Category Archives: Hardware Reviews

We are constantly getting a wide variety of hardware and software to test and exercise under a range of conditions. As you might expect, some work better than others, some play nicely with others (or not), and a few are genuinely pleasant surprises. Here you’ll find a collection of reviews on a range of products. We’ll be updating this section frequently as we run across new stuff, so come back soon and often!

ARM Windows 11 Ecosystem Should Explode Soon

When I reported last week that only Windows 11 would run x64 emulation on ARM processors, I didn’t realize that this space should indeed open up soon. According to Rich Woods at XDA-developers.com, (a) Qualcomm currently has  exclusive access to Windows for its SnapDragon chips, and (b) that exclusive arrangement will expire sometime “soon.” When that happens (no firm dates) the ARM Windows 11 ecosystem should explode with activity. At a minimum, it’s likely that ARM chip vendors Samsung and MediaTek will want to get in on this action. With ARM doors wide open, even Apple Mac silicon may be able to run Windows 11 more effectively…

What Does ARM Windows 11 Ecosystem Should Explode Mean?

Competition, in a word. Right now, ARM-based laptops remain pricey when it comes to price-performance comparisons with intel or AMD based hardware. I expect that more vendors entering this market will drive prices down. Hopefully, that means they’ll come down enough to make ARM-based computers an attractive proposition.

I’ve looked at acquiring such a unit for nearly three years now. I saw my first ARM laptop early on at the MVP Summit in 2018. But each time I’ve looked at what an ARM-based system cost, I’ve steered clear because the cost just didn’t work for me. I’m curious but when it comes to spending my own money, curiosity only goes so far. A 14″ Lenovo Flex 5G costs $1,400 at Verizon right now, with 256 GB SSD and 8 GB RAM. For the same money, same vendor, I can get a more powerful CPU, 16 GB RAM and at least 512 GB SSD with Intel i5 or AMD equivalent processor. It’s not a compelling proposition — yet.

What Else Needs to Happen?

Lower prices. Better CPU parity. Stronger Windows support. It will still be a while before ARM can give either intel or AMD a run for Windows mind- and marketshare. But that will be an interesting race to watch. Hopefully, we all wind up winners when it’s been run. Stay tuned: I’ll keep you posted.

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Exploring Lenovo Yoga7i Loaner

I’ve got a new toy to play with here at Chez Tittel — a Yoga 7 14ITL5. My First Look at this unit appeared a couple of days ago, and includes detailed specs and other initial impressions. Since then, I’ve been exploring Lenovo Yoga7i loaner as my schedule has allowed and have uncovered some surprising and interesting information and capabilities. Let me tell you more…

What I’m Learning from Exploring Lenovo Yoga7i Loaner

I speculated that Windows 11 was applied as an upgrade as part of the “first boot” behavior on this laptop. I was wrong about that. The update history shows no upgrade, and there’s no Windows.old folder on the machine. You can see its disk map, courtesy of WizTree, in the lead-in graphic for the story. It grabbed all of my OneDrive stuff when it established my MSA user account, but it’s all Windows 11, all the way.

Obviously, interesting things are possible by way of Windows 11 OEM deployment. The OOB/first boot experience is different from anything I’ve seen in previous versions of Windows, from 10 back as far as you’d like to go. It looks like everything hinges on the Microsoft Account (MSA) that users supply for the initial login, which seems to conclude with a complete OS install and setup.

The disk footprint is reasonably modest. Discounting OneDrive, there’s about 55 GB worth of files on the Yoga 7’s C: drive. I just ran Disk Cleanup (admin) and was able to bring that down by 2.02 GB. Running DriverStore Explorer found about 32 MB worth of obsolete (probably duplicate) device drivers, too.

But it’s a completely native Windows 11 installation. Examining Apps & Features in settings, I see some stuff I neither want nor need, including Alexa, Disney+, McAfee LiveSafe, and Spotify. But as crapware goes, that’s a pretty light load. Kudos to Lenovo for not loading their image down with all kinds of useless cruft.

My verdict on this US$850-950 PC as configured: pretty good value for the price. I wouldn’t use this PC as a daily driver, but it is a nice casual computing platform. It runs reasonably well, and looks and behaves nicely, too. Good stuff!

 

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Win10 Rollback Works But Thunderbolt Issues Continue

Big Sigh. I’ve been trying to get the Thunderbolt 4 firmware updated on the snazzy new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 they sent me, but to no avail. Today, I observed that Win10 rollback works but Thunderbolt issues continue. Something gets weird when the PC reboots to do the firmware install. I see a short (and tiny) error message long enough to know it’s there, but definitely not long enough to read it, or interpret its significance.

When Win10 Rollback Works But Thunderbolt Issues Continue, Then What?

First, the good news. I elected to roll back my Windows 11 update on this machine and it not only went well, it finished in under 3 minutes. That’s amazing! It also confirmed that the Windows.old snapshot is of whatever vintage and state the OS was at the time of upgrade. All my account stuff remained clear and workable, thank goodness.

Now, the bad news. I remain unable to complete the firmware update successfully. That means Thunderbolt sees no devices on either of the PC’s two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports. Bummer! It also means I’m sending this fish back to the pond (Lenovo, that is) with a request to return it when THEY can fix this driver issue. For me, Thunderbolt 4 is a big deal. I don’t think I can review this system without a working and capable Thunderbolt 4 connection for me to test performance, throughput, and so forth.

That said, the USB-3 Type A port is remarkably fast. I get better performance out of my old, tired mSATA drives on this machine (Samsung EVO SSDs in Sabrent mSATA enclosures) than I’ve ever seen before.

Do All Things Come to He Who Waits?

I guess I’ll be finding out. Tomorrow, I’ll fire off an email to the reviews coordinator, explain my situation, and let them know I’m sending the laptop back. It will be absolutely fascinating to see how they respond. I’m hopeful I’ll get a fixed (or replacement) laptop soon. If and when I do, I’ll start posting madly about what I see and learn. Right now, I just can’t go forward with a major subsystem on the fritz. Hope that makes sense…

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Loaner Laptop Poses Weird USB Situation

I took delivery of a nifty new laptop here at Chez Tittel late last week. Among the zillions of other things going on around here, I’ve been fooling with this machine since it arrived. This loaner laptop poses weird USB situation, though: I get faster throughput from its USB-A 3.2 Gen1 port than either of its USB4 Type-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports. Throughput is about 10X faster on the USB-A port than on USB-C. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Go figure!

Driver Issues Explain How Loaner Laptop Poses Weird USB Situation

Once I realized what was going on. I jumped into Device Manager. Sure enough there’s an issue with the ThinkPad Thunderbolt Retimer Firmware. Whaddya bet this could impact USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 timing?

And then, things get more interesting. Lenovo Vantage thinks the firmware update is already installed. Device Manager shows “Firmware update was unsuccessful.” Attempts to uninstall/reinstall don’t work, and manual installation of the downloaded firmware package N32TT02W.exe from Lenovo Support don’t work either.

I need some firmware juju. So I’m contacting Lenovo Support to see what they can tell me. I’ll admit I got fooled when Vantage told me the update was installed (and didn’t check DevMgr until later). Now, it looks like I’ll have to roll the machine back to Windows 10 so I can make sure the update gets properly applied. And then, I’ll roll forward again to Windows 11. Just another day in the life, here in Windows-World!

Checking Updates, Post Install

It hasn’t eluded me that checking the firmware install before upgrading to 11 would have been a peachy idea. I’m not one to rush into such things normally. But I wanted to see how the new PC would work with the new OS. I guess I’m  starting to understand there’s at least one good reason why Lenovo didn’t send me the device with Windows 11 already installed.

As I look around the Lenovo site, I see they have Thunderbolt drivers for Windows 11 aplenty. It’s just that they don’t have one for my X1 Carbon Gen 9 laptop just yet. Live and learn, dear readers: that’s why I’m going to try to do.

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Bad Move: Opening MSA in Default Admin Account

I admit it. I screwed up, and then I paid the price. Yesterday I got a new review PC delivered. It came from Lenovo: a new X1 Carbon Gen 9 PC. That unit feature an i7 4core CPU, 16 GB RAM, and 512 GB NVMe SSD with Thunderbolt 4 support. Typical for review units, it opens into a local admin account. Inside that account I made a bad move: opening MSA in default admin account. Alas, this caused all kinds of problems.  Let me explain… (I’ll add that MSA is a common acronym for “MS account” aka “Microsoft account.”)

What Happens After Bad Move: Opening MSA in Default Admin Account

My MSA picture got associated with the local account. That was my first cluethat something was off. On other loaner units, I’ve always been careful to set up a second account for my MSA. Then I give it admin privileges and work from there after that. This time, I logged into the Microsoft Store inside the local account. Big mistake.

As soon as I set up my MSA as a separate account, the Store quit working. The associated error code clearly explained it was an MSA login problem. Apparently, the MS Store decided that if it couldn’t distinguish a local account from an MSA, it wouldn’t open for either account on that machine. None of the usual repairs (uninstall/reinstall Store) did any good, either.

Cleaning Up the Mess

Forunately, I had to take a break to go see the “Friday Night Lights.” It was homecoming night at my son’s high school, and the Boss and I wanted to drink in the pageantry and celebration. While I was away from the munged review unit, I realized what I needed to do:

1. Set up another local account
2. Give that local account admin privileges
3. Delete the problem default account

This took a while to orchestrate and set up. I had to be reminded that the “Family account” sub-menus is where one sets up local accounts on Windows 10 and 11. After making sure my MSA and the other local account were properly privileged, I deleted the problem account. And immediately, the MS Store returned to working order. Self-inflicted wounds smart a little extra when one realizes who’s to blame for the hoopla.

Stay tuned: I’ll have a lot to say about this new loaner unit in an upcoming “First Looks” piece early next week. I’ll tease some planned topics to whet your interest, though:

1. Thunderbolt 4/USB-C proves surprisingly speedy
2. Interesting issues with Secure Boot and clean install attempts
3. Unit shows up with Windows 10 installed, not Windows 11
4. Timing and experience in upgrading to Windows 11
5. Interesting issues with Windows Hello

Be sure to check back in when that “First Looks” item appears. Cheers!

 

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Dual NVMe Enclosure Supports RAID

Whoever built this product clearly saw me coming. After upgrading both of my older desktops, I find myself looking for ways to use their now-idled NVMe drives. One is a Samsung OEM 512GB NVMe from the 2014 vintage PC, and the other is a Samsung 950 EVO 1TB NVMe from the 2016 model. As it happens, Sabrent has an offering for just that. In fact, its dual NVMe enclosure supports RAID, too.

What Dual NVMe Enclosure Supports RAID Means

Thanks to built-in RAID support,  this enclosure offers faster throughput than a single-drive configuration. It even handles Thunderbolt, so I can use it in my newer docks and on my newer laptops and desktops. At a list price of US$249 my initial though was: “Ummm. No!” But after I visited the Amazon page and saw it was marked down to US$149 (about double the price of two phantom-powered Sabrent Thunderbolt 3 NVMe enclosures) that response changed to “Ummm. Yes…”

The specs claim speeds up to 1,500 MB for single drives, but up to 2,500 MB for drives in RAID configurations (I’m guessing that means striped or mirrored, rather than JBOD). Watching some of the videos that Sabrent provides on how to set things up, my guess is confirmed.

Should I Take the Plunge?

Now, I have to decide if I want to further raid the exchequer to cover an additional US$149 outlay, on top of the ~US$1,300 I’ve already spend to get my production desktop hardware refresh funded. I’ll have to chew on this for a little while, and perhaps ask “the Boss” for permission. Should I indeed buy into this device, I’ll review it in a future blog post.

In the meantime, I must consider how deeply I feel like digging into available funds right now. That’s a perennial problem for hardware junkies like myself, and one I’ve wrested with before. Stay tuned: I’ll keep you posted.

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USB-3/C Header Cable Mystery

OK then. I’ve got the parts for my second hardware refresh. I now understand I may have been rooked. The Asrock B550 Extreme4 mobo comes with a perfectly serviceable 19-pin USB 3.1/3.2 header block on the motherboard, but no cable to match. And upon looking around, I find precious few such cables available at any price. To me, this poses something of a USB-3/C header cable mystery. It’s a mystery I’d like to solve before I start building.

Solving USB-3/C Header Cable Mystery

The situation raises an interesting question: should such cables come with the mobo or the case? In my case (pun intended) I’m recycling something that predates USB-C and USB 3.2/Thunderbolt 3 or higher. Thus, I’m purchasing the 5.25″ drive bay plug-in shown in the lead-in graphic. It needs a 19 (sometimes called 20) pin connector to get from the mobo header to the front panel device.

Thing is, I can’t tell if the device includes any cables or not. I can tell, having just checked, that the Asrock mobo includes no cables except for some SATA cables for hooking up such drives. To span the distance from the front panel to the back of the motherboard, it looks like I need to buy 3 (!) 15 cm cables to be sure to get from the bottom and back of the case to the top and front. Sigh.

When in Doubt, Spend More $$$

Just to be safe, I’m going to order the cables along with the front-panel device. If that device includes cables I’ll be sure to email Amazon to get them to update the product info. It’s currently silent on that all-important subject (to me, anyway).

And indeed, these are the kinds of conundrums that face people like me trying to refresh hardware in anticipation of meeting Windows 11 hardware requirements. I can’t see any point in having an unused high-speed USB header on my motherboard without making those ports easily accessible. Stay tuned: I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

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GPU Buying Circus Resumes Briefly

Those who need to know were probably already paying attention. Those who don’t, however, may find this story to be an odd mix of bemusement and horror. Around midnight last night, would-be GPU owners looking for reasonable prices started lining up at Best Buy outlets around the USA. At 7:30 this morning, the company started handing out tickets to the first 100-200 people in line. What were these people lining up for? The latest installment, as the GPU buying circus resumes briefly — long enough for the company to sell through its allotment of 17,000 30xx GPUs. Models include 3070, 3080 and even a few of the seldom-seen 3090s.

Why and How the GPU Buying Circus Resumes Briefly

Every now and then Nvidia teams up with Best Buy to release a fixed lot of graphics cards for sale to the public. These may be purchased at the maker’s MSRP. Otherwise, GPUs available for purchase through typical outlets — Newegg, Amazon, CDW and so forth — routinely sell for 2 or more times those prices. On eBay, the multipliers get even larger.

Why is this happening? There’s still a shortage of GPUs on the marketplace even though China has basically shut down its mostly coal-powered coin-mining operations. Those operations have moved elsewhere — some even to the USA — and are still buying huge numbers of GPUs. By holding these sales at Best Buy from time to time, Nvidia is helping a small percentage of gamers and PC enthusiasts buy equipment that’s otherwise too pricey to contemplate.

Why Am I Telling You This?

I’ve written recently about upgrading one of my desktops to a Ryzen 5800X CPU on an Asrock B550 Extreme4 motherboard, with 64 GB RAM, a fast NVMe SSD, and so forth. What’s missing from this configuration is the GeForce 3070 or 3070 Ti that would typically be part of such a refresh. I’ve got a second machine I’ll be rebuilding in similar fashion before the end of September.

Right now, I’m running older Nvidia GeForce 1070 Ti models on both of those PCs. (FWIW, these sell for US$800 on Newegg right now; I paid about US$400 for them 5-6 years ago.) I had briefly considered leaving the house at 4 AM this morning to line up for a shot at a card at my local Best Buy. But then I realized that if I’m not willing to wait 6 hours in line for Aaron Franklin’s world-class BBQ here in Austin, I’m not willing to do likewise for a GPU, either. It’ll just have to wait. Prices should come down sometime in the next 6-12 months. Or, I’ll wait for a windfall of some kind, hold my nose, and pay US$1,400 for a GPU that should cost US$600. Two of them, in fact. Sigh, and sigh again.

Note: Here’s a shout-out to Tom’s Hardware (for whom I write regularly about Windows OS topics) whose story clued me into this circus: Best Buy Restocks 17,000 Nvidia RTX 30 Series GPUs Tomorrow, August 26. It’s what prompted me to write this story.

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New NVMe System Delivers Formidable Punch

The electrician visited our house early today to fix some switches. He also helped us find a GFI plug we didn’t know we had (duh!). He had to turn off power at the breaker box momentarily, so all the PCs went down. I took that opportunity to pop the case on the new Ryzen 5800X build. I moved the NVMe SSD from the M.2.2 slot to the M.2.1 slot. That’s when I learned this new NVMe system delivers formidable punch power, I/O-wise. Let me explain.

If New NVMe System Delivers Formidable Punch, How So?

We’re talking about the transition from PCIe x3 to x4, along with a new generation of SSD controller technology here. The lead graphic shows CrystalDiskMark 8.0.4 results from my 2016 vintage i7-6700 system left and the 2021 vintage Ryzen 5800X system right. The underlying NVMe drives are Samsung 950 PRO 512GB left, and Sabrent Rocket Q 2TB right. The speed increase ranges from 1876.41 vs. 3444.19 (upper left), or 1.83x, to 124.9 vs. 226.81 (lower right), or 1.75x. The biggest differences occur in the upper right cell, and the one beneath it. Those ratios are 2.13 and 2.12, respectively.

Thus we’re talking about a speed boost ratio for I/O in the neighborhood of 7/4 at the slowest and 15/7 at the fastest. In roundish numbers, say 2:1. That’s pretty decent. I daresay it’s a big enough difference to be noticeable. I can tell the difference in ways that range from working with the filesystem, to performing backups, to running applications, and more.

Where Value Sits…

I’m still learning how the new system works, and what it can really do. I just ran WhyNotWin11 on the PC and it doesn’t have TPM turned on. I just checked the Asrock website. Happily it provides instructions on how to turn on fTPM in BIOS for that motherboard. It’s a single, simple option, so I’ll take care of it the next time I reboot. Then, the system should be ready for Windows 11.

Switching the NVMe from the M.2.2 slot to the M.2.1 slot delivered the promised speed increase. It also made the 2 previously blocked SATA devices on that machine visible. So far, it’s been a peach to work with. The speed and capabilities of this current-gen Ryzen processor definitely impress. I am indeed inclined to think the upgrade was worth the cost. I’m still waiting for Nvidia 3070 cards to come down in price before endowing that PC with more graphics oomph, though.

Stay tuned. I’ll report in on system temps and stuff, and take a few pics of the build later this week. Should be fun!

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USB Flash Drive Follies 4th vs 11th Gen

Just yesterday I got videotaped for an upcoming session at SpiceWorld 2021 Virtual. One of the subjects I covered for HPE covered “the aging of technology” and what that does to IT efficiency, security and resiliency. That got me to thinking. “How has USB fared as faster busses, faster connections, and faster media have evolved over the past while?” I decided to conduct some USB flash drive follies 4th vs 11th gen systems to see what changed.

What’s Up With USB Flash Drive Follies 4th vs 11th Gen?

It turned into a tale of two drives, two systems, and three means of attachment. These were as follows:

Drive 1. Sabrent mSATA SSD enclosure with Samsung 950 EVO mSATA 500GB SSD USB 3
Drive 2: Fideco NVMe SSD enclosure with Sabrent Nano NVMe 1TB SSD USB 3.1
System 1: 2014 Vintage Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (i7-4650U, 8 GB RAM, USB 3)
System 2: 2021 Vintage Lenovo ThinkPad X12 (i7-1180G7, 16 GB RAM, USB 3.2/Thunderbolt 3)

The three means of attachment were USB 3, USB 3.1 (both using Type A connectors) and USB 3.2 using USB-C.

Technology Trumps Bus Speed

First things, first. There’s simply no comparison between mSATA and NVMe devices. It’s an order of magnitude from the older mSATA SSD technology to the newer NVMe. That tells me — and it should tell you — it’s simply not worth buying mSATA devices anymore. If you’ve still got them (I’ve got half-a-dozen) you can still use them.

The aging effect shows very strongly in the mSATA results. They stay pretty much the same across both systems and across all USB connection types (3.0, 3.1, and 3.2). That’s because the mSATA enclosure is either 3.0 or 3.1 (I just checked: it’s 3.0).

Things get more interesting with the NVMe devices. They run at about half-speed when there’s no UASP support on the PC (as with the Surface Pro). Amusingly, I got the same results from my Belkin Thunderbolt 3 dock with a USB 3.1 cable plugged into the NVMe enclosure. But when I used a USB-C cable directly into a USB-C port on the ThinkPad X12 I got big-block read/write speeds of ~1050 MBps read/~1004 MBps write from the NVMe flash device. Compare that to ~455 read/~457 write through the Thunderbolt dock for the same device.

Very interesting! This tells me that USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 or better drive enclosures, coupled with PCIe x3 or better NVMe SSDs in those enclosures deliver the fastest external drive storage I can use today (on my newer systems with USB-C, of course). And it looks like the performance boost from using the fastest possible port and connection is also very much worth it. Good to know!

This just makes me more interesting in acquiring a Thunderbolt 4 dock to see if it can extend that performance to secondary ports (right now, I get best speed only from USB-C ports on the X12, of which there are only 2).

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