobs, it’s good enough for everyone else". What’s the idea behind swapping the @ and " symbols on a British keyboard, for example? I’m getting used to using the Fn+arrow keys instead of Page Up/Down etc., but the lack of a proper "Delete" key is really clumsy. Fortunately there’s a reasonably easy fix using the excellent little SharpKeys utility, so I now have F12 set up to do this. Similarly, why, in the age of Twitter do we have the fairly useless § and `, but no hash key?

Where the Mac does lose out is external connectivity. Optimus Prime, and his smaller Dell Latitude cousin, both expose USB 2, USB 3, e-Sata and dedicated VGA and HDMI ports. I do a lot of plugging into projectors and external screens, and the Alienware/Dell solution "just works". The Mac has two USB 2 ports, fine, and a FireWire port which seems to work as well with big external disks as the e-Sata ports on my other machines. However everything else, including external display feeds, is channelled through the "ThunderBolt" port.

ThunderBolt seems to be a rather clumsy and immature technology, and I haven’t managed to get it working yet. Known issues include the fact that although the connector is identical to the "mini display port" on a lot of recent PCs, it’s electrically different and the two standards won’t inter-operate. I suspect that I have received a mini-display port display adapter, not a ThunderBolt one. However even when I do get the right hardware, there seem to be some serious limitations. ThunderBolt hardware is not hot-pluggable, and has to be plugged in permanently from start-up to be recognised. While it’s connected the PC can’t sleep (because that would disconnect the ThunderBolt hardware). This is a long way from what I’m used to, and might amount to a "deal breaker". The experiments continue.

One last moan for now. I managed to leave my power supply at home yesterday. No problem, I thought, several of my colleagues use MacBooks and I’ll just borrow one of theirs to recharge, and then work from the battery (which has quite good life). First attempt failed, as Geoff’s Mac is about a year older than mine, and the power connector is completely different. Second attempt was a temporary fix, as Reuben’s laptop is the same age as mine, but not a solution for the whole week. A visit to PC world uncovered two options, as Apple have changed the connector again since my laptop was in production, and it took some time to find someone who knew which was which. This is a long way from Dell, where everything from the tiny power supplies for the projectors through to the brick which drives Optimus Prime are 100% interchangeable.

Oh well. Onwards and upwards…

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An Experiment

Readers of longer standing may remember the agonising when I had to replace my 2009 Toshiba laptop, as there had been yet another shift in screen aspect ratio standards, and in order to preserve a decent vertical screen size, I ended up buying a massive Alienware M17X laptop for my main work machine. It’s still a great machine, but “portable” is not an appropriate adjective…

This means I need another laptop for travel. For a while I soldiered on with the old Toshiba Satellite Pro, sticking a large SSD in and upgrading to Windows 7. This works fine, but inevitably software tends to expand to match hardware capabilities, which means running the latest versions of compute-intensive software such as Capture One starts to feel challenging on older hardware. The major nail in the coffin came in Barbados this year, when we discovered that The Crane had upgraded most of the televisions to new models with only HDMI inputs, and the Tosh only has a VGA output. This put a significant crimp in our television watching.

Back home, and the search for a new travel laptop began. One of the interesting challenges is that while I need an HDMI output for plugging into newer televisions, I also definitely need a VGA output on what will be a business tool, for plugging into projectors. However in about the past year Intel in their “wisdom” have decided that newer PCs should not have VGA outputs, despite the vast number of VGA-only projectors still in daily business use. After some agonising I found a deal from Dell for an “outgoing stock” 2013 model Latitude E5530, which has a Core i7 processor (of which more later), and, importantly, both VGA and HDMI ports.

Setting it up was refreshingly easy, as I purchased a 750GB SSD and simply cloned the old travel laptop onto this disk, stuck it into the new machine, and updated a few drivers. I have a fairly complex file replication scheme set up on all my laptops using the excellent SyncBack SE, which allows my work to just flow smoothly backwards and forwards between them, so that I can work on the Alienware M17X if I’m driving somewhere, or switch to the Dell if I’m travelling by other means. As a business computing arrangement it works pretty well. Recently I’ve been splitting my time between home, the Midlands, central London, Cologne and Berlin, and it’s served its primary purpose.

Unfortunately, there are some limitations. Firstly, although the Dell has a Core i7 processor, it turned out to be a dual core version. I didn’t spot this when I bought the machine, as I didn’t realise such things even existed! While it’s not a limitation if I’m doing normal business computing, it does affect my ability to do some tests with virtualisation or performance simulations, which have been an element of my recent work. Coupled with the relatively slow integrated graphics, it’s significantly slower when I’m processing images for my photography.

However the main issue is the stupid slitty “widescreen” display, which is only 768 pixels deep. This makes it almost unusable for some programs, such as Capture One, and a bit of a challenge even for working on large spreadsheets, project plans, or documents where I want to see an overview of a page. Coupled with a disappointingly dim screen which is very sensitive to viewing angle, it’s effectively unusable for my photography.

The result is that I’ve started lusting after alternatives. There is, of course, one hardware supplier who “get” the need for a sensible screen aspect ratio, and also have display technology which produces bright, colour accurate images tolerant of quite a wide viewing angle range. I am talking about Apple. One of my colleagues has a three year old 15″ Macbook Pro, and while I’m no lover of OSX, the screen is exactly what I need.

So that got me thinking, maybe the answer is a hybrid solution: Mac hardware running Windows :)… Yesterday I bit the bullet and purchased a 2011-era 15″ Macbook Pro, with a four core i7 processor. I will do my usual trick of installing maximum RAM and a big SSD, and it should more or less match the Dell for performance and portability, plus deliver a bit more style to boot. The interesting challenge is whether I can pull off my trick of just installing a clone of my existing laptop set-up, or whether I will have to re-install everything with a more complex dual-boot solution managed by OSX. I’ll also have to get used to running Windows on an Apple keyboard, which may be interesting.

Let the experiment commence!

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