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Oh my! AOMEI OneKey Recovery Gets Interesting

I’ve been working with and learning about recovery partitions on Windows boot/system disks lately. My explorations led me to a decent but flawed tool that does some nice things for Windows OS recovery. It’s called AOMEI OneKey Recovery, and it’s available in both free and commercial versions. In theory, installing this program is easy. You must make space on your system/boot drive. Then, AOMEI OneKey Recovery adds partitions to that disk for boot-up and repair. As a bonus, its recovery partition incorporates a backup of your Windows OS partition. But in practice, AOMEI OneKey Recovery gets interesting. It’s particularly so when it comes to sizing the disk space that the program needs for its partitions. Here’s what the nominal 256 GB SSD drive on my Dell Venue Pro 11 7130 looked like when the program finished its work:

AOMEI OneKey Recovery Gets Interesting

Alas, considerable trial and error was required to properly size the F: partition I had to give AOMEI OneKey Recovery to work with.

Lack of Sizing Data Means AOMEI OneKey Recovery Gets Interesting Indeed!

To begin with, the program provides no guidance on how to size the partition from which it will create its partitions. These are labeled AOMEI and AOMEI Recovery Partition in the preceding screen capture from the Disk Management utility. I started small (at around 2 GB), and went through too many muffed attempts last night. I got increasingly vexed as I kept upping the size of the F: partition that OneKey Recovery used for the AOMEI partitions shown. For each try, I had to use MiniTool Partition Wizard to reduce the size of the C: partition. Then I used that space to expand the F: partition. Things didn’t work until the F: partition hit 44 GB in size. Finally, it created the disk layout depicted in the preceding graphic.

The problem was, resizing the C: partition requires a reboot to do its thing. For each attempt, I used MiniTool Partition Wizard to shrink the C: partition. Then I could grow the F: partition by the same amount. Each iteration took 3-4 minutes to complete because of the time involved in shifting partition boundaries and waiting for the reboot to complete. By the time I’d done this five times I was ready to spit nails. Surely AOMEI could expend the programming effort necessary to analyze the files on the C: partition and estimate the partition size needed to accommodate them? I would have been much happier with my experience in using the software if I didn’t have to keep repeating my attempts to set up those pesky partitions.

It’s Not All Tar and Feathers, However…

To give credit where it’s due, AOMEI OneKey Recovery was reasonably well-behaved aside from the lack or partition sizing information or guidance. It added itself nicely to my Boot Configuration Database (BCD data) on the Dell Venue Pro 11. Better yet, it didn’t mess with the Macrium Recovery Partition already installed on that drive. In testing of its onekey functionality, it worked quite nicely. The program offered to restore my backed-up runtime environment to the C: partition without a hitch. It took about 10 minutes to create the two partitions shown. Thus, I’m guessing it would take about the same amount of time to restore the contents of its Recovery Partition to C:, should that become necessary. I’ll try it out this weekend, when I have some spare time to devote to that task. I’ll follow up with an update then.

On balance I think this is a good tool for a free program. But because it does require resizing of the C: partition to create the space needed for its partitions, a commercial partition manager is needed to put it to work. Not coincidentally AOMEI makes one of those, too. But I prefer MiniTool Partition Wizard, mostly because I already know and understand how to use that program.

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ExpressCard USB Insights Come Later Not Never

startech-usbadapter

I’ve got a pair of Lenovo laptops I bought in February 2012, as I was preparing to write a book on Windows 8. The book never happened, thanks to an unexpected spate of legal work that year. But those laptops are still kicking and surprisingly capable considering they’re now over 5 years old. One of them is an X220 Tablet with a 12.5″ touchscreen (a very early production touchscreen PC). The other is a T520 with a 15.6″ 1366×768 display. Both units incorporate a dual-core i7-2640M processor, each with built-in Intel HD Graphics 3000 circuitry. The T520 includes an Nvidia Quadro NVS4200M GPU as well. ExpressCard USB insights come courtesy of the plug-in slot for ExpressCard devices on each machine.

These laptops have been through some upgrades along the way from early 2012 to the present day. Both now incorporate 16 GB RAM (2 x 8GB Patriot Memory PC3-10600 SO-DIMMs). Both now boot from Plextor PX-256M5M mSATA SSDs. In 2014, I purchased a StarTech 2 Port ExpressCard SuperSpeed USB 3.0 Card to endow them with faster USB connections. This last facility provides the subject for today’s blog. That’s because I noticed some important things about working with that adapter as I started prepping for the upcoming Windows 10 Creators Update. (It’s due to make its public debut on 4/11/17, but is already available in ISO form to Insider Preview members like yours truly).

ExpressCard USB Insights

For under $30 (Newegg) this plug-in ExpressCard brings two USB 3.0 ports to older laptops like mine. It also comes with a couple of interesting “catches.”

ExpressCard USB Insights Come As I Prep PCs for Win10 Creators Update

In prepping my PCs for the upcoming upgrade, I’m performing a raft of housekeeping tasks, including:

1. Running Disk Cleanup in admin mode, to clean up system files and such
2. Running DriverStore Explorer (aka RAPR.exe) to remove outdated or obsolete device drivers
3. Using the DISM command to clean out the component store with the /startcomponentcleanup /resetbase options
4. Running HomeDev’s excellent PatchCleaner utility to clear out obsolete or orphaned entries from the Component Store
5. Performing complete image backups using Macrium Reflect. Thus, I can easily roll back to 1067.14393.969 or .970 if something goes wrong enough with the upgrade for Windows rollback to fail.

In working with the Lenovo units, I attempted to switch the StarTech card from the 520 to the X220 Tablet while those machines were running. Alas, the USB 3 devices (flash drives and external disks) weren’t recognized at run-time. Further investigation turned up a Device Manager error: “a driver is missing or not completely installed.” To answer the question “Can I plug in or unplug these devices at runtime?” I tried inserting and removing the card on each laptop.

Curiously, the X220 Tablet requires that the card be inserted at boot-up to be recognized and used. But the T520 recognizes the card (with USB drive(s) already inserted) when inserted at run-time. Neither unit allows a USB device to be unplugged. In fact, using “Safely Remove…” to do this properly only shows an option to eject the StarTech card completely. It’s labeled as “Eject USB Root Hub (xHCI).” I also had to close all open applications accessing devices plugged into the card, before it could be ejected. A considerable amount of time, trial, and error is what helped me develop my ExpressCard USB insights, such as they were.

Where’s the “Mount” Option for ISOs?

Another interesting factoid: the “Mount” option that appears in most PCs with built-in USB 3.0 interfaces when one accesses a folder with an ISO file present does not appear in File Explorer in either Lenovo laptop. This fails to appear when a USB 3.0 drive is plugged into the StartTech USB 3.0 adapter. Curiously enough, that same option is also missing from the right-click menu when the same UFD goes into a USB 2.0 port on those machines.

That said, I get the right-click “Mount” option for the very same UFD on all of my other PCs, laptops and tablets.. But then, all of them sport native USB 3.0 ports of some kind or another. When this option is missing, however, one can still use the PowerShell command called “Mount-DiskImage.” This makes an ISO show up as a virtual DVD in File Explorer, as recounted in this TechNet Windows IT Center article (last updated 3/8/2017 as I write this blog post).

I have to chuckle that I’ve had this card for three years now, and am just now really learning how it works (and sometimes fails). In acquiring ExpressCard USB insights later is indeed better than never. At least, that’s what the title of this blog post suggests, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Cheers!

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Impatience Imperils Progress on 15014 Upgrade

As I was finishing up my day in the office yesterday I made a last pass through TenForums.com. I noticed there that Insider Preview Build 15014 was out. But, alas, I failed to read the covering blog post. Had I done so, I could’ve saved myself some wasted time and effort. Turn out that the progress bar for downloading the latest Upgrade is broken. So when I started updating and didn’t see any progress on my desktop test machine, I immediately presumed “Another issue with WU.” This led to evasive action that ultimately forced me to restore a backup and then reapply the upgrade (successfully) later on. And that’s how I found myself able to observe that impatience imperils progress on 15014 upgrade maneuvers, as noted in this blog post’s title.

You could understand this self-inflicted problem as an “RTFM error,” if you like. But it actually helped me in a couple of interesting and unexpected ways. For one thing, I found myself dealing with the dreaded “black screen of death” on Windows 10. It’s something I’ve read about a lot, but haven’t troubleshot too often. First, I tried to see if the OS was available enough in the background without a working display to launch Task Manager. That meant entering Ctrl-Alt-Esc at the keyboard, then striking Alt-F to open the File Menu. An “R” launches the Run box, which one can use for a variety of tasks. I tried re-launching Windows Explorer, then a shutdown command. Nothing doing. My machine was pretty hosed, it seemed.

Impatience Imperils Progress on 15014 Upgrade

Eventually I did reach my ultimate goal: getting 15014 installed.

Getting Past the Won’t Boot Hurdle

Next, I turned to my old reliable backup program, Macrium Reflect Free. It thoughtfully installs its console as a boot option on the Windows OS boot screen, so I happily fired it off. Inside the Macrium-based Recovery Environment it provides, I found my way to an image of the wonky disk I’d made on January 13. It took just a few mouse clicks to get the restore operation going, and about 10 minutes to complete the job. After that, the machine booted immediately so I could start all over again.

This time, armed with the right information, I let Windows Update chug away to do its thing. This process took around 25 minutes to complete, but the upgrade was entirely successful. Here’s what I learned from this experience:

  • Reading the release notes for a new Insider Build is highly advisable if not downright mandatory
  • Once you’ve started an upgrade, give it plenty of time to run to completion
  • Always keep a current backup available when performing major system changes (like an OS upgrade)
  • If an upgrade fails, be ready to restore that backup and start over, or try again

I did fine on the second two items in the list (I’d learned them the hard way a long time ago). But I’ll have to do better on the first two going forward so I don’t get caught unaware. That’s modern life in Insider Preview land! I don’t want to have to rewrite “Impatience Imperils Progress on 15014 Upgrade” for some other build number, too.

 

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A Wrinkle Upon Office 365 Subscription

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Just before the big holiday season got going, I took the boy — son, Gregory — to one of his favorite haunts: the Microsoft Store at the Domain in Austin. While we were there I picked up a year’s renewal for his Xbox Gold subscription, and at the same time bought myself a one-year extension to my Office 365 Home subscription. This morning, I finally got round to entering the subscription key for another year of use. I was in for a surprise: no sooner did I enter said key, than did the renewal process inform me it couldn’t find the key in its database. WTF?

office-key

A life size scan of the credit card sized plastic key card prompts the thought: why can’t they put a scan code on this sucker?

Of course, my first thought was I’d mis-typed one or more of the five 5-character groups that composes such a key. But a careful comparison of what I’d typed to what was printed there quickly disabused me of that notion. So I opened Google and searched on “Chat with Microsoft Support” and in under a minute I was chatting online with Pravin, my designated MS Support representative.

As he asked me how I’d attempted to renew my subscription, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d tried it in Chrome (my browser of choice these days, for good or for ill). I thereupon asked him if I should try my renewal in IE or Edge instead. Sure enough, that was it: entered the same web page, the same renewal screen, the same key in IE and it all worked like a charm. It just goes to show you that for some tasks, Microsoft still expects you to use their tools and not somebody else’s. Whoda thunk it? Now that you can access the Microsoft Update Catalog and MSDN using Chrome, why should subscription sign-ups or renewals be any different? I have no idea why it’s so, but there it is. If you find yourself renewing an MS subscription in the near future, remember to use IE or Edge and you’ll be more likely to zip through the process faster that I did on my initial attempt with Chrome.

And so it goes in Windows-land!

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Dodged a Bullet on Norton Upgrade

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As I was surfing the Web earlier this week, researching a story on a typical network/system administrators anti-malware toolkit, I happened to notice that Norton Internet Security is no more. It has been replaced with Norton Security of which the 2017 version represents its latest and greatest offering. Upon trying to update my software (for which I have 5 PC seats and 1 iPhone seat) I quickly realized this wasn’t something I could do for myself. So I jumped online to Norton Support chat and in short order the following things were done:

  1. My existing Norton Internet Security subscriptions (of which there were 3) were cancelled. Immediately, I got a notification from my production desktop that the license had been revoked.
  2. I was issued new licenses and keys for my available seats, and instructed to use the “Norton Removal Tool” first to remove all traces of NIS before installing Norton Security 2017.
  3. I ran the tool, rebooted my system, and installed the new software. Everything went smoothly and flawlessly.
Norton Identify Safe

Norton Identity Safe is a handy, simple password manager.

Norton Identity Safe is quick, compact, and easy to use.

Then I realized: “Holy crap! Did my Norton Identity Safe get cancelled and cleaned out along with the other old Norton stuff?” In case you don’t already know, Norton Identity safe is one of any number of password management programs out there, and it comes as part of the overall Norton environment. I use it to store account and password information for over 1,000 different accounts. This number comes from to the tool itself, though it counts multiple logins to the same site as separate accounts (for example, I have multiple Twitter logins for different personae, plus guest and admin accounts for many of the websites that I write for, own, or help to operate).

One more salient bit of information: I’ve also been using the Norton Password Generator lately, because it generates strong passwords automatically. They can be of arbitrary length, but the default is a nice, tough 12-character string. I don’t even bother to try to remember passwords any more. Because I can always get to the Norton Identity Safe on the Web from any of my PCs or mobile devices, I can always zip into that tool, search by URL, and cut’n’paste my password string (and account, if needed) into my login of choice. Extremely convenient, but an utter disaster if Identify Safe — or the data it contains — goes MIA.

Trembling with trepidation, I tried opening Identify Safe after setting up my new Norton software. Luckily enough, changing the anti-malware solution didn’t have any discernable impact on my honking huge collection of URLs, accounts, and passwords. Ideally, this is the kind of thing one should think about and prepare for ahead of time. The Identity Safe even offers an export function, so you can save its contents in the form of a CSV file, and import it back into a new safe (or use it as a backup for your existing safe). I’ve got one of those now, too, sitting on an encrypted flash drive here at the house. Having already dodged one bullet, I feel like I should get ready for more to come!

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Inateck Offers Nice 2.5″ Drive Enclosure

A couple of months ago, entirely out of the blue, I got an email from a representative of Inateck, an apparently Taiwanese company that does business as “F&M Technology” in both the USA and Germany. It informed me about the company’s range  of 2.5″ drive enclosures, described on the product category page as “Tool Free USB 3.0 HDD Enclosure.” After some additional email back-and-forth with that person, I found myself in possession of two different and related products from Inateck:

1. One instance of product FE2010, an “Ultra slim 2.5 inch HDD Enclosure” (list price $19.99, but I can find suppliers for this item only on eBay at prices from $17.27 to 22.14)

FE2010

2. One instance of product HPD-BU, a nice little ballistic nylon zip up case in which to store item 1 (available at Amazon for a mere $6.99).

HPD-BU

What’s the Deal Here?

I’m always on the lookout for good deals on helpful hardware, especially for taking work on the road with me. I’ve purchased various 2.5″ and 3.5″ drive enclosures over the years, usually so I can pack ’em up and take ’em with me when I’m out the door on business. Often this means setting up in a conference room at a law or technology firm, or working in a hotel room somewhere (one time, this meant burning extremely expensive online minutes on a Disney cruise ship in the western Caribbean). That’s why I’m so interested in compact mobile gear that’s easy to set up and use, and as portable as possible.

What I really, really like about the Inateck enclosure (FE2010) is that its tool-free design is neither flimsy nor weak. It’s made of plastic, but the plastic is fairly thick and sturdy. A snap-together cover slides on rails away from the circuit area on the main half of the assembly where the drive plugs into a standard SATA power and data connector. It is easy to insert and remove using just finger pressure, but the device holds up well when transported. I took it with me on recent out-of-town trips to Dallas and Houston with family, for use with my Surface Pro 3 hybrid tablet. It behaved quite nicely on both jaunts, despite inexpert help from some enthusiastic tweens in carrying luggage and the computer bag and with device set-up and teardown. The enclosure also comes with a short (~12″) USB 3.0 cable with a standard USB Type A connector on one end (for plugging into a computer) and a compact, proprietary USB connector on the other (for plugging into the drive enclosure).

The incredibly cheap carrying case (HPD-BU) is a real bargain at $7, and accommodates the drive enclosure perfectly. It offered excellent protection for my traveling rig while on the road and is well worth its cost. It features a hard shell design that offers added rigidity to safeguard its contents from knocks and drops.

I purchased my last 2.5″ mobile drive enclosures from Newegg in 2013. They’re made by Vantec, model NexStar 3, and are old enough to feature USB 2.0 with eSATA for higher-speed connections. As I recall, I paid about $10 for them and they included a micro-USB to type A cable (with a second type A connector for extra power on laptops that may offer only limited USB power on a single connection) along with a flat sided zip-up ballistic nylon case in black. A similar USB 3.0 model is available at Newegg, also for $19.99 (discounts sometimes available: right now price is $2 lower), and includes no case.

All in all the Inatek FE2010 offers good functionality, easy access and use, and is a reasonably sturdy traveling drive enclosure. If you can find a good deal from a reputable retailer (or eBay merchant), it’s definitely worth buying. Don’t be flim-flammed by the company’s performance claims on this device, though: I believe they’re comparing USB 2.0 to 3.0 performance. I found no speed difference between using the same drive between my Thermaltake Superspeed 3.0 drive caddy and the Innatek enclosure, both plugged into the same PC and the same USB port.

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FCC: Allow Consumer-Owned Set-top Boxes!!

Sounds like a pretty boring blog post title, eh? “FCC: Allow Consumer-Owned Set-top Boxes!!” really means that instead of paying for devices one MUST rent from cable TV providers over and over again, consumers will be able to choose and buy the devices they want only once. According to Julie Hirschfeld Davis of the New York Times, consumers currently pay an average of $231 a year to cable companies to rent their set-top boxes. In the wake of a pending FCC proposal, however, all that could be about to change.

set-top-box

If consumers can choose their own set-top boxes, why not make a media PC one of their viable choices?
[Image Credit: LIfeHacker.com]

As is normal for the process of changing or adopting new rules for regulatory agencies like the FCC, this proposal must be commented on and debated before it can be finalized. In a very unusual move, President Obama commented in favor of this particular proposal, despite it being “rare for the president himself to speak out on a pending matter” in the words of the NYT article. He’s in favor of opening up the set-top box business, increasing competition, and giving customers more options and features from which to choose.

My favorite comment in the story comes from Jason Furman, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Jeffrey D. Zients, the director of the National Economic Council, who also issued a statement backing this new FCC proposal:

Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years on a set of behind-the-times boxes, American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget.

To these plans, I would add the following plea: Open up the options to include a REAL media center PC. When Microsoft came out with Windows 7, they included Windows Media Center with the ability to handle TV and all kinds of other media. Ultimately, this effort failed because (a) the cable TV industry required PCs to incorporate CableCard devices to access cable TV signals directly, (b) the cable TV providers were put in charge of issuing CableCard devices to customers, and (c) the CableCard options available for Media PCs basically required the OEMs to build them in during system construction and were made difficult and expensive to obtain, integrate, and operate. As a result, media PCs mostly flopped, except for a die-hard audience limited to the tens of thousands in numbers in the USA who were willing to jump over every hurdle and figure out all the ugly technical details to make this technology work.

In the wake of this pending rule change, there would no longer be a reason to force such absurd hurdles on integrating set-top box function into PCs. There’s no reason why that functionality couldn’t be built into a PCIe adapter, so that it could be easily plugged into and integrated with a PC. Shoot, a company like Intel with its Next Unit of Computing (NUC) boxes could integrate this capability right into such a small enclosure, and it would make a perfect media PC. This would allow users to set up and operate a genuine Media PC environment that integrates streaming media, optical media, plus cable, satellite and broadcast TV. It could lead to a genuine renaissance in PC-based media consumption, and might even give a boost to the whole PC business. Instead of spending $200 on a set-top box, consumers could spend $4-500 on a set-top PC that would provide complete media controls (and the ability to plug in storage and other devices via USB). In exchange, they would enjoy a rich media management experience that could include all forms of digital media orchestrated around the biggest display device in most homes: the big-screen LCD or projection TV.

I say: “Let’s go for it!” I would love to see this happen and the improvements in media consumption that could result. I’m writing the FCC to express my approval for the proposal. If you feel the same way, I urge you to do likewise, through the FCC’s “Send Us Your Comments” page.

fcc-filing

Here’s the text of my FCC comment as filed this morning.
[Click on image for full-size view.]

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Type Cover with Fingerprint Reader Misadventure

According to my records, I purchased my Surface Pro 3 in October 2014, along with the Type Cover available at the time. Mostly, I’ve been pretty happy with that hybrid tablet PC, but its Type Cover has always driven me to distraction. The touchpad, in particular, was trying, and the keys were closely spaced, so my typing accuracy suffered when using it. But what really kept me away from direct use of the device as a “laptop replacement” was my tendency to accidentally brush the touchpad while typing, often resulting in highlighting and deleting whatever it was I was trying to input at any given moment. For somebody whose keystrokes are literally his living, this was simply unacceptable. My wife and son love the machine, though, and it proved an able travelling device when a simple plug adapter was all that proved necessary to use the charger (and the device) for their extended trip to Germany this summer.

sp3-typecover sp4-type-fing

SP3 (old) Type Cover left/top; SP4 (new) Type Cover right/bottom.

When I learned that MS was releasing a new Type Cover along with the Surface Pro 4 earlier this fall I was mildly interested. But when I learned the following bits of information, my interest changed to a fully-formed “buy” decision:

  • The new Type Cover is backward compatible with the Surface Pro 3 even though built for the Surface Pro 4.
  • The touchpad is much larger, made of smooth, strong glass, and easier/more ergonomic to use.
  • The keys on the keyboard, though slightly smaller, are more widely spaced and offer a better feel while in use, all intended to promote faster, more accurate keyboard input.
  • A fingerprint reader version that works with Windows Hello is also available, as an added-cost ($40) option.

As fingerprint readers go, $40 is kind of pricy: most laptop makers charge $10 to $20 for these devices when they’re available as added-cost options, and USB models are readily available for $11 to $15, as this Google Shopping search shows.

While we were out and about on the weekend before Thanksgiving, visiting the mall at The Woodlands, TX, I dropped into the Microsoft Store and plunked down $160 of my hard-earned cash for the new Type Cover with fingerprint reader, even though it is currently available only in black (other colors are in production but probably won’t be out until late December or early January). I unplugged the old Type Cover and plugged in the new one when we got to our host’s home that evening and sure enough, it was quite a bit easier to use, enabled more accurate typing, and I didn’t have any touchpad problems or issues like those I experienced when using the previous version. I also quickly realized I had no idea how to set up the fingerprint reader, and a cursory pass through control panel widgets and settings options didn’t lead me anywhere useful, either. Realizing I had to do a little research to figure out which way to proceed, I shelved the fingerprint stuff until after I returned home late Monday (11/23) afternoon.

Once I went looking for the proper set-up, I found it almost immediately: Settings, Accounts includes a panel called Sign-in options. On a properly-equipped PC running Windows 10, you’ll see a Windows Hello item in that panel (it often requires a bit of scrolling down to find) where you can enroll or manage fingerprint data suitable for login (and other authentication) purposes. I’ve been working with fingerprint readers for years, and both of my Lenovo notebooks and my Fujitsu Q704 tablet all have them installed (I even wrote a mini-review for the Microsoft Fingerprint Reader for the 2006 Tom’s Guide Holiday Buyer’s piece). But though I was able to enroll my fingerprints — or so I thought — the reader was not able to read any of them. I found myself wondering if I didn’t have the 10/26 Firmware Update that added support for the Type Cover with Fingerprint Reader to the system (I did) or if the fingerprint reader might be somehow defective (it wasn’t).

What was defective, it turns out, was my understanding. If you take a close look at the image for the Type Cover with Fingerprint Reader above (right/bottom) you’ll see that the sensor occupies a pretty sizable surface area (it’s square, with dimensions of just under 0.5″x0.5″ or 1.27cmx1.27cm). Having been trained on fingerprint sensors that are about the same width but only 0.125″ or 0.32cm high, which require dragging a finger across them to enroll that data for the device to use later on, I was using the same finger dragging technique on this fingerprint reader as well. However, the device simply wanted me to lay my finger down on the sensor without moving it for registration and subsequent recognition. Until I stumbled onto this information (the registration prompt says “Press your finger against the fingerprint sensor, and then lift it,” which is what ultimately clued me into what I was doing wrong) the fingerprint reader wouldn’t recognize my fingerprints. Given a proper fingerprint registration, of course the device worked like a charm.

Duh! Sometimes what we already know causes us to ignore what we need to learn. Suitably chastened by my experience here, I’m sharing it in hopes of preventing others from falling into the same trap. Live and learn — if we can — has to be the watchword for this cautionary tale. Consider yourselves warned, and please benefit from my mistake! No need for concern: I’ll eventually recover from the embarrassment…

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Samsung UFDs Muddle Through the Middle

In early September, I agreed to live with and review some Samsung USB 3.0 flash drives (to which I’ll refer from here on out as UFDs). Around the second week of the month, they arrived, and I was allowed until early December to play with and keep them for purposes of sharing my impressions and observations. Alas, I have dithered long enough that these items have already been reviewed at a number of sites, including one of my personal faves: Les Tokar’s The SSD Review which featured some pretty comprehensive coverage on September 18 in a story entitled “Samsung’s Newest Flash Drives Reviewed.”

Samsung-USB-3.0-Flash-Drives

Samsung FIT at front center; Samsung Bar at right rear.

My own observations of these Samsung devices are consistent with his, but not quite as flattering. These drives are neither exceptionally cheap (for that kind of thing, check out the Mushkin Atom drives in capacities from 8 to 64 GB at Newegg, at $7 to $25) nor exceptionally fast (there are many options of this kind available, including devices that actually use SSD controllers to access their Flash RAM, but I am fond of the Mushkin Ventura Pro line, at Newegg for $25 for 32 GB and $34 for 64 GB).

What I have from Samsung is a 32GB Fit drive ($16 for 32GB, $27 for 64 GB, Newegg) and a 16 GB Bar drive ($13 for 16 GB, $28 for 64 GB, Newegg). The performance is somewhat better than the Atom models, but not enough to offset the price difference between them. And the performance difference between the Samsung and the Ventura Pro models inclines me to to favor spending somewhat more to get a nice jump in performance (particularly on the write site of the read/write action that is file I/O).

This is a tough product niche with a lot of different products from which to choose, many at each rung of the price performance ladder. I will say that Samsung’s 5-year-warranty on its UFDs is better than most other vendors’ warranties (the Atom and Ventura Pro drives get 2 years, by way of contrast, and 1-2 years seems typical for most such products I’ve seen). It seems to me that Samsung will either need to lower its prices further, or find some way to bump its UFDs’ performance, if it wants to grab major market share in this crowded field.

My final assessment of these products is: if you can get a better-than-Newegg deal (especially if it’s cheaper than for Mushkin Atom items of similar capacity), jump on it. If not, you may be better served by looking around for something faster at the same or a slightly higher price (Nir Sofer’s USB Flash Drive Speed Tests are a great source for such data, BTW).

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Unraveling a USB Mystery

About two months ago, I finally got a break in my schedule and used part of that time to replace the motherboard in my ailing production PC with a newer, more capable one. The “new” mobo is actually about two-three years old in technology, if still brand-new for the unit I rebuilt my system upon. It’s a Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H and it features more USB 3 ports than its predecessor, and support for an mSATA slot that now houses a dandy Samsung EVO 512 GB SSD. I was all ready to go off to the races, and my initial impression of the system was overall pretty positive.

z77x-ud3h

The specs looked good and I saw uniformly positive reviews, so I bought it.

About 5-6 days after the rebuild, right when I started moving my 1 TB of music files from older smaller drives to the newer bigger ones, I started losing USB 3 devices: first a couple of big drives (2 TB and 3 TB) connected to an Eagle dual-drive caddy, various plug-in ports on the case (from interior on-board USB3 header), and once my keyboard went away and didn’t come back. This motherboard features 4 Intel USB 3 ports, and an equal number of VIA USB 3 ports. Somewhere in those ports (and it looks like the Intel chipset is the culprit) one of those ports seems to jump in and out of failure mode. The big drives in my caddy seem particularly likely to go off-line, the more so when I’m doing huge file transfers over an extended period of time, which makes me suspect something heat related might be involved, or perhaps some of the circuitry that supplies those ports with power is flaking out under higher loads.

It took me quite a while to get to the bottom of this problem, not because the problem was especially difficult: the symptoms were obvious and the devices involved rather more consistently failing than mysteriously flaking out only every now and then. I just haven’t had a lot of time for troubleshooting research lately, and it took me a long time to find the right search string to get confirmation that this is a known problem (I ended up using the mobo designator and “USB port fail” and finally found reports from others of the same problem I’ve been having).

At long last, I finally stumbled upon some forum posts up on Toms Hardware where other buyers reported similar USB 3 problems and seemed to indicate that this is a known defect of this particular motherboard. I don’t want to replace it once again, so it looks like I will install one or two (I have a LOT of USB 3 devices on this machine, mostly for external storage) 4 port USB 3 cards that connect via PCI-Express x4 lanes and feature a separate controller chip for each connection so as to support max bandwidth for each one. The make and model is HighPoint RocketU 1144C 4-port USB 3 Controller card (here’s a Newegg link for this somewhat pricey item, that gets good reviews, on the site and at AnandTech). At $108 and change, I’m going to try one first and see how it goes. If I like the results, I’ll consider buying another one.

Something about the potential for less-than-optimal results, in the wake of this modest but nevertheless frustrating motherboard flake-out has me feeling more wary and chary of new technology purchases than usual right now. Wish me luck!

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