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Remote IT Support and Computer & Technology Help in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh NC

Windows 7 Beta Review

windows-7-media-center-viral-videosI’ve been eager to give the Windows 7 Beta a workout following the demos I saw at CES.

My living room Media Center PC was an ideal candidate.  It’s a three year old Pentium 4 which takes care of all our viewing, media and browsing needs on Windows XP Media Center 2005.  Microsoft has claimed that Windows 7 is a streamlined OS capable of running on lower spec hardware than Vista, it’s time to see if that’s really true…

Test environment

windows-7-performance-indexFor reference my PC is running a 2.93GHz P4 with 3GB DDR400 RAM, 500GB hard disk and a low end Geforce 7200GS.  Not the most scintillating system by modern standards and probably equivalent to a $250 purchase these days from the refurbished inventory of e-tailers.  The version of Windows 7 Beta I have is Build 7000.  I’ll refer to it as W7B in this article.

Installations never go smoothly…or do they?

Installation was initially nerveracking but ultimately painless.  Nerveracking because I had to split a live primary partition into two, to create a boot partition for the new OS.  Painless because once Linux GParted had done its partitioning stuff, Windows 7 Beta installed in superfast time, restarting a couple of times and then it was done.  I had backed up my XP partition to another drive just in case, but fortunately all went according to the masterplan and W7B automatically created a dual-boot environment for me.  XP booted just like before and I so was all set for my W7B test.

windows-7-desktopStopwatch at the ready

The first thing I noticed was a faster boot time.  This could have been due to having a fresh install so I initially reserved judgement on that one.  However now that three weeks has passed and I’ve installed everything I’m likely to for a while, the swift boot-up lives on.  It’s not a life changing improvement but in the region of ten seconds faster than my XP boot sequence once all startup items have completed.

Sounding off

All navigation elements were very responsive: Aero, widgets and snap-to-edge all performed well with no lag.  But then I noticed there was no sound.  W7B had found my motherboard’s SPDIF output but did not configure it correctly.  A quick internet search revealed the latest Vista drivers which duly solved the issue.  In fact I now get proper Dolby transmission and far more signal reaching my amp, which means having to apply less gain within the amp therefore achieving a better signal-to-noise ratio than with my XP setup.

Taskbar implemented cum laude

windows-7-taskbarTaskbar, oh glorious taskbar.  So much has been written of thee already, what can I add?  This really is a great addition in W7B, I can envisage how well it could work once the touch interface gets enabled on the full release.  Seeing thumbnail representations of an application’s open windows is a fantastic browsing aid.  Being able to jump into application functions directly from thumbnail menus takes everything a step further.  Best of all, the thumbnails are dynamic representations so if you are waiting for a window to complete a certain action you can hover over its taskbar icon to view its progress in the thumbnail.

CPU and Resource Management

Having an older spec PC presented a good opportunity to see how W7B would cope with average resources.  windows-7-resource-monitorIn the initial days following installation I noticed some frantic CPU and disk activity, which I traced to Windows Media Player cataloging my music and video collection.  Once that was done, CPU activity became XP-like whilst memory allocation was definitely smarter.

Like Vista, W7B was able to address all 3GB of RAM whilst my 32-bit XP build was never capable of this.  W7B also supports ReadyBoost so I threw in a 4GB SDHC card and dedicated the whole thing to the OS.  That’s a cheap 4GB at $10, although ReadyBoost doesn’t make use of flash cards in quite the same way as conventional RAM.  However the combination keeps my paging file to a minimum and I’ve not experienced memory crunches.

Windows Firewall

The versions of Windows Firewall built into XP and Vista were never taken too seriiously by the security fraternity due their inability to block outbound traffic.  So whilst others had difficulty reaching your computer, your computer could reach others…which is a pretty big risk given the amount of nasty malware out there.  The W7B Firewall changes all that with firewall rules configurable for incoming and outgoing traffic.  This could seriously hurt the likes of ZoneAlarm and others, who have thrived to date on the weakness of Windows Firewall.  I run ZoneAlarm on my XP partition, but I haven’t needed to download it for my W7B setup so far.

Internet TV & Media Center

windows-7-media-center-internet-tv-guideEver since the touchscreen demo of W7B Media Center I saw at CES, I’ve been aching to try out the integration of Internet TV in the EPG.  Until now we’ve needed to open a browser, navigate to NBC’s website, find the news page, find the video page and then start streaming the news.  W7B changes this by putting content from nbc.com (and many others) right into the EPG so it’s accessible from within Media Center with the remote control.

The demo of this looked awesome and it’s just as good in my living room.  Content takes a little while longer to access than regular TV channels, but it’s a heck of a great feature and the integration is seamless.  News, concerts, full episodes are all available and free to access with occasional advertisements for some content.

Snap-to-side

windows-7-snap-to-sideThrowing a widow to the side of the screen results in W7B automatically resizing it to fill half the screen.  This makes comparing documents or images super easy.  Throwing to the top maximizes the window.  Again it’s easy to see how these small but useful enhancements will make life easier once the touch version gets released.

What’s needs work?

Hmmm…I haven’t found anything yet inherent in W7B which consistently fails.  My sound sometimes cuts out following a video call, which could be a driver issue.  My computer wakes from standby mode much more often than it did in XP, probably due to some strange service which I might not need to be running.  Skype is not yet fully compatible.  There’s also a registry fix out there for .msi installers which fail – I had an issue installing Office 2007 and when the installer failed W7B automatically downloaded the fix article from Microsoft’s knowledge base…finally intelligent context sensitive help has arrived.  After following the instructions in the article to update the problematic registry entry the installer worked.

A game-changer for Microsoft?

Apart from that the whole experience has just worked superbly and I’m happily running W7B as my everyday environment now.  The Beta version expires on August 1st, so perhaps this hints at the possible release timing of the full version.  Remember that the release version will hopefully be touch-enabled, so that will be a whole new ball-game, and from what I’ve seen so far Microsoft could hit a home run with this one.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

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Feb 1, 2009 Posted by | CES, Computing, Microsoft, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Acer Aspire One Review

Following a false start worthy of the Olympics, Acer’s repair shop just delivered me a new Aspire One.  My first Aspire One must have been so fried that it was not worth repairing, so take two begins…

Initial reactions to the Acer Aspire One

First impressions of the Acer Aspire One are just as before: great ultralight design, perfect keyboard, boots in under twenty seconds…but this time continue beyond five minutes as the WiFi connects swiftly and I’m off surfing in no time. I upgraded to Firefox 3 with this handy guide.

And that’s when it hit me: the Aspire One is loading pages faster than anything I own. I’m unable to pin it down to any one system element, but the combination of the Intel Atom, the SSD and Firefox running on Linpus Lite makes the internet scream on this baby. Way faster than my EEE 2G was, no comparison. Firefox’s full screen option makes the experience even better, taking advantage of all 8.9 LED backlit screen inches.

Using applications on the Acer Aspire One

I installed Skype and tried a video call. I told Skype to start video automatically and the webcam worked perfectly. My friend at the other end of the line in Tokyo could hear and see me clearly and I could hear him fine too. Again, the quality of the experience hit my old EEE for a home run…where I tended to reach for my Nokia N810 for Skype due to the 2G’s choppy chatter, the One was clear as a bell and it was handling the video well too.

The One also ships with several installed applications, such as OpenOffice, a media player and photo maanger, which together with the web browser may take care of most owners’ needs. Again, OpenOffice opened much faster than on my Asus EEE 2G and saved documents almost instantly.  This Linux version running Linpus Lite ships with an 8GB SSD.  If you need more storage there are two SD card slots, of which one allows an inserted card to show as a hard drive extension in the file manager.  The second slot shows up as removable storage.

Typing on the Acer Aspire One

Unlike my EEE experience, I have been able to touch type naturally on the One. The keyboard is very usable with everything in the right place. I’ve also found the trackpad to be big enough, as long as you’re a tap-to-click type and not a button pusher. I would like Acer to have implemented a MacBook style double finger right-click tap, as right clicking requires moving off the trackpad to find the button. There is a dedicated button on the keyboard for opening context sensitive menus however, which makes this omission easier to forgive.

The keyboard and wrist rest also remain at a reasonable temperature during use, as does the underside of the One. This is probably due to the low power consumption of the Intel Atom processor. A small fan kicks in now and again but it is unobtrusive.

Screen quality and battery life of the Acer Aspire One

Given its size and weight I expect my Aspire One to get plenty of outdoor use. The screen is bright enough to use outside in the shade, but becomes unreadable when hit by direct sunlight. As a guide it’s a lot brighter and sharper than the Asus EEE 2G, but is outshone by an Apple MacBook. The Aspire One does ship with a slip cover, which offers useful (non-waterproof) protection in transit. Regular travelers might prefer a closed protective case, but it’s a great free addition as a basic cover. Nice One Acer.

Battery life is quoted at three hours for this three cell Linux version and I achieved close to that with sensible moderation of the screen brightness to fit my environment. On full brightness with constant WiFi usage I’d expect that to go down to around two hours. Acer quotes the Windows XP version at 2.5 hours, probably due to the SSD being replaced by a regular hard drive. After boot-up I hardly ever see my SSD light illuminated, but the XP model is likely to be busier. So taking more frequent disk accessing together with the effort required to spin the platters would definitely reduce overall battery life.

Competitors to the Acer Aspire One

On balance, the One represents the best balanced experience of any of the small (< 9 inch) netbooks I’ve tried so far.  Its keyboard beats the EEE 901, its size is more practical than the seven inch models and its processor runs more efficiently than the VIA C7 powered HP Mini-Note or Everex Cloudbook.  In six cell guise with XP, it would be compelling but I have also appreciated the fast boot-up time and low resource usage of Linux.

Is the Acer Aspire One a good one?

The market is about to get more crowded with the imminent arrival of Dell’s mini Inspiron and future VIA Nano based machines. The ten inch Lenovo, Asus and MSI netbooks are also worth considering if you want to move up on screen size. For now though, the Acer Aspire One is a solid contender amongst the midsize netbooks.

Update: Acer has now lowered the retail price of the 3-cell Linux version to $329. The 3-cell XP version is now down to $349 and the 6-cell XP version is set to retail at $399.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Aug 17, 2008 Posted by | Computing, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , | 5 Comments

Netbook market grows further, has Aspiring winners and falling Stars

A glance at Amazon’s top 25 bestsellers gives a window into today’s netbook market.

The recent $100 price drop of the Asus EEE 1000H has it selling strongly, Acer’s Aspire One Linux is sitting at number 11 and the pre-order XP version is at 14. Various other EEEs make up much of the middle groung and Micro Star International’s Wind is caught up in turbulence at 24.

Given its $399 price tag I expect the 3 cell XP Aspire One to climb that chart, although hopefully they won’t suffer from the quality control issues which sent my Linux One back for repair only days after its unboxing.

Lenovo announced its entries, the S9 and S10, a few days ago. Only the S10 will be coming to the US and will bring a ten inch screen, Atom processor and XP starting from $399 in October…and it looks great.

An unfortunate characteristic of the Wind since its missed launch date of mid-June has been rumored, and now official, price hikes. The 3 cell XP model is now at $499, which looks forgettable compared to the pricing of the One and S10. This Wind is blowing in the wrong direction.

We’re still waiting to see what Dell’s E is going to throw at us, shouldn’t be too long now. Their rumored $299 entry price will ruffle a few feathers and their marketing might will ensure a sale or two.

Then there are still more models expected to launch in Q4 with VIA’s celebrated Nano CPU, just to make buying decisions that little bit harder.

If I was a betting man I’d say that Acer’s Aspire One and Lenovo’s S10 are set to be strong sellers in XP guise. Dell won’t take any prisoners either when they launch. So within a year I expect the Wind and Mini-Note to be shaken out of the market or forced into price cutting. Perhaps the savior of the Mini-Note will be if HP can swap in the Nano for the C7.

For the Wind, price cutting alone may be too late for mainstream buyers. If broad stock fails to arrive soon then how will they break onto retail shelves which already have Acers, Dells and EEE on display? It may end up being too little too late for this great product.

Neil Berman

www.neilberman.com

Aug 9, 2008 Posted by | Analysis, Computing, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Asus EEE PC Review


Latest: Click here to read the CES 2008 laptop and UMPC news, including details of the Asus R50 UMPC

After weeks of low supply, the Asus EEE PC has finally appeared. I spent some eagerly awaited quality time with the small, cute and cheap 4G model.

UMPCs: When size does matter

Next to a regular ultraportable the Asus EEE PC is noticeably smaller. It´s also thinner, most likely due its lack of optical or mechanical hard drives. It does however still manage to pack in a VGA output, Ethernet port and 3 USB 2.0 connectors without needing a port replicator.

The screen is also smaller than most ultraportables at seven imches, the same size as Samsung’s Q1 series. However in the case of the EEE this seems to be to keep the cost down than anything else.

The lid can actually accommodate a couple more inchesof screen space and the resulting look is of a laptop from the mid 1990s with a wide screen border.

The keyboard is also a shrunken affair but is surprisingly easy to use. I was able to type lines of text accurately without any need to acclimatize. This will depend on finger size but I was pleasantly surprised. For such a thin laptop the keys also have a positive feel with a decent amount of travel.

The EEE PC has a traditional trackpad which has a separated section on the right hand side. Using the media player this section controlled playback volume. The trackpad was fairly responsive to movement but less so to taps, although it is usable. There´s only one button, like a Mac, but improving on Apple’s design the left side of the button gives a left click and the right side gives a right click (thanks for the pointer Neil). Great idea and works well in practise.


In comparison to competitors, the EEE dwarfs the Fujitsu U810 (above) and Sony UX380N (below).
These both have smaller screens and keyboards also, as well as oddly placed mouse control, to the extent that they are really for emergency use in my opinion. Samsung´s Q1 has the same size screen but an almost impossibly small thumboard, although for desk use you could always add an external keyboard. All three competitors are far more expensive than the EEE PC.
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Latest: Click here to read the CES 2008 laptop and UMPC news
The colored EEEs are now available, click here for photos.

It’s cheap, but can I actually use this thing in real life?

Switch on the EEE and it boots quickly (I counted 24 seconds) into a home screen with big icons and tabs. It looks ultra easy to use and find what you want.


In this regard it’s similar to the iPhone home screen. But then I always thought the iPhone home screen looks simple because it only has a few preloaded applications. The EEE is similar, with limited applications it’s easy to give everything a big icon. I expect most owners will never add any applications anyway, as much of what you need to get going is included right out of the box.

The EEE ships with internet, office and media playback software sitting on top of its Linux operating system. The look and feel is overtly Windows XP and when I was using the file explorer I actually had to do a double-take to check I was not using an early shipment of XP preloaded EEEs.


Following years of anti-Microsof sentiment from some corners of the IT community, it is somehow ironic that Windows has become so popular that competitors either mimic it or allow users to run it on their own environment to attract switchers.

Using the internet browser will be straightforward for most owners, with the exception that some sites optimized for Internet Explorer may not work properly. I occasionally find this on my Macbook and Nokia tablet with their respective Safari and Mozilla browsers. Similarly the office software is not Microsoft Office so again there may be compatibility issues if you are trying to share files with MS Office users, although some common file formats are supported. The media player is also less friendly than iTunes or Windows Media Player but is usable nonetheless.

All of this of course results from the low cost of the EEE. Building a Linux system is much cheaper than building a Mac or Windows system. Unfortunately file, application and peripheral compatibility is where you ultimately pay for this. So make sure that whatever you want to do is Linux compatible before you purchase your EEE. The alternative is to either install Windows (which can be done by running the installation from an external drive), or wait for the Windows preloaded version to be released. Of course this will have a cost implication and if you then want to run Microsoft Office then this is another $150 as a home user.

The EEE PC 4G’s lid houses a webcam. This is missing from the cheaper models in the range, but a fantastic feature to have if you can afford a higher end EEE. The quality of the camera is on a par with similar devices in other laptops. Every laptop should have one of these!

EEE owners are likely to take their units around with them due to the small sixe, so how is it likely to stand up to road use? First impressions are that the EEE seems well built with an assuringly solid looking hinge mechanism. Apart from this and the keys, the EEE is pretty low on moving parts. There are no mechanical hard or optical drives to break in transit so some risk associated with traditional laptops is not present in the EEE. Of course it is still vulnerable to failure like all electronics, but hopefully Asus’ choice to go for a solid state drive will save many a users’ data on a bad day.

So is it the bEEE’s knEEE’s?

If you’re a light, or adventurous, user then don’t let my compatibility comments put you off. For mobile corporate users running thin client software this is also a winning solution. It’s the middle tier of users I think are likely to struggle. These are the people who want to do funky things now and again and might not have the knowledge to do it quickly in Linux. If you’re one of these people then you may prefer to wait for the Windows version.

If on the other hand you’re happy with EEE’s preloaded goodies or are a Linux lover then this is the IT bargain of 2007. Expect other companies to follow…

May 2008 update: Read the Asus EEE 900 vs HP Mini-Note 2133 comparo here.

Jan 2008 update: As predicted above, others have followed. Read about Everex’s $399 here.

See photos and read CES news about: Laptops & UMPCs, Home Entertainment, Media Players, Cellphones, Gaming and Trick Technologies.
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To read all the CES 2008 articles, click here.

For details of the new Asus R50 UMPC, click here.

The colored EEEs are now available, click here for photos

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Dec 9, 2007 Posted by | Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

   

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