Thursday, July 21, 2016

Android Earphones King

Xiaomi Mi In-Ear Headphones Pro
There's a new king!

Earphones with Mic for Android recommended:
But, good as they are, the Xiaomi Mi In-Ear Headphones Pro is better than Klipsch but even less expensive than Sony! In fact it is better than any earphones this blog has tried under $100. Sound quality is stunning!
  • Hybrid dual drivers: dynamic for bass, balanced armature for treble
  • Metal sound chamber machined by CNC
  • MEMS microphone reduces noise interference on calls
  • 3-button remote for calls, music, and volume
  • Kevlar fiber cable for durability
  • TFE end section minimizes microphonics (clothing noise)
  • Comfortable fit and good isolation with multiple eartip sizes
  • Tuned by Grammy award winning tuner Luca Bignardi

Reviews:

To avoid counterfeits (a serious problem), buy from:

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Windows Monitor Calibration Issue

Calibrating your monitor is important because most monitors are not calibrated by the manufacturer, and do not display accurate color. See Calibrate Your Monitor.

But even after you've calibrated your monitor, it may not display accurate color, especially if you are running Microsoft Windows and have uninstalled the calibration software.

If you research this issue you're likely to be told that Windows doesn't load the calibration CLUT (Color Look-Up Table) properly, and advised to keep calibration software installed. But even then your monitor may not stay calibrated, shifting between calibrated and uncalibrated for no apparent reason. The truth is that monitor calibration can be made to work properly under Windows if you take the necessary steps:
  1. Stop Losing Display Calibration with Windows 7 details how to configure Windows to use a calibration color profile. But that may work for you at first, only to shift back again. Something may seem to be fighting with Windows. If so, check the article again, and see the note regarding Intel display drivers, which will lead you to:
  2. Intel’s Video Drivers Kill Display Calibration, which explains how Intel interferes with display calibration, and how to solve the problem by disabling the Intel Persistence module. If you use Sysinternals Autoruns to disable Persistence, your monitor should then stay calibrated even without calibration software installed!


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Disable Windows 10 Upgrade

Why not upgrade to Windows 10?
  1. Privacy: Windows 10 collects data on you, sends it to Microsoft, and there's no way to completely shut that off.
  2. Bugs: Quality control has taken a back seat to rapid releases, so bugs are more common than earlier versions.
  3. Compatibility: Windows XP and earlier Compatibility Modes have been removed, and not all software and drivers work properly in Windows 10.
  4. Control: Options to control updating have been removed from consumer versions.
  5. OneDrive: Feature regression.
  6. Media: Media Center and DVD Player have been removed.
  7. Cost: Microsoft is being coy about the cost of Windows after the free Windows 10 upgrade "promotion". Subscriptions might be required.
Bottom line: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But with Microsoft aggressively pushing Windows 10 upgrade out through Windows Update (over and over), it can be hard to avoid an inadvertent upgrade, and the ongoing nags are annoying.

KB3080351 How to manage Windows 10 notification and upgrade options provides instructions for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 to disable Windows 10 upgrade through Windows Update. Group Policy is not available in Home versions of Windows, but the Registry method should work. Either method should work in Pro versions.

Registry method (Home and Pro)

  1. Create a restore point in System Restore in case you make a mistake.
  2. Copy the following lines into a file named something like DisableWin10Upgrade.reg
    Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

    [HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\WindowsUpdate]
    "DisableOSUpgrade"=dword:00000001

    [HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\Gwx]
    "DisableGwx"=dword:00000001
  3. Double-click that file to Merge these changes into the Registry.

Group Policy method (Pro only, not available in Home)

  1. Download and install KB3065987.
  2. Search for Edit Group Policy and run it.
  3. Under Local Computer Policy open Computer Configuration → Administrative Templates → Windows Components → Windows Update.
  4. Edit Turn off the upgrade to the latest version of Windows through Windows Update, change to Enabled, and click OK. 
Screenshots from Group Policy method in Windows 7:



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Electric Shaver Sweet Spot

Panasonic ES8103S
Choice is good, but too much choice can be too much of a good thing, and with the plethora of rechargeable electric shavers on the market, with prices from $15 to $500 (yes, $500!), it's hard to select a shaver that's not only a great shaver but also a great value. Pay too little and you risk a shaver that is underpowered, cuts poorly, charges slowly, doesn't hold a charge, is hard to clean, etc. But if you pay too much you can waste money on features you don't need or even get features that don't actually facilitate a good shave.

Features that matter:
  • Fast shave
  • Close shave
  • Minimal pulling or irritation
  • Cuts longer hair not just stubble
  • Popup trimmer
  • Fast charging
  • Long battery life
  • Easy cleaning
  • Wet shaving
Foil vs Rotary. Each type has pros and cons, fans and foes, and the truth is that both can work well enough that you should go with the type you prefer. My own preference is for a good foil shaver, because it gives me a faster, closer shave with less irritation. But see note at bottom.

How many blades? Foil shavers can have anywhere from 1 to 5 blades (currently at least). More blades are touted as being better, but are they really? 2 blades cut much faster than 1 blade without adding much bulk, and 3 blade shavers can have the advantage different types of cutters, slit for longer hairs in addition to standard foils with holes. But past that number (more than 3 blades) there's little increase in shaving speed to compensate for the added bulk, weight, and cost, and not just the cost of the shaver itself.

Replacement Blades and Foils. To maintain shaving efficiency, blades and foils should be replaced regularly, at least annually, more often if needed. The cost of replacements is often overlooked when choosing a shaver, and the cost of a single set of replacements can be almost as much as a new shaver. Over the lifetime of a shaver you'll probably be spending more on replacements than you did on the shaver, so do pay close attention to replacement cost.

Battery technology:
  • Poor: Nickel-cadmium (memory effect degrades capacity)
  • Good: Nickel-metal hydride (no memory effect)
  • Best: Lithium-ion (high capacity, fast charging, light)
Foil brands:
Sweet Spot: When all is said and done, the sweet spot of electric shavers (as of this writing) is the Arc3 (3 blade) Panasonic ES8103S:
  • Great shaver
  • Great price (less than $80)
  • Wet or dry shave
  • Easy cleaning
  • Affordable replacements
  • Fast charging
  • Long battery life
  • Light and compact
  • Comfortable to hold
  • Excellent pop-up trimmer
Norelco 6100
Best alternatives:
  • Panasonic ES8109S: Essentially the ES8103S with a cleaning stand.
  • Braun 340s or the newer Braun 3040s. Closest Braun equivalent to the Panasonic ES8103S, but nickel-metal hydride battery is not as good, and shave isn't quite as good.
  • Philips Norelco Shaver 6100: If you prefer a rotary shaver, this is the one to get.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Windows 10 Upgrade Nightmare

Windows 10 upgrades have been going so smoothly for me that I got complacent, forgetting about the shaky underpinnings of Windows, and so I got bitten big time. Lessons learned:
  1. Windows 10 compatibility checker is imperfect.
  2. Windows 10 won't necessarily work well with Windows 7/8 drivers.
  3. Windows upgrade rollback has serious limitations.
I had foolishly sent someone down the upgrade trail on her own, which resulted in a panic message to me when it rejected her password after the upgrade. Spent a large amount of time resetting the password on her Microsoft account, but that didn't help. Finally had to go on site, where I quickly discovered the problem, NumLock turned on with a compact keyboard. The Windows 10 upgrade didn't migrate the keyboard Registry fix I had applied to earlier versions of Windows. So applied new fix.

I then went through the hassle of reversing the hijacking of program associations by the upgrade, and upgraded all applications to current versions (which eventually proved to be a big mistake, as I explain below). Not a great experience I thought, but probably still worth it.

3 days later I got another panic message. The problem was that folder view wasn't right for her pictures, and she was unable to change it. Based on experience with her I thought this was probably cockpit error, and so wasted much time and grief telling her what to do before finally turning to (excellent) TeamViewer to do it myself remotely (which I should have done in the beginning). And indeed, folder view options were disabled. She had an administrative account, so that wasn't the problem, Explorer registry setting wasn't wrong, and I couldn't see any Policy issues. So I decided to try System Restore, rolling back to right after the upgrade, and happily that solved the problem. I still don't know what caused the problem, possibly cockpit error, possibly malware, and worried about a possible recurrence.

The next day I made another on site visit to finish up. Most things seemed fine, but there were some issues. Audacity couldn't see any audio devices. Maybe reinstalling it would have solved the problem, but I never got around to trying that. More worrying was the WD Passport drive for File History not appearing as a device. I managed to get it working, but then encountered this issue:


This is an old Windows issue that's never been resolved. It seems to be a result of not having proper drivers for USB: host controller, card reader, etc. Which wasn't good news since support for that Gateway SX2802 desktop computer seems to have ended the day Gateway shipped it. So I spent considerable time trying various drivers for card readers from major chip vendors, but no joy. Registry data suggested the card reader controller was by Alcor, but that didn't prove a fruitful path either.

Finally I remembered I had installed a USB 3.0 PCIe card in the computer for the WD Passport. It had a strange chip, Etron EJ168, rather than the usual Renesas or TI. And when I disconnected and reconnected the WD Passport, one of the two WPD driver errors disappeared and reappeared in sync. But alas, installing Etron EJ168 drivers didn't help either, even when I laboriously tried updating drivers and deleting devices, not helped by the fact that the USB keyboard and mouse would stop working when I blundered on their entries.

In frustration and desperation I finally thought to roll back (revert) to Windows 8.1, assuming that would get the system back to where it was before the Windows 10 upgrade mess, but that proved to be a very bad assumption. The rollback seemed to go well enough, but as soon as I started checking operation I found that some of the applications were screwed up. I noticed these were all applications I had updated after the Windows 10 upgrade, and the light dawned. While the Windows 8.1 and 10 installations are separate, the applications (in Program Files, etc.) are not, so the old Windows 8.1 installation was now out of sync with the updated applications. Ugh.

Not a serious problem, I thought. I'll uninstall and reinstall those applications. Except I couldn't. Because uninstall for some of the applications (Adobe Reader, iTunes, etc.) depends on installers stored outside the Windows directory, which got changed by my updating, and Windows uninstall fails when those install files can't be located. I was able to use the Adobe clean tool to get rid of Reader, but no such tools exist for other applications like iTunes. After wasting a huge amount of time trying to manually uninstall them, I finally turned to the Windows Installer CleanUp Utility, which succeeded in cleaning up the mess so I could reinstall those applications. (The preferred method is Microsoft Fix It.)

Last but not least, Windows 8.1 then restarted the Windows 10 upgrade process on its own. Clicking cancel seemed to do no good, and there's no obvious way to turn it off. I finally solved the problem by (a) uninstalling and hiding KB3035583 and (b) unchecking Windows 10 Upgrade in Advanced options.

What a nightmare. I'm guessing I wasted at least 8 hours in total. And it's left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Stop Xfinity WiFi

Got Comcast Internet service? Then you're probably providing open Internet service to the public, and unless you've read and understood everything very carefully, you probably don't even know it!

When you rent a wireless gateway* from Comcast (as most customers do), by default Comcast enables another wireless network called xfinitywifi for use by other Comcast and Cable WiFi Alliance customers. This is a really bad idea:
  • Security and privacy are put at risk by opening up service to outsiders in shared equipment. (Claims that outsiders are completely walled off are disingenuous -- there is always a risk.)
  • Internet service is degraded by the additional traffic. The carrier wireless gateway is a cheap low-end device with limited processing capacity (and is a common cause of connectivity problems in general).
  • Wireless networking is degraded by the additional wireless traffic. Wireless bands are already crowded and limited in many areas, and this just makes things worse.
  • It's not good for guest Internet access (as claimed by Comcast) because it won't work if your guests are not Comcast or Cable WiFi Alliance customers. Set up a private guest network on your own wireless router for your guests.
  • Comcast is running its business for free out of your home on equipment you are paying to rent.
It's possible to opt out of this outrageous arrangement (instructions here), but there's no way to be sure you'll stay opted out without continual checking.

The better solution is to never ever rent a carrier wireless gateway. Instead, buy your own:
  1. DOCSIS cable modem (from the approved list, like the excellent Motorola SB6141)
  2. Wireless router (See Choosing a Wireless Router)
* Cable wireless gateway is a combination of DOCSIS cable modem and wireless router.

To be ethical and above board, Comcast should at least provide a free wireless gateway in return for supporting Xfinity WiFi.

More Info

Comcast

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ad Blocking

uBlock
Ads on the Web not only are often annoying and performance degrading, but also can seriously compromise your privacy (by tracking you) and security (as an attack mechanism for malware).

Apologists for ads claim they finance the "free" Web and that some ads are better than others, but those claims are greatly exaggerated, since the Web has many different financing mechanisms including service fees paid by users, and since it doesn't make sense to risk compromising performance, privacy and security.

The best way to deal with ads is to use a blocking extension in the Web brower (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, or Safari).
  • The best ad blocking extension (as of this writing) is uBlock, available for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
  • If you must use Internet Explorer (not recommended), Adblock Plus is a good alternative, but be sure to configure it to block all ads. (So-called "unobtrusive" ads are not blocked by default.)
  • Blocking extensions don't work well on mobile, where ads can be even more of a problem due to data consumption, but Adblock Browser can be used instead of the native browser (Chrome or Safari) to do the job.
Ad blocking extensions won't stop malware on your device from serving ads, so it's also a good idea to scan your device for malware. See Anti-Malware for Windows.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Internet Fax

Use a free personal account at FilesAnywhere to send up to 10 faxes per month. Fully professional quality and service, highly recommended!

For more information, see original post Internet Fax.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Oil Change Scam

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." 
 
Pennzoil Platinum is an excellent full synthetic motor oil, a great way to enhance and prolong the life of your motor vehicle. (See Why would I upgrade to a synthetic motor oil?) Unfortunately, the business ethics of Pennzoil, a subsidiary of Shell, do not match the quality its products.

A common promotion for Pennzoil Platinum is a certificate (coupon) supposedly good for $20-25 off on your next oil change (as compared to perhaps $10 off on your current oil change) that will be sent to you by mail. That promise sounds too good to be true, and for many people it is.

One of the principal benefits of full synthetic oil is extended oil change intervals, which helps to offset the much higher cost of synthetic oil. With full synthetic oil many people need only one oil change per year. But the fine print on the Pennzoil certificate limits it to 180 days. In other words, to take advantage of the certificate, you probably have to buy an oil change you don't need, wasting money (on the order of $80) and the planet. If you're going to change oil more than once a year, you're probably better off sticking to regular motor oil.


So don't fall for an empty promise. Instead stick to promotions that apply at the time of service even if they don't seem as attractive.

Notes

  • Other good full synthetic motor oils include Amsoil, Castrol Edge, Mobil 1, Red Line, Royal Purple, and Valvoline Synpower.
  • Watch out for off-brand "synthetic" oils that may not measure up to the leading brands.
  • Watch out for unscrupulous garages that charge for synthetic oil but actually use cheap regular oil and filter, or don't change the filter.
Update: BBB Complaint was simply ignored by the company, now a negative mark against it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Computer Headset

Plantronics .Audio 478
Headsets are similar to headphones, except headsets tend to be optimized for speech, with microphones needed for chatting, speech recognition, gaming, etc, whereas headphones tend to be optimized for music.

When choosing a computer headset, there are a number of important considerations:
  • Analog versus Digital: USB (digital) connection will generally deliver better quality audio than analog jack connection.
  • Stereo versus Mono: Both comfort and audio quality tend to be better with stereo headphones even with mono sound.
  • Type: The choice of over-the-ear, on-the-ear, or in-the-ear also affects both comfort and audio quality. Many people find lightweight on-the-ear to be the most comfortable, especially for extended wearing, with good quality audio without blocking of ambient sounds.
  • Noise Cancellation: Good microphones can cancel ambient sounds making voice pickup clearer, especially with a boom design that puts the microphone hear the mouth.
Of the many manufacturers making computer headsets, Plantronics has a long and distinguished record of making good products, and its on-the-ear .Audio 478 is no exception, delivering good sound and comfort at an affordable price point, with the additional advantage of folding into a compact package for travel. Recommended.

Notes:

  1. While the sound quality of the .Audio 478 is good, it's optimized for speech, not music.
  2. When ambient sound is an issue, over-the-ear (noise isolating) may be a better choice than on-the-ear.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

CD-R Blanks

Verbatim DataLifePlus AZO CD-R
It's getting harder and harder to get decent quality CD-R blank discs. Most of the products left on the market are cheap junk that don't work reliably.

Arguably the best quality CD-R blank discs are Verbatim DataLifePlus AZO. To avoid lower quality Verbatim discs, be sure to get AZO. (This also applies to DVD-R and DVD+R blank discs.)

As of this writing, the best source for these discs is Amazon.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Calibrate Your Monitor

Datacolor Spyder Calibration
Unless there are obvious problems, most people just assume their monitors work correctly. But the truth is that mass produced monitors are usually significantly off in terms of color balance, too green, too blue, etc, and most people just don't notice unless they see two monitors side by side with the same image. In addition to showing us wrong colors, incorrect color balance can make printing images an exercise in frustration.

Fortunately, monitor calibration is an easy way to solve the problem, and should be done by anyone who cares about color. Unfortunately, trying to do it by eye (e.g., Windows Display Color Calibration) is crude and imperfect at best. What's needed for good results is a colorimeter, a hardware device that can accurately measure the color of a monitor.

Of the many colorimeters available, one of the best and most affordable is the Datacolor Spyder, which can be purchased new for as little as $60 (basic Express version). If you just want to calibrate once, a local camera shop may offer calibration as a service, or you can inexpensively rent the the full SpyderHD package from BorrowLenses.

Highly recommended. You'll probably be amazed by the difference.

Notes:

  1. Works for both Windows and Mac.
  2. Burn in a new monitor for at least 24 hours before calibration.
  3. Warm up a monitor for at least an hour before calibration.
  4. Re-calibrate every 30-90 days for best results because color balance can change as a monitor ages.
  5. Windows can interfere with calibration. See Windows Monitor Calibration Issue.
  6. An option that can give even better results with a supported colorimeter is (free) DisplayCAL (Open Source Display Calibration and Characterization powered by Argyll CMS) software.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

How To Restore Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox
Mozilla Firefox is an excellent Web browser, fast and capable, but you might suddenly find that your settings (bookmarks, tabs, plugins, etc.) have gotten corrupted or even lost. This unfortunate problem can normally be fixed with Windows Vista or Windows 7 using the following procedure:
  1. Close any Firefox windows that might be open.
  2. Click Windows Start at left end of Task Bar, put the following in Search Box or Run, and press [Enter]:
         %LOCALAPPDATA%\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles
    That should open an Explorer window with at least one Profile folder.
  3. Right-click on a Profile folder, and then click "Restore previous versions" in the pop-up menu to open the Properties window.
  4. Click to select the top (most recent) version, and then click "Restore...".
  5. That should pop up a confirmation window ("Are you sure you want to restore..."). Click Restore.
  6. Windows should then copy a bunch of files to restore Firefox, finishing with
    "The folder has been successfully restored to the previous version."
  7. Click OK to close the message, then close the Properties and Explorer windows.
  8. Launch Firefox.

Notes:

  1. "Restore previous versions" does not exist in Windows 8. Use File History instead.
  2. This procedure is covered in Windows 7 Help and Support under "Recover lost or deleted files" in the section "To restore a file or folder to a previous state". 
  3. This only works if you have System Restore enabled and/or have used Windows Backup.
  4. You can try restoring an earlier version if necessary.
  5. If this doesn't work, you can start over by closing Firefox and deleting the Profile folder.
See also How To Restore Google Chrome.

PC Keyboard in Android

PC keyboard in Android
Good as it is, the Google keyboard in Android can be frustrating if you need to enter mixed letters and numbers. You must either slowly long-press numbers, or keep switching back and forth between letters and numbers 3-row layouts. Wouldn't it be nice to have a 4-row layout with both letters and numbers like your PC?

Happily, there is a way (starting with Android 4.2) to have this cake and eat it too, by enabling 4-row "PC" layout, with an easy way to toggle between 3-row and 4-row layouts. Here's how to do it in Lollipop (Android 5):
switch layout
  1. Open Settings > Language & Input.
  2. Make sure Current Keyboard is set to Google Keyboard.
  3. Open Google Keyboard.
  4. Open Appearances & layouts.
  5. Open Custom input styles.
  6. Click + to add a style.
  7. Select desired Language, select PC for Layout, then Add.
  8. Return to Google Keyboard Settings.
  9. Select Languages.
  10. Turn Use system language off.
  11. Turn on your new PC layout (in addition to your standard layout).
  12. Close Settings.
You should now have a globe icon just to the left of the space-bar on your keyboard. Selecting (touching) that globe icon should toggle between your active layouts.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Wireless HDTV Video (update)

Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter
The ability to beam video to a HDTV screen without wires has been promised for quite some time, but the product methods on offer (DLNA, Miracast, Wi-Fi Direct) have proved to be disappointing, complex and/or problematic. This update adds an additional option.

Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter

Promising easy setup and compatibility with both Android (4.2.1 and later) and Windows (8.1 and later), Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter comes close to hitting the mark. Setup is indeed easy (though not entirely free of problems, since more than one connect attempt may be needed), and audio sync and video quality are quite good (significantly better than Chromecast), but motion tends to be a bit jerky (1080p video tested over a short distance from Windows 8.1 with Intel i7 processor, Intel HD Graphics 5500, and Intel 802.11ac adapter), clearly not as good as HDMI cable connection. (Frames are probably being dropped to maintain streaming.)

Google Chromecast
Google Chromecast

With mighty Google behind it, inexpensive Chromecast would seem a sure winner. But right out of the box it can be problematic because it insists on network capabilities (access to Google Public DNS servers) that make it incompatible with some wireless routers. (See Chromecast Router Compatibility) Past that point things can look good at first blush, as when casting the screen of an Android mobile, or streaming YouTube video. But push it a bit harder and warts appear. Local video (from Android mobile or Chrome browser) is limited to 720p and relatively low bit rate by default, with poor quality, and even when pushed to its limits, quality is still only mediocre at best. So if you care about video quality, Chromecast is really just another Internet streaming option.

DLNA

Many "smart" HDTV sets claim DLNA Player support, which should make it possible to beam video to them over a network connection (wired or wireless), and the ubiquitous Windows Media Player includes DLNA Server support. (See Media Streaming with Windows 7) But try to make it work and you're very likely to run into compatibility problems, since many HDTV sets are very fussy about what video formats they will (and will not) play, and Windows Media Player does not support transcoding between formats. (While there DLNA servers that can transcode on the fly, they can be difficult to set up, and the resulting quality is often mediocre. Your best bet is to use Handbrake to transcode to MPEG-4 in advance.) But even when it works, video quality is noticeably inferior to a wired HDMI connection.

Bottom line: Beaming of HDTV video without wires remains a work in progress.
  • For best quality use a wired HDMI connection.
  • If you must have wireless, Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter is the best bet.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Disk Activity Light

Unfortunate casualties of the race to produce ever cheaper computers include hardware activity lights for things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and (perhaps most importantly) disk activity.

Without a disk activity light you have no way of knowing if anything is going on in a system if nothing is happening on the screen. There might be a legitimate system update that's just taking much longer than you expected, or there might be malware (virus) wreaking havoc. You can open Task Manager to see what's happening (on the Performance tab), but that's not as convenient and persistent as a proper disk activity light.

A good substitute for a missing hardware disk activity light is the small freeware DiskLED. It will reside in your System Tray and light up (as in the picture) whenever there is disk activity on any drive. Thanks to excellent design, DiskLED can also be used to monitor other system activities. It can even be used remotely.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

ThinkPad T450s Review

ThinkPad T450s

Introduction

The ThinkPad T450s is one of the best new ultrabooks. While it's not as thin as some, it's still quite compact, much easier to service than thinner machines, and the Full HD IPS screen is a standout feature.

This review is based on a production ThinkPad T450s, Machine Type 20BX, Product ID 20BXCTO1WW.
  • Intel Core i7-5600U Processor
  • Windows 8.1 Pro 64
  • 14.0" FHD (1920 x 1080) IPS screen
  • 720p HD Camera
  • Intel HD Graphics 5500
  • 4 GB DDR3L - SDRAM 1600MHz Base
  • Fingerprint Reader
  • 500GB Hard Disk Drive, 7200rpm, 2.5"
  • ThinkPad Battery 3 cell Li-Polymer (23.2Whr) Front
  • ThinkPad Battery 3 cell Li-Polymer (23.2Whr) Rear
  • Country Pack 45W AC adapter United States (2pin)
  • Intel 7265 AC/B/G/N Dual Band Wireless + Bluetooth Version 4.0
After receipt (because upgrading was less expensive than buying from Lenovo):

Construction

Quality of T450s construction is not up to old ThinkPad standards, with some obvious cheapening, but is still pretty good. Annoyances include the difficulty of prying off the bottom cover (after removing 8 screws) to get to the inside, and fingerprint-revealing textured plastic instead of the old rubberized finish. But it's quite solid, no flexing, and quite compact.

Connectivity

Port layout is reasonably good on both sides with nothing on the back. All USB ports are 3.0 with excellent performance. Standard Ethernet port. But Mini DisplayPort means you may have to buy and carry an easy-to-lose dongle.* Wi-Fi performance (Intel 802.11ac 2x2) seems better than earlier generation 802.11n Intel cards, even those with 3x3. Bluetooth connections are fast. Speakers are decent but nothing to write home about. Webcam quality is improved over earlier generations, but still struggles in low light. Fingerprint reader is a big improvement. (Thank you, Apple.)

Performance

The good news is that the Broadwell i7 in the T450s finally proves to be a bit faster than the Sandy Bridge i7 (T420s) on processor intensive tasks like video encoding, despite an ultra low voltage processor running a little slower. The machine is cool and silent most of the time, with only a soft blowing of air under heavy load.

Memory

4 GB of memory is soldered to the main board and there's only one SO-DIMM slot. While you can add an 8 GB SO-DIMM for 12 GB total, that would mean a third of the memory would work in single channel mode, which can have a pretty big impact on performance (as much as 20-30%) especially since the integrated graphics adapter uses part of main memory (reducing available memory). So if you care about performance you'll have to stick with 8 GB, which can be marginal for things like Ultra HD video editing. (The performance impact, of course, also applies to machines with only the base 4 GB memory. The promised NVIDIA 940M graphics option is not yet available.)

Screen

The 1920x1080 IPS screen may take some getting used to, but really is a good deal better than TN screens, and is pretty close to proper calibration out of the box. (Be sure to burn in the screen for at least 24 hours before making any judgements.)

Keyboard

The island keyboard is pretty good for what it is, but the layout still suffers as compared to the classic ThinkPad keyboard. Layout of Home End Insert Delete and PrtSc are poor, and other keys like Pause/Break are missing entirely, now only available as Fn key combinations (like Fn+B for Break) that are not marked on the keys. Also annoying is the lack of hardware status lights (hard disk, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, charging). You can rely on the Windows Task Bar for wireless and charging, but you'll need to install something like DiskLED (which works well) for disk activity. Keyboard backlight is usable (despite some annoying light bleed from the top row), but not as good as the classic ThinkLight.

Pointing

TrackPoint performs as expected. TouchPad is greatly improved over recent ThinkPad generation with the return of TrackPoint buttons, nice smooth surface, and good response. Bluetooth works quite well with the ThinkPad Bluetooth Laser Mouse (recommended).

Power

With just the standard 2nd battery, not the extended battery with big bulge on the bottom, the T450s can still be used on and off through an entire day without running out of battery power. The supplied power adapter is pretty small, but only 45W, so can't fast charge when the system is under load. If you care about fast charging you should get the optional Slim 65W Adapter.

Summary

A mostly welcome return to ThoinkPad form, with a very good IPS screen, and finally enough ultra low voltage processor power to measure up to Sandy Bridge.

* Belkin Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter is available at low cost from B&H.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Secure Online Transactions

The press is filled with stories on online "hacks" (actually cyber attacks) compromising millions of credit card numbers and raising serious risks of fraud and identity theft. So what to do? Fortunately, it is possible to have very safe online transactions.

Most online risk comes from trusting your credentials (e.g., credit and debit card numbers) to third parties. The best way to avoid that problem is with a controlled payment number service like Citi Virtual Account Numbers. PayPal is another good option. Or use an electronic payment service like USBank Bill Pay Online. Regardless, to minimize this risk, change your credit and debit card numbers at least annually.

Bill Pay Online is more secure than paying by credit card, debit card, merchant EFT (ACH), or even paper check, because you initiate and have control over the entire payment process, unlike a credit or debit card where you can't easily stop someone from charging you.

Online banking is a different matter. If you follow recommended security practices (strong, unique* passwords, changed regularly) online banking through https connections to banks with good security policies does not increase risk over regular banking. ATM machines are actually the weakest link in the banking chain (example).

The best way to follow good password practices is to use a password manager like KeePass, which is free, cross-platform, and open source. (Open source is essential to ensure good security. See Manage Passwords on PC, Android, and more.) Use automatic cloud sync (e.g., Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive) to backup your password file and sync it to multiple devices. (Because your password file is securely encrypted, there's essentially no cloud risk.)

* Never, ever, use the same password for more than one purpose.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wi-Fi Troubleshooting

ASUS USB-AC56
The most common cause of poor or erratic download speed is wireless interference, particularly on the heavily used 2.4 GHz band. To troubleshoot the problem:
  1. ISP to Internet backbone issue
    If your ISP (Internet Service Provider) has its own speed test site (e.g., Comcast XFINITY Speed Test), run several tests on it. If the problem goes away, you probably have an ISP to Internet backbone issue.
  2. Wireless issue
    Turn off wireless in your computer and connect it to the wireless router by Ethernet cable. Run several tests to the ISP speed test (if any) and to The Global Broadband Speed Test. If the problem goes away, you probably have a wireless issue; otherwise you probably have a local ISP issue.
An ISP speed test site is an internal server within the ISP network, so it doesn't test the connection between the ISP network and the Internet backbone, whereas The Global Broadband Speed Test site tests both the ISP network and the connection from the ISP network to the Internet backbone.
If you have a Wireless Issue:
  1. Try different wireless channels
    Access the configuration of your wireless router, and manually switch it to channels 1, 6, and 11 (the primary non-overlapping 2.4 GHz channels), thoroughly testing performance in each case.
  2. Switch to 5 GHz
    If you have a dual band wireless router (recommended), try connecting to 5 GHz instead of 2.4 GHz because it's usually much less crowded, although it may have less range.
  3. Try a different wireless adapter
    ASUS USB-AC53 and ASUS USB-AC56 are two of the best.
See Also:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Mini Jump Starter

Mini Multi-function Jump Starter
Also power and charge cell phones or even computers

You accidentally left lights on in your car, and now the battery doesn't have enough power to start the car. You could call for a jump start, but often that will take well over an hour even in an urban area, and can be expensive if you don't have an auto club membership. You could carry jumper cables with you, but you would still have to find someone willing and able to give you a jump start. Or you could carry an emergency jump start battery.

Until recently jump start batteries were too big and heavy to be practical accessories, but that's now changed. The same advanced lithium ion technology that's given notebook (laptop) computers such long battery life is now available in small and light (mini) jump starters that are practical to carry with you. While they don't have the total capacity of a regular car battery, they are able to deliver sufficiently high current more than long enough to start a normal car. (See Note below) The latest models also have the ability to power and recharge not only things like cell phones but also even computers, and there's even a powerful flashlight.

One of the best current units is sold on Amazon with 1 year warranty by BESTEK and by Bolt Power. It comes with a variety of computer power tips, including one that works for late model Lenovo ThinkPad T-series machines. The USB connector will charge cell phones, but even though rated at 2.1A, it only charges the Nexus 5 Android at slow "USB" rate. (For faster charging see Best USB Car Charger) The included zippered carrying case fits neatly under a car seat. Recommended.

Update: Used it to easily jump start two cars, so I know it works.

Notes

  1. When jump starting:
    1. Make sure connections are clean and solid.
    2. After turning unit on, wait a few seconds before trying to start the car.
  2. Larger engines need higher starting current. Figure 150A for 4 cylinders, 200A for 6 cylinders, 250A for 8 cylinders, 300A for truck diesel. (These are base values, not peak values.)
  3. Watch out for unbranded (unknown) units with dubious quality, warranty and support.
  4. Check to see if the correct power tip for your particular computer is included
  5. Top up charge every 3-6 months. 
  6. The mAh claim is the sum of the mAh ratings of the 3.7V battery cells, but that's not a valid calculation. Real capacity of typical units is 40-50 Wh (watt-hours).
  7. If you must call for a jump start and don't have an auto club membership, try Allstate Roadside Assistance at 877-469-7650, charged to credit or debit card.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Choosing a Wireless Router


ASUS RT-N66U
Checklist for Wireless Networking

Very Important

  1. Don't settle for a "wireless gateway"
    A "wireless gateway" is an all-in-one device that combines a modem (cable or DSL) with a wireless router. They tend to be mediocre, poor performers, especially those supplied by Internet providers.
    1. Insist on a pure modem. Buy your own separate wireless router.
    2. Make sure the modem is configured in "bridge" (not routing) mode. Otherwise you can have "double NAT" problems.

Important

  1. Simultaneous Dual Band
    The low 2.4 GHz band, commonly found in consumer-grade devices, is increasingly crowded, which can severely limit performance. The high 5 GHz band tends to be much less crowded, and will often provide much better performance. But don't just get a single band 5 GHz device, since some wireless devices only support 2.4 GHz, and avoid dual band devices with a single radio that can only work on one band at a time. In other words, not just dual band, but simultaneous dual band.
  2. 300 Mbps Speed
    Wireless "n" devices work at multiples of 150 Mbps (150 Mbps, 300 Mbps, 450 Mbps, etc), but most consumer wireless devices only support 150 Mbps or 300 Mbps, making 300 Mbps a good baseline, so choose a device with at least 300 Mbps speed on both bands (N600). If you choose a wireless "ac" device, anything greater than AC1750 is overkill.
  3. Gigabit Ethernet
    Although Fast (100 Mbps) Ethernet is comparable in real world performance to 300 Mbps wireless (actual wireless performance is usually much less than the advertised maximum), Gigabit (1000 Mbps) Ethernet provides much faster wired networking for not much more money and is otherwise good "future proofing".

Nice To Have

  1. Guest feature
    A guest feature is a separate wireless network for guests that lets them connect to the Internet but not to any of your own networked devices. It's a bad idea to give guests access to your own network.
  2. USB
    USB can be used to attach USB storage or USB printer to the wireless router for network access.

Recommendations non-Apple

    1. ASUS RT-AC87U
      Best. AC2400. Outstanding range and performance. High processing power for gigabit throughput. Excellent support.
    2. ASUS RT-AC68U
      Better. AC1900.
    3. ASUS RT-AC66U
      Very good
      . AC1750. All that most people need.
    4. ASUS RT-N66U
      Good
      . N900. All that most people need.
    5. TP-LINK TL-WDR3600
      Best Buy. N600. Good range and performance. All that most people need.

    Recommendations Apple

    1. Apple AirPort Extreme
      If you're into Apple products, this is the wireless router to get. Expensive but Recommended. Save money safely with an Apple refurbished unit.
    2. Apple AirPort Time Capsule
      Essentially an AirPort Extreme with backup storage built in, so you can keep all your Apple devices backed up over your network. Highly Recommended. Get the largest size you can afford. Save money safely with an Apple refurbished unit.

    Notes

    1. Update Firmware
      Check the support website for updated firmware before installing, and regularly thereafter (e.g., quarterly).
    2. Don't "cheap out"
      A cheap wireless router can reduce performance due to poor internal routing speed.
    3. Use WPA2 AES Security
      Identity theft is just one of the risks from getting hacked, and WEP "security" is essentially useless. Use a different (and equally strong) password for a Guest network.
    4. Set a Strong Password
      Use a random combination of 12 or more mixed case letters and numbers that you don't use for anything else, and do not use common words, names, numbers, etc.
    5. Don't fool yourself
      Network name (SSID) hiding and MAC address filtering are too easily circumvented to provide even minimal security, and they can lead to network problems, so don't use them.
    6. Network Backup
      Network storage is an excellent way to keep your devices backed up. Highly recommended. (WD My Cloud is a very good alternative to network storage on the wireless router.)
    7. Apple AirPort Express
      The AirPort Express is a great way to extend iTunes music to remote speakers.

     See Also

    Monday, February 2, 2015

    Google Plugin Error 1612

    Google Talk
    Google Voice and Video Chat Plugin (also known as Google Talk Plugin) is needed to make telephone and video calls (free as of this writing) from within Gmail. Unfortunately, the plugin can become corrupted, which results in a prompt to install it, but that can result in Error 1612 over and over. The description makes it sound like a download error, but it can actually be due to corruption of the installation on Windows. Worse, there is no good way to uninstall it (for which shame on Google)!

    The solution may be to use the Microsoft Fix It tool to Fix problems that programs cannot be installed or uninstalled. Look for Google Talk Plugin in the list of items to install or uninstall. Then after fixing that, try again to install it.

    Monday, January 26, 2015

    Wireless HDTV Video (original)

    Chromecast
    See Wireless HDTV Video (update)

    The ability to beam video to a HDTV screen without wires has been promised for quite some time, but the product methods on offer (DLNA, Miracast, Wi-Fi Direct) have proved to be disappointing, complex and/or problematic. Two current examples:

    Chromecast

    With mighty Google behind it, inexpensive Chromecast would seem a sure winner. But right out of the box it can be problematic because it insists on network capabilities (access to Google Public DNS servers) that make it incompatible with some wireless routers. (See Chromecast Router Compatibility) Past that point things can look good at first blush, as when casting the screen of an Android mobile, or streaming YouTube video. But push it a bit harder and warts appear. Local video (from Android mobile or Chrome browser) is limited to 720p and relatively low bit rate by default, with poor quality, and even when pushed to its limits, quality is still only mediocre at best. So if you care about video quality, Chromecast is really just another Internet streaming option.

    DLNA

    Many "smart" HDTV sets claim DLNA Player support, which should make it possible to beam video to them over a network connection (wired or wireless), and the ubiquitous Windows Media Player includes DLNA Server support. (See Media Streaming with Windows 7) But try to make it work and you're very likely to run into compatibility problems, since many HDTV sets are very fussy about what video formats they will (and will not) play, and Windows Media Player does not support transcoding between formats. (While there DLNA servers that can transcode on the fly, they can be difficult to set up, and the resulting quality is often mediocre. Your best bet is to use Handbrake to transcode to MPEG-4 in advance.) But even when it works, video quality is noticeably inferior to a wired HDMI connection.

    Bottom line: Beaming of HDTV video without wires remains a work in progress. For best quality use a wired HDMI connection.

    Saturday, January 17, 2015

    Record Radio Online

    I've previously described how to record Internet radio with a computer using VLC Media Player. (See Record Internet Radio.) This can be invaluable for time shifting programs not available as a podcast.

    Recording can also be done without a computer using the DAR.fm Web service.
    • With a Free account, you can schedule a single program to be regularly recorded, and (only) listen using a Web browser on a computer.
    • With a Pro account (starting at $40 per year), you can record 5 or more shows, and also download them and/or stream them to smartphone.
    Recordings are broken up into 15 minute segments. You can play them continuously with a playlist, or by joining (and optionally cutting) them with a tool like mp3DirectCut (freeware for Windows, works without quality loss).

    UPDATE (6/2015): DAR.fm prices have greatly increased. The Free account has been eliminated, and the Pro price to record up to 5 shows has more than doubled from $40/year to $90/year. The future of the service is questionable.

    To give DAR.fm a try, click this referral link:

    Saturday, December 20, 2014

    Cell Phone Bargain

    Moto G
    Great phone. Great service. Great value.

    No contract cell phone service is much less expensive than contract service, but you have to buy your own cell phone (instead of having the cost bundled into contract phone service), and an up front cost of several hundred dollars can be a significant drawback.

    The Moto G, a breakthrough Android smartphone with solid specifications and an amazing price of only $180 that made no contract cell phone service much more attractive, is now even better: Net10 Wireless has a special Moto G (1st generation) price of only $120 (as of this writing) that makes it a steal! Although it's not LTE (see below), its 4G speed is still quite respectable.

    Net10 Wireless is one of the best values in cell phone service, with unlimited domestic phone, text, and data (as of this writing) for only:
    • $40 per month with a small amount of high speed data (500 MB)
    • $45 per month (on auto-refill) with a substantial amount of high speed data (3 GB)
    Tips:
    1. With Net10 Wireless, you can choose either the AT&T or the T-Mobile network. AT&T tends to have better network coverage. T-Mobile tends to have higher data speed.
    2. The LTE version of the Moto G (with faster data speeds) is available on Amazon for $190 (as of this writing).

    Sunday, December 14, 2014

    Wi-Fi on the Water

    Alfa Marine USB Wi-Fi
    If you're on a boat, and there's Wi-Fi available ashore, but your computer can't get enough signal for a usable connection, the outdoor waterproof Alfa Marine USB Wi-Fi Adapter can be a good solution.

    The pictured module has an integrated 12 dBi long-range antenna. Although the antenna is directional, the pattern is wide enough that pointing is not critical, and a fair amount of boat movement is tolerated. With clear line-of-sight and a good antenna at the other end, range can be a mile or more.

    The module mounts to something like a stanchion or mast on deck by means of stainless hose clamps or plastic zip ties, with a USB cable running to a computer below deck. Although the cable is limited to 15 ft (5 m) by the USB standard, a USB extension cable may be used for an additional 15 ft.

    Available on Amazon for only $35 (link) as of this writing. Drivers provided for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.

    (Beware of cheaper off-brand units with exaggerated claims of antenna gain or range. Most are junk.)

    Tip: Only one computer is supported, but if the computer has Wi-Fi, software can turn that Wi-Fi into a hotspot for wireless devices. Sharing over Ethernet (cable) is also possible.

    Monday, September 8, 2014

    Extend Wi-Fi Coverage

    NETGEAR PLW1010 Essentials
    Wi-Fi radio signals all too often fail to adequately cover the desired area, not only because radio signal strength decreases with distance, but also because radio signals are attenuated (blocked) by walls and floors.

    The first thing to try is to locate the Wi-Fi base station (also known as gateway, wireless router, or wireless access point) as near to the center of the desired coverage area as possible in order to minimize distance, but that may be difficult or impossible, or simply not enough.

    If that fails to solve the problem, many people then try so-called wireless range extenders (actually wireless repeaters), but these devices tend to work poorly:
    • Additional radio traffic cuts wireless network speed by more than half.
    • Interference with other wireless networks may increase, often a problem.
    • May be difficult to locate midway between Wi-Fi base station and weak coverage area.
    A better solution usually (but not always) is powerline networking, using existing electrical power wiring (instead of radio) to carry network signals between modules, a base module (left unit in accompanying picture) located next to the Wi-Fi base station, connected by cable to a LAN port, and remote module(s) (right unit) in weak coverage area(s), broadcasting secondary Wi-Fi signal(s).

    For best results it's important to select name brand products conforming to the AV2 (AV600 or better) standard, such as the TP-LINK TL-PA6010KIT, which includes both a base module and a remote module.
    It's important to plug these units directly into wall outlets because many power strips and so-called surge protectors interfere with network signals.

    Testing powerline networking is easy: plug the modules into outlets at the desired locations, and green "sync" lights will turn on if they work. (In some cases they won't work due to electrical wiring issues, so be sure to get a return privilege.) Then it's just a straightforward matter of setting up the secondary Wi-Fi signal.

    Note:
    • Best Buy stores often stock Netgear Powerline (link). 
    • B&H is a great low-cost source of such products (link).

    Monday, September 1, 2014

    Extremely Good Travel Mug

    Contigo Extreme
    The great majority of travel mugs on the market are mediocre at best. Poor insulation fails to keep beverages hot or cold. Lids leak. Fragile plastic breaks.

    Fortunately, there is a superior travel mug: Contigo Extreme.
    • Vacuum insulation keeps beverages hot or cold for hours
    • Rugged and durable stainless steel construction
    • Leakproof lid that's actually leakproof (and dishwasher safe)
    • Comfortable carabiner clip handle attaches securely
    • Tapered to fit in standard cup holders
    • Generous 16 oz capacity
    • Lifetime guarantee
    • Sold by Target at discount
    Some longtime fans of this mug complain that it has been cheapened over the years, but even if true, it's still arguably the best travel mug available, and the lifetime warranty covers any issues that might arise.

    Friday, August 22, 2014

    Pandora One Bargain

    Pandora One Gift Card

    Pandora is one of the best streaming music services, offering both a an ad-supported "free" service and a paid ad-free service (a so-called "freemium" business model). A principal Pandora differentiation (as compared to competing services like Google Music All Access, iTunes Radio, Rhapsody, and Spotify) is Music Genome Project technology, which does a good job of selecting music that is similar to music you already know and like.

    In the beginning the free Pandora service was attractive given ads that were relatively few and unobtrusive, but over time ads have become both more frequent and more obtrusive, to the point where they are now downright annoying, which of course pushes subscribers toward the paid service.

    That wasn't so bad when the paid service was $36/year or $4/month, but Pandora ended the annual subscription option and raised the price of new subscriptions to $5/month (⅔ more expensive than the original annual subscription on a monthly basis).

    Fortunately, there is still a way (as of this writing) to get the original $36/year subscription price: Pandora One Gift Card at Target.com (not in Target stores). Where you receive your gift card(s) in the mail, you can add them to your Pandora account by activating them here.

    This probably won't last forever, so you might want to stock up with more than one card.

    Update (4/2016): Pandora One Gift Card at Target.com is no longer available.

    Monday, August 11, 2014

    Safer Online Dating

    1. Open a new free Google Gmail account just for online dating (nothing else). You can forward it to your regular email for convenience, but always answer from the dating Gmail account. That way your email can't be used to find you, and you can always close that account if you encounter a real creep.

    2. Buy a cheap prepaid cell phone just for online dating (Net10Page Plus, etc), and pay by cash (not credit card). You can forward it to your regular cell for convenience, but always call from the dating cell phone. That way your phone number can't be used to track you down, and you can always drop it in a dumpster (or donate it to charity) if you encounter a real creep. (Bad guys call this a "burner phone".) Or use the Burner app.

    3. Always do a first meeting in a very public place, make it something cheap (like coffee or tea), and buy your own. That way you'll be safe, and able to walk away whenever you want with no feeling of obligation.

    4. Always drive your own car or use public transport. Never ever give out your home address until you know someone really really well.

    5. Post new photos, not photos you've used anyplace else (Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, etc). Otherwise people can use image search to find and associate these other places.

    6. Use a nickname for online dating, not your real name, to make it harder for someone to look you up online.

    7. Do not use your real city of residence in your dating profile -- use a nearby city instead to make it harder for someone to look up your home address.

    8. Never even start with anyone that doesn't have at least one good photo posted. Having no photos or only bad photos is a big red flag.

    9. When someone gives you a phone number, Google it -- you'll often learn worthwhile things. ;)