Monday, December 31, 2007

eeePC and other 2007 final stuff

A short note on the eeePC from ASUS - I have spent some time playing with one and it is quite nice - the keyboard and trackpad are very small but you can get used to that after some time. The main problem is just as I predicted - the screen - while some people might find it usable I am afraid it is way too small for me - I might consider it when a version with a 10-12 inch screen model will be available but I will not hold my breath ... which gets me to my next point - why that small hit was coming from Asus and not Dell or Apple or somebody else ?

It is not since Asus are incredibly innovative - while they are actually building/trying A LOT more models than Dell and Apple COMBINED, their general strategy only had mixed/unimpressive results.

And just like Dell, Asus does not really have any chance to sell stuff based on myths (and certainly unlike Apple, which is 90% based on that) - the difference is that Asus already knows that while Dell is still 'trying' with stupid choices like the recent pricing on the latitude XT :)

The real reason why Asus managed to get this small gem (still unfinished IMHO but there are like 350000 people out there that tend to disagree with me on this point) is that they didn't have a huge clue on the final results (they have like over 10 small notebook models, from 7 to 10 to 11 to 12 to 13.3 inch screens, prices from 300 US$ to 2000 US$) but they had little market to 'defend' - so instead of thinking how NOT to launch something new, they just went for it and got a very impressive start together with a decent amount of followers!

Make no mistake - we still do not know if on the long term Asus is more committed to future happy customers rather than making a quick buck - and we will see that in less than 12 months if new models with at least a 10'' display, 2 GB RAM and a 16-32 GB solid-state disk will become available. And the absolutely first thing to fix will be the pathetic bus underclocking (which seems more like a dirty fix for a major motherboard-design fu*kup).

Another small observation - I find quite impressive the preloaded Xandros Linux and IMHO you should first give it a try before installing other stuff! But more about that eeePC in a future post.

Surprisingly the major loser in the subnotebook marketplace might not be Dell (which might still sell a few highly overpriced tablets to some government) but instead Apple - which will now see some serious competition already establishing itself in this area just a few months before Apple was probably considering an entry...

Let's finish the last post of the year with a quick review of my 2007 predictions - while most of the predictions were rather generic I can claim at least 9 out of 10 to be hits - even if the iPhone had surprisingly good sales (but probably less than 20% of those activated with AT&T) the global market share is like 0.5% and the only miss was the part with the drop in the stock of the big companies - but that is not a matter of IF and instead a matter of WHEN - certain things have moved at a much slower rate but I still expect to see that precise prediction coming true very soon!!!

That being said - 2008 will bring many interesting new things so let's hope we'll all be able to enjoy those to the max!

Friday, December 28, 2007

My own 'best of 2007' ...

This is somehow of an anniversary post (since the blog will just make it to the two years mark from the beginning) - and what better way to mark the past than to remember the best of it - in this case a rather mixed bag of things that I really liked during 2007 - some (very few) of them might actually be slightly older but I just managed to enjoy them during this year so it counts in my book :)

I will start with a very 'populist' subject - movies - it seems however that the vast majority of the movies of 2007 were commercial trash and remakes, so there is not a huge list of titles that I really liked ...

In the third position there is a pair of (older) russian films - 'Night watch' and 'Day watch' (in this order) - both have a rather special touch, great acting and a strong moral point (even if there is also some amount of 'action') ... and I would also say a certain degree of black humor that might not be entirely visible for people that have not experienced communism first-hand.

Second-best was 'Next' - and even that one does not score very high despite the fact that I really like Biel and Cage, not to mention Philip K Dick ...

The best I saw during 2007 was however 'The Prestige' - that one was from 2006 but I never managed to see it then, and I really liked so it deservingly gets the top spot for 2007 ...

On series I can only be very brief and recommend from the newcomers of 2007 'Pushing Daisies' and 'The Big Bang Theory', and for 2008 I might keep an eye on 'New Amsterdam' and 'Eli Stone' (and all which will survive in 2008 will join my older favorites 'How I Met Your Mother' and 'House M.D.').

On books I will just have to admit that I was not very 'effective' and among the titles that I managed to finish there is just one that I would recommend - but that one is memorable indeed - it is 'Spin' by Robert Charles Wilson (and is from 2005 when it also got the Hugo award) - there is something 'just right' about it and a certain 'shock of reality' that is not often found in a SF book ... I just can't wait to have the time to read Axis :)

Now moving from the world of ideas to the more material (and materialistic) world - after quite a number of years when 'iPod killers' failed to actually do so, 2007 was the year when the iPod was actually stopped - it was not by a single product but instead by many - like Samsung YP-U3 and YP-K3 and a few of the Sandisk models on the low-cost end, by Archos on the video end plus of course the iPhone itself - and while Zune was not yet any type of threat it was growing while the iPod market share was shrinking ...

Nevertheless the raising gadget of the year was the iPhone - and I consider it an important step for this year since first it exposed Apple as a greedy monopolist ready to take advantage of the fans, but also the incredible lack of openness from the mobile phone market on which actually the Apple entry was (unexpectedly from one of the worst monopolists of all times) a step forward!

I would have liked to name a full Latitude XT Tablet PC configuration for around 1500-2000 US$ as the best notebook of the year - but such a configuration will go around 3500 US$ and in that case I will have to just recommend looking elsewhere - Lenovo X61T or Toshiba for tablets, the latest Panasonic W/Y series for traditional notebooks.

A very serious end-of-the-year hit was Asus EEE which might have been my choice as subnotebook of the year ... if it had at least a 10'' screen (which is perfectly possible in the same form factor).

However my absolute low-cost notebook device of the year is the XO Laptop (or the One Laptop Per Child = OLPC) - the result of hard work from many, many gifted people (from which the best known is of course Nicholas Negroponte from MIT). Some of the big names in the industry - Intel, Microsoft, even Apple which tried to replace the open-source OS part - desperately tried to sink the project (which was certainly threatening the establishment) but at the end of 2007 we can finally start to see it as a major success.

The browser raising most in 2007 is of course Mozilla Firefox - but I believe that the need for better use of multiple threads / processes (and a very special care for scripting on those) might be the most serious restriction for future growth.

I have left at the very end the 'operating system software' - it was a full year with both Microsoft and Apple launching new major products so you would expect the fight to be tough ... and it certainly was, but it was the battle for the last place :) Vista was just as I predicted in the first day of 2006 - but is probably heading in the right direction now and in 2008 I see it starting to grow after SP1 - but that does not change the fact that in 2007 it was mostly a flop that was 'dwarfed' by the half-of-decade-old XP (which will still continue to be a huge factor in 2008 after SP3).

Leopard was also far from what the hype was promising - it still is a HUGE failure on the older PowerPC architecture (which in itself was more hype than substance) but with the 10.5.2 update I also expect a small improvement (after all I believe like 300 things will be fixed, so people claiming it was a huge hit and that Microsoft should somehow learn from Apple are probably delusional - Apple had like 8 TOTAL hardware configurations to cover and it still totally messed one of them (iMac) and all PowerPC stuff was already messed - so people should rather think about how Vista is running on over a HUNDRED totally different configurations and how many of those it should completely trash before becoming the equal of the Leoptard :) (and I am not speaking of the old 486 that you found in the attic in the same way I am not speaking about running 10.5 on let's say a G3...)

So at this point you might be wondering which was the operating system for 2007 ... and the answer is Linux generally and Ubuntu in particular - even if at the start of the year I was FAR from impressed, the recent Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon was a HUGE step forward (especially for the average user) and it deserves the title of the best OS product of 2007 !!!

That being said I expect a lot of interesting new things in 2008 (I might try again to predict some of them in the very first day of the new year) and I hope that everybody will have a very happy new year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Bashing in the snow :)

Just a very quick post with some of the recent disappointments - on the very first position is the price of the new Dell Latitude XT Tablet PC - while the computer itself is not bad the price is totally unrealistic and stupid - the only two possible explanations that I can find so far is that Dell executives are totally losing it (like some of the managers from companies that no longer exist today but not long ago thought people would pay anything for their average products) or that they have some huge (probably government or similar) order that was already 'price-negotiated' at something like '40% under retail price' - so for the next 3 months or so the retail price would just be inflated 40% :(

That being said I still find the XT a little too heavy for a model at that price point and certainly the 'start configuration' at 2500 US$ with a 40 GB HDD is only a joke :( At that price point I would have also expected to find the far more interesting L-series of CPUs - for about 2200 US$ I can get a Thinkpad X61T with Core2Duo L7500 LV (1.6GHz, 4MB L2, 800MHz FSB), 2 GB RAM and 160 GB HDD so paying 2500 US$ for the slightly HEAVIER Dell with Solo ULV U2100 (1.06GHz, 1-2MB L2, 533Mhz FSB), 1 GB RAM and 40(???) GB HDD must be a typo something !!! But no problem - I just guess people will discover that the new Lenovo is (probably) almost as good as the old IBM at a LOT better price and certainly with a price TWICE better than the Dell Latitude XT ...

I will also add a link to some other very interesting stories - first of all about how Apple is doing their own 'shoot in the foot' stupid stuff (or how your personal info belongs to Apple and for an inflated price you get a HDD that very likely isn't even new) and I could not miss that the iPhone has found its true purpose (slightly NSFW) :)

I will end with the link to something that seems to have been mostly a publicity hoax - about how Apple (after forcing to close ThinkSecret) was trying to close 'fake Steve Jobs' - the problem is just that fake Steve was no longer so funny any more, and was actually looking more and more like a mactard on the Apple payroll so ...

In the next post I'll take a look at the other end of the scale - best stuff from 2007!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Geek fun = more testing on the Linux offer of the fall 2007

There were quite some busy weeks and I believe that some of the latest 'Linux experiments' on the Dell Latitude X300 (1.1 GB RAM) and Apple iBook (1 GB RAM) might have not been reported on time - so I will try to fix that right here :)

Since Mandriva 2008 was lacking a little and I already had a working Ubuntu installation on the X300 where I could fall-back at any time (as you probably know from
here), I decided that I could also play a little with some of the other famous distributions that were released more or less recently - the 'extra twist' was that at about the same time I was also taking a look on some PowerPC installation on the not so old iBook G4 that was so lacking in speed in Leopard - on that one I already had my old Tiger installation placed on an external Firewire HDD (a 2.5'' HDD - which means that it can be perfectly powered over 1394 but also means similar performance to the internal IDE HDD or slower, and by far slower than an external 3.5'' 7200 RPM cheap disk ...) but there was enough space left on that drive so I decided to have a look on how well Linux could run from an external drive...

So I first decided to go with Fedora 8 for x86 and PPC, and also Ubuntu for PPC so together with the existing Ubuntu x86 I could have a nice 2x2 matrix and I could enjoy some simple oranges-to-oranges and apples-to-apples comparisons (pun intended :) ).

I have started with Ubuntu LiveCD on PPC (mostly since I already had some experience from the x86 installations) and on the X300 I also started the Fedora 8 LiveCD (in order to 'multitask' a little).

Fedora 8 i386 LiveCD was looking very promising - the kernel was newer than the one in Ubuntu so I had high hopes, and on top of that I liked the default theme and colors from Fedora A LOT better than the Ubuntu combinations - the installation went smooth and things were initially looking good!

On the iBook the Ubuntu installation also started well - to boot from a CD on the iBook you must press and hold the <c> key just after starting the computer (or press and hold the <option> key and then select from the list). The LiveCD came up OK and PowerPC Ubuntu was looking just like the x86 version - and the installation started well and went OK up to almost the end - unfortunately the only problem was that at the very end it complained about something related to detecting the boot device (which was not the internal HDD, but instead an external 1394 HDD) and that was pretty much it ... it was never able to boot by itself :((

The help came from the next-installed-Linux = Fedora PPC - that one was also having some serious problems (I believe the default-installed kernel was not built to boot from FireWire) but using the Fedora CD I was somehow able in the end to work around yaboot problems and finally be able to boot the Ubuntu installation :)

At this point on the x86 front I was somehow happy for a day or so with Fedora - it was looking very polished (I also really liked the slowly-changing backgrounds) ... until I had the time to actually try to activate WiFi and suspend/resume, at which point I started to notice that things were far from perfect - later I have read some posts that during that first week after launch there were some serious problem with the update servers but my experience was VERY frustrating and when placed together with the problems in the PowerPC version I decided it was too much ... so Fedora was for the moment gone (but if I have the time I will certainly take another look to the next release in a few months).

The only other widespread distribution with both PPC and x86 versions was OpenSUSE 10.3 - so the plan was changed towards doing the same 2 * 2 matrix, but this time with Ubuntu and OpenSUSE 10.3 :)

The first problem was that surprisingly the OpenSUSE 10.3 LiveCD can not boot from an USB drive (as is the case in X300 notebooks) - so for that one I had to use the 'normal setup DVD' - and I have used the same type of setup for PowerPC (I believe that no OpenSUSE LIVE CD exists for PPC anyway). Both the x86 setup and the PPC setup were without further problems and in the end I got my 2 * 2 test matrix!

Now a few ideas that could help other people doing similar installations - the first thing that you should know is about file systems and 'partition styles/labels' - probably most people interested in computers already know that you can format a 'disk' (actually a partition/slice) in just one of the many possible 'file systems' and different operating systems might see it as read-write, read-only or not at all depending on the precise combination of OS and file-system. At this point (December 2007) Linux is by far the most competent OS in this regard - you can write OK on almost any type of partition including FAT/FAT32 (old DOS/Windows 9x), NTFS (new Windows) and HFS (old Mac) but in order to write on HFS+ (new Mac) you might need to disable journaling first! OSX 10.4 and 10.5 also seem to be able to read NTFS (but so far not write), read-write FAT/FAT32 and also can read-write EXT2/EXT3 (Linux) partition with
ext2fsx. Under Windows 2000/XP the EXT2/EXT3 (Linux) partitions can be read/write with ext2ifs and ext2fsd (can be somehow risky but I had very good results with ext2ifs_1.10c). The bottom line is that so far the absolute safest way to 'share files' is by using FAT32 (but permissions will be lost and files can not get past 2 GB). Another safe option seems to be Samba (windows-style network file sharing) and maybe even EXT2/3 !!!

However there is another tricky point on cross-sharing disks - the 'partition styles/labels' - the PC-style partitioning is generally the best supported with the exception of old PowerPC systems that can only boot from disks with Apple partitioning style (which is not normally recognized by Windows, so plugging an external 1394 disk with that partition style in Windows or connecting an Mac in target mode will not 'work'). Again, the most versatile is Linux, which can recognize and create both styles even when booted from a LiveCD :)

Booting Linux is also more complex/trickier on Apple (and especially PowerPC) machines - normally a very small (1 megabyte, 0.001 GByte) hidden HFS partition is created and from there a boot-loader called yaboot is started, which then will boot Linux itself - but that process is nowhere near the power of GRUB that you can use on a normal x86 machine :) Anyway on x86 all recent distributions get a 10 on setting the bootloader, but on the iBook only SUSE managed to handle installing a boot-loader OK and then booting OK from that - Ubuntu got an error installing the boot-loader on an external 1394 disk and Fedora 8 did not have support for FireWire booting :(

The Linux boot time is OK under PowerPC - Ubuntu seems to be slightly faster but SUSE is also OK. Both are slower than Tiger but in the same range as Leopard (or close enough). On the Dell X300 Ubuntu is also the fastest Linux in this recent tests (also faster than the Ubuntu on iBook) but not as fast as XP :) (and maybe soon I'll also be able to say how fast Vista will boot on X300, but I don't hold my breath on that :) )

One part that I liked to experiment with was the '3D window manager' - I am 99.99% happy with Compiz/Fusion on Ubuntu but on x86 SUSE I also decided to get the latest 'development builds' in order to get 'separate wallpapers' and in the end that was perfectly possible as you can see in the screenshot from the right (click on it for the full image) - but it was far from simple and generally the degree of integration in SUSE does not seem to be as advanced as in Ubuntu (among other things only Emerald window manager seems to be stable enough while both GTK and KDE default window managers will sometimes crash; another potential problem is that a patched Nautilus is needed for the 'separate wallpapers' trick so overall that might be less than ideal at this point and as a result I never tried to achieve the same results under Ubuntu). I was not aiming so hight on the PPC 3D eye candy and I believe that on SUSE I never activated the 3D part, but on Ubuntu PPC it seems to work as well as on Ubuntu x86 and both are more usable / spectacular in this regard that Vista or OSX (and that is especially nice since we speak about two rather old computers - rather underpowered after modern standards).

One small gizmo that I liked a lot under SUSE is the 'international clock applet' - you can see it on the second screenshot - but after some searching I was also able to add it to Ubuntu from here! (it seems to be a Novell contribution that looks to be also very well received on Fedora where some extensions are already planned). Also in the screenshot - the SUSE 'Start Menu' which probably might look a lot more friendly to people that have only seen Windows before than the default Ubuntu layout (with the menu on top) and also the top of the YAST window (with the Emerald decorations and transparent borders).

The equivalent screenshot for KDE is also here - this one is with the default wallpaper and the green OpenSUSE 10.3 theme - generally is very nice how SUSE implemented the entire green theme in both KDE and GNOME and the similarities also go to the 'Start Menu' positioning - but while the KDE version is somehow more Vista-like, I consider it less usable this way (cascading menus might not be very easy for 'mouse beginners' but it is CERTAINLY faster for power users).

Another feature that I first discovered by accident on KDE under PowerPC OpenSUSE was the 'multi-finger trackpad' - a two-finger tap is actually a middle-click and a three-finger tap is the right-click - OBVIOUSLY that should have been REVERSED (the far more useful right-click should have been generated with the simpler two-finger tap), but the feature is VERY HANDY on the iBook (where 'engineering for morons' was more important than actual 'usability for normal / power users', and also where the bottom-right-corner-tap does not seem to work). The very good news are that the same feature was also present under PowerPC Ubuntu (and also under both SUSE and Ubuntu on x86, but on the Latitude that is far less of a problem since the bottom-right-corner-tap does work very well and is more convenient - and you also have two real buttons anyway). In case on your PowerPC Linux none of the above tricks work I believe you might need to use F12 for right-click and eventually F11 for middle-click.

Wireless connections might still be somehow tricky for certain configurations - the X300 is using a Broadcom 4324 a/b/g that has NEVER worked OK with any native Linux driver - however it works VERY well using ndiswrapper on all the Linux distributions that I have tested this year - setting ndiswrapper can be somehow trickier in certain conditions (for instance on the latest Mandriva) but usually is not a problem (but first you need to blacklist bcm43xx) - and as a result it pretty much worked from the first attempt under both Ubuntu and SUSE (on Fedora there was a problem with updates/repositories and they are rather strict on non-open drivers so I never got that one working in the short interval while I looked at it).

The wireless adapter in the iBook is a Broadcom 4318 but ndiswrapper is not an option on the PowerPC architecture - so I was a little afraid. Getting that to work was a long struggle but in the end I got that working quite well under Ubuntu and acceptable under OpenSUSE - just remember that with WEP 4318 seems to only work in Linux PPC with 'open authentication' and not with 'shared authentication' (which also is not more secure so there is not a huge point in using it).

There is however a small problem with the SUSE 'network manager' - under both PPC and x86 that one is sometimes VERY tricky and I have even seen it once refusing to connect with the wired ethernet cable - the Ubuntu version was A LOT better!

However that is not the SUSE deal-breaker - the HUGE problem with OpenSUSE is the actual 'package/updates manager' - it is INCREDIBLY SLOW and some of the related programs that have a GUI are incredibly intrusive and badly designed, popping windows and stealing focus all the time. Even only the 'initial startup update check' is able to get the CPU to 100% for quite some time and generally the entire experience can become very unpleasant if you are used with the speed and efectiveness of the Debian package management utilities (which are also used by Ubuntu). Also Mandriva was almost as good so maybe I was a little spoiled before trying SUSE, but in the end I can't see myself using it on the long run :(

Always a very tricky part in Linux is the power management / suspend / hibernate / resume - and in this case things are even further complicated on the proprietary iBook by the use of the external FireWire disk - as you remember Fedora wasn't even able to start and both Ubuntu and OpenSUSE 10.3 can only boot after a COLD START - it seems that a warm start can mess some things in the 1394 part (and also in the video init part, which I could also see with the Tiger original setup disk!)

On the iBook so far only OSX Tiger seems to be able to suspend / hibernate / resume OK, OSX Leopard is OK on suspend but is messing things after resuming from hibernation (which might be excused from Linux but not from the latest over-hyped Apple fad) and both of the major OSX versions seem to keep the FireWire devices powered when in 'Sleep state' so it might be possible that the FireWire commands to get disks to sleep might not be a standard after all :(

Neither Open SUSE nor Ubuntu are able to suspend or hibernate on the iBook - the bcm43xx driver might be part of the problem (it certainly is on the X300, but on the iBook there is no ndiswrapper alternative) - actually SUSE only lists a command to suspend to disk and after activating that it gives an error but does nothing bad, while Ubuntu only lists a command to suspend to RAM which seems to be perfectly executed ... it only has fatal problems when trying to resume from that state :)

On the Latitude X300 both Ubuntu and SUSE will suspend / hibernate / resume just fine, but with a number of tricks (the very first one being that in my configurations bcm43xx must be blacklisted, the second is that on Ubuntu it is much better to NOT use the default new experimental modesetting Intel video driver) - and a nice touch is that on hibernate SUSE is also updating the GRUB configuration so that it will directly restore from that point. Suspend/resume seems a tad quicker on Ubuntu than on SUSE (and almost as fast as the one in XP, which is as good as the one in OSX Tiger on iBook). On OpenSUSE there is also one extra trick involved since s2ram needs extra parameters - so I had to search a lot on the net before learning that I have to create a file /etc/pm/config.d/s2ram and add a line S2RAM_OPTS=" -f -m" there in order to have everything working perfectly!

The overall impression was quite positive and on the Latitude X300 Ubuntu is certainly staying on the internal disk, SUSE only until the next interesting Linux to test and for the moment I am keeping both Ubuntu and OpenSUSE on the small external HDD together with the old OSX Tiger just since it seems such an advanced PowerPC recovery HDD :)

One final note - a small rule that I have with my reviews is that at least one week must be spent using mostly the stuff that is reviewed before actually starting to write about it - that (and the fact that I also have real work to do) explains why most of my posts seem somehow delayed when compared with some of the hyper-optimistic articles made for money / services / self-promotion - when for instance people claim that
Leopard is faster you have to wonder if they have EVER really tested it on a PowerBook/iBook ... but I guess that the full truth might have not been so easy on the fanboys, which in turn would have just went to other sites depriving the site/author of revenues ... so everybody wins if we just live in a fantasy world without any connection to the reality ... oh well, everybody wins except for the morons tricked by the hype - but in the long term even that is a good thing since certain people only learn by paying hard :)

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Small update on hdparm and smartctl

1. There are now versions of both programs not only for various *nix-exs but also for Windows - for instance ! (so being lazy in regard to Linux is no longer an excuse :) )

2. With certain HDD models (especially notebook drives) the power-management settings (for the less experienced - think unexpected disk noise, premature disk failure and so on) can be very complex - I have previously seen a Samsung disk where 'hdparm -B' and 'hdparm -M' were never able to disable the frantic head loading/unloading no matter the combination of values, but instead 'smartctl -o on' was able to improve things a lot; a much more recent Western Digital also had similar problems which this time could be also seen in Windows (at a slightly more reduced scale) - the ideal combination for that WD1200BEVE is so far 'hdparm -B 255' and 'hdparm -M 254' ... if you have more time you should experiment with other values - on an older disk I had something like below in a Ubuntu startup script ...

hdparm -B 248 -S 61 -M 128 /dev/sda
echo 30000 > /proc/sys/vm/dirty_writeback_centisecs
echo 8 > /proc/sys/vm/dirty_background_ratio
echo 24000 > /proc/sys/vm/dirty_expire_centisecs

It looks like some disks (the above WD1200BEVE among them) can be very tricky in regard to handling advanced power management - setting a normal value with 'hdparm -B nn' under both Windows and Linux will work just fine ... UNTIL the next standby !!! After that the advanced power management value is set to 128 under both Linux and Windows - which is less than desirable :(
Under Ubuntu the fix was the easiest - just one more symbolic link to my custom hdparm-B script - this one as /etc/acpi/resume.d/ :) I will have to see the equivalent under SUSE 10.3 but the tricky part might be Windows - I might need a small program to stay in the tray and listen to power-management events and then run a command (each time after a resume or only when on AC ?). Ideally that program should be a service but for the moment that seems a little too much ...
Another interesting question might be if the hdparm -B parameter should actually be 16 bit (and the high bits somehow control the value after suspend/resume) ?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

More HDD woes ... and some from DRM :)

As a result of some of my previous posts I now got a name in my circles as the 'guy to ask about notebook HDD problems' - which resulted in actually seeing a number of weird HDD problems and even being paid to solve such problems for other people - and this short post will be about small tricks that I have learned with a number of such disk operations.

First a short note on the actual HDD brands - it is VERY hard to say in advance that a specific HDD model will be better over time than another similar model - generally each company might have good models and bad models and even good batches and bad batches, but almost always the 'verdict' can only be seen after more than a year of use and the statistical data is very thin or very late - I really don't care that today we can say quite clearly which was the best 8 GBytes notebook HDD since nobody will want to buy one (or be able to find a new one). Some clues can be taken from feedback on sites like but anything with less than 30-50 feedback can be very misleading and even more upsetting can be the fact that many models were replaced and as a result there is no statistical trace of some of the worst models - like Toshiba MK1032GAX. Another important thing to remember might be that 'revolutionary first models' very often have unsolved problems - you can see that today on some of the first 'perpendicular recording' models. Obviously when picking a new HDD to replace an old one inside a notebook you must pay attention to the bus/connector type (SATA vs classic ATA) and also remember that 120 GB is a safer bet than 160 GB for older BIOS versions.

Copying the old information can be very easy or very hard - if the old disk is good and you already have some decent software and hardware tools you are in the first scenario but with a bad or partially bad old disk things can be a nightmare. You obviously need a way to access BOTH the old and the new disks at the same time - so you might need at least an external (cheap) enclosure - but in extreme situations you might need adaptors and a way to place the disks inside a desktop. A simple copy without any 'partition moving/resizing' from a good HDD should be the safest choice - and almost any software should be able to handle it.

However it is a lot more difficult to copy bad disks - even partially bad that have the bad sectors already marked as such - PartitionMagic used to be among the best programs for custom disk copying but it will fail with incredibly cryptic errors when seeing a NTFS partition with bad sectors - and when you get to that point and you don't have a huge amount of money (or time) a Linux solution might be the best alternative - a LiveCD with GParted (with Clonezilla as an alternative) - and even in that case you might actually need to use ntfsclone from the command-line. Generally in my recent experience I have found that GParted/ntfsclone are the best for a 1:1 copy, PartitionMagic can be very good AFTER the 1:1 copy to extend a partition and keep it in a bootable state (but even it can often fail on shrinking partitions). A wise idea is to run Windows CHKDSK as soon as possible on the new copy - and in case the old partitions had bad clusters a very handy tool might be a Vista bootable install DVD - you can get to the command prompt and the Vista CHKDSK can now check and eliminate previously bad sectors with the new /B switch !!!

After a successful copy you might want to check first the bootable status (and if you have a more complex booting scheme just marking a partition active might not be enough and some extra effort might be needed) and eventually then take a look at how DRM/protections have 'survived' the copy - one of the absolute worst offenders in that regard is the full Acrobat 7 which you might need to reinstall - and as I have recently seen while helping a friend, you will need to - 1) uninstall + restart, 2) install 7.0 + restart, 3) install 7.05 update + restart, 4) install 7.07 update + restart, 5) install 7.08 update + restart, 6) install 7.09 update + restart = 6 RESTARTS for a fu**ing 'PDF corrector' !!!

After you get everything running you might also want to think on the long-term HDD-error-prevention, and that might involve a number of things:

  • useless load-cycles prevention - that is very important in certain versions of Linux, also very likely in OSX; what makes things worse is that different drives will show different results, but things are certainly not good if you hear the disk heads parking every 2-3 second or so ...
  • if you are very good with respecting 'planned administrative maintenance' then Spinrite is certainly a major option - and running a full test every month or so will keep your data alive for a loong time; however most people are not that good with 'regular maintenance' and in that case you should at least activate SMART on the hard-drive and eventually activate "automatic offline data collection" (with smartctl -o on) - that will sometimes result in strange HDD activity when there should be none, but with that enabled problems might be detected / self-corrected at much earlier stages.

What can you do with the old disk ? Probably nothing that involves important data, but in a not-so-surprising way a clean 'reformat' might show something that looks like a perfect disk - since on write the HDD firmware will force the reallocation of the bad sectors - but the SMART data will show the actual number of bad sectors (and give a better idea of the extent of the problem). A small problem might be that no USB enclosure that I know of will pass SMART commands, so for such advanced use you will need to have the disk on the ATA/SATA bus ...

I will end the post with an interesting link to an article by a Mac fan which in turn links to some other posts - I guess now the image behind the 'marketing curtain' no longer looks so rosy ...