Super User Blog http://blog.superuser.com The Super User Community Blog Wed, 01 Mar 2017 18:38:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.5.6 ISO files, optical drives and bootable flash drives http://blog.superuser.com/2016/02/07/iso-files-optical-drives-and-bootable-flash-drives/ http://blog.superuser.com/2016/02/07/iso-files-optical-drives-and-bootable-flash-drives/#comments Sun, 07 Feb 2016 08:00:03 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5627  How do I place a bootable ISO on a USB drive?

(Question ID 66948)

This is a popular question with many similar or overlapping questions. Browsing the various linked and related questions I noticed the information on this subject is limited and fragmented. Most answers are simple software recommendations and do not touch upon any underlying issues. This article is meant to help fellow superusers appreciate the assumptions we take for granted and serve as a springboard for those that need to dig deeper to solve their problem.

Most people who are looking to place an ISO on a USB drive want to put any ISO on a USB drive and make the drive bootable (also known as making a live USB or installer USB from a binary image file). Examples include:

  • Windows installer / Windows recovery
  • Some other rescue media needed to restore a backup (e.g. Macrium reflect)
  • Linux live image, possibly persistent
  • A full OS install onto a USB
  • does not include useless ISOs, e.g. non-data like those filled with music or video.

This is not necessarily the same as:

  • putting an ISO on a bootable USB drive
  • copying an ISO file or its filesystem contents onto a formatted USB drive

The problem we solve with today’s post is: “Given an ISO and a non-bootable USB drive, how do I create a bootable USB?”

What is an ISO anyway?

In the broadest sense it is a binary image (a.k.a. carbon copy, snapshot or raw data backup) of the storage sectors of a block-device such as a DVD, USB drive, micro-sd card or HDD. The ISO format has no standard (ironically), so there is no pre-defined header (if any), nor any restriction on what filesystems may be contained. These image files are not related to graphical/visual image files like JPEGs. But in common usage an ISO is expected to consist of a single standard filesystem, like the ISO 9660 filesystem. Here is another good definition (from MagicISO website): 

Going by the more restrictive definition, an “ISO” is created by copying an entire disc, from sector 0 to the end, into a file. […] it isn’t possible to store anything but a single data track in this fashion. Audio tracks, mixed-mode discs, CD+G, multisession, and other fancy formats can’t be represented. [this specifically refers to discs with an ISO 9660 filesystem, as a convention]

In case you’re wondering about tracks, they’re basically partitions–so obviously a single filesystem can not have partitions. Of course an image can contain multiple tracks/partitions, but if we refer to such an image as an ISO we are using the loose definition (and probably making some developer angry). So an ISO can be any data image, but by convention we mean the entire user data* from an optical disk, which is commonly formatted with a single filesystem. So your ISO will probably conform to this more restrictive definition.

The name originated from CD images that commonly used ISO 9660 to store data. Nowadays most uses assume an ISO refers to an image from an optical disk like CD or DVD (even though in DVD the UDF filesystem is more common) . Even tools that can create an ISO from a HDD folder probably implicitly convert to an optical media filesystem like ISO 9660. For this reason it may be better for software to use a different extension like “.IMG” to denote non-optical image files.

*With CDs a raw sector is 2352 bytes, but only 2048 bytes are used for data in formatted storage. The rest is used for error correction related stuff. This is why you might see corrupted files if you extract a true raw image from a CD and try to mount it–files are injected with junk bits. DVDs don’t make this distinction, their sectors only have 2048 bytes of user data. So in the case of CDs with filesystems an ISO is normally not a true sector-by-sector carbon copy.

These days it’s not altogether uncommon to see messages about “making an ISO” of an audio CD, which makes no sense at all. (MagicISO FAQ)

Aha, a copy ‘sectors’ from a ‘block device’…

A block device is just jargon for storage media, or ‘drive’ if you like. From a programmer’s point of view storage is a one dimensional array (row/line) of bits. But at the hardware level you can’t address each bit individually. The smallest ‘word’ size for reading and writing is called the sector size. Filesystems are implemented to improve aspects like speed or security (e.g. we’d like for files to have names instead of a sector number like 0x0000008AF1). It has been a while since I attempted graphics:

test

Figure 1 Block Device: The smallest addressable unit in a block device is called a sector. CDs and DVDs typically have a sector size of 2048 bytes. Filesystems (managed by the OS) may group multiple sectors into blocks. E.g. 4 sectors in the physical addressing space may constitute 1 block address in the logical (filesystem) addressing space–see image. The same data may occupy different sectors depending on the filesystem type. In the case of ISO 9660 a block is normally also 2048 bytes (but this value isn’t demanded by the standard).

So files occupy at least 1 sector. Images (ISOs in the loose definition) are created by copying all the bits in all the sectors. In case the data occupies less than the whole sector (e.g small files) the other bits are still copied instead of being zeroed out, because the filesystem may require them. On a sidenote, in my opinion file based images (like WIM used in Windows backups) do not fit the definition of “image”. But that is a discussion for another article.

The size of a sector depends on the hardware. Careful when burning an image your software does not make any wrong assumptions. For example copying every two original sectors into one new one might mess up the filesystem.

Beginning in late 2009, accelerating in 2010 and hitting mainstream in 2011, hard drive companies are migrating away from the legacy sector size of 512 bytes to a larger, more efficient sector size of 4096 bytes, generally referred to as 4K sectors, and now referred to as the Advanced Format by IDEMA (The International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association). (seagate)
You can manage disk images with tools like these (bit outdated).

You can manage disk images with tools like these.

Tools that can create an ISO from optical media are common. Most disk burning software will also have this functionality. Though it seems much harder to find software that will make a true image of non-optical media (like a HDD or USB drive). Most backup software (Acronis, Paragon, Norton, etc.)  will do this, but they may use proprietary formats and/or compression. 

It is also possible to image individual partitions and even files on a hard drive. Mounting or file exploring software will need to recognize the filesystem before it becomes usable. Ok so, enough about images, how do we use some ISO with a flash drive?

*A sidenote for Windows users: If you want to quickly get an ISO from your DVD or explore the files of one, 7zip might be all you need. If you want to make an ISO from folders you’ll need to try something more advanced like imgburn–it lets you add/load a custom bootsector. Surprisingly few utilities support making ISOs from folders. Note that only adding a bootsector will not re-create the original ISO if hidden settings were lost.

Bootable vs Non-bootable

The question as it is now specifically refers to bootable ISOs as opposed to non-bootable ISOs. Is there such a distinction, and if so, what’s the difference? Well, bootable ISOs contain ‘invisible’ data called  boot-sectors. Now this is where it gets messy because many people don’t know what kind of firmware they have (BIOS or UEFI) and it determines the bootcode requirements.

UEFI

UEFI systems don’t need this invisible data to boot, provided your files include .efi files in the right place on your USB drive. The drive should also be marked active and be formatted with the FAT32 filesystem. Simple. This is why some cases of copy and pasting the ISO contents just work, while others do the same steps and fail miserably on their BIOS systems. In certain cases the USB drive has an MBR instead of a GPT and the UEFI goes into BIOS mode without trying to look for the .efi files. To fix this bad behavior either change a setting in the UEFI or change the drive to a GPT type partitioning.

BIOS

So technically an ISO with efi files might be bootable, but I will reserve the term “bootable ISO” for those images with invisible boot files. For the BIOS case you will need this invisible data (i.e. a bootable ISO) unless your USB drive was previously formatted with compatible boot code, in which case you can just replace the visible filesystem contents from the ISO–copy paste. Additionally, in some rare cases the BIOS might be smart enough to boot without a sector like UEFI.

There are normally two sectors involved in loading the operating system, the MBR and the VBR. This implies a BIOS system can’t boot from a GPT style drive. To get this invisible data from your ISO to your USB you need to burn the image, not just copy the filesystem (visible) files. If you don’t know if your ISO is bootable, burn it and test it, or maybe check the first sector.

“ The location and size of the boot sector (perhaps corresponding to a logical disk sector) is specified by the design of the computing platform.”

— Wikipedia (Boot_sector)

So it’s a few Kb somewhere that the CPU loads to do the bootstrapping process. You can’t access this data with a file explorer, because it is not part of the filesystem proper. A good ISO image editor should let you modify all the bytes, possibly overwriting them with custom sub-images.

Now the basic theory is out of the way, perhaps a better question is: what about all those free tools that take an ISO and give back a bootable USB? I suppose some tools may add the invisible stuff for you if you have a non-bootable ISO. Or they might choose between MBR and GPT for you. Or you might be having trouble finding software you like that burns your ISO to your drive. They just make life a bit easier. But they might not consider all the variables I’ve mentioned.

The most important thing to remember is a USB drive can be made bootable independently of the data. The following general steps can be taken to create our live/installer USB:

  1. If you don’t know if your ISO is bootable, burn and test it. If that fails then wipe and:
  2. Make USB bootable by adding bootsector(s), formatting may wipe the drive. A common tool is bootsect.exe. This is needed for BIOS systems. This process (particularly the VBR) is often OS specific, but many non-windows solutions use GRUB or Syslinux (link). There are many tutorials on the web about how to install one of these bootsectors. But before you get stuck in, invest some more time into finding a working image file, most developers distribute them. 
  3. Add compatible files (e.g. linux distro, windows installer, rescue program). You can just copy the files contained by the ISO to your USB drive. Depending on your target operating system your folder structure may need to be in a specific format. In some cases you are allowed to copy the whole ISO.

No-one wants to burn a DVD twice, even if they could. But once you have a bootable USB drive you can simply copy the data or folders to it. As long as your invisible boot-sector is valid for whatever you want to use you can just swap files. I believe Vista and up use compatible boot code for BIOS and UEFI. An alternative route is to modify the ISO directly and then burn it all at once. 

 Though we agreed to follow the ISO convention, ISO hybrids exist. They already contain the MBR code the flash drive needs while also keeping the 9660 filesystem intact. Rarely are USB-only images distributed (unfortunately).

The above shows how a possible hybrid ISO can host both types of bootsector (optical and HDD). Only the green area is viewable to a typical user when mounting the partition.

The above shows how a possible hybrid ISO can host both types of bootsector (optical and HDD). Only the green area is viewable to a typical user when mounting the partition.

There are many tools like the official Microsoft tool (probably uses bootsect), Rufus, YUMI (a.k.a pendrivelinux) and Unetbootin. I’m not sure how these programs do everything, but I believe most software will require a bootable ISO to generate the bootable USB sector. Perhaps they translate the boot volume descriptor (optical disk filesystem) into an MBR compatible with whatever filesystem they use to format the drive (probably FAT32, or maybe they leave it in 9660).

So what if you have a bootable ISO, but it has become unbootable?

Normally non-bootable ISOs are useless for the purposes of live/installer USBs (e.g. a DVD video ISO)–unless you somehow accidentally end up with a non-bootable ISO that should have been bootable.

For example, if you take a bootable DVD you can create an ISO from it both with or without the bootable property, depending on how you do it. In fact you can save any file or folder in ISO format, because there is no standard–it is just a filesystem snapshot. It is the settings used in the ISO creation process that determine if the produced ISO is bootable or not.

People often end up with non-bootable ISOs when they try to customize their ISO or create an ISO from a folder. The bootable property is lost when extracting an ISO and then repacking it without setting ‘make bootable’ options. Be sure to copy your bootsector.bin from the original ISO.

Now, let’s say you have a folder with files you want to turn into a bootable USB. You can either manually make the USB bootable, but this may be tricky for some images/systems. Or you can try and turn the folder into a bootable ISO, which you then supply to some one-click tool to create the live/installer USB (you’d need to find/create a bootsector first–and no guarantee it will work). Lastly there may be a niche tool that converts your customized folder directly to a working official ISO (like WAIK or RT se7en Lite for Windows images).

Note the lack of 2 options: there doesn’t seem to be software that accepts a folder directly, probably due to the lack of bootsector info, though it should work for modern UEFI systems. And there doesn’t seem to be a tool that can make a USB bootable for a given image distribution (i.e. just do step 2 in a few clicks). I’d be happy to hear information to the contrary!

Conclusion

Many one-click tools do require an ISO (preferably a bootable one) to generate a bootable USB. Just remember that an ISO may be more than just a file archive, and the underlying filesystems may vary. Get the right ISO and any burning software will copy all the sectors to your USB drive, it shouldn’t be hard. And don’t be worried if the extension is something like .img or .bin, in many cases an image is an image!

 

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Geek on Sound (or.. does anyone really need a sound card these days?) http://blog.superuser.com/2014/07/14/geek-on-sound-or-does-anyone-really-need-a-sound-card-these-days/ http://blog.superuser.com/2014/07/14/geek-on-sound-or-does-anyone-really-need-a-sound-card-these-days/#comments Mon, 14 Jul 2014 06:00:57 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5569 These days, most PCs come with sound cards that are good enough for most purposes. Speakers have gotten generic enough that shopping for a good pair, with something to differentiate them, isn’t that easy. In a sense, if you aren’t massively picky, you aren’t going to  look very hard or far, since what you have is probably good enough.

 

Output devices

I’d start by saying that sound is subjective – different people expect different things from their sound system, and look at different things. A pretty good idea when actually trying to put together gear for sound output is to decide what you’re going to do, and what you expect from your sound gear. Different folk expect different things – some value bass over all else (in which case, you’d want a pretty powerful subwoofer, or bass oriented headphones), while other want a neutral sound.

 

An ideal sound system sounds exactly like what its source material sounds like. Practically, its pretty hard to make a device that records the entire range of human hearing (ideally from 20 – 20,000 hz). Your mic locations and types make a difference. The recorded material might also be changed in storage (for example, if it’s converted to an MP3), and by the output devices. In some cases, distortion can be pleasing (as vinyl and tube enthusiasts will tell you). In short, an ideal sound playback system is impossible. At the end of the day, rather than perfect fidelity, a realistic goal is simply a system you are happy with.

 

In most cases, unless you’re on the loony fringe of audiophilia, the component closest to your ears is probably the most crucial part of your setup. It’s going to determine what you have behind it and whether you get the most out of it. (I doubt you can get very good sound from a home-made monstrosity of tin cans, cellophane and magnet wire ripped out from alternators, even with the world’s best amplifier behind it!)

 

At the most basic level, everyone has speakers somewhere these days – most modern monitors have a tiny pair hidden away somewhere, as do laptops. One step above that would be the good old stereo speakers. These are perfectly adequate for transforming an electrical signal into sound. I use a pair of old Altec Lansings for gaming and system sounds, but I’d do just as well with my monitor’s built in speakers in many cases. These speakers probably are museum pieces- they possibly predate front panel audio, but they’re solid, well made and sound surprisingly good.

IMG_1071 (Mobile)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you need more bass, a subwoofer, as part of a 2.1 speaker set would give you that rumble; however, if you have small animals at home, be warned it may frighten them. Hardcore gamers might look at surround sound speakers – ones with more speakers such as 5.1 sets split sound into more channels you can position for more immersive sound.

21

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monitors are a step up  in terms of sound quality- these are full range speakers which are often used to monitor (hence the name) recordings. They often offer a full range of frequencies (that’s to say they cover the ranges subwoofers do as well – not all speakers do), and are significantly better quality than most regular PC speakers in most respects. They also tend to be larger, but not absurdly large, and contain their own internal amplifiers.  They do tend to be slightly harder to find(As with a lot of my audio gear, I find that music shops rather than computer shops are the best place to find these), but are a great option if you want good sound in small spaces.

SPav40_front

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from plugging in your PC to an amplifier or receiver, and running a regular pair of speakers off it. Lots of people use their PCs as you would any other source with great results.

 

Personally, I favour headphones. They’re generally cheaper (with some exceptions), some of them offer decent or even spectacular sound quality and, are good if you’re primarily listening to music or gaming alone. There’s a vast array of different types, but there’s two main things to be aware of.

 

Firstly the ‘form factor’ of the headphones – ranging from simple earbuds, to In Ear Monitors or IEMs, which go into the ear canal to earphones that fit on your ear to circumaural (headphones that sit around your ear) and circumaural (headphones that sit on your ear). The second is the design of the phones, such as the driver design. IEMs can be dynamic, or use balanced armatures, headphones are mostly dynamic, but there’s alternate designs with their own fans. Headphones can be open-backed (which sound more natural, but often have less bass, and leak noise) or closed back (better isolation, more bass). Quite often, listening to a pair of headphones is the only way to be sure!

 

In some cases your speakers and headphones may be too demanding for your onboard sound card to drive, or have the wrong interfaces, so it’s useful to know what you have. Many monitors may take in 1/4 inch inputs or RCA, which your regular sound card may not have, and some headphones need a more powerful output than your regular sound card can handle. A good rule of thumb here would be the impedance level, and that most soundcards can handle up to 32 Ω (ohm) headphones with no issues. Impedance is a hugely complicated thing, and for our purposes, just note that you just don’t want to run a high impedance headphone off a regular sound card.

 

In the next part, we’ll talk about options for feeding your output devices, and when a regular sound card just doesn’t cut it.

 

Part 2: Feeding your speakers or headphones the good stuff

 

As with your output devices, different people expect different things from their sources. By a ‘source’, I really mean “device that feeds sound into your sound system so you hear things” – traditionally this could have been a DVD player or even some flavour of a tape player. Associated with that would be the amplification stage of things.

 

In the context of what you’re likely to run into, we can really classify 3 types of sources.

 

Firstly, the traditional sound card and your integrated sound devices. Integrated sound devices usually are designed around providing the bare minimum of outputs at the lowest cost. While there’s some motherboards with fancy features, in most cases you’d have 5 channel sound and S/PDIF. While soundcards are similar, since basic features have been commodified; these often offer better headphone amplification stages, more options, and ostensibly better sound chips. If you’re a gamer, soundcards are likely the best option, since they’re built around gaming needs, such as surround sound. Creative seem to have gotten their drivers in order these days and make really nice sound cards, including models that work with recent phones, and Asus Xonar is pretty well known.  You’re likely going to need a spare PCI or PCIe (Most modern sound cards use a PCIe 1x connector) slot for an internal card, or spare USB port. While typically these are one slot card, there are occationally 2 slot cards with additiona features – such as this creative zxr

zxr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second is the DAC or digital audio converter. These are units used by audiophiles which usually do purely output and either have a headphone out, or can be connected to an amplifier. These tend to be somewhat expensive, you’ll need to do your research but in many cases should offer the best sound quality for music. These are usually connected to your PC via USB and are detected as a soundcard. These tend to be expensive (though prices have been dropping), and as with any audiophile grade equipment, you can’t always trust reviews. Do lots of research, and check out as many reviews you can. If you can, many shops that sell this sort of  gear have display models you can audition. These are occationally homebrew units or kits, though there’s pre-built ones with great build quality. I’d note though, some companies make a hash of perfectly good sound chips so do your homework before you invest in one of these. These are in effect very fancy soundcards.

 

The third is the DAW or Digital Audio Workstation – these are basically DAC-type devices with better inputs – I use one of these for playback, and if you do your homework, it offers good sound quality, often at lower prices.  They’re pretty good if you want to use proper mics, or want something that can output to RCA – my music playing setup is built around a relatively inexpensive, rather old M Audio Fast Track, so I obviously believe this is a good option. Its got a decent headphone output, RCA out if you want to connect to an amplifier or monitors, and a proper mic and guitar/direct input

rtaImage

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s devices that straddle lines – there’s headphone amplifiers that work as a DAC/microphone for phones for example, or dedicated amplifiers and so on – so I may not cover the whole spectrum of things you may come across

As with your output devices, what you have might be perfectly adequate, and there’s usually no need for fancy, extremely expensive audiophile gear in most cases. I found that the most sensible reason for a sound device outside your onboard sound card was really your inputs and outputs. I got a DAW cause I needed proper XLR microphone ports for music (and it turned out, it sounded better than my onboard sound card for music).

I’ve chosen to have an amplifier between my source and my headphones. This is pretty much optional, but if you have more demanding headphones or want to use speakers not actually designed for a PC, it can be worthwhile upgrade. It’s useful to know what inputs your amplifier takes in (mine does 3.5mm and RCA) and what your soundcard does. In general, you’re not going to need an amplifier except for very special circumstances, and you will know when that is – high impedance headphones, and regular unpowered speakers come to mind. While there’s a slight improvement to sound quality in my opinion, the big difference is in convenience – I have two inputs for my amplifier so I can switch between my PC (where I game) and my laptop with a flick of a switch, and have a large, physical volume control.  Its a sAPII made by a  chinese company called SMSL which I bought on a whim.

Untitled

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally of course, you need to get sound to your system – games would do it pretty naturally, but there’s a few tips and tricks for music I use, which I’ll cover in the concluding part.

Part 3: If music is the food of love (of music?), play on!

 

From parts 1 and 2, it’s rather obvious that I believe that in most cases, your standard sound setup is good enough. I am rather picky about music however, and try to get the best, least-coloured sound out of my system as possible. I also want my music player to stay out of my way.

 

Like a lot of audiophiles, I’m a fan of foobar2000 – there’s alternatives of various sorts such as lilith on windows but I find that a nearly stock foobar2000 setup works best for me.

 

I do choose to use bit-perfect playback where possible – originally through ASIO, and later with WASAPI (there’s a third option of kernel streaming). All these methods bypass the kernel mixer which I find, subjectively, improves sound quality – (http://wiki.hydrogenaudio.org/index.php?title=Bypassing_Windows_Mixer“>Hydrogen Audio disagrees though: if some driver uses bad compression and EQ presets, the difference from bit perfect playback can be dramatic). Once again, I find experimenting to be the best option here – you may not hear a difference here. Since I use seperate sound devices for music and other stuff, I simply set my DAW into WASAPI exclusive mode, so that gets a stream of music, while the onboard sound card handles other sounds.

 

At some point, tweaking your software is a little like trying to overclock – you might get some improvement, real or perceived, but it isn’t going to make a major difference if you’re working off hardware that’s not really very good.

 

I also favour lossless – http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/06/concluding-the-great-mp3-bitrate-experiment.html“>Jeff Atwood disagrees, but these days, storage space is cheap. I have the option of re-converting my audio with no quality loss. While dbpoweramp is what I hear rave reviews about as far as ripping CDs go, I favour http://www.cuetools.net/wiki/Main_Page“>cuetools – it supports some of the same features, is free  and does GPU accelerated ripping.

 

Once again, your mileage may vary. Lots of people swear by Winamp, or just listen to music off YouTube or Spotify. It’s pretty unlikely you’ll need a fancy setup for that. Built up to your needs, and your preferences. I personally pretty much accidentally discovered my preferences, and bought my initial audiophile gear and upgraded as things broke or I wanted to experiment.  Nearly my whole setup consists of iterations of settings and gear until it sounded right. I’ve made one or two mistakes of course, but the current iteration sounds pretty good, and handles what I throw at it. I don’t tweak my sound for gaming – I’ve not seen much options, and if you’re familiar with how to tweak a computer for better gaming sound, why not write an article for the Super User Blog!

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What to Do After Buying a New Laptop http://blog.superuser.com/2013/10/23/what-to-do-after-buying-a-new-laptop/ http://blog.superuser.com/2013/10/23/what-to-do-after-buying-a-new-laptop/#comments Wed, 23 Oct 2013 08:00:55 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5526 Buying a new laptop can be a difficult venture. You must decide which one is right for you. Depending on what your needs are, there are tons of things to consider like hard drive space, graphics cards, and general ease of use.

But once you find your dream computer, there are a few things that you must do. Here are some tips to follow after you purchase your laptop to make your computing experience a pleasurable one.

Register and Update Windows

win8

Image via Flickr by Microsoft Sweden

An important part of purchasing your computer is actually registering (and successfully activating) Windows. It activates all the perks of having Windows as an operating system, such as Windows Media Player, and it also enables desktop personalization.

Next you’ll want to download all system updates and service packs. You’ll want a really fast internet connection for this, because these can be huge files and take a while to download. However, they’re vital to making your computer safer and run much smoother. These updates patch up any bugs or glitches that were newly found, and they streamline the performance of the operating system as well as add new features.  To answer super user “Hennes” question, it doesn’t matter which variation of Windows 7 you have, Pro or Home, it will run, performance wise, the same, if you’re worried about performance issues think about either adding more RAM or upgrading to Windows 8, which for the for the most part is a more streamlined and smoother operating system.

Rid your Computer from Unwanted “Bloatware”

When you purchase a computer, you’d imagine that you’re starting with a clean slate. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most computers are loaded with unwanted games and software (referred to as bloatware, since it bulks up what should be a clean slate). The most efficient way to truly free up your computer is to install a brand-new, store-bought copy of Windows onto your hard drive.  This will wipe out everything that was on the hard drive (so make sure you save everything you wanted to keep on an external drive or disc) and leave a clean and smoothly operating system, free of unwanted, useless bloatware.

If you don’t feel like doing this, or don’t want to buy a new copy of Windows, you can try manually uninstalling the offending software, by going to Start > Control Panel > Programs and Features. From here you can go to each program you don’t want and click uninstall. For programs that are more deeply rooted, like anti-virus software, you can go to the developers website and search for the “complete uninstall” procedure and follow their steps to completely eradicate it from your system.

Anti-virus and Security Software

While many computers come with standard anti-virus software, it’s important to make sure you have the right program to deal with potential intruders. That being said, you may want to consider forking out a few dollars for an all-encompassing anti-virus program, such as Norton Antivirus software, or save some money and get basic protection, with something like AVG Anti-Virus software.

Going together with anti-virus software is security scanning software. What you’re looking for are programs such as malware that will make your computer run at a turtle’s pace. By running a security scan, you can remove all the unwanted unintentionally downloaded programs off your hard drive before you get into computing that would release sensitive information.

Schedule a security scan for about once a week (you can set it to automatically begin when you want, in whatever increment you choose) to keep your computer free from malicious programs. Keep this software running in the background, and it will detect and quarantine any questionable and infected files that you may have just unintentionally downloaded and it will also warn you and deter you away from possibly unsafe sites.

Back Up Software and Recovery

Any computer with Windows will have system recovery loaded to it. Recovery restores your computer to a pre-existing state if the worst should happen.

If you drop your computer or it suddenly fails due to a power surge or something else, recovery will make your computer work again if possible. Backing up, on the other hand, is basically insurance for your computer. You can take all the files that you never want to lose, and you can put them on an external hard drive. Or if you don’t want to buy one of those, you can copy the files on to a DVD or CD and keep them in a safe place. These measures ensure that you will never have to fret over lost work.

Physical back-ups aren’t your only option – there are plenty of ways to back up your info using an online cloud service, doing this will automatically back up your files as you make them, and no matter what happens to your computer, or backup drives, your files will be downloadable from their hard drives on their servers.

Power Saving

Make sure that, after registering Windows, you go into your personalization and check your power saving scheme. Here, you can configure your Windows 8 power plan settings and options. Choose how long until your computer turns off after it’s idle, as well as setting a screen saver. Both of these things will save you on your energy bill and keep your computer running longer.

No matter what laptop you choose to buy, following a few simple steps for your new laptop will go a long way. Although you shouldn’t expect problems on a brand new machine, it’s all about peace of mind. You can use the computer at your leisure and not be worried about the problems that can compound over time.

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Best of both worlds round 3: mSATA SSDs http://blog.superuser.com/2013/08/19/best-of-both-worlds-round-3-msata-ssds/ http://blog.superuser.com/2013/08/19/best-of-both-worlds-round-3-msata-ssds/#comments Mon, 19 Aug 2013 05:00:11 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5347 As SSDs become increasingly affordable, making the switch is increasingly tempting. However, there are very few drives with over 512GB of capacity, and those that exist are still far from affordable. One solution that works well for desktops and workstation replacement laptops is putting an SSD in one drive bay and a mechanical HDD in another. This is a bit trickier with smaller laptops though. A couple years ago, I experimented with moving the primary HDD to the optical bay, and installing an SSD to get the best of both worlds: fast performance and extra storage for bulky but less-used files.

“Ultrabook” didn’t even enter our vernacular until mid-2011, and at the time most laptops still came with a DVD drive. Now in 2013, many of the latest laptops don’t even come with DVD drives. What’s a modern laptop user to do if they want SSD performance and HDD storage?

Enter the mSATA SSD: announced in 2009, mSATA SSDs started making their way into ultrabooks as manufacturers sought smaller sized components. In recent years some manufacturers have begun putting mSATA support into mid-sized laptops that still have a normal 2.5″ hard drive bay, too. Lenovo in particular has been leading this trend, with most recent ThinkPad and IdeaPad laptops supporting an mSATA drive in addition to the primary hard drive.

The first thing to know about mSATA SSDs: they’re small. Kingston donated a 64 GB mSATA SSD for this review, and when it arrived I was shocked by just how tiny the package is. It measures a mere 50 by 30 mm. The physical connector is identical to a mini-PCI-E slot, like those used by WiFi and WWAN cards, but does require that a SATA channel be connected to the slot, so just any mini-PCI-E slot won’t do.

Installation

Installing an mSATA SSD takes a lot more time and care than installing a regular 2.5″ drive into most laptops. To install it into my ThinkPad X230 took about an hour, vs. a couple minutes to swap out the 2.5″ drive. Each computer will require different, very specific steps to install. Look up your computer’s service manual (typically available from the manufacturer’s support site) and find the instructions for installing an mSATA drive.

The mSATA SSD installation flipbook. (This isn’t meant to be a guide… just showing what the steps were for my laptop.)

Configuration

The point of an mSATA SSD is to free up that HDD slot for some big, slow spinning storage, while keeping your OS, programs, and most-used data on the fast SSD. These instructions are for Windows, but you can follow the same general principal for Linux. I’ve found that it’s almost always easier to just do a fresh install of Windows on a new SSD. Trying to image from a large disk to a smaller disk is generally a pain to do, and Windows will also automatically configure certain things differently if you have an SSD, to improve its performance.

Working from a fresh install, you’ll want to configure your user files (My Documents, My Pictures, etc.) to reside on the HDD. Instructions for this are exactly the same as with my previous SSD+HDD Caddy instructions.

Performance

In most cases, an mSATA SSD will perform just as well in a given computer as a regular 2.5″ SATA drive, if they have the same basic specs. On my X230, the mSATA drive only supports SATA II while the 2.5″ bay supports SATA III. For comparison, I used a similar Kingston SSD in the 2.5″ form factor, the SSDnow V300, which does take advantage of the SATA III connector in the full HDD slot. Note that these comparisons are just to give an idea of the relative performance in this case – with an mSATA SSD and slot that both support SATA III, you could easily see better performance from an mSATA SSD than some 2.5″ SSDs.

AS SSD Benchmark

mSATA SSD on left, 2.5″ SSD on right

 

Crystal Disk Mark Benchmark

 

CrystalDiskMark benchmarks. mSATA SSD on left, 2.5″ SSD on right

 

Making sure you have what you need

If you’re interested in pursuing an mSATA SSD solution, the first thing to do is make sure your laptop supports it! Most Lenovo laptops (both ThinkPads and IdeaPads) since about 2010 have mSATA slots. Some other manufacturers have them too, although less consistently. If you already have the laptop, try finding the specific service manual for your computer, and look for information about the mSATA drive, or search for “<laptop name> mSATA” online. If you haven’t purchased a laptop yet, try to find this information before buying!

Once you have the laptop taken care of, you’ll need to select an SSD. I’m hesitant to make any specific suggestions here, because new SSDs are released almost constantly. Almost all of the major SSD manufacturers have mSATA drives available now. One of the best resources on the web for finding up-to-date reviews and listings is The SSD Review. The Tom’s Hardware SSD Hierarchy Chart is also a good resource, and is typically updated monthly.

Don’t forget – if you run into trouble getting your mSATA SSD set up and installed, you can always ask for help on Super User!

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Windows 8 on a VHD – Trying windows without the risk http://blog.superuser.com/2013/06/13/windows-8-on-a-vhd-trying-windows-without-the-risk/ http://blog.superuser.com/2013/06/13/windows-8-on-a-vhd-trying-windows-without-the-risk/#comments Thu, 13 Jun 2013 15:00:45 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5239 I’m currently waiting on building a new system (which will run windows 8) but I wanted in on the windows contest . I didn’t really want to use one of my windows 8 licences on my old system, so I figured I’d run the enterprice evaluation version on a VHD, which I could discard to get back my current system to its previous state once the new system is built. I found a great guide by Harold Wong on technet, and while I was working finishing up the post this guide is based off , discovered you could install to a hard drive using the same method, found that r.tanner.f had used a similar method for an install on a actual drive. I used a windows 7 system to set this up and run it on, and you will probably find it easier if you use the WAIK from the same architecture as this system. This is pretty much like wubi – allowing me to run a seperate copy of windows without repartitioning my drive.

Prerequisites:

  • Windows 8 install disk – I went with the enterprise evaluation disk, You could probably do this with a regular installer with a key as well
  • imagex from WAIK , I had it from a previous experiment
  • easybcd , bcdboot (its in system32 and part of a default windows system), visualbcd or some other bcd editor

Preparing a VHD

You can create a VHD from disk manager – hit start, and search for disk management. Select Create and format hard disk partitions (or go to control panel -> computer management -> disk management)

Creating a VHD is very simple, select action, and Create VHD

Set up VHD to taste, I’ve selected a large dynamic disk on the partition I usually store VM images on.

This should result in a new ‘disk’ you can use like any other disk. Rightclick on the disk name, and select initialise, then rightclick on the partition on the right side to format. Take note of the new drive latter – here its H:


Installation process

At this point, we pretty much can treat the VHD the very same way we’d treat a regular hard drive. You’ll want to extract WAIK and the install ISOs to separate folders, or mount them. Take note of the path of install.wim on the windows 8 install cd – this is usually in \install\sources\ relative to the root of the windows 8 files

Copy imagex and (if you’re using it bcdboot) to a convenient location. Start up a command prompt with admin privileges

Run imagex from where you saved it – imagex /apply /path/to/install.wim 1 h:\ where h: is the vhd’s drive letter. This took me around 10 minutes

There’s two options to make the image bootable, firstly, to run bcdboot from WAIK. I went with easybcd instead, since I didn’t have bcdboot on hand. Select add new entry, and set things as follows in the windows not the VHD tab. We’re treating the VHD like a normal disk.

Now reboot, and select windows 8 from the windows boot manager, and you should be set. The second stage installer will start, and you can continue the installation as per normal. If you don’t want the install of windows 8 any more simply delete the boot entry and VHD

You can also easily backup the VHD by detaching, then reattaching it. Dosen’t get any easier than that 🙂

 

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What laptop should I buy for college? (2013 edition) http://blog.superuser.com/2013/05/30/what-laptop-should-i-buy-for-college-2013-edition/ http://blog.superuser.com/2013/05/30/what-laptop-should-i-buy-for-college-2013-edition/#comments Thu, 30 May 2013 12:00:01 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5354 Click here to view the 2014 College Laptops list

 

 

Note: The laptop recommendations below are over a year out of date. The 2014 Best College Laptops list has this year’s up-to-date suggestions.

‘Tis the season: as family and friends head off to college, the requests for laptop recommendations start rolling in. It’s a semi-annual tradition for me to blog about my recommendations, so let’s get started! If you haven’t seen my 3 part series on “choosing a computer for college”, check those posts out for some good background info that’s mostly still relevant:

Since I wrote those articles in 2011, the computing landscape has shifted dramatically towards tablets, slates, and a plethora of weird hybrid devices. I’ll be splitting up my recommendations into several categories: primary laptops, for students who plan to have a single laptop for all their needs; primary tablets, for students who plan to have a laptop-grade tablet as their primary device; and companion devices, for students who plan to have a desktop or desktop replacement, but want a small, light, and cheaper device for carrying around campus.

What category works best for you is a personal choice, but most students I know have a primary laptop, and a few have companion devices like Android tablets or iPads. I expect that having a primary tablet will become more popular though as touch hardware improves and becomes more economical.

General advice

Regardless of what mobile computing device you choose, here are the most important factors to consider for an academic environment:

  • Intel is releasing its new Haswell series of processors this summer, and has announced battery life improvements around 50% compared to current-generation Ivy Bridge processors. Once these are released, new laptops will have much better battery life and performance, and previous-generation laptops will come down in price. So: if you can afford to wait until later this summer to buy your laptop, you probably should!
  • With college comes a .edu email address. Use it to your advantage: you should be getting at least 10% off on any laptop purchases. All major companies have student discounts, here are links to a few:Consider a refurbished computer. Dell, Lenovo, and Apple all have online “outlet” stores where you can get refurbished computers in brand-new condition with a full warranty, often for several hundred dollars off the normal price. These are computers that were returned unused (or barely used). For example, an X1 Carbon can be had for $870 from the Lenovo Outlet, vs. $1200 new.
  • Get a computer that will last. It’s better to spend more money up front and not have to replace your laptop in two years when it breaks. I’m lookin’ at you, HP.
  • Weight and size matter more than you realize. Your classes will be far apart, your books will be heavy, and in some lecture halls your desks may be as small as a sheet of paper. The students I know who have heavy laptops rarely bring them to class, and complain bitterly when they do have to. Those of us with light laptops bring them everywhere. The number one regret I’ve heard with laptop purchases is “it’s too heavy/large”. Don’t get anything over 5 pounds, and shoot for around 3-4lbs if you can. I wouldn’t suggest a laptop any larger than 14″, and if you’re considering such a large laptop, try one out in person first if at all possible.
  • Look up third-party reviews to figure out the real battery life. Nothing’s worse than running out of battery half way through a three hour class. If you can get an extended battery, do. A larger battery adds weight, but a power adapter can weight just as much if not more (and is bulky too).
  • Get the highest resolution screen  available that you can afford. A higher resolution means there are more pixels on the screen, making everything look smoother and making it possible to fit more windows on the screen at once. This makes it a lot easier to work on assignments when you can put two windows next to each other comfortably.
  • Get a dual-band wireless card. The nomenclature is pretty variable here, but look for anything that says “dual band”, “5 GHz”, or supports “802.11a” or “wireless N b/g/n/a“. Most universities will have a 5GHz wireless N network, which will experience less congestion and interference than the standard 2.4GHz spectrum. This option may cost extra, but I assure you it’s worth it: in a crowded lecture hall, it can mean the difference between no internet at all and being able to browse whatever resources you need. In a dorm it can mean the difference between DSL speeds and speeds over 100 Mbps.
  • Don’t pay money for antivirus software. There are plenty of free options, and if you get a computer with Windows 8 it’ll have antivirus software built in.
  • Don’t buy Microsoft Office, Adobe products, or any other “add on” software when you order your laptop. This type of software is typically available with huge student discounts either online or through your campus bookstore. Also, software you buy with your computer is non-transferable, while software you buy separately can be reinstalled on a different computer if you switch machines in the future.

Specific recommendations

Primary laptops

In my mind, there are really just two camps when it comes to laptops for college: ThinkPads and MacBooks. I’ll mention a few other options, but hear me out first: you’re (hopefully) going to be in college for about 4 years. You’re going to be spending a significant amount of money on your laptop, and you’re going to be using it daily for years. You want something that lasts. I made the mistake of getting an HP laptop for college, and not only did it die in less than 2 years, but every single person I know who got similar HP laptops had various problems. Three years later I only know 2 people whose HP laptops are still working at all, and there were about 20 of us who had similar laptops freshman year.

Both ThinkPads and MacBooks are known for their quality, and with student discounts can be reasonably affordable. You still might pay a little more up front, but you’ll spend more money long-term if you have to replace your laptop sophomore year – not to mention the hassle of having your laptop die during finals week. I’m telling you this from experience, folks. If you do go for a different brand, try to get their business line if at all possible – for example, choose Dell’s Latitude series over their Inspirons, or HP’s ProBooks over their Pavilions. Business-grade laptops may not be as shiny, but they are much more durable.

For both ThinkPads and Macbooks you have two categories to choose from: thin and light ultrabooks, and heavier machines with more processing power. Ultrabooks tend to be more expensive and less upgradable, but are desirable for their weight and size. With Macs the larger computers aren’t upgradable these days either, so it really comes down to what your needs are in terms of processing power.

ThinkPad T430 (from $680)

The T430 is on the heavier side for a  14″ laptop, but is one of the most versatile laptops you can get. Weighing in at 4.6 lbs (5 with the 9 cell battery), it has a full-power processor and many user-upgradable parts. Key features and specifications include:

  • Full-power Ivy Bridge Intel processors, from a 3.3 GHz  Core-i5 up to a 3.5 GHz Core-i7
  • One easy-access RAM slot (with a second slot under the keyboard). The default configuration comes with a single 4GB memory module, and it’s easy (and cheaper!) to add your own second module after purchase.
  • SATA3 2.5″ hard drive slot, which is also easy to access and upgrade to an SSD (which is cheaper than preconfiguring an SSD).
  • UltraBay which can support a DVD writer (default), or a second full-size 2.5″ hard drive.
  • mSATA/mini PCI-E slot which can be used for either a WWAN mobile internet module or an mSATA SSD
  • Intel HD 4000 graphics, or Nvidia NVS 5400M switchable graphics
  • Webcam, optional backlit keyboard, Mini Displayport, VGA, USB 3.0, SD card reader, optional fingerprint reader
  • Optional 1600×900 (default 1366×768) display – this is a highly recommended upgrade!
  • 6 cell or 9 cell battery
  • Various wireless options – make sure to get the Intel Centrino 6205 or 6300 to get support for 5GHz networks

Full tech specs

ThinkPad X230 (from $760)

The X230 has similar specifications to the T430, but is smaller (12.5″) and significantly lighter at 2.96 pounds. It also has a full powered processor and is user-upgradable. This is probably the most customizable and upgradable laptop in this size range. Additional options include:

  • Full-power Ivy Bridge Intel processors, from a 2.4 GHz Core-i3, 3.1 GHz Core-i5, up to a 3.6 GHz Core-i7
  • Two easy-access RAM slots. Default configuration comes with a single 4GB memory module.
  • SATA3 2.5″ hard drive slot
  • No DVD or ultrabay slot
  • mSATA/mini PCI-E slot, which can be used for either a WWAN mobile internet module or an mSATA SSD
  • Intel HD 4000 graphics
  • Webcam, optional backlit keyboard, Mini DisplayPort, VBA, USB 3.0, SD card reader, optional fingerprint reader
  • Only 1366×768 screen, but there is an IPS display option. IPS screens have much better viewing angles and colors. This is a highly recommended upgrade!
  • 3, 6, or 9 cell battery
  • Various wireless options – make sure to get the Intel Centrino 6205 or 6300 to get support for 5GHz networks

Full tech specs

ThinkPad X1 Carbon (from $1200)

The X1 Carbon is the Ultrabook of ThinkPads, and is one of the nicest machines you can get. At 2.99 pounds it’s about the same weight as the X230, but is thinner and has a larger screen at 14″. This machine is not user-upgradable – the RAM is soldered to the motherboard and the SSD is difficult to reach. Options include:

  • Low-voltage Intel Ivy Bridge processors, ranging from a 1.7 GHz Core-i5 (up to 2.6 GHz in turbo mode) to a 2.0 GHz Core-i7 (up to 3.2 GHz in turbo mode)
  • Soldered RAM, with 4 or 8 GB options
  • Integrated 128 or 256GB SSD
  • 1600×900 display
  • Intel HD 4000 graphics
  • No DVD slot
  • Backlit keyboard (on all models), mini displayport, USB 3.0, SD card reader, webcam
  • Integrated non-replaceable battery, with typical usage of 5-7 hours

Full tech specs

MacBook Pro Retina (from $1400)

All new MacBook Pros have Apple’s “Retina” display, which has double the pixel density of a typical display. This gives you smoother images, but can also degrade graphics performance in some situations. These are available in 13″ (3.6 lbs, starting from $1400) and 15″ (4.46 lbs, starting from $2000) options.

All Macs can run Windows via Bootcamp, so even if you need Windows programs for school, you can still get a Mac. Many schools, particularly for engineering and computer science programs, provide Windows for free to students. If yours doesn’t, make sure you factor the cost of a Windows license into your budget – although if you can afford a $2200 laptop an extra $100 for Windows probably won’t make a difference. You can buy a Windows license for about $95 on Amazon.

MacBook Pros have standard Intel processors. None of the components are user-upgradable, so you’re stuck with whatever SSD and RAM you configure at purchase time. Other specs and options include:

  • 13 inch: 2.5-2.6 GHz dual core Core-i5 processors; 15 inch: 2.4-2.7GHz quad core Core-i7 processors
  • 8 – 16GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 13 inch: 128-256 GB SSD; 15 inch: 256-512 GB SSD
  • 13 inch: Intel HD 4000, 15 inch: Nvidia GeForce GT 650M
  • Backlit keyboard, webcam, mini-DP (thunderbolt) ports, SD card reader, USB 3.0, HDMI
  • 5 GHz dual-band Wireless N adapter

Full tech specs

MacBook Pro (from $1100)

The MacBook Pro is similar to the MacBook Pro Retina, but has slightly lower specs and doesn’t have the high-resolution retina displays, although the 15″ LCD does have a 1440×900 display. These are also available in 13″ (4.5 lbs, from $1100) and 15″ (5.6 lbs, from $1700).

  • 13 inch: 2.5-2.9 GHz dual core Core-i5; 15 inch: 2.3 GHz quad core Core-i7
  • Up to 8 GB of RAM (upgradable)
  • 500 GB HDD, optional 128, 256, or 512 GB SSD
  • Webcam, backlit keyboard, USB 3.0, mini-DP (thunderbolt), SD card reader, DVD drive, ethernet port
  • 5 GHz dual-band wireless N adapter

Full tech specs

MacBook Air (from $950)

The MacBook Air is Apple’s Ultrabook offering, with 11″ (2.38 lbs, from $950) and 13″ (2.96 lbs, from $1500) options. Like the Retina macbooks, none of the components are user upgradable. The MacBook Airs have low-voltage Intel processors that will be a bit slower than a standard processor. Other specification options include:

  • Up to 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7 processor
  • Up to 8 GB of DDR3 RAM
  • Up to 512 GB SSD
  • Intel HD 4000 graphics
  • Webcam, backlit keyboard, USB 3.0, mini-DP (thunderbolt)
  • 5 GHz dual-band Wireless N adapter

 Full tech specs

Those are the laptops I think are most likely to be sturdy, last, and have good specifications for college usage. Here are a few more options you might consider:

ASUS ZenBook

ASUS is a lesser known manufacturer that makes good looking and decent quality laptops. Their ZenBook line of ultrabooks has options including the tiny 11″ UX21A which weighs only 2.4 lbs and is 9mm tall at its thickest point, two 13″ models (the UX31A with a 1600×900 touch panel, and the UX32VD with a 1920×1080 non-touch display), and larger 14″ and 15″ versions.

Most models have low-voltage Intel processors, but the 15″ U500VZ does have a standard power Intel Quad Core-i7, a discrete NVidia GPU, and a 1920×1080 multitouch screen – making it one of the most powerful laptops to fit in a 0.8 inch, 4.9 lb package. The ZenBook line had some quality issues at first, but reviews indicate that they’ve improved substantially and are a good option. Other features (not necessarily available on all models) include:

  • Backlit keyboard
  • Webcam
  • Intel HD 4000 graphics, and some with NVidia discrete graphics
  • USB 3.0, mini VGA, mini DisplayPort, SD card reader
  • SATA III SSDs up to 256 GB
  • Some versions have 5GHz dual-band wifi

Models and tech specs

Buy on Amazon

Dell Latitude Series

If you’re going to get a Dell, look at their Latitude business line. These laptops are available in 14″, 15″, and 13″ versions with full powered Intel processors. Most of the Latitude series have options for 1600×900 displays, and have standard options for upgrading RAM and hard drives. In my experience, Dell’s business laptops are of much higher quality than their consumer-oriented Inspiron laptops. Dell also sells a line of business-oriented laptops under the Vostro brand, but these are often just rebranded Inspirons, and are typically not as durable and have fewer options than a Latitude.

I would recommend the 14″, 4.4 lbs Latitude E6430 (starting from $720) specifically:

  • Metal construction with rugged hinges
  • Discrete graphics card option
  • High-resolution (1600×900) display option
  • SATA III SSD support
  • Optional 5GHz dual-band wireless
  • 9-cell battery option

Models and options

Samsung Series 9 and Series 7

Samsung’s Series 9 is its high-end ultrabook category, and includes a widening variety of 13 and 15 inch laptops, ranging in price from $1000 to $1800. I haven’t used one personally, but they’ve gotten good reviews and have good specifications. All of them – even the 15″ options – come in under 4 pounds, have SSDs, and include backlit keyboards and most have at least a 1600×900 display option.

Models and options

If you’re looking for a nice ultrabook but can’t afford a Series 9, the ATIV Book 7 shares a similar design but with a slightly lower build quality, more weight, and a more lower price to match. Reviews have praised this laptop though for having the “best touchpad on a Windows laptop to date”, and with a 1080p screen it’s a good balance between price and features.

Models and options

HP

Bahahahaha. Don’t buy an HP. Seriously. You’ll regret it. I knew at least 15 people my freshman year in college who had HP laptops (including myself – we all make mistakes!) and less than 3 years later every single one has had serious problems, and most of them have died. If you absolutely must buy an HP for some reason, get one of their business-grade ProBook or EliteBook models. If decide to buy an HP, make use of their HP Academy student discounts, and also look for coupon codes – coupons can’t be used with student discounts, but are sometimes worth more. But really – don’t buy an HP. You’ll be reading the 2014 edition of this review next year when you’re replacing your broken laptop.

Primary tablets

Tablets are becoming more powerful and more commonplace, and it’s possible – even desirable – to do all your college computing on a tablet, especially if you have access to more powerful machines in a computer lab should the need arise. The distinction between primary tablets and companion devices is vague and depends on your usage scenarios, but I’m essentially categorizing anything with a laptop processor (capable of running a “normal” OS) as a primary tablet. All “specialty” OSes like iOS, Android, and Windows RT will be categorized as a companion device, along with cheaper x86 machines (under $500).

Microsoft Surface Pro ($1130 with type cover)

For all the hate Microsoft has received for Windows 8, using a Surface Pro starts to show you what Microsoft was thinking – and makes you realize that there’s actually a lot of potential here. Although it’s a bit awkward using a machine that’s neither a laptop nor a tablet, but a little bit of both, I think college is the perfect fit for a device like this: it’s light and easy to carry to class, but it has a full powered Intel processor that can run anything a normal laptop can. With the built in pen and digitizer you can make drawings and annotations in class, while simultaneously typing on the keyboard cover. With the Windows App Store growing by the day, and the ability to run any existing Windows program, you should be good to go across the board. My biggest concerns with the Surface Pro are its battery life (typically around 5 hours in reviews) and its awkwardness in your lap when using the keyboard cover. That being said, if I were buying a laptop today, I’d probably get a Surface. With a USB 3.0 port, mini DisplayPort, and a microSD slot, you can easily hook up an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard to spread out at your desk, too. The Surface is a very solidly built piece of technology, and feels like it will stand up well to daily use in a college environment.

Tech specs

Buy from Microsoft

Buy from Amazon

Thinkpad X230t convertible tablet (from $1040)

Very similar to the X230 suggested above, this tablet hearkens from the days before slates. It’s definitely a laptop, but the screen can be twisted 180 degrees and folded back to write on its surface with the built-in digitizer pen. It also has 10-point multitouch, enabling modern Windows 8 apps as well. Pretty much everything good I said about the X230 applies here, although it’s definitely a bit large to use as a tablet. You wouldn’t want to hold it in one hand for long periods of time, so while it may be good for taking notes and doing assignments in engineering and science classes, it’s not going to double as an entertainment tablet the way a Surface or other slate would.

Tech specs

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga (from $930)

Most reviews of this laptop use words like “interesting”, “unique”, and “novel” – polite ways of saying that it’s actually pretty weird. The Yoga is absolutely a laptop, and at first glance you wouldn’t even know it’s a tablet. The hinge rotates almost 360 degrees, letting the keyboard fold up behind the screen so that you can use it as a slate. You can also rotate the keyboard back part way to stand the laptop up like a tent and just use the touch screen.  I don’t see much point in doing that when you could just have the keyboard out, and use both the keyboard and the touch screen as you desire. Reviews have been generally positive, although its long-term durability has yet to be proven, and I don’t think the form factor is for everyone. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking into if you’re looking for a tablet that can function as a full laptop.

Tech specs

ASUS VivoTab (from $775)

The VivoTab is one of many devices powered by Intel’s CloverTrail Atom processors: low-power chips purpose-designed for Windows 8 to run standard Windows apps without harming battery life on tablets. This tablet includes an external bluetooth keyboard, which doesn’t actually attach to the device. I haven’t actually seen one, but reviews have been quite positive, especially with regards to the quality for the price. With 7.5 hours of battery life, it’s one of the longer lasting tablets. Engadget’s review goes into far more detail than I can, and if you’re considering this device I suggest you read their thoughts.

Tech specs

Buy on Amazon

Dell Latitude 10 (from $620 with keyboard dock)

The Latitude 10 has the same Intel Atom processors as the ASUS VivoTab and many other cheaper Windows 8 tablets. With the optional keyboard dock’s additional battery, it’s been measured as lasting as long as a whopping 16 hours! The dock isn’t particularly portable though, and it “only” got 9 hours on the internal battery – still impressive for a tablet running normal Windows. More expensive editions include an active digitizer and stylus, which could be useful for artists or taking notes in class.

Buy from Dell

ThinkPad Tablet 2 (from $780 with keyboard)

Another entry in the Intel Atom category, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 has several perks: an active digitizer, a ten hour battery life, and one of the most comfortable keyboards you can find with a tablet. ThinkPads have always had fantastic keyboards, and this is no exception. The external bluetooth keyboard has a slot that the slate slides into to prop it up in “laptop mode”, but it lacks any additional storage, battery, or connectivity options like the ASUS Transformer and Dell’s options. There is an optional dock connector though that adds HDMI, ethernet, and extra USB ports.

Tech specs

Companion devices

These devices will fill your needs for having a computing device on the go, but probably won’t be enough for all of your computer needs. If you already have a heavier laptop that you don’t want to take to class, or perhaps a desktop computer, these cheaper and more portable devices may be for you.

Google Nexus 10 (from $400)

The Nexus is line of smartphones and tablets are built by other manufacturers to Google’s specifications, and sold by Google. Built by Samsung and running Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich), this ten inch tablet is the latest in the Nexus series. Its claim to fame: a 2560×1600 screen – more pixels than the Retina iPad (or any other tablet, for that matter). Reviews suggest that Android apps handle the high resolution well, properly upscaling images and text. At 10″, this tablet is a good size for taking notes in class or looking up info during a lab. It doesn’t come with any sort of keyboard though, so you won’t be writing all your papers on here. With a dual-core 1.7 GHz ARM CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a separate graphics chip, this tablet isn’t quite as fast as some other Android tablets, but will be sufficient for most casual users. With about 7.5 hours of battery life (that high-res screen sucks power), it’s shorter-lived than some Android tablets, but should last long enough to get you through the school day.

Buy from Google

Google Nexus 7 (from $230)

The Nexus 10’s little brother, the Nexus 7 has been called the first “really good” cheap Android tablet. At only $230, it’s hard to beat this tablet in terms of quality for the price. Given its smaller size, this tablet will mostly be limited to typing brief reminders and looking things up online, but it should perform well for those types of tasks. Despite (or because of?) its smaller size, the Nexus 7 gets almost 10 hours of battery life, which should be plenty for most students.

Update: an upgraded version of the Nexus 7 was released in July, 2013. Most of the info here hasn’t changed, but the new version adds a higher-resolution display and a longer battery life.

Buy from Google

Buy from Amazon

Asus Tranformer Pad Infinity TF700 (from $380)

The Asus Transformer was one of the first slate-keyboard combos to show up, and this latest revision has added a full HD (1920×1200) screen and a micro SD slot, allowing you to upgrade its internal storage. The optional keyboard dock (which is frankly the whole point of this device, so consider “optional” to be “highly recommended) houses an extra 5 hours worth of battery, in addition to a full-size USB 2.0 port and a full-size SD card slot. It also has a touchpad for more laptop-like interaction, but most users will probably stick with the screen as the primary touch device. Although the keyboard makes writing out notes in class or typing up emails much easier, reviewers have labeled it as too cramped for writing long amounts of text, so you probably won’t want it as your only computing device. The Transformer has decent internals too, with a quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 1 GB of RAM.

Tech specs

Buy from Amazon

Microsoft Surface RT (from $450 with touch cover)

If Android isn’t your thing, but you want a relatively cheap slate with an attached keyboard, the Surface RT may be for you. Unlike the Surface Pro, the Surface RT doesn’t run a full version of Windows – it runs the new “Windows RT” which is like Windows 8, but lacks the ability to run normal Windows desktop apps. That means it’ll run any “Metro” App in the Windows Store, but it won’t run your existing games, image editors, or any of your school software like AutoCAD or Visual Studio. Windows RT does come with Microsoft Office 2013 built-in though – you get Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote – which sure is handy for taking notes or making presentations. If your school makes software available via Remote Desktop or through Citrix, you’re in luck: the Surface RT supports both, which can allow it to function almost as a full-featured laptop.

The Surface’s main selling point is its keyboard cover, turning the slate into a laptop when you click out the built-in kickstand. You can choose between the “type keyboard”, which is a standard keyboard crammed into 3mm, or the “touch keyboard”, which has no physical keys – just a large touch surface with keys printed onto it. I haven’t had a chance to spend much time with a touch keyboard, but even after just half an hour of typing on it I was surprised by how much faster I was getting. Microsoft says it takes “about a week” to get used to the touch keyboard, and many online reviews have echoed the sentiment that the touch keyboard is weird at first, but grows on you.

Inside the Surface you’ll find the same Tegra 3 that powers many Android tablets, as well as 2 GB of RAM and a battery that lasts a little over 9 hours. It also has some other perks not found on most tablets – such as a full-size USB port and a micro-HDMI port that can be converted to VGA for those classroom projectors.

Buy from Microsoft

 

 

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Cable vs DSL: Which Was Better? http://blog.superuser.com/2013/03/14/cable-vs-dsl-which-was-better/ http://blog.superuser.com/2013/03/14/cable-vs-dsl-which-was-better/#comments Thu, 14 Mar 2013 06:00:23 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5319 I recently moved to a bigger city, and of course the first thing that I setup was my internet connection.  I’ve had the same ISP for a couple of years now, and they’ve been alright.  I’ve noticed drops in service here and there but overall it was a tolerable experience.  However, as soon as I started watching my online shows in the new place, I noticed some dramatic changes in my viewing experience.  There were long periods of waiting for the shows to buffer, and I felt like I was relapsing to my younger days of dial-up.  I got so frustrated one night I even tweeted about it:

I finally decided to switch over and give DSL a shot, but I didn’t cancel my Cable.  I figured I’d do a little testing and really see who was the better service after all.  I put together a pretty extensive document of my results.  You can find that document and all the data I captured and used in a link below. This blog post is a summary of what I found to be the important parts.

Before I continue there are a few things that I need to let you know.  In all fairness to Cox (the cable provider), they did reach out to me via twitter to the frustration I vented above.  They said that using a newer version of a cable modem (DOCSYS 3.0) would lead to faster speeds and better bandwidth, but I didn’t really want to spend the $60-$90 just for a study when I’m already committed to DSL.  Perhaps if they’re willing to donate a new modem and a few weeks of free cable, I’ll redo the testing.  CenturyLink (the DSL provider) become my new primary source of internet.  I know that when testing like this, the test network shouldn’t be used during.  However, my life is on the internet, and I wasn’t about to give it up just to avoid the randomized testing.  So these results include daily usage on the DSL connection.  The Cox cable line was untouched during testing with the exception of any Windows (or other installed apps) automatic updates.  Finally, the results of this test may not be the same as what you experience.  This is a quantitative and qualitative approach to testing in my geographical area.  The Cable was a 25 Mbit/s advertised connection and DSL was a 12 Mbit/s advertised connection.

So here are a few interesting results:

During Peak Hours DSL outperforms Cable in Download Speeds

I considered peak hours to be between 17:00 and 23:00 local time or basically the hours that I’m most active online during the week.  After testing I noticed that the download speeds were on average and consistently far better for DSL than that of Cable.  Here’s the average speed over roughly two weeks.  There’s a whole 2 Mbit/s speed difference between the two.

enter image description here

 

I put together a box plot that shows where roughly %50 of the values are for each.  The DSL connection was more concentrated in one central area, and was faster than the Cable!

 

Finally I decided to put together a confidence interval where I could be %95 sure where the range of speed would be during those peak hours.  This is what I found:

 

enter image description here

Not only was the interval smaller (less variation of the speeds during the hours), but it was overall faster than Cable!  Before testing I assumed that Cable and DSL were going to be pretty close especially since the DSL connection was half the advertised speed as the Cable, but for the fact that DSL excelled beyond Cable blew my mind.

 DSL Upload speeds aren’t speedy at all

One of the things that Cable did do well was in Upload speeds.  Of course that’s because DSL only offered a 800 kBit/s up speed, but here’s a few graphs to show just how bad the comparison was:

enter image description here

 

This will lead to some bandwidth issues, especially if you’re gaming.  Dropbox for iOS decided to start uploading my pictures while I was playing a game.  This led to some pretty horrible ping times and me pulling out my hair wondering what was going on for about a 1/2 hour.  The take away from this is, if you’re uploading a lot of data on a DSL connection, don’t play games while your at it.

Reliability and speed set aside: I still didn’t get 100% of my advertised speed

Neither Cox nor Century Link provided the full 100%

enter image description here

Cable’s 27% performance during peak hours is dismal and really unacceptable, especially since Cox did so much better according to the FCC’s national testing.  DSL you’re not off the hook either.  71% is bad as well, just not as bad as Cable.

At the end of the day, how did I feel about the service?

Numbers are great, and they qualify what I as a customer feel, but in the end they really don’t matter.  What matters most is whether or not I get frustrated with my current service.  I have to say, that while DSL hasn’t given me the speeds that I expected and hoped for, the reliability has been a big plus.  I’ve only noticed lags here and there, and I haven’t (yet) had to sit and wait for buffering that took just as long as the actual show that I was watching.

Want to look at the full results?  Here’s a link to the .pdf document I put together for the testing I did.  Here’s another link to all of the data if you want to mess around with it yourself.

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Super User Contest Winners! http://blog.superuser.com/2012/11/14/super-user-contest-winners/ http://blog.superuser.com/2012/11/14/super-user-contest-winners/#comments Wed, 14 Nov 2012 08:00:20 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5265 Congratulations!

Great job everyone. We had a great go around with this contest and lot of participants. With over 2000 posts during the contest period there were plenty of questions and answers about Windows 8. For more stats, Bob put together a stats web app where you can compare contest stats and even personalize it! Go give it a check out for more details on the contest as a whole.

All winners will receive an email from the Stack Exchange team with instructions on how to get your prize. (Note: the T-Shirt emails have already been sent, so if you achieved Level 1 and didn’t get the email, check you spam folders and make sure you weren’t suspended for cheating.)


Level 1 Winners

All I got was a Lousy T-Shirt

All users who reached Level 1, and weren’t disqualified due to cheating will get a T-Shirt! Great job guys. It’s our way of saying “You just answered all those questions, and all you get is a lousy T-Shirt!”

To achieve Level 1, you had to have:

  • 2 posts with a score of 1 or more
  • 1 post with a score of 3 or more

… all tagged Windows-8.

And now onto the other contest winners!


Tile Prize Winners:

Microsoft Wedge Keyboard

Tile Prizes were raffled off for achieving specific tasks during the contest. Each of the Tile Prize winners will receive a Microsoft Wedge Keyboard. Out of all the tile contestants, a single individual was selected to win a $200 value NAS server!

10 Edits: profile for studiohack at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users 1k View: profile for Graham Wager at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users 25 Votes: profile for Kirk at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users
50 Referrals: profile for Ivo Flipse at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users Accepted Answer: profile for amiregelz at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users Award Bounty: profile for Lincoln Bergeson at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users
Bounty Recieved: profile for AbhishekGirish at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users Blogger: profile for Tom Wijsman at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users NAS Winner: profile for Lamb at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users

Level 2 Winners

The Mouse of Champions

The Level 2 Prize is a Microsoft Arch Touch Mouse.  The 15 winners below were selected from users who had posted:

  • 5 posts with a score of 3 or more
  • 1 post with a score of 5 or more

… on questions tagged Windows-8. Congratulations!

profile for Harish Shivaraman at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for KronoS at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Jared Tritsch at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users
profile for SLaks at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Kirk at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Moab at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users
profile for Diogo at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Oliver Salzburg at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for amiregelz at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users
profile for Vladimir Sinenko at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Pratyush Nalam at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for soandos at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users
profile for GaTechThomas at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Karthik T at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Alexey Ivanov at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users

Level 3 Winners

GPU's, SSD's, and Monitors! Oh My!

To achieve Level 3, users had to have…

  • 10 posts with a score of 3 or more
  • 2 post with a score of 5 or more
  • 1 post with a score of 8 or more

… tagged Windows-8. The six winners selected below will have a choice of getting either a GPU, SSD, or Monitor of their choice (fulfilled by Amazon) worth up to $200.  

profile for nhinkle at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for George Duckett at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Graham Wager at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users
profile for Louis at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Rakib Ansary at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users profile for Journeyman Geek at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users

Level 4 Winners

You lucky pieces of....

Twenty-four users managed to achieve Level 4, which required…

  • 15 posts with a score of 3 or more
  • 5 post with a score of 5 or more
  • 1 post with a score of 15 or more

… tagged Windows-8. Two drawing winners get a Windows Surface RT and these two lucky users are:

profile for Karan at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users And… profile for DzinX at Super User, Q&A for computer enthusiasts and power users

 

Congratulations to everyone who won, and thank you all for participating! We hope to see you around Super User in the future!

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Introducing the Windows 8 Challenge http://blog.superuser.com/2012/10/22/windows-8-challenge/ http://blog.superuser.com/2012/10/22/windows-8-challenge/#comments Mon, 22 Oct 2012 05:00:16 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5192 Win8Challenge: Ask, Answer, Win

October 26th is coming fast. Are you ready for Windows 8? Super User is!

We’re having a party and you’re invited. Ask and answer questions to complete the challenge levels, and complete different tasks like editing, voting, and blogging to win the eight tile challenges. Each level you beat and each tile you finish enters you for sweet prizes, including the grand prize of a Microsoft Surface RT!

To increase your chances of success…

Before you jump in though, make sure you’re asking good questions, and make sure your question hasn’t already been answered. Use the built-in search, or your favorite search engine. When writing answers, leave a full answer (no bare links!), make sure to cite any resources you use, and use the Markdown formatting to make your post beautiful.

If you’re new here, please read our How to Ask page and the FAQ in its entirety before you begin. Earning the Analytical badge (awarded for reading all sections of the FAQ) is required to win any prizes. And remember, questions that are closed and answers that are deleted don’t count towards the contest.

 But wait! I don’t have Windows 8 yet…

That’s OK! If you want to get started now, you can still:

  • Download the release preview (beware that it expires January, and has some differences from the final release)
  • Install a 90 day evaluation copy of Windows 8 Enterprise (this cannot be directly upgraded to Windows 8 standard or Pro, so consider installing in a VM or a machine you can reinstall later)
  • Preorder Windows 8 Pro
  • Wait until October 26th, at which point you can upgrade from Windows XP, Vista, or 7 to Windows 8 Pro for $40 through the built-in upgrade system

Microsoft Surface RT

Good luck!

We hope you enjoy our contest, and that you keep coming back for your future Windows 8 questions. If you have any questions, drop a comment or come visit our chat room. Good luck!

Note: for contest details and full rules, visit win8challenge.com. “Windows” is a trademark of Microsoft.  This site is not affiliated with or endorsed by Microsoft in any way.    
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Increase your Ping-Fu! http://blog.superuser.com/2012/10/15/increase-your-ping-fu/ http://blog.superuser.com/2012/10/15/increase-your-ping-fu/#comments Mon, 15 Oct 2012 08:00:14 +0000 http://blog.superuser.com/?p=5186 User George Duckett came across a weird thing while performing a simple ping:

He performed a simple ping request but missed a ‘dot’.  I assume he meant to ping 192.168.0.72 but instead ended up typing 192.168.072.  What’s really amazing though (as pictured below) was that it worked!!! but not to 192.168.0.72 it sent the ping request to 192.168.0.58 :

enter image description here

So how does this work?

Synetech gave an awesome answer (go up vote it) explaining what happens.  Basically, pings are interpreted by the command line based four parts separated by ‘dots’.  Leaving out the dots means assumed zeros.  For example:

1 part  (ping A)       : 0.0.0.A
2 parts (ping A.B)     : A.0.0.B
3 parts (ping A.B.C)   : A.B.0.C
4 parts (ping A.B.C.D) : A.B.C.D

But that’s not all.  You can send the ping command using multiple formats:

So, there are plenty of ways to represent an (IPv4) IP address. You can use flat or dotted-quad (or dotted-triple, dotted-double, or even dotted-single) format, and for each one, you can use (or even mix and match) decimal, octal, and hexadecimal. For example, you can ping google.com in the following ways:

  • google.com  (domain name)
  • 74.125.226.4  (dotted decimal)
  • 1249763844  (flat decimal)
  • 0112.0175.0342.0004  (dotted octal)
  • 011237361004  (flat octal)
  • 0x4A.0x7D.0xE2.0x04  (dotted hex)
  • 0x4A7DE204  (flat hex)
  • 74.0175.0xe2.4  (ಠ_ಠ)

 

So now you can play around with your friends with your ping-fu mad skilz:

enter image description here

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