D.O.A. – One Inspiron 640m

Inspn_640mAh dear, less than a year old and kaput. It’s rather a long winded story, but here I go anyway!

Originally I got an Inspiron 640m for meself but it turned out to be so much faster than the Inspiron 9100 I had at work that I started to use it for work. So work kept it. Which was good, because another Inspiron 9100 we had broke and my old one was nicked for parts.

Then a couple months of later it was decided by the powers that be that us developer types should have fully Vista capable laptops, and who I am to disagree with an order like that?

So a Dell Precision M65* was my replacement (and a Dell Precision M90* for the over dev monkey since he wanted more powaaaah!). And off the Inspiron 640m went into the unwashed masses of the rest of the company.

And all was well until a couple of weeks ago I get a call saying the trusty old Inspiron 640m wouldn’t power on. Odd I thought, and it was shipped back to our office. And indeed it wouldn’t. Just a green flash of a battery light and off it went. Great…

Dell_precision_m65_notebookSo I took it apart and found a sticky goo underneath the keyboard and on the chassis. I looked further and it seemed to be on edges of the compartments on the bottom of the laptop and throughout the machine. I asked if something had been spilt on it and the reply back was a negative.

A bit of investigate led me to one of the motherboard supports (i.e. part of the plastic outer casing) which looked to have melted. I managed to peek at the mobo and noticed it had scorch marks. The support was on the left hand side of the machine, next to the fan mounting which is just above the CPU. 

So it looks like it had burnt itself out. Cause of? Unknown. But very strange.

Anyway, the little bugger was scavenged for memory (since I’d upgrade it to 2GB) and put to one side, waiting for some spare time to ring Dell support up (not a fun job). Still, it’s a bit of a sad end to what was a very good machine.

Well maybe not for World of Warcraft, regardless of what other peeps say…

* Ignore the exact specs of the reviews on the Precisions. Our beasties both have Intel Core 2 Duo T7600’s running at 2.4Ghz with 4GB RAM and NVidia Quadro’s!

The toaster broke my computer

One day a couple of weeks ago I was working from home and decided after checking my email first thing I’d have a spot of breakfast. So after a quick rummage around for some bread, I put the toaster on and the power went off… 

Feck and biscuits. There’s a dodgy socket in the kitchen that occasionally throws a fit and trips out all the downstairs sockets. It’s not normally a problem but my email was running in a virtual machine which was running off an external hard drive. And what had just tripped out?

APC Back-UPS ES 700VAYep, the socket that the hard drive was connected to. Laptops are quite good at coping with power cuts due to their internal batteries, but virtual machines run in this way are not. After turning the power back on I ran the toaster off another socket, had some toast, then ran some checks and, fortunately, nothing was damaged.

The end result of this little incident though, was that I finally decided to buy a UPS or two for home (and for work). There are lots to choose from but I decided to go with an APC one for a couple of reasons.

The first is that we use APC devices at work and they’re pretty reliable and very easy to maintain and monitor. The second is because The Hanselman had just replaced all his UPS’s with APC ones and you can’t get a better recommendation than that.

Also, as a further bonus reason to get them, the one I picked, the APC Back-UPS ES 700VA (a model name that really rolls off the tongue), came out top in the PC Pro round up of UPS’s in May’s issue. Which was nice.

So I ordered a couple from Misco which arrived very quickly (less than a couple of days. I actually ordered another a week later and that came in less than 24 hours. I can highly recommend Misco). Anyhoo, they’re pretty chunky buggers weighing in at over 7kg, which mostly due to the battery. All you need to do on arrival is hook up the battery and plug it up to the mains to charge, which takes 16 hours on first use! 

In terms of what they have, well, there are 8 sockets, 4 of which are battery and surge protected whilst the other 4 are just surge protected. It also has more three ports on the side. Two are for surge protecting a phone line whilst the third is for connecting it up to your PC, using a special cable (which is supplied, but is expensive to replace, so don’t lose it!).

With that connected you can run the cheesy looking PowerChute software (which if you’re using Vista, you’ll have to go download since the version supplied was well out of date) which can be configured to monitor the battery life but also to shut down your PC when the battery gets low on juice. The free software isn’t much different from what you get to run the proper business APC UPS’s.

Overall, they’re nifty little devices. I’ve not had to use them in anger yet but I know they work since I’ve tested them by unplugging them from the mains. They start beeping and throwing up alerts until the power is reconnected, but at least now I know I can safely trip out the electrics whilst trying to make my breakfast!

A bit more leg room

MyBook500GBSince switching to using mainly laptops I’ve found hard drive space a bit of an issue, since they’re not exactly well endowed in that department (although that is changing).

So I’ve been using external drives to help bump up storage. Our current weapon of choice at work is a 160GB Freecom drive which we picked for a number of reasons, but mainly because they were cheap (heh) and we’d be lugging them about in our laptop bags and they were pretty compact in size. But as it turns out the small format factor meant it was noisy since the casing is metal and because of that, they get pretty hot.

And really, a 160GB isn’t a great deal of space nowadays. When you start using Virtual Machines and running databases off them that space quickly disappears. So I thought lets try something that’s XXL and went and bought a 500GB Western Digital MyBook.

It’s like a mini Xbox in form factor expect not quite as ugly. In fact, it’s, dare I say it, quite cute looking. And whilst it’s certainly bigger than the Freecom it definitely runs a lot cooler due it’s funky plastic case design, which has pretty good airflow through it. Plus it’s quieter, but I don’t know whether that’s down to the internal drive being one of those new fangled SATA drives or the case being bigger and more open.

The only snag with it is there is so much storage that backing it up somewhere else is an issue. No where on the network at work has that much space (free) and I certainly don’t have that much space at home. Hmmm… well there’s only one thing to do… buy another one for backups!

Google Web History? I’ll pass thanks…

Like lots of other peeps I was intrigued by Google Web History but for the same reasons Tim Anderson notes in a blog post yesterday, I had to pass:

To sign up for full Web History, you need to install the Google Toolbar. This is how Google gets a record of pages you visit beyond your searches. However, I have a minimalist approach to add-ons, especially those which run all the time. My reward is a more stable and better-performing operating system.

I mistakenly thought with this being Google it would just work automagically. Having to install an add-on seems so old school, but if think about it for five minutes, how else can they track and data mine what you view?

Also, as was pointed out, minimalist is good. I currently have four add-ons installed for Firefox (All-in-One Gestures, Download Statusbar, Tab Mix Plus and Web Developer) and I’d like to keep it that.

Plus I’m not so keen on this part of how Web History works:

Finally, Web History helps deliver more personalized search results based on what you’ve searched for and which sites you’ve visited.

Is that really a good idea? I want an unbiased search. I’d don’t want my search results to be restricted down based on previous searches and what I’ve visited. Surely the idea of searching is to help find something you don’t normally look at?

Stop VMWare beeping

Actually its Windows that beeps, but when running under VMWare it’s not so easy to turn the PC speaker off. You can’t go into the BIOS and disable it or unhook it from the motherboard (because there isn’t really one in this case).

However there are ways and means around this. In the directory where your Virtual Machine is, open the .vmx file for that machine in Notepad (it’s the config file for it and it’s plain text) and add the following line:

mks.noBeep = “TRUE”

Save it, restart your VM and that’s it. Job done. No more beeping.

Xbox Live

The process of signing up to Xbox Live is pretty easy. You create a profile and store it on your HDD (or memory card) and then select to make it Live enabled.

There’s a bit of typing involved so connecting a USB keyboard is a good idea (the 360 has 3 USB ports, two at the front and one at the back. There is also one on the side but that’s used by the HDD).

Once you’ve signed your life away (and your credit card) you’re constantly connected to Xbox Live. By default it’s configured to automatically logon on start up and you can disconnect if you like, but isn’t any reason to. It’s all very seamless and access various options in Live is via a blade (menu) in the dashboard, which looks similar to this:

Xbox360dashboard

The profile is made up of various things, but the two key things are Rep and Gamerscore. Rep is something you earn when you play online. Other players can post reviews on you where they can mark you as preferred or un-preferred player to play against. If they pick preferred, your star rating will go up, whilst if they pick un-preferred, they’ll have to pick from a further 6 categories as to what they didn’t like.

Xbox360gamercard

Not me

Gamerscore is something you earn by unlocking achievements in games. Achievements are just rewards you get for doing something. They can be as simple as completing a section of a game or utterly stupid, like killing 10,000 people online in Gears of War!

And because of the achievements it means that most games have no cheats, because if they did, the achievements would be meaningless. Unfortunately it can be incredibly frustrating. One such achievement is for nailing the final boss to Gears of War, Raam. I lost count of how many attempts it took me to kill him, I was getting close to doing a bit of Wii style TV breakage.

Getting back to Xbox Live, the whole thing comes into it’s own when you play something like Project Gotham Racing 3 where it’s completely hooked in. Whenever you complete anything, even if it’s just throwing a car round the test track, you’re ranked against everyone else who has played. And I like that. It’s a real incentive to try harder.

Xbox 360! Yay! Belated First Impressions

Officialxbox360

Back in November I got an Xbox 360 Premium Pack, which is a 360 with a 20GB hard drive, a wireless controller, a HDTV cable, wired headset, a pair of ear defenders and some other crap.

The Premium Pack comes in a nice shiny white box (where as a Core System has a green box). It’s a deceptively heavy box, much like lugging round a small PC tower, hmmm… funny that? Upon opening it you’re presented with… a form to buy two years extended warranty, hardly the start you want.

Throw that and the tome like manuals aside and you have a very nicely packed box. Each item is individually packed in plastic, some green, some orange coloured. I’m sure there’s some significance to it, but in my rush to get it set up, I didn’t notice.

Now I don’t have a fancy ass HDTV so just hooked it up to my old style CRT TV on one of it’s AV inputs. The HDTV cable has the plugs for both types of TV (which is good if I upgrade). Like the original Xbox, the power supply is an external lump which is hefty bugger that would be very good for clubbing baby seals with.

Things to note are that you should stand (or sit) the Xbox horizontally and not vertically (why? because stood upright it’ll scratch the disks to buggery. I had to return my first copy of Gears of War because of it. And it’s a common problem (see here, here and here). Plus a friend bought one from Gamestation and they told him the same).

Also if you’re putting it on the floor and it’s carpeted, put it on something. The reason is because this thing runs almost as hot as the sun and having it sat on your shagpile blocks up the lower vents and prematurely turns it into a electric fire.

After avoiding spontaneous combustion I got it all plugged up and turned it on… and realised what the ear defenders were for. Where as the original Xbox was lol huge, the 360 is just laugh out loud. The fans run at full whack when playing any game that requires some graphical oomph.

However on the Dashboard (the name for the 360’s menu system) and playing most Xbox Live Arcade games, it’s pretty quiet. Speaking of which, the Dashboard menu’s aren’t quite as intuitive and clean as on the PSP (and PS3) but it certainly looks nice. The little adverts for Xbox accessories and demos of FIFA 07 are a tad annoying though.

Whilst I’m ranting I should also mention that the wireless controller that came with it had a broken R1 button which means it about as useful as inflatable dart board, so it’s a good job I bought another controller. I did email Xbox support, but the replies have been comical (the first email was just said “Hello Mr. Paul Healey” (for some reason I imagined it a Chinese accent and found it funny), to which I replied “What?”. Then the second email was “Phone us on our premium rate mobile phone number for tech support”. Yeah, right).

Xbox360Controller

I also hooked it to the interweb via it’s ethernet port into my wireless router / hub since I didn’t get a wireless adapter for it. It picked up on the network settings automagically, so one of the first things I did was sign up on Xbox Live. There’s two packages, Silver and Gold. Silver is free and lets you have access to downloads, updates, various demos and wotnot.

Gold includes all that but also allows you to play against other peoples. Which is a good thing because it means you’re less likely to be playing against someone who will be dicking about (plus there’s stuff like gamer’s Rep, more on that later). Anyhoo, there are three different payments for Gold, monthly at £4.99, quarterly at £14.99 and annual at £39.99. I signed up monthly just to see what it was like but will most likely switch to annual (since it saves you 20 quid).

And once I got Xbox Live connected, that’s when the fun started…

A month with an Inspiron 640m

So how has the little beastie faired over the last month or so? Remarkably well and I’m very impressed by it. Pretty much everything I’ve thrown at it (other than Vista and Windows XP x64) it has handled with ease.

I’m unfortunately relegated to using bog standard XP Professional but it does the job. If I was thinking, I should have installed XP Media Center but it’s bit late now and I don’t really want the hassle of installing it. Next time I do a reinstall it will hopefully be for Vista x64 with proper drivers!

I also found out fairly quickly that it’s not a games machine. Whilst the processor is up to the task, the weedy Intel GMA 950 isn’t. So I’ve been doing tasks that give the processor a kicking. One of the first things I did was create a DVD from the miniDV tapes of our wedding.

I was able to hook up my Sony Handycam via the 640m’s built in Firewire port (didn’t realise it had one until it arrived). Using Pinnacle Studio I pulled down the various bits of footage and used it’s editing tools to create something half decent. From there it made up a DVD image and burnt it off. The actual process of getting the video from miniDV isn’t a particularly quick process since Pinnacle pulls it down in real time, which means if the tapes an hour long, it’ll take an hour (I know that Ulead VideoStudio has an option to pull video down really quick, but it’s awful software).

What amazed me though was how stable the machine was when creating and burning the DVD image. It hardly stressed it and I was able to do a bit of web surfing without any problems. It seems that way with pretty much everything I’ve done.

I’ve also had it running VMWare (more on this in another post :D). I hooked up to a external USB hard drive to run the virtual machine images off (thanks Coding Horror) and was surprised by the performance! I created a machine with Windows 2003 Server and installed Delphi 5. I then did a full compile of our software at work and it was 50% faster than the Inspiron 8200 I use (admittedly it’s hardly a fair test since the 8200 has a 1.6Ghz Pentium M with just 512MB running XP. That said the VM has just 400MB!).

I’m also taken by how portable it is compared to previous laptops I’ve used. Oh and quiet! To not have a constant whirring of fans (hello Inspiron 9100!) is nice. When it’s under a really heavy load for an extended amount of time the fan does kick in, but it’s not that noticeable and I’d say the DVD drive, when burning a disc, is much noisier. I also initially thought the 14 inch screen would be too small but the “UltraSharp Wide Screen” option I added bumps the res up to 1440×900 which is more than enough.

Getting the 9 cell battery turned out to be good idea too since battery life on the whole is excellent. I can run it for an entire evening for about 5 to 6 hours before it goes flat. There are a couple of things that seem to devour the battery which is heavy use of the DVD drive and a wireless USB mouse I have (the bluetooth (I think) dongle for the mouse seems to communicate a lot with it which drains the battery pretty quickly), but that’s not much of an issue.

The machine as originally specced only had 512MB memory but when the order went through I bought another 1GB from Crucial (excellent service as always). However I found that with running VMWare 1.5 GB just wasn’t enough to run two virtual machines comfortably, so I’ve bought a further 1GB to replace the original 512MB. Plus the fact the 512MB stick ran at 533Mhz whilst the new GB sticks run at 667Mhz means there’s a slight speed boost (not that I can tell). I would really have liked to have had a 1 and 2GB stick (it can take up to 4GB), but 2GB costs an extortionate £500+. Ouch!

Niggles and problems, none at the moment, but there are some that may become a problem later on. Firstly I don’t feel like I’m doing the machine justice running XP. Yes, the VMWare stuff is giving it a hard time but the Core 2 Duo is fully blown 64bit processor and it’s just sat there tootling along running 32bit chaff. Which brings me to my second niggle, the lack of drivers for Vista and XP x64. Vista has now RTM’ed, but the outlook for good drivers in the near term isn’t looking rosy.

Overall, it’s turned out to be a very impressive piece of kit. I can’t see it being replaced anytime soon.

Optimus keyboard coming soon

I read about this ages ago but it looks like they might actually make it. The difference with the Optimus keyboard is that the keys have OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) on top, which means you can change what is displayed on each key.

Optimus_Keyboard

According to the site it should go on sell this year and cost no more than a good mobile phone… hmmm that’s a bit open to debate though. Mobile phones on a new contract with Orange, Vodafone or O2 are free… so, heh, I can dream can’t I?

Optimus_quake

Anyhoo, other than the obvious advantage of customising the keyboard depending on what you’re doing (like for Quake, shown above, or Photoshop), you could have all sorts of fun with it. It could be linked into the music visualisation plugins you have in Media Player, Winamp etc, and have it display whacky graphics and patterns across them.

The thing I’m really interested in though is the feel of it. A keyboard can look great but if the feel of the keys isn’t right, it’s not worth using. Hopefully it’ll be out soon. I’ll be keeping an eye on the blog to see what progress there is.

Vista + Intel Wireless 3945ABG = No

One of the first things I did with my laptop was to remove Window XP Home since it’s about as much use as a chocolate fire guard and install Beta 2 of Vista x64 (yeah I know RC2 is out but I don’t have a copy to hand). So I did a fresh install, deleting the existing drive partitions (Dell had configured the 80GB drive with two 30ish size ones?) and creating a new one that filled the drive.

The Vista installation then tried it damndest to grind the hard drive into a fine powder and also gave the DVD drive a good work out as well. It was a hideously slow process at over an hour, but I must admit it was slightly more stream lined than the XP installation process. You entered almost all the required details at the beginning and then it got on with it.

Once into Vista I had a quick poke around (Aero Glass is really nice and the new UI in general looks really cool) but was disappointed that it couldn’t find any drivers for the majority of the hardware in the machine. 

I did a bit of manual searching and found a video driver for the Intel GMA 950, but I couldn’t get a wireless driver, which was a bit of deal breaker since that’s my main network connection at home. There is a section on the Intel site for it, but it just sends you round in circles. Wireless drivers aren’t expected until 4th Quarter 2006… err?

It’s also amusing because last week Dell updated a lot of their range last week noting that machines were Vista Capable and in fact this laptop has the following sticker on it:

VistaCapable

At the moment, it clearly isn’t. So I switched to Windows XP x64 and had similar problems with drivers. Intel did have a 64–bit graphics and wireless driver, but for things like the sound card and memory card reader I had no joy.

I also checked the Dell site for what drivers they have for the Inspiron 640m and was out of luck for anything other than Windows XP x86, which is really poor given the Core 2 is a 64–bit processor. You’d think proper drivers would be available!