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Archive for February, 2015

The Clean Windows PC experience

February 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Microsoft Windows is an amazing piece of software. It powers an incredibly wide range of hardware, as well as running on wildly different system specifications. One person may have a bargain basement Celeron or Pentium laptop, while another person is running on a fully tricked out Core i7 beast – Windows covers it all. With multiple OEM’s making products, the consumer is generally spoiled for choice across a wide range of price points. The downside to this however is that Windows has often been associated with a race to the bottom of the barrel, while Apple for example refuses to go below a certain line and rightly or wrongly, and maintains a prestigious, upmarket image.

Part of the race to the bottom means that profits for OEM’s are razor thin. Make a mistake and your competitors are going to pounce. Fail to keep up and likewise. Fail to cut down on costs and you risk going bust. As a result of this fierce competition, consumers have sometimes been the victim of this industry competition. Laptops are built with creaky plastic that doesn’t always sit flush, screen resolutions haven’t increased in years, mechanical hard drives are still king, multiple models that often leave people confused as to what the differences are between it and another model, the amount of RAM is just enough to get by with and cheap Realtek network and audio solutions are used etc… On the software side of things, OEM’s take money from anti-virus vendors to preload their wares onto the computers. Throw in CD/DVD burning trial solutions, vendor back up programs as well as other useless vendor software and you are left with a horrible laptop/desktop experience. Users don’t love Windows, they just tolerate it.

The hardware issue is tricky, since that depends on economies of scale to work. A SSD hard drive for example would greatly improve people’s experiences with their computer, but a 250GB drive for example still costs much more than a 1TB mechanical drive. Screen resolution in laptops is slowly starting to move forward again, but it will take time. Trackpads are also finally starting to improve, but it’s still hit and miss. With desktops, it’s really become about trying to cut down on size as much as possible and go small.

The software side of things is where the most immediate improvement can be made. If OEM’s followed Microsoft’s Windows Signature Edition experience, I think many a customer would be happy. Instead of having Windows loaded down with bloatware, trials and other software, Windows instead would come clean out the box, with a few minimal applications installed – Flash, Adobe Reader, Skype and Microsoft Security Essentials (for Windows 7). For Windows 8 based machines, the OEM’s should make sure that the devices are shipped with Windows 8.1 minimum, but ideally Update 1 should be installed as well, which improves the experience on traditional laptops/desktops. OEM’s should strive to keep their images as up to date as possible, so that the end user isn’t downloading a few GB worth of updates after their first boot. There’s nothing worse that powering up and watching Windows Update firing up and tearing through a few GB worth of bandwidth as it pulls down patches.

Lastly, hardware in the computer should not require an application be installed so that the driver is installed as well. I’ve had this problem with Lenovo and Samsung laptops, where in order to get rid of an outstanding entry in Device Manager, I’ve had to install one of the Samsung/Lenovo utilities. Often these utilities don’t work well and just add frustration for the end user.

Famed Windows blogger Paul Thurrott has a few articles up where he goes right back to basics and does completely clean installs of Windows on some of his devices. As he notes, it’s sometimes the only way to truly be rid of all the bloatware OEM’s like to install. Included are steps on how to legally download clean ISO images you can burn to disk or USB stick for a clean install of Windows. You can find his articles here, here, here, here and here.

SMART Board and USB port fun

February 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Over the last two weeks, we’ve slowly been ramping up our classroom computer swap program at work. 6 year old Core 2 based computers with horrid chassis and power supplies are coming out, being replaced with first gen Core i3 boxes that are quieter, smaller and faster. However, a recent event almost threatened to derail the project.

I placed one of the replacement computers in a class, had it setup as per usual and all was going well. After rebooting however, I noticed that the SMART Board (model SB-680) was not behaving properly. The board was either vanishing just before the computer was fully booted into Windows, or the board would constantly reset and be basically unusable. Changing USB ports did hot help at all, they only gave a temporary fix that lasted until the next boot.

I got the reseller of the board involved to do deeper technical diagnostics, though in honesty it was more a case of handing the problem over to someone else. This past Friday afternoon they arrived and we started a long troubleshooting process. The board was hooked up to the techies laptop and after some time, it settled down and behaved normally. We then swapped out the controller card, swapped out the board itself and tested on the replacement PC. All to no avail, the problem kept coming back. We even tried a new USB booster cable and USB cable, same result.

In desperation, I went into the BIOS to change the USB settings for the newer classroom motherboards. The Intel DQ57TM motherboards had been running completely fine for the last 4 years without issues in both our computer labs, so I couldn’t understand why it would give issues now. They are all flashed to the latest firmware Intel offers, so there would be no fix that way. It turns out that one simple BIOS setting may have caused the issue.

When I setup the computer via network boot and install using Microsoft’s Deployment Toolkit, I had to set the USB Backward Compatibility option to Disabled in the BIOS, as the keyboard and mouse were non functional in Windows PE. After the whole install process was over, I didn’t bother to change the setting again, since I didn’t believe it would affect anything. Suffice to say, enabling the option caused Windows to install a whole bunch of extra USB root hubs and stuff after the reboot. In turn, this then let the SMART Board behave properly. Our reseller’s techie learned something new, as did I. Now I know that I must make sure the setting goes back to Enabled before installation in the classroom, so that headaches can be avoided.

The truly bizarre thing however is that the problem only seems to be triggered if the SMART Board is hooked up to the computer via an USB booster extension cable. If the board is close enough to the computer desk and doesn’t use the booster extension, the board seems to work fine with the setting at Disabled. I have 2 classrooms where such is the case, and neither of those rooms have reported issues with their boards since the school year started.

Another quirky problem to add to the knowledge base of fun when it comes to SMART Boards.