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!

Getting Laptops Ready for Classroom Use Teaches Some Good Lessons

This year, school is getting serious for my 8-year-old son, Gregory: he’s in the third grade. For the first time, he’s having to deal with real grades for his homework, plus regular quizzes and tests. And later on this year, he’ll face his first standardized test (the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS) as well. He shares a classroom at Cactus Ranch Elementary with 18 other kids, but they have only one general use laptop for the whole group there (the kids do have more general access to computers in the library, and some classes issue laptops to students from cart set-ups for their use as well). His classroom PC is an elderly Dell D630 Latitude that’s on the last phases of its lifecycle — I volunteer in the library once a week, and the school IT guy also works there; he tells me they’re getting ready to upgrade to Vostro models running Windows 7 in 2013.

So I’m loaning my son’s teacher a couple of additional laptops for the kids to share in his classroom. One is my old and trusty Dell D620 Latitude that’s been upgraded with an OCZ Agility 3 SSD, 4 GB RAM, and a T7200 CPU (which puts it on par for processing with the D630, but where its SSD blows the doors off that unit). The other is my equally old and sometimes not-so-trusty HP HDX9203, aka “The Dragon.” I decided to roll the Dragon back to Vista SP2 and it’s been running like a champ ever since. However, Vista’s odd and seemingly random Windows Update behavior hasn’t let me believe I’ve finally caught up with all the updates: with 148 of them installed over the past two days, it’s been a dizzying sequence of download-install-reboot the entire time. Even so, Windows Update now claims I’m completely caught up. We’ll see.

The D620 has an adequate 14" screen.
The D620 has an adequate 14″ screen.
The HP has a huge and vibrant 20" screen.
The HP has a huge and vibrant 20″ screen.

I’m still debating as to whether or not I should install Paragon’s terrific $20 Migrate OS to SSD utility on the Dragon, and then use it to move the OS over to the spare OCZ Vertex 2 nominal 120 GB (actual 111 GB in Windows Explorer) drive I’ve got lying around. There’s no doubt this would speed things up significantly on the Dragon, just like the Agility 3 did for the aging D620, which laughably melds a processor rated at 5.1 in Windows Experience with a drive rated at 7.8! But there are few things you can do to an older laptop to keep it usable that are better than this, so my real question is: do I want to let the Vertex 2 walk out the door, or do I have something better I can do with it? Right now all of my laptops and desktops boot from SSDs already, so perhaps not…

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Great Product for Recycling 2.5″ Notebook Drives

In the past quarter, I’ve replaced the boot drives on my three primary notebook PCs with el-cheapo ($149) OCZ-3 Agility 120 GB SSD drives. In turn, that has left me with three 500 GB 2.5″ drives that I can still use, but no longer want for primary notebook HDs. That left me casting about for a solution to put these babies back to work at minimal expense with maximum results. Here’s what I found to meet my needs: a 5.25″ drive bay that accommodates four 2.5″ drives in the standard form factor, and supports both SAS (Serial-Attached SCSI) and SATA drives in a single, heavy-duty brushed aluminum enclosure. It’s available on Newegg for a modest $55, and on Amazon for $60. Here’s an introductory photo of the device, straight from the manufacturer’s Website:

Each of the drive sleds holds a standard 11mm 2.5" HD, or larger if you remove the sled top
Each of the drive sleds holds a standard 11mm 2.5" HD, or larger if you remove the sled top

Continue reading Great Product for Recycling 2.5″ Notebook Drives

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A Tale of Three Notebook SSD Upgrades

OK, so I finally got my three production notebooks upgraded from conventional spinning hard disks to SSDs. All three of the source drives were 7,200 RPM SATA II drives: two from Seagate (one a Momentus plain-vanilla, the other a Momentus XT), along with a Hitachi 7K500 model. Of the three, the Momentus XT was far and away the fastest, but it couldn’t begin to match the OCZ Agility 3 SATA III 120GB drive that replaced it. I took advantage of a special sale to pick mine up for about $150 each on Newegg. Right now they’re priced at $155 with a $30 rebate to bring the price down to $125.

It took me a while to whittle these machines’ drives down to an acceptable level of disk space for the transfer. I recount this exercise in a couple of upcoming articles (one for InformIT.com, the other for InputCreatesOutput.com; no links yet but I’ll plug them in as they become available). Here’s a quick before-and-after snapshot:

Table 1: Notebook System Disk Holdings (Before & After)
Laptop Before Clean-up After Clean-up
HP dv6t 72.9 GB 52.8 GB
Dell M11X 48.2 GB 33.1 GB
Dell D620 35.4 GB 27.7 GB

I used the “Clone Disk” tool in Acronis True Image Home 2012 to transfer the contents of each conventional HD to its SSD replacement. Although the HP dv6t has the faster processor, the Dell M11X supports SATA 3 and outperforms the HP on I/O. All in all, the real proof for the value of the exercise comes from some before and after system timings, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Notebook System Timings (Before & After)
Timing Point Dell D620
(Before/After)
Dell M11X
(Before/After)
HP dv6t
(Before/After)
BIOS alert 00:03 / 00:03 00:03 / 00:03 00:08 / 00:07
Windows 7 Starting 00:11 / 00:07 00:32 / 00:19 00:12 / 00:09
Login Prompt 00:53 / 00:23 01:07 / 00:32 00:40 / 00:12
Desktop appears 01:20 / 00:35 01:44 / 00:42 01:13 / 00:19
Soluto value 01:49 / 00:42 02:26 / 00:42 02:22 / 01:02
Shutdown 00:20 / 00:07 00:18 / 00:06 00:22 / 00:10

Here’s what I take away from this recent adventure. First and foremost, you get the biggest win in performance after Windows starts loading and the systems start banging their drives for all they’re worth. Second, there’s a clear correlation between the I/O interface hardware and overall disk subsystem performance: the Dell D620 which has the oldest SATA controller, saw a jump from 5.9 to 6.9 in the Windows Experience value for the disk data transfer rate. The HP dv6t has a faster SATA II controller and leaped from 5.9 to 7.4, but the MX11 with its SATA III support surged from 5.9 to 7.9 (which is as high as Windows Experience values currently go). Third, some of the best benefits from SSD use come after the OS has booted: applications open and close much more quickly, and shutdown takes no more than half as long as it once did. I like it!

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LensPen LapTop Pro Ultra Cleaning Kit

Every now and then I’ll get a request from a vendor to take a look at their products and report on my experiences. Over three weeks ago, a package from Canada showed up at my door, including the LensPen LapTop Pro Ultra Notebook Cleaning Kit. As the following photo from Amazon (where you can pick this item up for $9.95 plus S&H) shows, it includes a microfiber cleaning cloth, 10 moist wipes for cleaning an LCD screen, a big multi-brush and screen cleaner holder, and an itty-bitty screen cleaner for cellphones (lower right in photo).

Continue reading LensPen LapTop Pro Ultra Cleaning Kit

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Twitter Sheds Interesting Light on Win7 Anytime Upgrade for MX11

I’m in the process of revising my college textbook Guide to TCP/IP for Course Technology/Cengage Learning right now, going from a third edition published in 2006 to a fourth edition that will bear a copyright date of 2012 by the time it rolls off the presses early next summer. This time, there will be lots of changes for this new edition: we’re switching protocol analyzers from Ethereal to Wireshark, I’m bringing in a new lead writer (Jeffrey L. Carrell, a former Novell colleague and long-time IP networking expert and trainer), and — most important of all — we’re completely rebuilding the work to add in-depth coverage of IPv6 across the board, along with beaucoups of information on how to migrate from IPv4 to IPv6 and how to make IPv4 and IPv6 coexist happily.

Continue reading Twitter Sheds Interesting Light on Win7 Anytime Upgrade for MX11

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SuperTalent Pico Drives: Tiny, Compact Form Factor, Great Big Value and Capacity

A couple of months ago, my friends at memory maker SuperTalent Technology sent me several of their super-compact Pico USB Flash drives for review. After finishing a couple of books, and dispatching diverse dragons, I’m finally ready to report on my findings. The quick’n’dirty take on these 8 GB flash drives is: excellent value, nice engineering, ultra-compact form factor, very usable, though a tad slow (but OK) for ReadyBoost.

Let’s start with a list of what SuperTalent sent me:

  • 8GB Pico-D Swivel Flash Drive (STU8GPDS): Pick one up at SuperBiiz.com for $14.99 right now and get free shipping. This design features a center post swivel so that the business end (USB connector) for the device rotates inside a sleeve when not in use. Weighs 8.2 g (0.2892 oz) without the chain, 9.2g 0.3245 oz) with chain. Lack of a standard USB connector means you have to pay attention to where the contacts are, and insert the Flash drive correctly.

    SuperTalent Pico Drive image
    The Pico-D features a swivel-mounted Flash module: swivel it in to cover it up; swivel it out to plug it in.
  • 8GB Pico-C Nickel Plated Flash Drive (STU4GPCN): You can buy this puppy at SuperBiiz.com right now for a measley $19.04 (plus S&H). Both versions includes a jewelry grade chain: weights are 4.6 g (0.1623 oz) without, and 6.3 g (0.1975) with. The Pico-C models feature a more obvious USB business end, but provide no cover for the contacts. Some attention to plug-in orientation is still required, but you really can’t put one in upside-down as you can with the Pico-D.

    SuperTalent Pico Drive image
    Both nickel and gold models look the same, except for the color of their outside plating.
  • 8GB Pico-C Gold Plated Flash Drive (STU8GPCG): So the gold plate obviously costs a little more, as does the longer, more attractive gold-plated chain that comes with it. The device weighs the same as the nickel-plated model (4.6 g/0.1623 oz), and again, the chain weighs little (1.7g/0.0960 oz). Except for the bling, however, this unit is identical in size, shape, and performance to the nickel-plated model. You’ll pay an extra $8.58 for the gold on this model ($27.62 total) at SuperBiiz.

    image of SuperTalent Pico Drive next to a quarter
    When you put the Pico-C next to a US Quarter, you can really appreciate its tiny size.

No matter which model you choose, you get a lot of capacity at a very low price–for the preceding units $/GB falls in a range from $1.87 to $3.45. Even at the high end, this is cheaper than 4 GB units cost less than six months ago.

Pros and Cons of the 8GB SuperTalent Models

On the plus side, you get decent read speeds (just under 30 MBps seems like a safe average figure), a low price per GB of storage, compact sizes, light weight, and pretty good looks. All these Flash drives worked well for us in the office and on the road, and were more than tough enough to shrug off the hazards of travel and life on the road, as well as the hazards of a home office with an inquisitive 4-year-old VERY interested in these compact powerhouses.

For a 32 KB file, write (orange) and read (blue) speeds in MBPS (y-axis) versus block sizes in KB (x-axis).
graph image of 4mb hard drive tuning results
Same axes as above, for 4 MB file.
image of graph for 512 MB hard drive tuning results: Same axes again, for 512 MB file.
Same axes again, for 512 MB file.

On the minus side, you get fairly slow write speeds. Our HDTune screencaps consistently read under 10 MBps–we measured 9.22 MBps for a 2.6 GB .PST file just to confirm these numbers–in fact, write speeds appear to average in a range from 6 to 9 MBps. By contrast, my trusty old 2 GB Memina Rocket measures out 18-23 MBps on these same tests; newer SATA hard drives routinely measure between 60 and 70 MBps write speeds. Though I used the Pico-D for ReadyBoost on two different Vista systems for a week apiece, and noticed no slowdowns, Overclockers.com currently gives the OCZ Rally the nod for “fastest ReadyBoost Flash Drive” where an 8 GB model will set you back $23 at Newegg. I only observe a 4-5% difference in the PC Doctor memory benchmarks when using faster versus slower ReadyBoost drives, however, so I’m not sure it really makes a big difference.

With Flash drives as small as the Pico units, you also have to be careful when working with them. They’re so small they can disappear far too easily, so it’s best to keep them plugged into a USB port, or clipped onto a key fob (that’s how I manage to hang onto mine, anyway).

[important]Bottom Line: Great Bang for the Buck

If you want stylish, capacious, and affordable USB Flash drives, you could do a lot worse than to pick up one or more of these SuperTalent Pico drives. If you want mine, you’ll have to fight me for it![/important]

 

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