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Travel safe

Lenovo ThinkPad Secure USB Drive 3CES is about the future, but it’s also a time to think about the past; specifically keeping the past safe when traveling by backing-up.

Many of us just have one laptop, and when traveling the data on that computer is at greater risk than normal. The extra movement and possible bumps and scrapes during a journey can place hard drives in harm’s way.

Backing-up is not just about traveling of course. It’s always a good idea to have at least three copies of your data, and keep at least one copy stored in a different location to your main home/work location. Now that large capacity portable drives have come down in price, they’re perfect for affordably backing up important media files and documents. Most of the small USB drives don’t need an external power supply and although they current max out at around 500GB, that’s probably big enough for the key documents, photos and other memories that you’d prefer not to lose.

You can get a bit more serious by using an encrypted drive. These help to keep your data safer from prying eyes, which is especially important when traveling if you don’t know how secure your lodgings might be.

Lenovo ThinkPad Secure USB Drive 2I use a 320GB Lenovo ThinkPad Secure USB Drive when I travel. It has 128-bit AES encryption and a user-definable 6-24 digit PIN number which you enter into the drive’s keypad to unlock access to its data.  The drive has a built-in USB cable and doesn’t need an external power supply as long as your computer can supply enough power through its USB ports.  Lenovo includes an adapter so that you can use two USB ports for extra power if necessary, but I’ve never needed to use that accessory; it’s nice to have in case though.  It also comes in a soft travel pouch.  The drive inside the case spins at 5400RPM and I normally see a sustained data transfer speed of around 20MB/s when writing to the drive using Windows 7.

If this sounds wallet-crushingly expensive, I bought my drive direct from Lenovo’s outlet site for $75 some time ago, and when I last looked on their regular site Lenovo was selling the 160GB version for $49.99 brand new. I think that’s a small price to pay for some extra piece of mind. Travel safe.

Neil Berman

Jan 3, 2011 Posted by | Guides, Hardware, Reviews | , , | Leave a comment

CES: The ultimate road warrior workout

Las Vegas strip at nightThe term road warrior gets thrown about everywhere these days. Working remotely, bashing out Powerpoints on planes and running your day from a smartphone are all part of it, but nothing encapsulates the term quite like covering CES.

It’s ironic that while being surrounded by every imaginable gadget at CES, we have to be ultra-judicious with technology choices or alternatively arrange an appointment with a chiropractor in advance. Reliable, light and effective gadgets are essential, as is intimate knowledge of how they work. There’s so much to see in such a short time that the last thing you want is to be dealing with tech roadblocks; it all just has to work, all of the time.

I tend to focus more on specific products, analysis and trends than attempting to cover everything at the show, but even so it can be hectic. For example last year I posted the first video of the groundbreaking Lenovo U1 on YouTube and it all happened in a matter of minutes. The U1 was demo’d at CES Unveiled on the Tuesday before the show, there was a mass scrum to get a look, I fired up my footage on my laptop, turned it into a meaningful video and then shot it up to YouTube. Then on to the next must-see of the day…

All of this would be easy except that a day at CES can easily last 12+ hours with much of that spent standing with all your gear on your back or perched somewhere writing. Plus there are none of the techno creature comforts that exist at home. I normally edit videos on a huge screen using Sony Vegas running on super-fast hardware. At CES it has to get done quicker, using a smaller screen and probably less power.

Last year I relied on a Dell Latitude E4300 to get the job done, and it was great with some room for improvement. Its 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor was quick enough but drained the battery in about 4 hours, or faster if I was editing a lot of video. That meant carrying a charger, which added unwanted weight to the 3.5lb-or-so Latitude.

MacBook AirThis year I’ve made the risky choice of swapping the enterprise ruggedness of the Latitude for the unproved portability of the new MacBook Air. I don’t really know how Cupertino’s finest will behave under pressure, but my experience so far has been one of superb battery life and snappy performance. Videos edited in iMovie ’11 render quickly as well. The question is what will happen when it gets thrown into a bag and carried with fifty browser tabs open and a video render executing in the background.

Basically I’m breaking my cardinal rule of making sure I know the hardware inside and out.

But if there are sometimes salvation opportunities if a laptop gets feisty out at CES…cameras are live or die affairs. They can’t fail but they also need to be portable and snapaholic friendly. While there are plenty of DSLR carriers walking the CES floor, I find their weight can make them impractical. Plus they tend to dangle around bashing into people and stuff. If you have a good understanding of light and positioning, I believe shooting well for the Web is achievable using a more compact camera. Carrying a DSLR around all day with a laptop, batteries and other stuff isn’t a recipe for a happy back. Plus you don’t want to be messing around with a lens cap when a crucial moment passes by.

A couple of years ago I used a Lumix FZ18 as my CES camera. It was superbly configurable, had a wildly long and wide zoom lens and was extremely light. It was hampered by weak low light performance so I switched to the Lumix ZS3/TZ7, which has a wider lens if not quite as long a zoom, but does better in low light and is pocket friendly. I haven’t found a better blogging camera so I stuck with it again for 2011. I was hoping the Nikon P7000 would offer the perfect balance between size and flexibility but it’s actually bigger than I’d like due to its viewfinder, and it’s a weighty beast.

All of that normally gets paired up with a MiFi, but this year I’m going to try using Sprint’s Epic 4G as a 4G hotspot. Las Vegas was one of the first cities to get Sprint’s 4G coverage and there were several Clear demos at CES 2010. Now that Sprint’s service has reached wide adoption, this week will be a good opportunity to see what happens to WiMAX when you put a bunch of people using the service heavily in the same location.

Putting this all together, spending an intensive road warrior week at CES makes you realize how companies can now let much of their office space become an expense of the past for those employees who don’t need it anymore. There’s precious little that actually requires dedicated office space these days. We need meeting space for personal contact, data space for servers and storage (which could be outsourced to cloud providers) and limited desk hoteling for working with other people from time to time. Smart companies value productivity and their cost base; this is an opportunity to achieve gains in both, by reducing office space and empowering employees to work in the spaces they find most effective on days when they don’t need to have face-to-face contact with coworkers.

If there’s one thing an intensive week at CES teaches you, it’s that the mobile model in one form or another works.

Neil Berman

Jan 3, 2011 Posted by | Analysis, CES, Guides, Rants | , , , | Leave a comment

TestSeek provides a one-stop review & shop site

TestSeekWith the overwhelming amount of gadgets in today’s market, picking the right one has never been more confusing. At theONbutton we try to review gadgets as well as we can but it’s always a good idea to get as many opinions as possible, so you can make the right decision about your gadget purchases. With this in mind we like the look of the ever-growing

We found TestSeek to be a great site because it allows you to find expert product reviews in one central place. Unlike some shopping sites that have been hit by scandals of fake reviews, TestSeek manually collects links to expert reviews from independent sites. TestSeek also includes user reviews in a separate section so you can see how the devices have fared in the hands of real users.

TestSeek also has price comparisons on the site which allow you to find the best price on that shiny new toy you’ve been dreaming of.  We also liked the various language options on the site, of which there are around ten in total.

Just promise us one thing; if you see a product on TestSeek that we liked and everyone else seems to hate, let us know!!

Neil Berman

Nov 2, 2010 Posted by | Guides | , , | Leave a comment

Using a Kindle 3 for web browsing and blogging


Kindle 3 web browser screen sunlight

The Kindle's E Ink screen is great for use in sunlight


I’m always on the lookout for new mobile writing platforms, so when the new Kindle 3 was launched a couple of months ago I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The eBook capabilities of the Kindle are well known, but its web browsing and blogging abilities are less established. In fact, even in the menus on the Kindle 3 the web browser is listed under ‘Experimental’. Plus, for writers/bloggers there’s no dedicated text editor. So at first glance it’s unclear whether buying a Kindle 3 primarily for web browsing or blogging is a good idea.

Some people have commented that it’s possible to add annotations to books and turn these into ad-hoc notes. Although this can be done, I’m going to concentrate here on blogging in a more direct way.

The web browser on the Kindle 3 is a Webkit affair and far superior to the browser on previous Kindles. The Kindle 3 is actually able to render plenty of pages correctly, although there’s no Flash or any of the fancy plug-ins that we take for granted on even a basic netbook. Pages can also take a bit of time to load, especially over 3G if you have the 3G Kindle 3.

The secret to enjoying web content on the Kindle 3 is to use mobile versions of sites wherever possible. The desktop site of the New York Times for example will render on the Kindle 3’s browser, but the newspaper’s mobile site will render far quicker and offers access to full articles in a way that’s much easier to navigate with the Kindle 3’s cursor keys.

The same principle applies to email sites. I have been able to successfully use Yahoo Mail’s mobile site, while GMail’s mobile site has been hit-and-miss and Hotmail has never worked for me on the Kindle 3.

That leads us to blogging. I’ve been able to use the Kindle 3 to access the mobile site, but there are limitations. The mobile site only seems to allow post creation and does not seem to allow access to saved drafts. This means that if you want to partially write a post to complete later on the Kindle 3 or save as you write, you’ll be out of luck. Plus if you’ve just finished writing your greatest post ever and the WiFi connection to the Kindle 3 drops, I assume your masterpiece might be lost. I haven’t experienced this myself, it’s just a risk I envisage when you’re creating a document online and are unable to save it along the way.

Fear not, there’s a way to blog more safely from the Kindle 3. Yahoo Mail’s mobile site does allow access to your Drafts folder, which means you can write an email and save as you go along. Then when you’re done, use the post from email feature that many blogging sites offer (such as to publish your post.

Of course you could also leave your post as a saved email draft and then polish it up when you get back to a laptop. If you don’t have a Yahoo Mail account, it’s easy to set one up. As I mentioned I’ve had mixed success with GMail and no luck using Hotmail on the Kindle 3.

Writing with the Kindle 3 is a so-so experience. It gets the job done, but number and symbol input requires a lot of button pressing. The keyboard is also a little wider than ideal and the keys have poor tactile response compared to, say, a BlackBerry. However it does work acceptably and after a short stint of writing I started to warm to the experience. I also find that due to the refresh time of the E Ink screen, I sometimes write quicker than the screen can display the text. However the Kindle 3 always catches up.

Why all this effort when smartphones and iPads are becoming so ubiquitous? Well the Kindle 3 has some unique advantages. Firstly the screen is easily readable in sunlight, in fact it’s better in sunlight than in the shade. Secondly the Kindle 3’s battery lasts for ages and the device is extremely portable; it’s difficult to put a figure on the real-world battery life but I’ve enjoyed a full week of sporadic use from the Kindle 3 with WiFi browsing. Thirdly, for just $189 the Kindle 3 3G version allows you to read web content on a decent size screen in more places than a typical laptop that just has WiFi connectivity.

So the Kindle 3 can be a useful device for web browsing and blogging. Just go into the experience with your eyes open; it’s not an ideal platform for these use-cases but it provides functionality to get many of the basics done, and is one of the only viable options for use outdoors in sunnier climates.

Neil Berman

Oct 22, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Guides, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fix hp Laserjet 1012 Windows 7 driver issues

hp Laserjet 1012 Windows 7 driverI recently had an all-time lucky find when someone left an hp Laserjet 1012 laser printer in the recycling area of my apartment building, which looked to be in good condition.  The Laserjet 1012 is a pretty handy home and small office printer with pin sharp resolution, so I thought I’d give it a try.  There was no toner in the printer, but a quick shopping spree on eBay would fix that.  So $19 and a few days later, I had the Laserjet 1012 happily churning out pages from a Windows XP netbook.  Time to hook it up to Windows 7…or not as hp would seemingly prefer.

You see, it turns out that hp decided to not support the Laserjet 1012 on Windows 7.  It’s not as if the printer is even all that old, and hp does offer Windows XP & Vista drivers, so this has probably left a lot of owners high and dry…or more likely bitter.  Nevertheless I fearlessly went ahead and plugged the Laserjet 1012 into a Windows 7 computer to see what would happen.  Windows 7 did try valiantly to install the printer but ultimately failed and placed it in the Unspecified bucket within the Devices and Printers window.

I recalled a piece of advice that a Windows 7 dev had given me way back in the January 2009 Windows 7 Beta days, which was that Vista drivers would sometimes work if a manufacturer hadn’t yet written a native Windows 7 driver.  That was back when Windows 7 drivers were thin on the ground and we were still 9 months away from a retail release of Windows 7.  That approach shouldn’t apply now, but it didn’t look like hp was going to come up with a Laserjet 1012 Windows 7 driver anytime soon.

So I downloaded the Vista 64-bit driver from hp’s website, opened up the Properties window for the Laserjet 1012 in Devices and Printers, found the driver section and chose Update Driver.  I selected the Vista 64-bit driver that I’d just downloaded and hey presto, it installed in a flash!

Your mileage may vary of course, but this simple process got the Laserjet 1012 working on my Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit system.  It’s a shame that hp chose to not support the printer natively in the new OS, but I guess they want us to buy new hardware.  In a manner if speaking, their success is one of their challenges; the Laaserjet 1012 is so good that it’s hard to imagine why a home user would need a better quality laser printer.  So persuading people to upgrade willingly is probably a difficult task, but the approach should be to raise the bar even higher with compelling new products rather than simply withdrawing support.

Neil Berman

Sep 26, 2010 Posted by | Computing, Guides, Hardware, Software | , , , , , | 13 Comments

Fix Dell Latitude Intel 5300 WiFi connection issues

Intel 5300 Connection ProblemI’ve been enjoying a frankly awesome and outperforming Dell Latitude E6400 ATG for some time now.  A review is on its way, but in the meantime one issue I’ve encountered is frequent WiFi connection dropouts when using its Intel 5300 AGN WiFi card.  The Intel 5300 is remarkable for its theoretical ability to catch a signal at 450 meters from the source, but this counts for nothing if the connection keeps dropping ten feet from your home router.

I narrowed down the issue to being a power management problem and by disabling the power management features of the 5300, my faith in the Latitude E6400 ATG’s general awesomeness was restored.  I’m assuming that the card was being too aggressive at saving power and, by entering a low power state whenever possible, it was inadvertently disconnecting from some routers.

My Latitude E6400 ATG is running Windows Professional 32-bit and here are the changes to the settings I made to resolve the issue, your mileage may of course vary:

Dell E6400 ATG 31. In the Change Advanced Power Settings within the Power Options section of the Control Panel, I set the Power Saving Mode of the Wireless Adapter Settings to Maximum Performance for both On Battery and Plugged In.

2. In the Properties of the Intel 5300 AGN in Device Manager I went to Power Management and un-ticked the box next to “Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power”.

3. In the Advanced tab of that same Properties window I also changed the 802.11n mode from 20MHz to Auto.  This allows for faster connections if your router supports them.

The steps resolved the connection dropping issue for me, if you’re experiencing something similar I hope this helps you too.  As a more severe solution, I have had a good experience with a Dell 1510 WiFi card in my Latitude E4300, so I was about to try that card in the E6400 ATG.  Fortunately following the steps above made that unnecessary.

Neil Berman

Jun 27, 2010 Posted by | Guides, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

iPad overheating outdoors? How to make your iPad daylight readable

iPad screen glare outdoors

The iPad suffers badly from glare and overheating outdoors

There is plenty to like about the iPad, and plenty to get frustrated about as well. Apart from the lack of Flash and spontaneously crashing live on the BBC, the iPad’s difficulty outdoors is a real thorn in its side.

As is often the case with Apple products, overheating reports surfaced quickly following the release of the iPad. I myself suffered shutdowns after only a few minutes of outdoor use on a sunny day. Now, I don’t live in a crazily hot city, but New York does get pretty warm. We’re already into the 80’s for a few days a week, so I needed to find a solution.

But hold on, even if there’s a way to get the iPad to work outdoors without breaking a sweat, the screen isn’t exactly daylight readable. In fact it’s a glare magnet, which severely limits its usability outdoors.

So here’s what I’ve discovered over the last few weeks, hopefully these simple suggestions will allow you to enjoy your iPad in more places.

Enjoying the sun while keeping the iPad’s screen in shade

Apple iPad case sun shade

The Apple iPad case can be used as a sun shade

It sounds like an impossible task, but if you want to sit in the sun you must keep it from shining directly onto the iPad’s screen to have any hope of avoiding an overheating shutdown. The glass screen seems to act as a greenhouse and amplifies the sun’s rays making it almost too hot to touch after just a few minutes of exposure.

The best solution I have found for this is Apple’s own iPad case, whose protective flap can be held over the screen easily with a thumb to act as a sun-shade. Other cases with a flap cover should be able to be used in this way as well.

Allowing the iPad to expel heat

Although I love the ad-hoc sun-shade properties of Apple’s own case, its glove-like fit ensures that heat from the iPad’s back plate has no escape route. This helps to bring on shutdowns that little bit quicker.

So in addition to using the main flap as a sun-shade, opening the interior flap if you’re using the iPad horizontally will allow some heat to dissipate upwards. Make sure that you are holding the iPad with the internal flap at the top, to avoid the iPad falling out of the sleeve.

Apple iPad case sun shade 2

Raise the case cover slightly to allow trapped heat to escape

Also, when you are not using the iPad it will cool down quicker if you prop open the main flap by an inch or so. This will provide shade to the iPad while allowing heat trapped in the screen to escape.

Reading the iPad screen outdoors

The glare from the screen makes viewing it extremely difficult in daylight. There are a couple of ways to best this. The first is to use one of the many anti-glare screen covers now available. These do have the downside of adding a tint to the screen and reducing clarity however, and are also difficult to take on and off if you only need them once a week or so.

My preferred option is to use sunglasses with polarized lenses. These are available cheaply and mine do a fantastic job of destroying glare from the iPad’s screen.

If these tips aren’t enough to stop your iPad from showing an overheating warning and shutting down, thenmove it to a cool place and allow it to properly cool.

I used the polarized sunglasses with Apple case sun-shade technique to survive a week of use in Las Vegas, in very warm and bright conditions. The 3G reception on AT&T was lousy, but hey, trying to fix that one is a whole other story!

Neil Berman

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Guides, Hardware | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Help for 1080p (1920×1080) black border full screen issues over HDMI

Some HDTVs leave a black border around an HD 1920x1080 image

There seems to be an issue affecting many people whose HDTV does not display a full screen 1080p image when connected to a computer over HDMI.  It goes something like this…

  • Excited person buys 1080p HDTV with dreams of experiencing PS3/Xbox/PC/Mac 1920×1080 viewing heaven
  • HDTV duly arrives and gets setup
  • HDTV connects happily over HDMI and displays 1080p but with a black border around the edge of the image
  • Excitement fades as the 42 inch TV is only displaying something like a 38-40 inch image

I’ve seen this on many LCD TVs, and not only those offering 1080p resolution.  I used to have a 32 inch screen with a native resolution of 1366×768 and it would do this.  My current 42 inch LCD screen, which is a Vizio SV420XVT1A does this too.

If you have spent hours playing with video card or game console setting to no avail, do not despair – there may be an easy solution!

The image now fills the screen

Most LCD panels have settings buried in their menu which allow the user to move and stretch the image being displayed.  These menu settings are sometimes described as Horizontal and Vertical Size and Horizontal and Vertical Position; often in the menus the orientation words are reduced to H and V, which helps to save space but not confusion.

In both of my cases I have found that by increasing the horizontal and vertical size of the image I was able to fill the panel with a pin sharp full screen image.

Some TVs have zoom settings which allow the image to be resized in broad steps, but I find the small increments of horizontal and vertical resizing can deliver a more accurate image fit to the panel.

Check out the gallery below for the steps I followed on this Vizio SV420XVT1A.

Neil Berman

May 2, 2010 Posted by | Computing, Gaming, Guides, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video | , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Another hot product from Apple

The Apple MacBook is a hot product.  Literally.  While MacBooks have always looked pretty, many models have been plagued by heat management problems.  My MacBook (known in Apple circles as ‘The Oven’) refuses to start when hot, the MacBook Air is famous for shutting down one CPU core out of self preservation when playing video, but PC Authority’s report on the latest MacBook Pro Core i7 heats the problem up to volcanic proportions.

The magazine found that during their testing on athe new MacBook Pro Core i7, the laptop became so hot that they could no longer keep it positioned normally on a desk.  Instead they had to turn it up on its end, which might make Final Cut Pro editing a bit of a challenge.  How hot is hot you ask?  101 degrees Celcius.  That’s a mighty hot product.  It surely flames a previous MacBook which could allegedly cook an egg.  By way of comparison PC Authority ran the same tests on a Fujitsu Lifebook SH 760 with the same Core i7 processor and it peaked at a comparatively frigid 81 degrees Celcius.

So although the new MacBook Pro Core i7 might reduce your winter heating bill, we don’t recommend this approach.  In fact quite seriously based upon the PC Authority experience, we’d advise observing a a sensible amount of caution when using this laptop if you own one.  If you notice it getting hot, put it somewhere safe and away from your lap to cool down.  It’s nice to have a pretty laptop, but it’s not worth burning your lap for one.  Hopefully Apple will work some magic into the design of this particular model to improve its heat dissipation.

Neil Berman

Apr 26, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Guides, Hardware, News | , , , , | Leave a comment

Help for iPad WiFi connection issues

While the iPad has enjoyed a successful launch, the end user experience for many has been spoiled by its poor WiFi implementation.  I’m undecided on whether the iPad’s WiFi problems are making me glad that I’m getting the 3G version, or just just plain scared that I’m spending a stack of Benjamins on a device which may be more reliable on AT&T than on my 300MBps router.  After everything that’s happened with AT&T’s network and the iPhone, that would be the ultimate irony.

So for those of you with iPad in hand along with the lock of hair you just yanked out from sheer frustration, don’t smash that pretty glass screen just yet.  There is still hope for your iPad to magically hold onto a WiFi connection.  Unfortunately nobody seems to know the exact reason for the iPad’s WiFi problem but there are a gazillion creative ideas and hacks out there.   So move your hand away from your head and check out these links, they might just save you from an impromptu haricut.

Apple 2.0

Discussion thread on official Apple forum

Support article from Apple

PC Magazine

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll return to praying that Apple fitted a different and better WiFi chip into the iPad 3G.

Neil Berman

Apr 17, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Guides | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a Windows Media Center HTPC

In January 2009 I started running the Windows 7 Beta followed later in the year by the Release Candidate on my trusty old Pentium 4 living room PC.  In October to coincide with the Windows 7 launch I brought that computer into the modern age but decided to wait a few months to collect my thoughts before sharing the experience. Continue reading about building a Windows Media Center HTPC…

Feb 13, 2010 Posted by | Computing, Guides, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Microsoft | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laptop buying guide part one: Confused memories of a computer shopper – L2 Cache, RAM and Hard Drive

What does all this mean??? Read on to find out...

Computer shopping has always been about specs and stats. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon and it’s important to understand the key vital statistics. Memory choices are critical to the performance and longevity of your purchase, so here in the first of this two part laptop buying guide is the memory geek-speak translation.

Memory tech words which tend to pop up on sales listings are RAM, L2 Cache and Hard Drive (also called Hard Disk). In order to understand them we are going to imagine ourselves in a library.

What is L2 Cache?

In our library there are bookshelves, desks and chairs. We walk in, find twelve books from the bookshelves and put them on the floor next to a desk. We sit at the desk but it’s only big enough for a few books with enough space left for us to work. So we pick the three books we need right now from the floor pile and put them on the desk.

The desk is our most convenient and fastest retrieval location for referencing our books. It’s also the smallest. This our Level 2 Cache, or L2 Cache.

The L2 Cache is a temporary storage space used by computers for ultra-fast access to frequently used data. When we take a book from the desk and start reading it with our brain and eyes, this like a computer retrieving data from its L2 Cache and reading it with its main processor chip. The L2 Cache is actually located within the main processor itself, so it is a physically small storage area of around 0.5-12MB.

How much L2 Cache do you need?  I would recommend 1MB upwards for Mac OSX, Windows 7 or Vista.  Netbooks running Windows XP are fine with 0.5MB.

Expert question: Why is it called Level 2 Cache? There is actually a tiny cache even closer to the main brain in the processing chip called Level 1. However this is so small that it is really only used for very temporary storage and rarely quoted in store listings.

What is RAM?

What if we need to read a book which is not on the library desk? We look in our pile on the floor. This is a bit slower than using a book already on the desk, but we can put more books on the floor than we can fit on the desk. Looking in the floor pile is like a computer using its Random Access Memory (RAM).

Accessing data in RAM is fast, but slower than the L2 Cache as it sits outside the main chip and connects via fast data lines like our floor pile of books. Since RAM is not constrained by the physical real estate limitations of the main chip, it can store far more data. RAM sticks with capacity of around 0.5 to 1 gigabyte are common these days. Computers typically accommodate two such ‘sticks’.

How much RAM do you need? For Windows 7, Vista and Mac OSX 2GB is typically fine, but it’s worth going to 3GB if you are planning to use a lot of multimedia applications like video or photo editing.  This will give the computer some breathing room.

What is the Hard Disk?

If the library book you need is not in the floor pile then you have to get up, walk over to the bookshelves, find the right book and bring it back. This takes way longer than picking it up from the floor pile, but the bookshelves can store far more than your floor pile. The bookshelves are like a Hard Drive. They can store vast amounts of information and Hard Drive data remains intact when the computer shuts down, unlike your desk and floor piles which you will clean up when you leave.

Hard Disk data is stored on a set of spinning platters which are read by a needle. The occasional ticking noise you hear in a computer is the Hard Disk being physically read.

How much Hard Disk space do you need? External Hard Disks can be easily bought and plugged into a USB port, so it is not critical if you under-purchase. However with laptops it becomes inconvenient if you run out of space, as although you can add an external drive you are unlikely to want to carry it along with your laptop. So for laptops my advice is to buy a machine with as much Hard Disk space as you can afford; look for a laptop with upwards of 160GB capacity. Video, photo and music files are typically large so if you plan to store lots of these then max-out on your Hard Drive at purchase all the way to 320GB or more.

It’s worth knowing that you cannot control what gets stored in RAM or in the L2 Cache. The computer decides what to put in there, such as open files the in process of being modified. When you turn the power off anything in the L2 Cache or RAM gets wiped, whereas data in the Hard Disk remains intact when the power is off. Similarly you clear the desk when you leave the library and return any books to the bookshelves. This is why it is important to save any open files before shutting down a computer.

What laptop upgrade options exist?

For the L2 Cache, the only expansion route is to replace the main  processor, which is typically only feasible for a desktop computer.

Laptop RAM can normally be upgraded as long as the computer’s motherboard is able to handle the extra capacity. For example my older MacBook is unable to accommodate more than 2GB of RAM. If your laptop can accept an upgrade from your current RAM level then it is normally a case of removing the existing RAM sticks and fitting correct spec higher capacity ones.

Laptop Hard Disks can generally be upgraded, but it is a delicate process which involves cloning the data from the current drive onto the higher capacity drive in a precise way. The alternative we discussed earlier is to purchase an external Hard Drive, which are readily available these days at reasonable prices.

When laptops go bad: Holding back the tears

Finally, when a laptop gets sick (read “dropped”) or feverish (read “struck by a virus”), its Hard Disk can be vulnerable to permanent amnesia. So, be nice to yourself and buy an external Hard Drive to back up your photos, music and all those other precious memories.

So that’s the translation of memory geek-speak. Here’s hoping for clear thinking for your next purchase and an end to confused memories!

I originally wrote this article in 2007 and have updated it to reflect the 2009/2010 laptop market.

Neil Berman

Click here to read part two: How to choose a laptop processor (2007).

Nov 21, 2009 Posted by | Computing, Guides, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , | 2 Comments

Netflix & Windows Media Center meet, and it’s instant romance

Netflix Media Center 3Microsoft hinted about this one way back at CES in January and after a long wait it’s finally here.  Windows Media Center now has direct Netflix integration and I’m lovin’ it.

The Netflix icon appeared in my Movies section this week and clicking it led to a one minute installation followed by instant gratification.  Not much more to say apart from that it integrates seamlessly into the already superb Media Center interface.  Will other platforms ever try to catch-up with what is so far and away the best media library experience out there?

Here’s the gallery.  A warning for those of you not in the USA, this gallery may make you extremely jealous.  Sorry about that, and here’s hoping Netflix goes international!

Neil Berman

Oct 21, 2009 Posted by | Computing, Guides, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Microsoft, News, Reviews, Software | , , , | Leave a comment

Playing the waiting game

windows-7-taskbarAre you hoarding cash waiting to drop some on a Windows 7 PC on October 22? So was I, until I realized it might make more sense to take a different strategy. I think buying a Vista PC right in the next month might be a great idea, and here’s why I’m not mad…

You are probably aware that if you buy a qualifying PC at the moment it might be eligible for a free Windows 7 upgrade. Most manufacturers have a pretty clear definition of which of their systems are eligible, so you can check before handing over your hard-earned savings.


Sounds like a schlep, after all this means installing a whole OS, and yes, it shouldn’t be considered lightly.
However most off the shelf PCs tend to ship with a boatload of bloatware, which few people want and tends to contribute to an overall performance degradation. Installing a fresh OS wipes all of this away and you get a clean system which is likely to perform better.

Normally OS upgrades are done well into the life of a computer, once many applications are all loaded on and working habits are well established. This can be disruptive to smooth running (experiences of upgrades to Snow Leopard and Vista are recent examples of this kind of user pain). But buying an eligible Vista PC in mid-October and going straight to a fresh Windows 7 a few days later sounds like a great plan to me as I probably wouldn’t have loaded on lots of software yet. Plus if you get the physical media it’s an added bonus in case you ever need to re-install.


Deals on Vista PCs should start coming thick and fast as stores look to clear inventory ahead of October 22. Some refurbs may also be eligible for a free Windows 7 upgrade, but you should be extra-vigilant when checking the eligibility of these systems. For example it does seem like some systems on Dell’s Outlet site are eligible, make sure you check before you buy though.


The other factor creating downward pressure on current Vista PC inventory will be the increasing availability of the Intel Core i5, i7 and i7 Mobile platforms. It’s likely that HP, Dell and Acer and the wider industry will time many of these system releases with Windows 7, again pushing existing inventory prices south. Those current inventory Intel Core 2 and AMD Phenom/Turion based systems are still capable for what many people need on a day-to-day basis.


Ironically it seems, with Windows 7 right around the corner, there may have never been a better time to buy a Vista PC. Just make sure that what you buy is eligible for a free upgrade!

Neil Berman

Sep 25, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Computing, Guides, Microsoft, Software | , | 1 Comment

AMD has a Vision for Main Street

AMD VisionApparently there are some people who get confused by computery numbers. Not you of course but they’re out there somewhere according to AMD, and said company is on a mission to ameliorate said situation.

So instead of Athlons and Turions, look for your next AMD computer to have a Vision, or at least a Vision logo denoting the relative capability of the computer. From what we know currently there will be a graduating scale of four levels, starting with just Vision, passing through Vision Premium and Vision Ultimate all the way to Vision Black…er, because something can be better than “ultimate” these days.

So I’m assuming that means you’ll be able to get Windows 7 Ultimate on Vision Premium and Windows 7 Premium on Vision Ultimate; you can see where this is going.

To be fair, I can appreciate the value of this for some consumers and it makes it easier to train store staff as well. But if average consumers can weigh up a 300hp 4.0 liter engine against a 120hp 1.5 when buying a car, I’m sure that a little marketing wizardry can teach them about computer horsepower as well.

Hopefully this will go away in a year or so…unless AMD fades away into obscurity sooner as a result of the ground it lost to Intel in the netbook and ultra-low-voltage laptop markets.

Having said that, AMD just announced it’s new thin ‘n light processors to keep Intel on it’s toes so here’s hoping this two horse race has plenty more distance to run. Remember competition drives innovation and feature development, which is great for consumers. You only have to look at the camera-less iPod Touch for proof of that.

Neil Berman

Sep 11, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Computing, Guides, Hardware, News, Rants | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saving the Day-ta

As the summer days turned up the heat, my three year old hard drive started to feel the pressure.Hard drives typically have a long lifespan but it’s common to read about someone’s unfortunate experience with a failed drive. Whilst there are a gazillion backup solutions out available, there is also a primary storage option which used to be too pricey for consumers: Enterprise class hard drives.

Enterprise class drives are not a replacement for RAID arrays or secondary backup drives, but they are built to higher tolerances than regular consumer drives. Their typical quoted mean time before failures is around 1.2 million hours. By comparison most consumer drives are rated at around 25-50% of that figure.Many enterprise class drives are now available with the same SATA interface as consumer drives and have similar cache and spin specs. They also used to cost a huge amount more, but not any more.

The Seagate 500GB SATA enterprise drive I bought this week has a huge 32MB cache, spins at 7200 RPM and hit me for only $99. Seagate advertises this ES.2 range as being appropriate for business critical requirements and it was only $20 more than the company’s 500GB consumer drive from the same store.

This small amount of extra green pays back in bucketloads for enterprise class reliability. Although it’s no replacement for regular secondary backup, your data is more likely to survive the test of time in one of these. As anyone who’s witnessed a drive failure will tell you, that’s a small price to pay.

Neil Berman

Jun 29, 2008 Posted by | Computing, Guides, Hardware, Reviews | , , | Leave a comment


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