Friday, June 12, 2009

Israel Laptop Center shows how service is done

I wanted to arrange a laptop for our good friend Avi (shown centre) when she moved to Israel. Not only did we need to arrange and English/Hebrew keyboard (she does translations and Hebrew lessons) but we needed reliable installation and delivery to a town in Northern Israel. Of course the major retailers in South Africa were all completely clueless about Hebrew keyboards, especially for laptops, and the courier fees would have been hectic.
I made enquiries on various web sites, and received an extremely helpful and considerate answer from Judah at the Laptop Center. He recommended a Toshiba laptop because of its quality and guarantee period, and further offered to save us money by using the cheaper Office Home and Student edition.
At all stages they were polite, efficient and helpful, and the laptop has arrived at its destination safely. I wish there were businesses like this in South Africa. When asked they suggested how we could rent a 3G Broadband connection from IL Wireless Rentals, who offered to send the 3G modem to the Laptop Center to reduce courier fees. We eventually decided on a different approach, but I am impressed by the efficiency and helpfulness of both companies, and can heartily recommend them to anyone living in or travelling to Israel.

Monday, June 08, 2009

How long does it take to reboot your PC?

I am always amused by "benchmarks" that measure how long it takes to shut down or start up a PC. Think about it: how do you accurately measure the time it takes to shut down a PC? With a stopwatch? You certainly can't do it with software, since the software won't be running when the shutdown is complete.
Similarly, how do you know when a PC has finished starting up? How do you know what time it was switched on? As far as I know there is no counter in the processor that says how long the CPU has been running. What we do have is an accurate clock, which can provide the number of seconds and milliseconds since midnight.
Enter the Reboot Timer: a free utility that notes the current time, stores it in the registry, and then reboots the machine. Because there is a shortcut to the program in the Startup menu, once the PC restarts the program can compare the current time with the stored one, and calculate a time difference. The screen shot shows that it took my laptop 2 minutes and 32.09 seconds to reboot.
Now I can use this to determine the time saving achieved by defrag programs or other software that claims to "improve" a PC's startup time. I can also use it to measure how long a boot time defrag takes.
Update Wed 10 June: PerfectDisk 10 Professional on my Vista 64-bit machine improved the average boot time of the machine by 7.3%. I have nothing to compare that to, but it is an improvement of 6 seconds. More results will follow as they become available.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Windows Vista Laptop Survival Guide

Here is my collection of utilities and "must have" programs in order to keep a newbie's Windows Vista laptop in good shape. I am writing this from my experience with several laptops, including my own Vista machine. I have put my money where my mouth is, having purchased a Toshiba laptop from the Laptop Center in Israel, for a friend who is moving to Israel from South Africa. Since I can no longer provide her with computer support, this is what I have arranged for her machine.

NUAC LogoThe first item to install is the Norton User Account Control utility, in order to deal with those annoying UAC popups that plague Vista users. It doesn't make them go away, but it can remember what applications you agree to run, and so not bother you every time you use it. Say goodbye to the Microsoft User Annoyance Control ;-) 1,180,672 bytes. Reason*: when you are setting up the machine, you can disable the UAC messages that pop up regularly, so they don't bother the user any more.
CCleaner SetupNext, install CCleaner. This utility can keep your system clean and tidy, find registry problems, and assist in disabling all those weird utilities that load when Windows starts. When installing, make sure you unselect the Yahoo toolbar, as shown above. 3,247,736 bytes. Reason*: you can set up the defaults once, and then show the user how to "Run CCleaner" from time to time, or just set it to run automatically.
Vista Battery SaverI have mentioned the Vista Battery Saver utility before, and it really seems to be making a difference to the lifespan of my laptop batteries, in addition to saving power. Battery life is extended by using less power, even when your laptop is running off mains. 965,120 bytes. Reason*: set it up to save power, and then tell the user not to play with the settings.
Hard Drive temperature is also very important, and HDTune monitors the temperature of your hard drive, and warns you if the drive temperature is getting near danger levels. In order to use it, you need to set it to start up when you log on, which is explained here. Use the free version 2.55 (642,632 bytes). Reason*: once it's set to run, tell the user what to do if the hard drive gets too hot.
SpinRite is not a utility you install. You buy it, download it (196,608 bytes) and create a boot CD from the .iso image it creates. If you don't have software to do this, use the free CDBurnerXP utility (3,158,425 bytes). Once you have the bootable CD, boot up from it and run SpinRite in "Maintenance Mode" every 4 months or so. It's the best US$89 you'll ever spend. While refreshing the magnetic signal on the drive, it also recovers data from any unreadable sectors, and warns the drive of any impending data loss. Most people only use it when they have already lost data, but SpinRite is best at preventing data loss and warning you about a drive that is about to fail. There is no trial version, so they offer an unconditional money-back guarantee. When Penny's HP laptop blocked all low-level access to her drive, they offered to refund me. I refused, because I use the product on other drives. Download size is tiny. Reason*: Once the boot disk has been made, show the user what to do once every 4 months. If they forget (they probably will) then at least the disk is available for data recovery when required.

Foxit ReaderIf your PC came with the Adobe Reader preinstalled, the best thing to do is uninstall it. After all, do you really want 145MB of insecure bloatware on your machine? Then, download the Foxit Reader instead. It's a 3,738,880 byte download (compared to 26,739,584 bytes for Adobe Reader 9.1) and it loads really fast when you want to open a PDF file. Remember to go to Edit->Preferences->JavaScript and DISABLE Javascript to protect your machine from viruses and other malware. Reason*: Once it's installed and Javascript is turned off, the user doesn't have to do anything special to view PDF files more securely than the Adobe Reader.
PlaysoundThe PlaySound utility isn't going to save the world, or your laptop. But it is a way of reminding you to slow down a bit, and give your PC a chance to get organised. Select the option of installing a startup shortcut, and you'll get the progress bar shown here whenever you log on. It encourages you to wait while your laptop software settles down. 1,736,704 bytes. Reason*: While the PC starts up it needs the user to leave it alone. You can get weird error conditions if you try to rush the machine. Rather wait for it to stabilize before trying to use it.

You also need a good antivirus program, and I can think of nothing better than the ESET NOD32 Antivirus package. It is fast, lightweight, has a good updating mechanism, and it works. I've had hassles with other antivirus programs, but not this one. If you want to get rid of spam, then you may consider upgrading to their ESET Smart Security program instead, or just purchase a license for SpamFighter. I used SpamFighter for a year before the ESET Smart Security product came out, and it gave me a good feeling nuking spam from my inbox, knowing that it was learning about the spam and blocking it from other inboxes as well. Reason*: install the antivirus and it gets on with the job. No user intervention required, unless a message appears.

Puran DefragFinally, you need a defrag program to keep your laptop hard drive properly organised. If you need a freebie, then use a combination of UltraDefrag for a boot time defrag, and JkDefrag 3.36 for the screen saver defrag. But you'll need to configure it properly. Rather splash out US$19.95 and get Puran Defrag 6. It's effective, simple to use, and has all the options you need. 2,428,928 bytes. While PerfectDisk may have won all the awards, and I haven't tested all the defrag programs yet, PuranDefrag is installed on my laptop and Penny's, and it is doing a great job. It is set up to do a boot-time defrag every Sunday morning, and it does a simple file defrag every 6 hours when the machine is in use, should this be required. Reason*: Set up the automatic defrag and let the user get on with more important things.

*I have supplied reasons why these products are newbie-safe. There are plenty of power utilities for power users, but I wouldn't install these on machines where the user barely knows how to use Word or a browser. There is such a thing as feature-overload ;-) and "No User Intervention Required" is always helpful.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Interim Benchmark Results

It has taken 3 weeks to arrive at these results, partly because of the time it takes to run the tests, and partly because of interruptions. Nonetheless, in the interests of full disclosure, I figured it would be best to publish the raw benchmark results before testing any of the defrag programs.
I have cycled through 3 different systems: Windows XP Professional, Windows Vista Home Basic 32-bit, and Windows Home Basic 64-bit. I have omitted the hIOmon results because I am still learning how to use this amazing software, and also I'm not sure what exactly to measure. The results of the fragmented systems are to be found in PDF printouts of an Excel spreadsheet:
Click on the links to see the PDF files, or right-click to save them. As soon as the disk image backup is completed, I will start testing PerfectDisk 10 Professional. Stand by for results in the next few weeks. You can find the current status of the tests by looking at the "current status" message in the left margin of this blog. I update it as the status changes.
Update 9 June 2009: I have included the reboot time for Vista 64, and will add in the other times as they become available.