MacBook Pro Review

4623570_rawThere’s been thousands of MacBook Pro reviews, but I’ve not done one before and having just taken delivery of my first one, I wanted to write about it.

I’ve previously been using Hackintosh, and fell in love with OSX already. As a long time UNIX user, and developer, OSX is a breeze to use and comes with all the usual tools I wanted. It has the benefits of Linux with the software compatibility sewn up. It would sure be nice if Linux would get the kind of commercial software developed for it like OSX has.

But this is meant to be a review of the MBP, not OSX. Because let’s face it, the difference between OSX on a PC and OSX on a real Mac has often been cited as zero. I’ve read in countless areas of the web, forums mainly, that Apple hardware is not worth paying the extra dollars for. I’m here to tell you that is patently not true. And I’ll outline why the MBP hardware is light years ahead of any laptop I’ve looked at recently. Vista notwithstanding.

OK, so the first thing you notice about the MBP, which is missing on pretty much every laptop I’ve owned, or seen, is solidity. The MBP is solid. You can pick it up by the corner and it does not flex. It is carved out of a slab of Aluminium of course, so you might expect that. But the kind of build solidity you get with the MBP isn’t available even on the top end IBM/Lenovo machines.

You’d expect a solid aluminium laptop to be heavy. But this isn’t. It’s actually lighter than the two HP machines I previously owned – although to be fair one of those was a 17″ desktop replacement that weighed a tonne. But the newer HP machine was a 15.4″ and weighed a lot more than the MacBook. And I dunno about other blokes but normally when I’m using a laptop on my lap, I end up with sore ‘crown jewels’ because the laptop always sits on top of them. Not good if you’re wanting to start a family! Not so with the MacBook Pro – it fits nicely on the lap without squashing the kids…

You might also expect a laptop made of solid aluminium to be hot, but again, during most normal use this isn’t the case at all. The MacBook Pro runs very cooly indeed, although it did get quite hot while I was installing XCode. But there was a lot of disk activity, and DVD reading. The fans being placed in the back of the machine by the screen hinge is a nice touch because it means for once I don’t have to watch where my legs are placed underneath the laptop because there are no fans to block. What a stroke of genius – and how come no other laptop manufacturer has thought that obstructing the fans on a laptop with your legs ought to be something that is designed around.

The trackpad. What can I say about the trackpad? Just utterly amazing. Every PC owner should be forced to use the Mac multitouch trackpad before they claim that the hardware is not worth the extra price ticket. Multitouch just breaks all the usual rules of interacting with a trackpad. I used to despise trackpads, I could never get on with them. I suffer with reasonably sweaty hands, unfortunately for some – especially those who have to shake hands occasionally with me – and the standard PC trackpad really does not like moisture on the fingers. The Mac Multitouch Trackpad doesn’t seem to care at all. It moves around when it should – and interestingly and perhaps even more importantly, it does NOT move when I am typing on the laptop keyboard. It detects the palm pressing it instead of the fingers very nicely indeed.

Which leads to the keyboard, which I thought would be an absolutely awful thing to use. It looks tacky. It looks like something off a ZX Spectrum from the 80’s (OK, a ZX Spectrum Plus, cos the original Spectrum had a rubber keyboard). It looks like you’d managed to type about 20 words a minute on it even if you were an accomplished touch typist. I’ve not checked how many WPM I can type on this keyboard yet, though I managed about 58WPM on the Compaq keyboard last night. But I find this keyboard actually leads to a lot less errors and I can type very quickly indeed. The BEST thing of all with it is that I am not clipping the ENTER key when I want to use apostrophe which is something I was forever doing on the normal Microsoft Business Keyboard I had with the desktop PC. Now that’s partially because I’m so used to the UK keyboard and have had to recently adjust to the aussie layout. But I don’t suffer that with the MBP. Now, back to the ZX Spectrum keyboard – its fair to say the ZX Spectrum keyboard was not backlit, and this keyboard is. And that REALLY helps when you want to type something in a dimmer room. And it looks super cool too.

The screen on the MacBook Pro is a beauty. On the model I have it’s a 15.4″ version – and it adjusts the brightness automatically according to the ambient light conditions in combination with the settings determined by whether you’re running on mains power or the battery. The 1440×900 display resolution seems to display more content than the same resolution on Windows – but I’m not sure if that’s just some kind of optical illusion. It certainly feels bigger than I expected – perhaps I won’t need dual monitor after all? Nah, who am I kidding 🙂

Whilst writing this article I have noticed that the underside of the MBP is actually now, icy cold…

Is the MacBook Pro fast? One word. Blazingly. The model I purchased was the 2.66Ghz version with 4G of RAM. The desktop ‘Hackintosh’ I’ve been using (which interestingly is solely responsible for me deciding to buy Apple hardware at all) was a 3.16Ghz with 4G of RAM, 500G SATA disk and a GeForce 8600GT video card and was quick. Very quick under OSX, bearable under Vista (but that’s another story altogether) and I was concerned that when I moved to a portable again I’d suffer speed degradation. I don’t know if it’s because of Snow Leopard ( OSX 10.6 ) or because of the hardware but this portable machine, with all it’s light weight, extensive battery life, super quiet operation, is definitely no slouch. Starting apps on the MacBook seems to happen as quickly, if not quicker, than on the Hackintosh – yet there should be a world of difference in performance on portable equipment. Certainly in the PC market that is the case. Though I admit that is all about ‘feelings’ as I haven’t yet done any benchmarking.

The final amazing innovation I want to talk about in this article is the magmounted power cord. How many times have you left the laptop on the table with the lead hanging down and trailing across the floor to the wall socket, when the dog comes running in, all excited to see you, and – being a dog doesn’t care about such things as expensive laptops – runs straight through the cable bringing your laptop crashing to the floor in an expensive thud, or pulling the cable out at a horrendous angle and risking breaking the pin. I’ve seen Dell’s in the past with broken laptop power cords as a result of this – usually at the laptop end where it’s hard to repair. The MacBook Pro gets around this with an utterly ingenious little device that is held in place by the power of magnetism. If the dog pulls on my cord it pops out with no damage to cord, laptop or dog. Why has no-one else thought of this?

One thing I can say about all this, Apple has innovated with the hardware. Is it worth the extra price point? You bet. Anyone who’s considering upgrading their laptop, I’d seriously recommend you at least go and check out the MacBook Pro, or if you’re not into 3D gaming (which I’m about to try on the MBP and will write about later) then you can probably get away with a standard MacBook. You really will not be sorry. I wish I’d gone to it earlier!

Eclipse Line Numbers Not Scrolling On OSX

Eclipse 3.5 Galileo OSX Cocoa version released June 24th fixes line numbers, breakpoint markers and cold folding regions scrolling problems that appear after upgrading OSX to 10.5.6 or greater.

eclipseIf you’re using the fantastic Eclipse IDE on OSX then you may have come across a small but highly annoying issue whereby the line numbers, breakpoint markers and cold folding sections in the left hand gutter do not scroll when you move through a long page you’re working on.

I discovered this happened only after upgrading to OSX 10.5.6, and there was a number of blog entries across the web that talked about how OSX 10.5.6 had broken the Dvorak keyboard layout but very little about Eclipse line numbers not scrolling. Most of the articles I did manage to find didn’t mention that the problem didn’t exist on 10.5.5 and previous. One that did, suggested waiting until 10.5.7 for a fix.

Unfortunately 10.5.7 does not fix the Eclipse line numbers not scrolling issue.

The good news is that there is a solution. Over at the Aptana support forum I came across an article talking exactly what I was experiencing – and someone commented that Eclipse 3.5 Galileo was to be soon released and that they couldn’t reproduce the problem on that version. After more digging – and this is where the Dvorak keyboard issue came up – I discovered that OSX 10.5.6 made some changes to the Carbon Framework libraries. Eclipse 3.4 was built using the Carbon Libraries.

Eclipse 3.5 comes in 2 flavours now (actually, 3, but only 2 32 bit flavours). There’s the original Carbon Framework version, and the shiny new Cocoa Framework version. The Cocoa Framework is the newer OSX programming framework and the good news is, the line numbers, breakpoint markers and code folding icons all scroll correctly with Eclipse 3.5 Galileo on 10.5.5, 10.5.6 and 10.5.7.

So if you’re on OSX Leopard, 10.5.6 or above and having issues with Eclipse, I highly recommend Galileo Eclipse 3.5 which was released on June 24 (though I’ve been using a release candidate for a month or so now with no issues).

Find out why your data is not safe

Whether you’re in business or a personal user, you probably have a computer and on that computer will be information that you will kick yourself (or worse) if it were lost.

For personal users there’s going to be important documents you’ve written, perhaps to the bank or perhaps to the grandkids. Maybe there’s important essay’s you’ve written as part of your dissertation. Perhaps you have your CD collection in iTunes. And almost certainly there’ll be photographs that you simply cannot get back if they’re lost.

For business users the amount of data and its importance is likely to be even higher. The consequences of losing your Quickbooks or MYOB data can be quite harrowing. There’s no-one quite like the tax office to make you wake up at night in a cold sweat wondering if your accounts data is safe.

Why is this data not safe?

There’s a number of reasons your data could be comprised. Recent research from Gartner and IDC indicate the following reasons are the most likely causes for data loss;

  • 32% of data loss is due to user error.
  • 10% of laptops are stolen each year. If your data is on it, your data is stolen too.
  • 5% of laptops suffer some kind of hardware failure each year.
  • A whopping 70% of tape restores fail.

That last point is perhaps the most interesting. Anyone who’s been an administrator of a computer system for a reasonable length of time will have experienced this. You backup your system religiously every night. You perhaps use the Grandfather – Father – Son routine of tape rotation. You think everything is great. But do you know everything is great? When was the last time you tested one of those tapes to make sure it will restore for you? You don’t test the restore mechanism. Who does? Tapes are reliable right? Burning to DVD is more reliable still. And then your client rings you up and asks you to restore a bunch of critical data he needs for a presentation to the board tomorrow.

You go to your most recent tape backup and put it in the drive. Your heart sinks as the backup software tells you there are no files on the tape to restore. You become mildly concerned, but it’s ok, you have another tape to try. You put that tape in. Now that one tells you there’s no data to restore… It’s not a good scenario – and I bet it’s happened to you or a network administrator you know.

Tapes, CDs or DVDs have a number of other problems that make them less than optimal for backup purposes;

  • Drives and media can become expensive – particularly as the capacity needs to rise to cope with the mountains of data you wish to backup.
  • Large backups require multiple CDs or DVDs. It only takes one of them to go bad to throw the whole backup out the window.
  • Human error can mean the tape, CD or DVD isn’t changed tonight.
  • If the backup media is left in the machine it can become vulnerable to viruses or intrusion
  • Someone has to take the tape, CDs or DVDs with them to ensure that if the building burns down or collapses your data is safe.

This latter one is very easy to overlook. And indeed can even be worse than expected. Take for example the recent Victorian Bushfires. A number of businesses thought that their data was safe because they used tapes, DVDs or cartridges to perform nightly backups, which they then gave to an employee to take home. These businesses believed their data was safe because the backup was offsite and if the building burned down, they still had their data. What they had not counted on, was the fact that the whole area would be ablaze. Many employees also lost their homes and if any one of these had the companies offsite backup with them – they went too.

In the case of the Victorian Bushfires, one customer recalled how she had put her computer into the car in order to leave the house. She didn’t care about the computer per se, it was insured and she could get a new one if it was destroyed. What she cared about was her photos and as such had made the decision to take the computer with her to leave, in case the house burned down. Sadly, the family were involved in a collision on the road and had to abandon the car. After the fire had passed through (they made it to safe shelter) they returned to the car to discover it was burned out – taking the PC and all her photos with it. The irony is that the house they had left, which they thought they could not defend, was still standing when they returned the next day. She has no backup of her photos.

What is the answer?

The good news is that there is an affordable answer;

IDrive.com provides off site backup services that are affordable and tailored to your needs. If you’re a personal user with a small amount of photos and maybe some special documents to make sure stay safe, you can back these up to IDrive for free. If you need more space, they have options for you too.

IDrive has a number of benefits;

  • The backups are cost effective as you don’t need any additional hardware and no need to replace CDs, DVDs or tapes every so often.
  • The backups are automated. You don’t have to remember to change tapes, DVDs etc.
  • The backups cannot be interefered with by viruses or hackers.
  • If your hardware fails your backups are still safe.
  • Geographic diversity means that even if your entire township goes up in flames, you don’t risk losing your data.
  • The system is easy to use
  • Your data is continuously protected, not just when you remember to run a backup.
  • The software works on Windows or Mac.
  • You can search your backed up files anywhere using a standard web browser.
  • Your data is secured using a key known only to you. Even the IDrive staff have no access to your data.

In the case of the Victorian Bushfires, there are a number of people who wish they had an affordable, reliable offsite backup mechanism to recover their photos and/or business data.

Ask yourself this, ‘given the risks associated with your data – can you afford not to use IDrive?’

Why is this not just another ‘Infomercial’?

Well, that’s a good question. The answer is simple though – we use IDrive ourselves at Kabarty to backup everything to an offsite location. And just yesterday it saved my bacon when copying a directory into another directory didn’t go quite as I expected. Instead of the contents being copied into the directory and keeping all the existing contents too – the operating system decided that it would remove all the existing contents and just put the stuff I was copying in there. There was literally days of work that were lost through something that I didn’t expect.

I suspect this scenario comes under that 32% of data loss is through user error banner above, but nonetheless, my backups had been taking place without my intervention, without me needing to change tapes or remember anything except that it was there. Which I did after I calmed down. Within minutes the directory was restored to it’s previous state and I didn’t have to worry about trawling through days worth of changes again. The IDrive fee paid for itself yesterday, even if we don’t need to do a restore now for the entire rest of the year.

That’s how we know the value of IDrive’s service and that’s why we signed up to become an affiliate.

Windows USB Hangs PC

If Windows XP or earlier hangs when you plug in a USB device, read this, it may save your sanity.

If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll probably do a Google search like I did, and go through countless forums and articles explaining how your device is duff and you should chuck it out and get a new one.

I knew my device wasn’t duff because it worked in other machines. But any time I hooked it up to this one machine, Windows XP would hang. The only solution was to reset the machine with the reset button. Not good. Especially after a few attempts to fix it blew up the ‘Windows Active Desktop’ and left me with a lovely white screen with some nasty diagnostic information.

I tried removing the devices – I even removed all the ‘hidden devices’ by going to Control Panel, System, Advanced, Environment Variables and adding a new System Environment variable called devmgr_show_nonpresent_devices and setting its value to 1. Then I logged out and back in (to make that change stick) and went to control panel -> System -> Device Manager and selected the ‘Show Hidden Devices’ from the View menu. I then removed all the greyed out USB devices (and some others I knew were bogus too) and rebooted.

No joy.

But I then discovered an article at www.everythingusb.com which mentioned that you must do a SAFE MODE cleanup. This means doing a similar thing to what I had done above, but first you must boot Windows into Safe Mode. You can do this by pressing F8 when the PC is booting but before it gets to the Windows logos.

In Safe Mode (you’ll need at least a PS2 keyboard for this – preferably a PS2 mouse too because anything USB is about to stop working totally) you need to Uninstall all the devices in the following order;

USB peripheral devices (Scanners, Printers, Cameras etc.)
HID and/or Composite USB (Human Interface Devices)
USB Root Hub(s) (Universal Host Controllers)
USB Host Controller(s) (Universal Host Controllers)

When you’ve deleted them, reboot into normal mode. You MUST have a PS2 keyboard connected at this point, otherwise you probably won’t ever get your PC back because unless you can login, Windows won’t try to re-install the devices.

Login – Windows will re-install the devices, and then ask you to reboot. Reboot again.

If you’re real lucky (and I was) Windows USB will now function properly again. A Safe Mode cleanup forces Windows to do something a bit more thoroughly than a normal mode cleanup, and this worked for me.

How To Avoid Computer Viruses.

virus-signAside from the obvious Buy A Mac quotation that one might expect, I felt it necessary to outline some of the things people with a PC running a variant of Microsoft Windows can do to reduce their likelihood of contracting a computer virus or trojan.

In my recent experience, most ‘viruses’ actually turn out not to be viruses at all but are in fact either trojan horses or some kind of other malware. Usually adware. But since most people know the term virus, and apply it to all kinds of malware, that’s the term I have used here.

So, what are the steps to reduce your exposure?

  1. If you’re using a version of Windows earlier than XP on your desktop PC and you use the internet, upgrade it. This may mean having to upgrade your hardware but it will be worth it. Anything earlier than XP (ie, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME) is no longer supported by Microsoft and no more patches will be released to fix known exploits. And if you’re on Windows ME you really will enjoy an upgrade, trust me.
  2. Keep your PC up to date with Windows Updates. This can’t be stressed enough. If you do nothing else, you must keep your system up to date.
  3. Avoid downloading ‘pirated’ music, programs and films.
  4. Avoid the more seedy areas of the internet. This includes those areas that you can find things from #3 above, but also the even seedier places where you will find nude women / men. Like in real life, unsafe places will get you into trouble, often in more ways than one.
  5. If you want to download freeware/shareware/try-before-you-buy-ware then check it out on Google first. And don’t take Google’s first words for it – some of the newer trojan/spyware laden programs create fake web pages saying how great the software is – make sure you look for reviews of the software at various different places – and if possible stick to known good review sites such as cNet and zdNet.
  6. Don’t open attachments in e-mails unless you asked for them to be sent. Even if the person is in your Address Book, or you know them personally. Unless they told you in person or on the phone to expect this, then it could easily be a virus pretending to be your friend. If you’re sending an attachment to friends, call them first, or include something in your e-mail message that a virus could not know. Maybe a recent event that you haven’t entered into your computer is a good idea, such as ‘It was good to see you last Saturday at Uncle Joes fiftieth birthday party’.
  7. Don’t click on links that friends send you on Instant Messenging programs – unless the person sending the link can say something to convince you that they really did send it. See #6 for more on this.
  8. Don’t click on links in e-mails. In particular if the e-mail says it’s come from your bank, or Paypal or eBay. These are almost always scam e-mails trying to get you to visit a dodgy site. If you get an e-mail and think it might be from your bank, or eBay, then open your browser yourself and type the address into the address bar yourself. Do not click the link.
  9. Finally, install a reputable anti-virus solution and keep it updated. Good examples of this are Avira, AVG and Avast. However, if you don’t follow the other 8 principles, you are still at risk. It’s a cat and mouse game for virus/antivirus and if you’re the first person to see a virus in the wild, your anti-virus program cannot help you.

It should also be said, if you want a simple life and don’t want to waste half your horsepower and internet bandwidth with antivirus and antispyware solutions then I really do recommend looking at Apple Macintosh as they’re very easy to use, very reliable and do not suffer the same architectural flaws that Windows machines have. I expect to be burned in hot oil for making such a statement. And people will say ‘Of course Mac doesn’t have as many viruses because it doesn’t have the market share’ but whilst this is possibly part of the reason, Mac also has been built with a number of protections by virtue of its UNIX background.

Upgrade to WordPress 2.7.1

I thought I’d just drop a note on here to say that upgrading from WordPress 2.5 to WordPress 2.7.1 was an absolute breeze.

I followed the instructions at http://codex.wordpress.org/Upgrading_WordPress and to be honest it could not have been easier. I moved the original directory and unzipped the downloaded file, then copied across my theme.

To be fair I had no plugins installed previously, so that may have made it a little easier. But I have some plugins now 🙂

XP Logon, immediate Logoff…

There’s been a fair amount of articles written on the web regarding what can happen with certain spyware infiltrations which result in the immediate logoff effect. Such articles as this discuss various fixes for the problem but don’t show the way I managed to fix it earlier this week.

Basically after I’d run a spyware scan using SpyBot Search And Destroy I still couldn’t login. It turned out that the file mentioned all over these various articles, userinit.exe, had actually been deleted in my case. I booted up using the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows, copied the userinit.exe from there and it all ran nicely.

Maybe that helps someone.

Initial Thoughts on Vista

My ZD7000 finally gave me the irrits enough that, after careful consideration, I had to relegate it from ‘uber gaming / development machine’ to ‘remote desktop machine’ since it’d last about week before cooking another 1G SODIMM. I can’t afford to keep replacing them, and I think it’s largely heat related, despite being on a Targus Coolpad and having fresh heatsink paste applied to the CPU (which incidentally dropped the average working temperature about 4 degrees).

So the ZD7000 is now sitting on the desk. It’s sad when a machine with a 3.2GHz processor and a gigabyte of RAM doesn’t cut it any more! But, for development with JDeveloper and OracleXE it’s the RAM that’s king, and 1G is only a principality, not a kingdom.

With that in mind I (being in the PC Repair business) purchased all the bits to make a new desktop PC, since they can cope with the heat better and I have little need to be portable (at least whilst developing software) any more since all my dev work is done from my remote office. Desktop RAM is also considerably cheaper to so when the inevitable day arrives that 2Gig is no longer enough, I can double it to 4 fairly easily.

I ummed and arred (are those real words? no) about whether to stick with XP or to go to Vista, but as I have a couple of customers on Vista now I figured I ought to at least know my way around it in case they call me for support. Kind of helps you not to look stupid in front of them if you’ve actually used it. So I went for Vista Business.

I have to say, I’m actually glad I did. It’s got some really nice improvements over XP. One of the biggest for me is the removal of that awful ‘Documents and Settings’ directory and the replacement with a much more sensible ‘Users’ directory. All the directories inside this user directory have also dropped the ridiculous ‘My’ from everything. So ‘My Documents’ is now simply ‘Documents’. This may sound trivial, but when you’re using environments that really don’t like spaces in file names this makes things a lot easier.

I like the new File Open dialogs too. It defaults to your user directory, but has links to the Documents folder and the Downloads folder amongst others. If you find you’re regularly opening files from a particular directory, you can add that to the links on the left simply by dragging and dropping.

The Vista sidebar is one of those things that you start off thinking is just eye candy and is really not all that useful. Until you start using it. I love it. I’d been using Google Toolbar (to which the Vista Sidebar is strikingly similar) but it caused XP not to shut down properly, or gave some weird shutdown error that I never bothered to really figure out. I have the clock in the corner and the calendar gadget below it. It’s very nice to have that there all the time because beforehand I was constantly being asked ‘whats the date today?’ or thinking to myself, whats the date today. I also have a CPU and memory monitor sitting in the sidebar, and todays AUD to GBP exchange rate, and a GMail message notification gadget. Of course, if you’re using the sidebar it’s advisable to have a widescreen monitor because a normal 4:3 monitor would probably end up too squished.

IE7 and WMP11 never felt quite right under XP. They’d got the Vista look which was somehow just foreign under XP. But they fit in nicely and feel good under Vista. IE7 under Vista is considerably faster to load pages than Firefox – and I’ve not yet figured out how this could be – perhaps someone knows? Has Microsoft deliberately crippled Firefox, or does IE7 on Vista do something funky to speed things up? Maybe it’s just optimizing how it loads images.

I do pretty much all of my browsing with IE7 as a result. However, Windows Mail is a totally different story. It’s IMAP implementation is just broken – like most other implementations of mail clients that Microsoft have produced, IMAP is just an afterthought that never really works very well. In this case, you end up with a message that says ‘Is No Longer Available On The Server’ and Windows Mail strikes a red line through the message in the message list. Clicking the message gives a fake e-mail message stating that because IMAP can be accessed by multiple clients, perhaps one of those clients has deleted the message while you’re trying to view it. Not so, I only use one client at a time – but in any case, if that were so, why keep that silly ‘pointer’ in the message list. When you try to remove it manually you discover that you actually cannot remove it. No error is generated but the message stays there. The message IS available when I check using Webmail to the same IMAP account, and Thunderbird does not exhibit this. So I use Thunderbird now.

The UAC is something that gets a lot of mixed press. I do however like it, even though I’m not entirely familiar with how it works under the cover, the impression is that it does provide an extra layer of security by ensuring that even if you’re an administrator on your machine you can’t actually edit any files that belong to the system without gain the administrator token. Linux (or certainly Ubuntu) has had a similar system for years, called sudo or gksudo. I have experienced first hand it’s protective ability however, because as part of my developing I regularly need to change windowssystem32driversetchosts to add temporary names to the resolver. Under Vista I can no longer just click the item in Explorer and edit it because when I come to save the file it says ‘permission denied’. I’m just a user and the hosts file is now owned by the system. This prevents one of the common attack vectors of trojans, which is to overwrite the hosts file with duff addresses for, for example, Norton’s update site. Given this fairly simple example, I suspect other files that belong to Windows itself will also be protected. Of course, they’re only protected until you press the ‘allow’ button, so there needs to be some education of the average user to make sure they are actually expecting system files to be updated and don’t just blindly press the accept button.

And then of course there’s Aero. What’s to say about Aero – it’s nice. It feels polished and is largely just about the ‘chintz’ factor, but I do like it. I’m not sure it adds a great deal to productivity, although the generated thumbnails that appear when you hover over items in the taskbar, or when you press ALT-TAB to get to the task switcher are quite helpful. If you try out the WIN-TAB combination you probably won’t use the regular task switcher ever again.

The power management in Vista can be a bit of a maze to get right. However, when you do it’s worthwhile. I rarely switch my PC off now, prefering instead to simply ‘sleep’ it when I am finished. Or indeed letting it sleep because it’s determined that I haven’t used it for a while and it might as well go to sleep. When I want to start using the PC again I press the power button but instead of waiting minutes for it all to start up, it’s immediate. And I pretty much mean immediate too – maybe one or two seconds, but I generally haven’t had time to get my hand back to the keyboard before it’s back.

However, it did take a while to get the power management working properly. The first time I tried the PC never went properly to sleep, leaving all the fans on and sitting in some weird suspended animation but not actually asleep. I followed the advice of many articles on Google and switched off the wake by keyboard, wake by mouse and wake by network. It seems as though the one which did the trick was the keyboard. The next trick was to stop the PC from waking up at weird semi random intervals. After a day or so trying to track it down I realised that every time it woke up, it immediately declared there was new mail. So I checked, and lo and behold there was indeed new mail. So I suspected that although I’d told it not to wake by the network that it actually was. And it was. There’s 2 places you need to check when disabling wake by network. Under Device Manager, if you select the network card and choose Power Management you must uncheck the tick box that says ‘Allow this device to wake the computer’. I had already taken the tick out of this box, but for my particular network card there is another option under the Advanced tab, called ‘Wake from Shutdown’. This option had been set to Magic Pattern by default and changing this to Off resulted in my PC sleeping correctly and not waking up until I ask it to. I look forward to the reduction in electricity bill!

All in all I find Vista is very stable and the improvements are nice. It’s much more polished and professional than XP and the user experience just seems more fluid. I prefer using Vista to XP – just as I prefered using XP to 98 (though lets face it, 98 was just horrid). So if you’ve got a reasonably modern machine and want a new experience, give Vista a look.

Dead HP ZD7000

I’ve been the proud owner of an HP ZD7000 for close to 3 years now. It’s been a fantastic laptop and fortunately it had the nVidia Geforce 5600FX chip for graphics instead of the 5700, as the 5700 had a lot of problems which until recently were largely denied by HP. However, mine has been a great workhorse. It’s my desktop PC and portable PC (because you can hardly call it a laptop, unless you’ve got a really big lap) in one, and as a Java Developer I spend a lot of time in front of it – and it does a lot of hard work compiling and building J2EE apps using JDeveloper pretty much every day for those past 3 years.

That was until last week when it started acting up. I’d recently installed Ubuntu and had thought that something that Linux was doing was causing it to have a little paddy on me, particularly since I was running the high performance nVidia drivers and playing Eve Online on Ubuntu. Playing games on any PC requires significantly more power than browsing the web or writing Word documents. The graphics card gets a lot hotter, which in a normal PC is no big deal, the fans can cope. On a laptop you need some significant extra cooling to cope, particularly on the ZD7000 if you’ve got the GeForce 5700 because that’s basically what will fry it. With that in mind I put the laptop onto an Akasa Coolpad. It’s worked well in the past and keeps the laptop running quite a bit cooler than without it.

But on Friday it started hanging in Ubuntu, without doing anything. I uninstalled Ubuntu and reverted to Windows XP since that  seemed to be more stable previously. Then a couple of times Windows spontaneously shut itself down. Since I’ve had this problem in the past with the graphics drivers when running on the battery, I wondered if it was the latest nVidia drivers that I had recently installed. So I reverted back to the stock drivers that came from HP and gave that a try.

And then I got a Blue Screen Of Death with a Stop 0x50. After rebooting and agreeing to send the crash analysis to Microsoft it came back and said that dodgy memory was possibly the answer. So I ran the Windows Memory Advisor and almost immediately it crashed. So I took the RAM stick out and rebooted and ran the Windows Memory Advisor again. This time it worked a treat, so I was rapt.

Except that the laptop continued to just randomly shut itself down after about 20 minutes of use. I suspected maybe the battery was having something to do with it because it had always done that before when running on battery. So I took the battery out and ran it. It seemed to last a bit longer, but still crashed – and I was only browsing the web with Firefox!

This was Friday morning. Fast forward to Friday evening and I was beginning to suspect that my ZD7000 was having the same problem as many others that are listed on the ZD7000 forums. I wondered if it was the motherboard that had died, or at least if the Geforce FX5600 had finally given up after so many hours of Eve Online and running at 58 degrees Celsius for half it’s life. I’d ran the Windows Memory Advisor on the remaining memory in the laptop and that had come back clear, so it really pointed to a failing motherboard. Every 10 minutes or so the laptop would just switch itself off – no warning, just bzzzzoooooooo, down it went. Dead. It’d re-power up after a few seconds, and then 10 minutes later, it’d switch off again.

It makes developing any software pretty difficult – and you definitely don’t want to be fighting a bunch of Serpentis or Angel Cartel NPCs when it switches off (trust me, even in a Domi you take a bit of a hammering when the PC suddenly disconnects before the Eve cluster notices and warps you away).

I checked on eBay for ZD7000 motherboards and found a few in the US for around $299 – which is a lot better than having to buy a whole new PC or laptop. Most of them were declared dead and were only being sold for spares, but some worked.

And then I had the brainwave that perhaps, just perhaps, if I was very lucky – the problem might be a second dodgy RAM stick. It seemed unlikely but it was worth a try. So I removed the second one too and replaced it with a 512M stick from another laptop that I haven’t used in a while. Then I left it running Passmark Burn In Test while I went out and did real life stuff (yes, I do have a real life too!). I figured that if it couldn’t browse the web for 20 minutes with the other RAM then there was no way it would run BIT for a couple of hours if it still had the same problem.

Somewhat to my surprise, it was still running 4 hours later. The core temperature was running at 58 degrees and the fans sounded like a jet engine on takeoff, but it was still running.

And it’s stayed running today too.

So, if you have a ZD7000 that is apparently dead, or dies regularly – I’d thoroughly recommend putting some known good RAM in it (and remove ALL the RAM it currently has in it first) before you decide that the motherboard is dead. These symptoms of mine looked very much like a failing motherboard.  Don’t throw out that awesome laptop until you’ve checked the memory!